The Face of Immigration:

Challenges in Modern Japan

Who makes up Japan?  Japanese people, of course—this is the obvious answer, and the answer that most any Japanese citizen will give.  Yet Japan is also home to a large number of foreign residents, both legal and illegal.  These people work in a range of jobs, from the common image of English teachers and translators to factory employees and construction workers.  More than one in nine of these immigrants are illegal, while many others are permanent residents, some having lived their whole lives in Japan.  The challenges these immigrants all face, from gaining a visa to exploitation and discrimination in the workplace are shared with foreign residents in any country, but these are all uniquely shaped by Japanese immigration policy and laws.  These rules, at times simply cultural practices given legitimacy but often based on real or perceived threats, determine immigrants’ lives during their stay in Japan.

Historically, Japan is not an immigrant nation and has had only four notable waves of immigration.  First was the 8th century immigration of Korean artists and intellectuals, then a small number of prominent Chinese families seeking asylum in the mid-1600’s, third the forced immigration of Koreans and Chinese as workers in World War II, and now finally the recent immigration of nikkeijin, or people of Japanese descent.[1]  Of Japan’s current immigrant population, over 500,000 of them are ‘special permanent residents,’ the descendents of those Koreans who migrated to Japan between 1910 and 1945.[2]  As a whole, they make up 40.4% of the foreign population in Japan according to Japan’s 2000 census.  After Koreans, the three most populous groups are Chinese with 19.3% of the foreign population, Brazilians with 14.4%, and Filipinos with 7.1%.[3]   Most are concentrated in the three largest metropolitan areas: Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, with Tokyo having the highest concentration of college-educated immigrants.  While many live in ‘ethnic enclaves,’ still more leave these places as they become more assimilated to the Japanese culture.[4]   Of these groups, Brazilians are the most notable immigration for having nearly all arrived in the last twenty years as nikkeijin and being predominately employed in the low-skilled sector.

The current illegal immigrant population in Japan was estimated to be between 150,000 and 300,000 in the year 2000, in comparison to the legal foreign population of over 1.5 million.[5]   Of these illegal residents, 69% were estimated to be overstayers of short-term visas, according to comparisons of entry and exit records in 2006.[6]  Though the Immigration Bureau deports tens of thousands of illegal immigrants every year, “…it is widely believed that the majority of the apprehended foreign workers surrendered of their own volition to the Immigration Bureau when they wanted to return to their home countries.”[7]  The actual number of migrants truly ‘caught’ is thought to be quite low as often illegal immigrants work with the tacit support of local government.  By this it can be assumed that most of these immigrants are economic migrants, seeking wages in the strong yen to send home as remittances.  

        Japan is notorious for viewing it foreign residents, legal or not with suspicion and casting itself instead as a completely homogeneous society.  The emergence of this ‘racial purity’ myth goes all the way back to the 8th century but was not widely utilized as propaganda until the beginning of the Meiji Era.  Not only did it help to structure the chaos of modernization but to foster a sense of unity in order to draw recognition as a nation-state in the Western sense, as opposed to a barbarian territory to be taken over.[8]  This national identity was built not only on homogeneity, but on a notion of purity based not only of being an island nation but of being “one nation, one language.”[9]   Essentially, Japanese people are supposed to look alike, talk alike, think alike, and act alike; it is a nation whose citizenship, unlike in the United States, rests on heritage as much as on cultural assimilation.

        This continued even past the deconstruction of the militantly racist pre-occupation government.  Japan is an anomaly among post-World War II industrialized nations in that it relied on a native force to fuel the economy rather than importing workers.  This pool of labor, largely low-skilled or unskilled individuals from the rural sector as well as previously under-utilized groups such as women and the elderly, was sufficient to drive the new economy well through the so-called ‘Economic Miracle’ of the 1950’s and 60’s.[10]  However, by the late 1970’s the migration to urban areas and the industrial jobs offered there had largely stemmed.  Not only that, but falling birth rates and a highly educated young population largely unwilling to take jobs characterized by the three D’s—dirty, dangerous, and difficult—escalated the simple problem of not having enough workers.[11]  Yet immigration only allowed for skilled professionals to enter the country on any but a tourist visa.

