Kobe City Goes to Bat for Free Choice Foundation - Demands Hatoyama Government Clarify New Immigration Guideline

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Kobe City Assembly drafts opinion to Japanese Prime Minister and other high-ranking government officials about pending visa renewal guideline changes concerning foreigners and social health insurance; seeks clarity on implementation of rules.

The City Assembly of Kobe, Japan has sent an official communiqué to the National Government seeking clarification about the country's new Immigration guidelines. The guidelines, set to go into effect in April 2010, mandate that all foreign residents who must be enrolled in Japan's social health insurance program show proof of such enrollment as a prerequisite for approval of their visa renewal applications.

The new legislation has sparked no small stir among non-Japanese living in Japan, and debate over the issue continues to grow daily. It has even spawned the formation of the Free Choice Foundation, a grassroots movement whose aim is to lobby the Japanese government for foreigners' right to choose the type of health care they participate in - whether that be a public or private plan.

Led by Chairman Kenji Yoshida, the City Assembly sent the communiqué to Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, the President of the House of Councilors, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications. The communication strongly urges that Tokyo explain and clarify the new guidelines as well as the criteria that will be used by Immigration officials in determining whether to renew foreigners' visas.

Kobe questions the ambiguity of the guidelines should a foreigner seeking visa renewal not be enrolled in the social health insurance system. It also seeks clarity on situations in which a foreign applicant owns private health insurance in lieu of the required social insurance. The communiqué points out that many foreign residents prefer to carry private insurance because of the additional benefits it provides - benefits that non-Japanese typically find very important and necessary, such as payment for emergency family reunion expenses in the event of serious illness or injury and repatriation of remains to the home country in the event of death. Social health insurance provides no coverage for these and other medical expenses that foreign residents typically face.

The public insurance plans were designed with the Japanese in mind and non-Japanese often find it does not fit their expatriate needs as well as private or international insurance plans.

Kobe has a long and distinguished history in foreign relations. With the opening of its port to the rest of the world a century-and-a-half ago, it has a well-known reputation as an 'international' city. The foreign community is an integral and important part of the city's cultural and economic makeup. Boasting foreign settlements and architecture dating from the 19th century, the city is proud of its heritage of openness to foreigners. Today, Kobe's Port Island is home to a large biotechnology zone, and the city actively seeks foreign researchers to work there.

During World War II, Chiune Sugihara, the heroic Japanese diplomat, and his wife Yukiko, provided transit visas to more than 6,000 Jewish refugees to escape Lithuania and Nazi atrocities. As a result, many of the refugees settled in Kobe where they joined other Jews already residing in the city. Although Japan was allied with Germany during the war, the Jewish foreigners were well treated and protected from the holocaust. Today, Kobe City is home to a Jewish Synagogue and a Mosque, and also has many other religious congregations.

According to Ronald Kessler, Chairman of the Free Choice Foundation, many foreign residents in Japan are concerned that the new guidelines will have an adverse effect on their finances, their health care and their resident status. Kessler said,"the Kobe City Assembly and Chairman Yoshida are sympathetic to the foreign community. "They seem to be well aware that what hurts them will be felt by the whole city - and possibly the entire country. They do not believe the new guidelines to be in the best interest of Kobe City, said Kessler."

This is not the first time for Kobe to be at odds over Japan's immigration policy. The city had previously asked the National Government to provide 5-year visas for biotech researchers residing and working there instead of the typical 1-year visas.

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Ronald Kessler
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