If you're living in Japan and not in close proximity to the US Embassy (Tokyo) or Consulates - Fukuoka, Naha, Osaka, Nagoya, Sapporo - this is a useful guide to renewing your US passport. Remember, if you're planning to travel across the border, some countries won't let you enter or apply for a visa with a passport set to expire in less than six months.
Also of equal importance - although you might be living in an area with a passport center, it still might be a better idea to renew by mail. Why? The cost, considering all expenses at the time of submission, is approximately the same, as is the processing time. In addition, you won't have to deal with lines or some snooty bureaucratic official who might be working that day.
1. A US passport issued within 15 years when you were sixteen or older; you have to mail this passport with the application.
2. The application form, DS-82, which can be filled out online here.
3. Two passport photos. The regulation size for the US is different than Japan's, naturally, so you need to go down to a Fuji Color or another cheap photo shop and request a specially sized 5x5 cm photo, with a white background. AUTOMATED PHOTO BOOTHS DO NOT OFFER THIS - don't waste your money. Line it up with the photo on the application to confirm the size, and write your name on the back in felt pen.
4. Two EXPACK500 envelopes. Take the tracking code sticker off each one and keep them accessible. Fill out one with your Japanese address and the other with the closest passport unit:
US Embassy Tokyo 1-10-5 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-8420
Osaka ATTN ACS Unit 11-5 Nishitenma 2-chome, Kita-ku, Osaka 530-8543
Naha 2-1-1 Toyama, Urasoe City, Okinawa, Japan 901-2104
Sapporo Kita 1-jo, Nishi 28-chome, Chuo-ku, Sapporo 064-0821
5. The fee has just been changed as of 2/1/2008. $75 dollars for a mail-in application ($100 for in-person requests), which must be paid in US dollars by international postal money order. Go down to a post office offering this service (may need a larger one), and request a 国際郵便為替 (kokusai yuubin kawase) made out to:
US Embassy Tokyo Unit 45004, Box 205 APO AP 96337-5004 USA
The fee is 2000 yen.
Wrap it up and send it in. The website claims your new passport will be sent to you within 3-4 weeks, but after my first try, I received it in ten days - not bad for bureaucracy.
As of last year, all the new US passport are e-passports, with an electronic chip embedded in the cover that contains the same information that is printed in the passport: name, date of birth, gender, place of birth, dates of passport issuance and expiration, passport number and photo image of the traveler; the e-passport contains security features to prevent the chips from being read, cloned or changed.
This new version certainly contains more history than I remember on my previous ID: the lyrics of The Star-Spangled Banner, the Constitution, quotes from famous Americans, picturesque scenes from around the country, and the smiling eagle. Looks nice.
If you're a little hesitant about mailing in your only proof of citizenship, I believe local consulates sometimes go out to smaller areas and set up shop for a few days to provide citizen services. I happen to know for a fact that the consulate in Fukuoka will be sending representatives down to Kagoshima in February - call them for specifics, but I'm sure the same could be true of cities like Hiroshima and Aomori.
Don't forget - once you do receive your new passport, you have to go down to the city office and register the changes on your gaijin card.