        The obvious solution to the labor shortage was to open up immigration, closed since World War II to unskilled labor, but the Japanese government stalled.  Many conservatives, attributing the country’s success to its apparent homogeneity, feared immigration would lead to social disharmony and “…dilute Japanese integrity.”[12]  While the government delayed changing labor laws, the shortage resulted in an influx of illegal immigrants during the 1980’s with as many as 100,000 illegal workers being employed by the end of the decade.[13]  The government largely overlooked their presence in favor of furthering the booming economy, rarely deporting illegal immigrants except in cases of criminal activity.[14]  These illegal immigrants faced many difficulties, not only of evading authorities but of poor working conditions, low wages, and little or no access to medical care.  

        It was in the face of these circumstances that the 1990 Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act was passed, a federal law that both cracked down on illegal immigration while facilitating legal entry. For the first time, penalties were set in place not only for companies knowingly employing illegal immigrants but for brokers who helped these workers find jobs.[15]   It also allowed for several new residence statuses: as well as further provisions for skilled workers such as doctors, journalists, etcetera, skilled being defined as possessing at least a bachelor degree in a relevant field, it created and expanded, among others, training, entertainment, and nikkeijin visas.[16]  This is the system still in place today.

While many who come in on these new visas genuinely used them for their intended purposes, the system is also subject to frequent abuse.  Pre-college study visas given for vocational or language training, which usually allow for part-time work of up to twenty hours a week, are often used to work much longer hours, and even to send students to programs that do not exist.  Training visas are also commonly used to facilitate off-the-books work with correlating wages and rights, and even when reported, trainees are usually simply sent home without the training they signed up for.[17] 

Entertainment visas are yet another popular ‘side-door’ entrance into Japan.  Most are taken by what the Japanese media has dubbed “Japayuki-sans” or “Miss-Going-to-Japan,” young, often well-educated young women mostly from Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, and China who take work in bars and night clubs.[18]  It is estimated that as many as 90% of these women spend little time performing onstage and mostly function as hostesses and prostitutes. Hostess bars, once the employer of young, poor Japanese women, have turned to immigration as a solution to their narrowing work pool due to low birth rates and a high rate of education among women.  Though prostitution has been illegal in Japan for decades, is quietly ignored by the government, allowing these women to earn large amounts of money in a short time.  Most of these women migrate back to their home countries at the end of their visa but some stay on, either illegally or having married a Japanese national.[19] 

Of the new visas offered, the nikkeijin visa most readily allowed an influx of unskilled workers into Japan and was widely embraced by those qualified to use it.  Nikkeijin, or ethnic Japanese who emigrated outside Japan and their descendants up to the third generation, mostly originate from Latin America, particularly Portuguese-speakers from Brazil.  They are granted special immigration status in the Revised Immigration Control Act under the official explanation of visiting the country of their ancestors, but tacitly to work in the unskilled labor sector.  This not only grants long-term resident visas to this group, but to any relative within the sixth degree of consanguinity so long as they have proper documentation, as well as legal spouses and children.[20]  They even are allowed unlimited visa renewal as well the option to change their status to ‘permanent resident.’[21]

These new immigrants, it was originally hoped, would be easily able to meld into Japanese society due to their heritage, but instead they often cause friction.  Many of the nikkeijin who took advantage of this visa were second- or third-generation immigrants and instead of ‘returning home’ they entered completely unfamiliar society, linguistically and culturally.[22]  Most were recruited to work in Japanese factories before their departure through labor contractors, brokers, and recruiting agents, with Japanese familial ties playing little part in their decision.  Motivated by the poor economic climate in the 1980’s in South America, nikkeijin, often of middle-class, white-collar background, opted to take lower status jobs in Japan for better wages, with over 60% being employed in the manufacturing industry.  Most left their families or at least their children behind in Brazil, intending to return after a few years of work.[23]  This had the effect of concentrating large populations of foreigners in the manufacturing stronghold of Japan, namely Aichi, Shizuoka, Nagano, and Yamanashi prefectures, where immigrants took shunned ‘3D’ jobs for low wages.[24]  This perception of immigrants only working in ‘undesirable’ sections of the market makes it even more difficult for them to integrate into society at large.[25]  These effects are just the opposite of why the 1990 Immigration Act allowed nikkeijin in to begin with as opposed to indiscriminately recruiting unskilled labor.

