I get lots of email about visa and immigration questions. Unfortunately, apart from the general visa definitions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website (http://www.mofa.go.jp/j_info/visit/visa/appendix1.html#5)and a book on the subject I recommended some years ago, called A Japanese Visa Handbook: From Tourist to Permanent Resident by Motoko Kuroda, there is little else that could be considered reliable information on how to get a Japanese work visa.
The fact is that there are really very few hard and fast rules, and so I usually wind up sending questioners to a properly qualified Immigration Consultant. I don't think Japan is particularly unique in this respect, and as with other countries, although such consultants can be expensive, they can also be relied on to stay up to speed on what Immigration as a government body is thinking/feeling/doing at any given time. Most Japan immigration consultants I've come across are hard-working, honest, and well connected enough that they can take borderline cases and pre-socialize them with ex-colleagues in Immigration..
One letter that did come in, which I think I can lend an opinion on, concerns how you calculate the time spent as practical experience in a given career field when applying for a visa based on work experience.
READER: Hi Terrie, I found your email address while researching about Japanese engineering visas and was hoping you could offer me some advice. I've been offered a job in Tokyo and while they were explaining to me the visa process, my degree status was mentioned. The problem is that I do not have a degree. This doesn't impact my ability to be an excellent programmer, in fact I owe a lot of my skill to the fact that I worked for the 4+ years that some of my colleagues spent doing general stuff in school.
So, since I don't qualify for a visa through having a degree, I understand that my next option is to get in based on my work experience – which for an engineer is 10+ years of work. I'm concerned that since I'm still 26, that this might be difficult to support. I'm hoping you can help me define what exactly I can claim as work experience, because I don't want to mess up on the first filing and possibly ruin my chances at taking this amazing job opportunity.
TERRIE: The MOFA website clearly says that the work experience avenue includes any relevant vocational schooling and even part of a relevant high school education, so long as this plus your work experience equal or exceed 10 years. The main thing is to make sure that each different stage of your education/career is connected to the field you are applying for a visa for, and that they all add up to the right duration. In your case, since you're a software engineer and went to a vocational school for periods as part of your apprenticeship, this counts towards the total. But at 26, and having started work at 16, you probably do have to be careful about properly establishing your experience credentials.
Going back 10 years and establishing authenticity can be a challenge sometimes, but you have to do it. The more transcripts, employer recommendation letters, proof of social security payments, references, etc., that you can supply, the more likely it is your application will be accepted. You should be contacting each of your previous bosses/managers and asking them to write short letters of recommendation for you, and be sure to have them state what you were doing as a job – so as to prove the relevance to your visa type.
In my experience, the more desirable the profession of the applicant, and software developers are desirable from an immigration point of view, the more likely it is that Immigration will award you a work visa. I've taken on people who were a year short on their work experience come to work in Japan on a working holiday visa, then count the working holiday in as part of their experience requirement.
Likewise, if you worked part of your 10 years in a different vocational area, but where a part of your work description is today relevant to the visa type being applied for, then it is still worth your while to create letters of reference from your ex-bosses for this period. What you want to do is to have those letters highlight in the beginning sentence the relevant responsibilities, followed by an emphasis on your ability to execute these tasks. I believe that at the end of the day, Immigration just want to see that you have passed the minimum requirements and that you are a trust-worthy person for them to let in and live in Japan. Your showing that you've done appropriate diligence by producing lots of official-looking paper with positive comments will certainly help in this regard. But do be sure that the sum total of all the relevant experience is greater than 10 years.