It’s that time again. Time for me to renew my spouse visa. For me this is an annual event, despite being married to my Japanese husband for nearly 9 years and having 2 children. Every single time I have been given a 1 year visa with no explanation why.
For those not familiar with the Japanese immigration system, one can apply for a different kind of visa depending on their reason for migrating to Japan. For me that’s pretty obviously my family so I have been on a Spouse or Child of a Japanese National visa for most of my time in Japan. This type of visa comes in a few increments, 6 months, 1 year, 3 year, and 5 year duration.
When I first got married I received a 1 year visa and was totally fine with that. I considered it fair that as a young woman straight out of college I probably did look a bit suspicious. Spouse visas are desirable as they have very few limitations on what one can do in Japan. There are no work restrictions, it’s easier to apply for credit cards or mortgages, etc. With this in mind it’s pretty easy to see why many people would want this kind of visa and the authorities are stricter on applicants. It is also considered a visa that is exploited with fake marriages, particularly by women.
This may lead one to believe that fake marriages abound and the criminals are all female. This is the problem though, they aren’t. In a 2011 article on Japan Today the number of fake marriages exposed by police in the first 6 months of that year was a mere 88. An almost 50% increase over the year before, but still incredibly low compared to the number of real marriages between Japanese men and foreign women, the most recent data available is from 2015 and lists 14,809 marriages. In 2011 19,022 marriages were reported meaning less than .5% of the marriages were fake, assuming all fraudulent marriages were between a Japanese man and a foreign woman.
This doesn’t stop the media from reporting on the “trend” with stories of marriage brokers and fake marriages continuing to make headlines. The most recent I could find involved a Korean woman paying a coworker to marry her with pretty obvious issues in her visa application such as doctored photos and the 2 not living together. The number of marriages has gone down significantly since the mid 2000s where an average of 30,000 were reported to roughly half that number today. While no information as to why the number of marriages has declined, the issue of increased scrutiny and harsher restrictions should be taken into account. The Japanese Immigration website specifically lists additional requirements from applicants from China (the second largest source of brides), Russia, and other countries from the former Soviet Union (all countries that are suspected of having higher rates of false marriages). It seems strange to me that they would be stricter on some of these Asian countries as they tend to be the foreigners who speak Japanese better as well. At my daughter’s local kindergarten there are at least 2 Chinese mothers, a Filipina mom, and me. I am by far the worst Japanese speaker (and thus my daughter is too lol), but I wonder who had the worst experience with immigration? Sadly I don’t think it was me, even though these are all great moms who are raising their children to be productive members of Japanese society, many of whom will be at least bilingual and help alleviate the declining birth rate.
While I understand that immigration wants to reduce the number of sham marriages, their way of going about it places an unfair burden on certain nationalities and women in particular. Instead of requiring more documents from certain countries, why not include an interview for all first time applicants? Or, if the time and money required is too much, perhaps encourage different evidence as proof such as photos, documents showing communication as a couple, or even ask for signed statements from witnesses who would verify that the couple in question are indeed married? These are all simple ways to prove a marriage without penalizing specific nationalities.
While I believe that no one should have to have children, it is true that they legitimize a relationship as well, so why not kill 2 birds with one stone by allowing for expedited applications or longer visa stays for couples who do have a child. In the US immigration system this certainly applies, as does the length of marriage. Japan already has a declining birth rate so this would be an easy way to “reward” couples who do have children. I definitely do NOT believe that couples without children should be penalized however. As a mom I know how difficult child raising can be and how it can hurt your career opportunities, especially in Japan.
As I go to renew my visa within the coming weeks, I have some difficult decisions to make. Do I bring my kids with me for what could be a 5 hour torture trip in the immigration office? That will certainly prove my marriage but will also potentially annoy my immigration officer, my kids are 4 and 2 after all. Last year I waited until my husband had a day off work and went alone, but that resulted in another 1 year extension (my fourth) despite 8 years of marriage. For 4 years we lived in Mexico City due to my husband’s job, so I was a “fresh” applicant with a brand new record, despite no change in circumstances other than two kids added to the mix.
I’ve asked one of my helpful Facebook groups (Foreign Wives of Japanese Men) for help and while everyone was sympathetic, most had no idea why I or others received so many 1 year extensions. My husband has a good job (same one since college like a good salary man), we make plenty of money, my paperwork is always perfect (I’m a bit crazy about that stuff), I always apply in time, and to top it off I’m American. I don’t like that Nationality plays a role in this sort of thing, but if we are honest, most of us know it does. As an American, they can assume I’m not coming here to escape poverty or simply make a better life for myself. With Trump currently in office I don’t feel that’s entirely true 😉 but I do know that I have been born into privilege simply by being a white American woman from a middle class family. I haven’t had to face the same adversity that many of the foreign women married to Japanese men have. I don’t believe that this entitles me to an automatic 5 year visa, but I do wonder if I would have received a 3 or 5 year visa if I had been a man.
While foreign women, mostly Korean and Chinese, make up the majority of foreign-Japanese marriages in Japan, according to most bridal magazines you’d think that all couples were white men and Japanese women. Perhaps this idea that Japanese men aren’t considered attractive to foreign (non-Asian) women that persists is the main issue at hand. Personally I have had a lot of people ask me why I married an Asian man, from the rude insinuations that he must have a small penis (to sate your curiosity no, he’s totally average according to global statistics) to the outdated thinking that he must be a controlling workaholic who doesn’t care about his family at all (ask our daughter about that one). Does immigration here in Japan work within these stereotypes as well? They permeate even our subconscious thinking so it’s hard to imagine they can’t.
I think the best way to fight these issues is simply more exposure. I try to answer people’s questions, even if they are a bit invasive because I want them to understand that like most of these issues, the truth is often less exciting than the headline grabbing fake marriage scams. People fall in love, have kids or don’t, live in somebody’s home country for whatever reason. If I show people that a white American woman and a Japanese man can have a successful marriage than perhaps the next generation won’t have to deal with these issues. I can’t demand a 5 year visa, I can only ask for one and hope I get it so I don’t have to go to immigration every year until I finally get around to applying for Permanent Residency, which by the way, will probably only be accepted if I get a longer term visa first. By helping others, whether they are Japanese, America, or from any country understand that simply because stereotypes surrounding marriages exist, it doesn’t mean that they are true.
Wish me luck at immigration, I’d love to hear from others what their experiences are like there. As a side note to any male readers, I hope you don’t think I’m asking for stricter policies towards men, rather a more equal system for all that doesn’t place too high a burden on either the government or the applicant that will reduce the perception that foreign women marry Japanese men for a free visa.