Now for some more technical tips. One of the very first steps for traveling to Japan, no matter why you intend to travel, is to acquire a passport.
For those who don’t know, a passport is an identifying document provided by your national government that verifies that you are a citizen and are allowed to travel outside the country. If you don’t have this, you can’t even get on a plane leaving your home country, much less enter a different one (like Japan). For most travelers wanting to visit Japan, as long as their country has good relations with Japan, a passport is all they need to enter the country for a trip of 90 days (a little more than 3 months) or less. There are some exceptions to this rule (if you are from the UK or Mexico you can stay for 6 months), but the overwhelmingly majority is either 90 days or 3 months. Japan has arrangements like this with 61 countries. Here’s the list of the countries and their allowed stay time. So if you want to visit Japan, and your country is on this list, you can enter as a tourist with only a passport. Every country has its own policies, but for US residents, you’ll want to visit the website for passport travel offices: travel.state.gov. Allow at least 3 months if you are getting your passport for the first time. It won’t take that long if you are renewing your passport, but still give yourself plenty of time to avoid paying the high fees of rush processing. A passport is good for 10 years for adults 16 and up and 5 years for minors under 16.
But for people who want to stay longer than the allotted time, study abroad as a student, their country is not on the list of countries with good relations with Japan, and/or want to earn money during their stay in Japan (as a worker), a visa is required. A visa is a document issued by a foreign government that allows entry into that country. As a general rule, to visit a foreign country (unless it has arrangements like the 61 countries and Japan) you would need both a passport from your own country and a visa from the country you wish to visit. To get a visa, you must fill our paperwork to ask permission from the Japanese government to let you in. However, the government will only grant you a visa if you are either working in Japan (and have already been hired by a Japanese company), a student studying abroad, or have a spouse who is Japanese. It also possible to get a visa while in the country, though it is better if you can get it before you learve. Sadly, for those who wish to stay longer for reasons other than the ones stated above, they will have a lot of trouble acquiring permission. You can apply to the Ministry of Justice (Regional Immigration Bureau) for an extension of your stay, but there’s no guarantee that you will get it.
For those desperate to stay longer, or can’t wait for the long visa process, there is a work-around that will work probably once or twice, but can extend your stay. This is to come in as a tourist, state that you will be staying for 90 days, and get the permission. Then enjoy your 90 days in Japan. After the 90 days are up, leave Japan. You don’t have to go very far, you can take a boat trip to South Korea and then return the next day. If you look respectable, it’s likely that you will receive another 90 day tourist visa from the Japanese officials letting you in. However, try this too many times and you will be suspected of being an illegal immigrant and won’t be allowed back into the country. It sucks, but for most visitors, 90 days probably is enough time to get in all of the sight-seeing they need.
Then finally, the joys of customs. If you have all of your papers in order, customs is fairly straightforward. Just show your papers, get the permission, and continue onward. But if you don’t have your papers (like I did) woe will befall you. When flying into Japan, I had not yet acquired my student visa (I was studying abroad), and planned on getting it in Japan. However, I stupidly wrote that I would be staying for 5 months even though I was only allowed 90 days without a visa. This certainly raised the custom official’s eyebrow. And between his nonexistent English and my nonexistent Japanese, things were … difficult. After I showed them the acceptance papers from the university I was planning on attending, I was showed to a little room, where an official that could speak a little bit of English “explained” my mistake and I was left there for what felt like forever. Soon I started panicking (internally) and wondered if I would be deported or sent to jail (that would have certainly been an unorthodox way to “visit” Japan). It wasn’t exactly the best way to start my trip. But fortunately, it was the middle of the week when I arrived and they called the university I was attending, who backed me up. I was then given a 90 day tourist pass, and told that I would need to get my student visa ASAP. So, do yourself a favor and have all your papers in order when you arrive. Or at the very least, don’t put in any suspicious or glaring errors like I did.