It is, however, a little painful in that it's an annoying bureaucratic process. First, you need to fill out the proper forms (you can find them online, print them out at home and do it there to save yourself some time and hassle at the immigration office, plus you may need to get your employer/sponsor to sign them and fill out a few lines, too) then go to your regional immigration office. The first time I did this I had to go to Chiba and it was an all-day process. This time all I had to do was go to downtown Hamamatsu and walk a few minutes.
The Hamamatsu immigration office is small and there's not a lot of seating. As a result, it's almost always crowded. Because it's winter and I'm extremely cautious about catching colds or the flu, I kept my gloves on the entire time. There are always coughing, sneezing people there and almost everyone wears that stunned mackerel face people get when they're under the weather or dealing with government hassles.
The staff are efficient and helpful if not overly friendly. They remind me of people back home at the driver's license office. I had to wonder how they handle any freak-outs when they have to give someone the bad news his or her visa hasn't been extended. Dealing with reams of paperwork and confused people, few of whom speak Japanese, probably doesn't engender feelings of geniality towards your fellow humans, but they manage to get by. Well, I wasn't there looking to make friends, just to get in and get out with a bare minimum of frustration and the staff certainly did their part to speed things along.
I turned in my application, appropriate-sized photographs, some photocopies of my working documents (such as my letter of commission from my school, the signatory page from my contract and the certificate that shows how much I'm being paid per month) and received a postcard to fill out with my address and a stamp in my passport telling any interested party I've applied for a work visa extension (technically it was that and a status change). They told me to come back when I received the postcard in the mail, in approximately two weeks.
It took about ten days. Sunday we found the postcard-- my fiancee got a little worried when she translated one line as meaning I had to bring a "travel ticket" with me, as if the Ministry of Justice had finally decided to boot me from Japan and wanted me out the same day-- and Monday I took a couple of hours to ride the bus back downtown and walk to the office again. I was in for a little surprise this time.
This time I gave them my passport, a 4,000-yen revenue stamp (if you forget to bring this, have no fear-- in Hamamatsu, there's a small post office just across the walkway from the immigration office and you can get there, buy the stamp and return in less than 5 minutes on a good day), the postcard and my alien registration card. Instead of the familiar work visa stamp and endorsement, I received my alien registration card with a hold punched in it and the brand new residence card with my updated status and one-year work extension printed right on the front.
Along with one of those stupid looking photo in which I wear the mackerel face. I'm no longer a "Specialist in Humanities and Foreign Services." Now I'm an "Instructor." And from what I understand, I no longer have to get a re-entry permit if I leave Japan for less than a year while my card is still valid. We're planning a summer trip of two weeks, which will fall safely within those generous parameters.
It was a pretty positive experience overall, and I'm glad it's over for a while. Next time I suppose I'll be applying either for the spouse visa or a 5-year extension.