Seiji Muromoto was one of the first people I worked with upon arriving in Japan in January, 2009. We were both English instructors in Shinjuku with lofty dreams and calculated plans for achieving business success in the future. During his lunch breaks, I would always see Seiji studying feverishly, preparing to become a legal professional, specializing in immigration. As someone who gravitates toward ambition, this impressed me, and I kept his pursuits in mind as our career paths diverged into the disparate realms of law and marketing.
After keeping in touch online over the years, our paths would reunite in 2017 when I decided to work for myself and needed an immigration lawyer to help me navigate the black box that is the Japanese immigration system. Seiji, now an entrepreneur and founder of Legal Mission International was the natural choice, and thanks to him, I’m here in Japan sharing this content with you today.
Read on for a wide-ranging interview that covers Seiji’s entrepreneurial journey, tips for starting a business in Japan, advice on avoiding common immigration-related mistakes, and much more.
The Road to Becoming an Immigration Specialist
Tell us your origin story.
I was born and raised in Ishikawa Prefecture. After I graduated high school, I went to college in the city of Kanazawa. I joined the Japanese literature department, but I found it boring. So, I left the university after my first year there.
I immediately started working and gaining experience in a variety of jobs like truck driving and manufacturing. Eventually, I came to realize that I needed special skills to survive because the economic situation in Japan at the time was severe. So I decided to learn something useful that I could use in the future.
I decided to go to the U.S. to study English because I thought the language would be beneficial. For my first six months in the U.S., I attended a private English school in San Diego where international students study and learn English as a second language.
Eventually, I was able to get a TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] score that was high enough to transfer to nearby Grossmont College. I became a speech communication major because I wanted to do something challenging. The experience didn’t disappoint—speaking in front of an audience, with English as my second language, was truly challenging. Grossmont College trained me well. Not only did I have to speak a lot but I also wrote a lot of manuscripts as well. Overall, the decision to study abroad is what created the opportunity for me to become an international legal professional. However, this was just the beginning of my journey.
I wanted to work for myself instead of commuting to offices, dealing with meetings, and being told what to do by a boss.
Out of all of the things you could have done with English, what inspired you to become an immigration lawyer?
Well, there wasn’t any dramatic event in particular that made me think of becoming an immigration lawyer. I gradually reached the point where I am now. After I came back to Japan from the U.S., as you know, I started working at an English teaching company. I loved the teaching job, but I felt I should be doing something different. I wanted to work for myself instead of commuting to offices, dealing with meetings, and being told what to do by a boss. So, I started to study translation via correspondence courses. I thought being a translator would be a great freelance job.
While I was studying translation, I realized that English skills alone were not enough. I needed specialized knowledge on top of that. After doing some research, I realized that there was demand in the medical, IT, and legal fields. Of these three fields, legal was the most interesting. I didn’t have a legal background, so I decided to start studying from scratch.
I started taking legal examinations which served as milestones for my studies. I started with the easy ones and eventually, I earned the national license that I currently hold. It’s called gyoseishoshi in Japan. There’s an official English name for this, but it’s kind of long: certified administrative procedures legal specialist. In England, there’s a kind of lawyer called a solicitor. They work out of offices and not in the courts. That’s a good way for people to imagine what I do.
Is there a simpler English term that I can use to describe what you do? Would it be accurate to call you an immigration lawyer?
Dealing with immigration matters is just one part of what we do. There are so many fields that gyoseishoshican handle. I just chose to specialize in immigration. So, gyoseishoshi does not mean immigration lawyer. However, immigration lawyer is included within the definition of gyoseishoshi.
Why did you decide to specialize in immigration law?
I decided to focus on immigration because I thought it was a good fit for my English skills and I had many non-Japanese friends. I believed I could help them and their friends with immigration problems, whether they were living in Japan or wanted to immigrate to Japan.
Building a Business
What challenges did you face when starting your business and how did you overcome them?
Finding clients and learning practical skills were the most challenging aspects of starting my business. In this line of work, it’s difficult to find an existing firm to join and learn how to handle cases. If you are an attorney, bengoshi, as we say in Japanese, you can easily find large firms to join and learn little by little. However, for those with my license, this path is not common. If you are really lucky, you might find a large company to join, but that wasn’t my case.
I was able to gradually gain practical skills as I handled each one of my cases. My early cases came from my friends, former coworkers, and relatives. I was lucky I had such nice people around me.
Additionally, I never set my goals too high. This was a good decision as it prevented me from being disappointed by the fact that I wasn’t very successful in the beginning. Somehow I knew everything would turn out OK. So, I just kept doing the work and learning through experience, and business eventually improved.
I think it’s a good balance to have both short-term projects like translation as well as long-term projects such as immigration. This balance hedges risk.
Can you tell me more about your business model?
There are three main categories in my business. Immigration, inheritance, and legal translation. Immigration is the biggest sales category. My clients include small to medium-sized businesses who are interested in hiring foreign workers by inviting them to Japan from overseas.
