Back in August of 2017, I was facing a tough situation. Newly divorced, I had lost my spousal visa and thus my permission to stay in Japan as well. I was in my late 40s and, although I had significant work experience, I had no university degree. I wanted to remain in Japan but I had no idea how to make that happen.
In the modern version of a cry for help, I typed “visa support” or something similar into Google and stumbled upon a local Japanese advisor, Toyoyuki Hayashi, who specialized in helping foreigners obtain work visas. We met up, and he convinced me that his one-man operation had significant experience and extensive knowledge of the ins and outs of the Japanese immigration system.
Based on our conversation, I was told that a “Business Manager Visa” would be the most appropriate choice. We decided to work together. My spousal visa expiring, I left Japan for Canada a short time thereafter, to bide my time abroad with my fingers crossed that things might work out.
Starting with the downsides, in my opinion the most significant one is the capital requirement: ¥5 million. However, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds. The only actual rule is that you need at least that amount of money in your business bank account on the day that they grant you your initial one-year visa. From that point forward, that money is simply working capital, and you’re free to withdraw it and even send it outside the country, so long as there is a business reason.
You also need to provide a business plan, which worried me as I was basically a hired-gun software developer rather than an actual entrepreneur or business owner. However, my advisor assured me that it was “no big deal” and helped me put together a three-page document that I was sure wouldn’t be sufficient for the Japanese immigration authorities.
One aspect of the business plan is to explain why your business needs to be in Japan at all. As a software developer, I didn’t really have a clear case, but I mentioned a personal website that I built years ago, Real Kana, that showed some degree of proof that I was connected to Japan in some way. With my advisor’s prompting, I also mentioned the upcoming Olympics and my desire to assist with English-language services. I felt we were grasping at straws.
I did have a fairly extensive work history and at least one quasi-name-brand employer on my CV (Groupon), but everything was at the “individual contributor” level and there was no hint of management experience or ability anywhere in my history.
Visa Application Process
My advisor facilitated the entire visa application process and there was minimal work for me to do. He submitted the application on my behalf in October, my confidence still low and my desire to continue my life in Japan still high.
Two months later, in January 2018, I received a tentative yes from the immigration authorities. Why “tentative”? The second part of the application process actually takes place in Japan, and the full visa approval only happens if and when I’m able to tick off the various in-Japan “todos”. I went to the Japanese consulate in Vancouver and obtained my interim visa, which gives me four months in Japan to set up my business there.
The “todos”, in summary, were:
- Find a place to live
- Incorporate my business
- Set up my business office
- Open a corporate bank account
- Register with various government offices (Employees’ Health Insurance System, etc.)
My advisor was a godsend during this process, as my Japanese language ability was (and still is) remarkably weak given how long I’ve been here. The two most challenging items from the above list were the business office and the bank account.
Setting up a Business Office
Officially, I need to have a separate business office that “looks and feels” as such: business signage, a proper desk and office accessories, etc. I did not want that as it made little-to-no sense for remote software development, my bread-and-butter activity. Rather than spend maybe ¥50,000 per month on a reasonable office with internet connectivity, etc., I really wanted to instead get a nicer place to live that had a dedicated (or dedicated-looking) office area.
I asked my advisor if this was a possibility. One thing I like very much about him is his flexibility and curiosity, this being no exception. In addition to the hemming and hawing, he also said, “well, let’s try and see”. This was Kyoto and I rented a Kyoto machiya, put a simple corporate sign up front (with permission in advance from my landlord), threw together an official-looking office area in the front room, and provided photos of all the above for the immigration office. It worked.
Opening a Corporate Bank Account
My advisor told me that this process would probably be the most challenging, as it’s notoriously hard to open a bank account with a short-term visa and mine was extremely short-term. (I was still here under my four-month visa.) It was hard to believe him, though, as I had already been tentatively approved for a proper visa subject only to taking care of a few formalities.
He didn’t even want to try with the national banks, and chose a small regional bank instead (Bank of Kyoto). They turned out to be perfectly happy to take my business and, after taking care of the remaining formalities, again with the extensive help of my advisor, my actual visa was approved.
I was now the managing director and sole shareholder of a proper Japanese corporation. It was a bit exciting and cool-sounding, but it came with responsibilities as well (something that I’ve learned is not my forte in life). Annual meetings, proper accounting, health insurance contributions, tax returns, all with reams of associated paperwork, and all in Japanese.
We’ve arrived at the single most important paragraph in this article. Looking back at all that has happened with respect to my visa, far and away the smartest thing I did was find an outstanding advisor: professional, hard-working, results-oriented, resourceful, honest, knowledgeable, and, to top it off, inexpensive. I joke with him that he is my savior and my guardian angel but it doesn’t feel like a joke to me: he helped me out significantly at a point in my life where my confidence was low, my ignorance high, and my options seemingly limited.
I had thought that my advisor would (with a bit of luck) get me my visa and then we’d part ways, but I am working with him all these years later. He is my konbini, my one-stop shopping, my lifeline for all things corporate and official in Japan.
My visa has been renewed four times now, with the most recent renewal being for three years (the first three were one-year renewals). I have moved my company from Kyoto to Tokyo and set up a similar “corporate office” in my home here. My bank is now SMBC after the Bank of Kyoto decided against issuing me a credit card, my sole negative experience with them and the one thing that cost them my business.
Since being issued my visa, 95% of my income has come from a series of full-time programming positions. The first was a design/UX studio in Arizona, then Unity’s Tokyo office (my sole in-Japan position so far), then two tiny startups (one in California, one in France), and now my current position with a California startup. Technically, my company was a vendor/contractor for all the above, but in effect it was equivalent to a normal employee-style relationship. And, notably, none of the above companies had a problem with the arrangement, which I actually found a bit surprising. (I always mentioned it early on so as not to waste anyone’s time if it’d be a hassle for them.)
The remainder of my income has been smaller contracts and various one-off things. One restriction of the business manager visa is that all business activities must be run through the company, so even a small paid project is “company business”.
Why was I granted a business manager visa? Was it the mention of my personal website? A somewhat-recognizable company name on my CV? Or, as I suspect, the simple fact that I was a fairly experienced software developer with a reasonable work history to back it up? I’m pretty sure that was it, but of course I’ll never know.
What do I think of the Japanese immigration experience? From my perspective, I am enthusiastically supportive. The entire process felt efficient and fair (e.g., not penalizing my lack of a university degree, a hard requirement for most visa processes).
I have recently remarried, to a Japanese national, but have decided to maintain my business manager visa status rather than switch to a spousal visa. Not only is it fun and cool to be independent, it is also more comforting for me after the actual trauma of my prior experience. Before too long, I will qualify for permanent residence and am very much looking forward to finally being here on a more permanent footing.