A permanent resident visa (aka "PR") is the Mr. Miagi black belt of visas in Japan. Why? Well, I'll tell you why:
* Almost all work visas in Japan require some kind of sponsor, usually a company or a spouse. The problem here is that if something happens to your sponsor--e.g. your company suffers a financial crisis, or sweet love turns sour--then your visa could go bye-bye. PR does not have this problem. You're your own sponsor.
* You don't have to renew it every 1~3 years.
* You can get stuff like credit cards and home loans. While it's not impossible to get these without PR, you can enjoy more options and higher credit limits closer to what Japanese citizens enjoy.
* You can work in any industry. Company-sponsored visas usually lock you to a particular industry, but with PR you're free to do whatever you want.
* It's about as close to becoming a Japanese citizen without actually becoming a citizen.
* PR makes you instantly awesome.
As you'd expect, getting something as all-powerful as a permanent residence visa in Japan isn't easy. Unfortunately, it's made even more difficult since the Immigration Bureau's website (esp. the English one) provides very little information as to what's required. Having gone through the process myself, I thought I'd outline it--potentially saving you a headache or two.
The Japan Immigration Bureau makes it clear that each PR application is reviewed on an individual basis, so there are no hard and set rules for obtaining PR. Nevertheless, I was told that there are 2 main ways to get your foot in the proverbial "PR door:"
* 3+ years married to a Japanese citizen
* 10+ years working (preferably without too much job-hopping)
You need 1 of the above. They told me not to bother applying without one of those, unless you're some kind of superhero diplomat ambassador billionaire. I went the married route, so here's what I needed to provide:
* PR application (duh) available from the Japan Immigration website. It's actually not a very long form. I got the Excel version so that I could fill it in electronically and modify it later if necessary.
* Spouse's kosekitohon (戸籍謄本). You get this from your city office for a small fee. Don't give them a copy because this document is watermarked for security.
* Statement of income / tax paid (most recent). Your employer gives you this every year. It's a small slip of paper that shows your income that year and how much you paid in taxes.
* Employment certificate. You can get this from your employer too. In my case it was a 1-page letter on company letterhead saying that I work there. Oh, it also listed my start date.
* Photocopy of passport details page. I gave them a color photocopy because that's the way I roll.
* Photocopy of gaijin card (both sides). I guess the politically-correct term is "resident card."
* "Official" tax paid statement (住民税の課税（又は非課税）証明書及び納税証明書). You can get this from your city office.
* Guarantor letter. You can download a blank one from the Japan Immigration website. In my case my wife wrote a short statement explaining that she vouches for me--I'm cool and not a criminal mastermind. A close friend of mine who went the 10+ years working route asked his boss to write it. I guess you could say it's similar to a letter of recommendation.
* Copy of marriage certificate
* Color photo - 4cm x 3cm. Make sure to follow their photography guidelines.
* 8000 yen revenue stamp. You can get this from the convenience store on the ground floor of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau. If you're not in Tokyo, then any place that sells revenue stamps (e.g. a post office) should have them. You don't need it when submitting the application--only after your permanent residence has been approved. So buy it if/when you get that golden ticket in the mail.
Here's the official info from the Immigration Bureau: http://www.moj.go.jp/ONLINE/IMMIGRATION/16-4.html
And here's the checklist I referenced: http://www.moj.go.jp/ONLINE/IMMIGRATION/ZAIRYU_EIJYU/zairyu_eijyu01.html
When you go to submit the application, you may also want to bring the originals with you in case they ask to see them (e.g. marriage certificate). I brought them in a separate folder so they wouldn't get confused with the copies submitted with the application. At the very least be sure to bring your passport and gaijin card. You will be required to show those.
After your application is accepted, you wait and wait and WAIT. You may get a postcard from them asking you for more info. Otherwise, just keep waiting until you get the magic golden postcard telling you to pickup your shiny new visa. Mine took 7 months, so be patient!