Recently the trend is hiring young engineers from Vietnam. I partner with a human resource company in Vietnam that recruits engineers and matches them with Japanese companies. My Vietnamese partner company introduces my office to Japanese companies to handle immigration paperwork for these engineers. I also help non-Japanese residents of Japan extend or change their visas—not only work visas but also family-related visas.
I also handle international and domestic inheritance cases. These are cases in which foreign heirs are involved. Sometimes, I need to collaborate with other professionals such as tax lawyers and attorneys, but I always have a role to play as a communicator since I speak and write emails in English.
Regarding legal translation, I mainly handle agreements and contracts, translating them from Japanese to English and vice versa. I also handle government-related documents such as juminhyou [certificate of residence]. Translation jobs don’t bring in as much revenue as immigration and inheritance work, but they are usually short-term projects. I think it’s a good balance to have both short-term projects like translation as well as long-term projects such as immigration. This balance hedges risk.
So, overall, it’s a cycle: if I provide great service, I get introduced to more business opportunities.
How do you market your business?
Most of my new clients are introduced to me via existing clients. In that sense, it’s important for me to do a great job for each of my clients. Also, other law firms approach me with inquiries for international inheritance cases. It turns out that they were told to contact me by court officers. It’s surprising that the courts know about my international service and introduce my office to other lawyers! Those lawyers have limited experience with international inheritance processes. I imagine that a lawyer I had collaborated with in the past must have told the court offices good things about me. So, overall, it’s a cycle: if I provide great service, I get introduced to more business opportunities.
I also have a website that is in Japanese and English. The English part of the website focuses on international inheritance services, and this has brought me many clients from all over the world. Having an English website is a must for someone in my line of work.
Did you use any search engine optimization (SEO) techniques for your website, or did you just build it and hope for the best?
I didn’t do anything special. However, when I had more time in the past, I wrote blog posts for the Japanese section of my website because I heard that doing so was a good way to improve my search results.
As a fellow sole proprietor, I’m sure you’re aware that our income depends on how well we use our time. What are your favorite productivity tips?
This might seem simple, but a substantial part of my job is communicating with my clients. I ensure communication is clear by gaining information from my clients. I ask questions to clarify points and there’s a lot of back and forth. So, I always try to toss the ball, so to speak, to my clients as soon as possible by responding to emails and sharing new information that I have as soon as possible. I don’t like having the ball in my court.
Of course, I need to ensure that the information I share is accurate, but my policy is to make my best efforts to respond to my clients within a day, even if it’s just a quick response. I believe this contributes to my productivity because it helps get business done as soon as possible. And, the faster I take care of business, the faster revenue comes in. In order to do this, I have to have accurate knowledge readily accessible in my mind. So, I always stay on top of my field by reading books and newspapers every day. I also exchange information with other immigration lawyers.
I like running a small business, and even if my businesses is small, I think I can make it more international.
What are your future plans and what challenges lie ahead?
My medium-term plan is to pass another national examination to get another license. In English, it’s called a labor and social security attorney’s license. In Japanese, we say shakaihokenroumushi. With this license, I could help with labor disputes and social security paperwork for small companies. It’s well matched with the license that I already have and the immigration work that I do now.
My long term plan is kind of vague. It’s not really a plan, but it’s more like a dream. I want to somehow make my business more international—perhaps have an office overseas. However, becoming more international doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to expand my business. I like running a small business, and even if my businesses is small, I think I can make it more international.
Shedding Some Light on Japan’s Immigration System
A good immigration lawyer should explain your options clearly and never make rash promises that your visa application will be successful.
Let’s switch gears and discuss how to navigate Japan’s immigration system. What should we look for when selecting an immigration lawyer?
This is not the most important thing, but it would be a great advantage if your lawyer speaks your native language. Additionally, a good immigration lawyer should explain your options clearly and never make rash promises that your visa application will be successful. A competent immigration lawyer will actively listen to you and come to understand your situation precisely. He or she will let you know what is possible as well as what obstacles you face regarding your visa application.
The Immigration Services Agency does not give you the right to stay in Japan—it gives you permission.
What advice do you have for people living abroad that want to come live and work in Japan?
The Immigration Services Agency does not give you the right to stay in Japan—it gives you permission. So, even if you get some sort of visa when you come to Japan, don’t assume that you are always protected by immigration law. In fact, immigration law actually restricts your activities in Japan. So, it’s your responsibility to be aware of what you are allowed to do.
In my experience, the most common issue immigrants face is changing visa status. Many visa holders mistakenly believe that they can change their visa type without any restrictions. Actually, there are 19 different types of work visa. So, if you are planning to change jobs, you need to make sure that your future job matches your current visa status. In summary, you can’t be casual or careless when it comes to immigration law.
What should someone do if they made the mistake of changing jobs without updating their visa status?
In many cases, they will need to return to their home country. That’s why it’s really important to be careful. In some cases, a person can recover from this situation by returning to their original field of work—what they were doing when they originally immigrated to Japan. However doing this isn’t very easy and will, at the minimum, require a formal apology to the immigration office.
Let me put it this way: If someone finds themselves in a situation like this, should they even bother hiring an immigration lawyer, or should they just give up and return to their home country?
Before hiring a lawyer, talk to one and explain your situation. This is because there are circumstances that are beyond the scope of what an immigration lawyer can help you with. If you are in a difficult situation, definitely talk to an immigration lawyer before speaking directly with an immigration official. If you go to the immigration office unprepared, your residence card might be revoked on the spot.
Starting a Business in Japan as a Foreigner
What advice do you have for those who want to work for themselves or start a business in Japan?
If you are currently living outside of Japan, you need to apply for a certificate of eligibility to obtain a business manager visa. To apply for this visa, you need to meet one of three requirements. You need to hire two or more fulltime employees or you need to have more than five million yen in capital. The third option is a combination of the above. For example, if you can only find one fulltime employee but you have 2.5 million yen in capital, you might be OK. This third option leaves a lot up to the judgement of the immigration office.
If you are already living in Japan on an existing work visa, you’ll most likely need to switch to a business manager visa. The requirements are the same as previously explained, but the procedures are different. In this case you need to apply for a change in visa status instead of a certificate of eligibility.
There are some cases where you don’t need to change your status. If you have independent contracts with Japanese companies, contracts that match your visa stats and are continuous, say for a year or more, you might not need to change your visa. This, however, is more like working freelance as opposed to establishing a business.
The Future of Japan’s Immigration System
The immigration agency has sole discretion when it comes to giving someone permission to stay here, but so much of the decision process is unknown.
If you could change one thing about Japan’s immigration system, what would it be?
I would make all of the judgement criteria available to the public. Currently, some basic requirements for each visa procedure are available, but still a lot of the criteria are unknown. Immigration is like a black box, even to immigration lawyers. The immigration agency has sole discretion when it comes to giving someone permission to stay here, but so much of the decision process is unknown. So, I hope they reveal more detailed internal standards and criteria.
What does the future of the Japanese immigration system look like?
Because the population of Japan is declining, more workers will be needed in industries such as nursing care, agriculture, or construction. Jobs in these industries aren’t very popular among younger generations in Japan. However, people from overseas, especially developing countries, are happy to take on this kind of work in Japan. So, I think we’ll see more foreign workers employed in a wider set of industries.
I think the increasing amount of foreign workers will require the agency to change some of its policies.
How do you see the Immigration Agency handling this increased amount of foreign labor?
I think the increasing amount of foreign workers will require the agency to change some of its policies. I’m guessing this change will be gradual, and little by little, the agency will be more open to non-Japanese people.
Final Thoughts on Working in Japan
It’s important to remember that foreign workers are protected under Japanese labor laws.
I’d like to ask one question for my Japanese audience. Do you have any tips for Japanese companies that want to hire non-Japanese employees?
From an immigration standpoint, it’s important to remember that foreign workers are protected under Japanese labor laws, so I’d like HR professionals in Japanese companies to ensure that foreign workers are treated equally to their Japanese counterparts. That should go without saying, however, this is sometimes misunderstood at small Japanese companies. For example, workers from developing countries are sometimes treated disrespectfully just because of where they are from. Some employers even think that they can get away with paying lower salaries to foreign workers who are doing the same tasks as Japanese employees. This is very disappointing. So again, if you hire foreign employees, keep in mind that they are still protected by Japanese labor laws.
Also, important employment documents should be prepared in the native language of your employees. However, this is an ideal situation. It’s a good idea to make sure that your employees sign contracts that they can understand. This way, a lot of disputes and misunderstandings can be avoided.
Just to clarify, this is a best practice and not a legal requirement, right?
That’s correct—it’s not a legal requirement. Equal pay, however, is a legal requirement.
What advice do you have for non-Japanese people who want to work for Japanese companies?
I believe that most foreign workers are willing to understand Japanese culture and business customs, which is great. However, there are a few negative Japanese traditions to watch out for, such as unpaid overtime work. Also be careful about paid leave. On average, Japanese workers only use about 50 percent of their annual paid leave. This is simply due to tradition and peer pressure. Oftentimes if you work for small companies, it might be difficult to use your paid leave. Remember that according to labor law, it is your right to use your paid leave.
Considering your advice, do you have any tips for finding companies that have good work practices?
Generally speaking, larger companies tend to avoid these bad workplace traditions. Additionally, if a company has hired many, or even a few, foreign employees, that company has a lot of experience handling human resource issues that arise from differences in culture and business manners. Such a company is likely to be open-minded toward its foreign employees. Lastly, when you find a company you are interested in working for, try to find out if its Japanese employees and company directors have studied or worked overseas. If they have that experience, the fact that you are different will likely be welcomed.