Any foreigner living in Japan can expect to face some restrictions and discrimination from government and from the Japanese themselves.  Japan still requires foreigners to carry migration documentation at all times and it is a penal offense not to; only since 1993 has this documentation been reduced to the size of a credit card, called the Alien Registration Card, for stays longer than a tourist visa—tourists must carry their passports at all times.[26]  There is widespread discrimination in housing by Japanese landlords against immigrants as many require foreigners to have a Japanese guarantor, while others simply will deny housing for the ‘crime’ of “being a foreigner.”[27]  In Toyota City, Aichi Prefecture, in 1999 approximately 3,500 of the city’s 5,000 Brazilians lived in public housing developments, which accept foreign residents and are usually much easier to rent.[28]  Despite UN and other non-government organizational urging, local governments still take the fingerprints of all temporary visa holders, not including tourist visas, and it is a criminal offence to refuse to give them. Japanese naturalization also ‘recommends’ that foreigners take Japanese names, and only since 1985 have Japanese citizens marrying foreign nationals been allowed to take their names as their own.[29] 

Yet since the 1990 Immigration Control Act their have been many changes to the law in reference to immigrants and foreign residents.  Until 1995, all workers enrolled in the Kosei Nenkin plan, an employer-contribution health insurance and pension plan, were required to pay into it, though only those who paid into it for twenty-five years could actually receive a pension.  As most foreign residents do not become permanent residents and will not work in Japan for twenty-five years, this did not allow for them to save for their own retirement.  The National Pension Law passed in 1995 now allows up to a three-year contribution refund for those foreigners leaving Japan.[30]  In response to large numbers of immigrant children, since the early 1990’s the Education Ministry has been introducing Japanese language teachers and curriculum for teaching Japanese as a foreign language to schools in immigrant-heavy areas.[31]  Also, in 1996 Japan passed a Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.[32]  However, as this is not really a law, whether that truly has any effect outside government buildings, or even inside, is un-measurable, though it is a step forward nonetheless as a legal precedent in future anti-discrimination laws and cases.  

Japan’s recent immigration patterns as well as its laws towards foreign residents make it difficult for immigrants to assimilate into Japanese society.  At any time or place an immigrant can be asked for their passport or Alien Registration Card, and if they do not have it with them they can be detained at the local police station until the documents are brought over.  Just “being foreign” is enough to make renting an apartment very difficult.  Japan, despite allowing immigration through a variety of means, not least of all by ignoring large amounts of illegal immigration, does little to help its foreign residents, and in this can still be seen the basic assumption of Japan’s homogeneity.  Foreigners make up only slightly more than 1% of the total population, are mostly concentrated in urban areas, and are usually easy to pick out of a crowd by virtue of appearance alone.  This makes them easy targets for discrimination and gives the general population no reason to change its attitudes towards an immigrant population that is simply too different.  There is also little incentive for Japan to change its laws regarding treatment of foreigners.  For the present, it has an adequate supply of unskilled labor from illegal immigrants and nikkeijin, while plenty of highly skilled professionals continue to frequent Japan from all over the globe.  Casual discrimination garners little interest in the eyes of the world, and as foreigners are guests anyway, the attitude persists that it is not a problem.  Japan does not want to become global in its culture, only its economy—“one nation, one language”—and in the current recession would probably rather have its excess of foreign workers leave and solve two problems with one action.

Yet despite these difficulties Japan continues to be a fairly popular immigrant destination for a variety of reasons.  Its strong currency enables many to send home remittances, while others wishing to learn about Japan’s unique culture enjoy living somewhere “exotic” yet still modern.  More want to participate in its global economy, even while it is in recession.  Nor is every Japanese person discriminatory, and few police offers bother to check for Alien Registration Cards without some sort of provocation.  Those wishing to rent an apartment often can get help from their employers.  Japan’s extensive public transportation system precludes the need for many immigrants to own their own cars, as the country’s density and relative safety allow for short-distance bicycle travel with ease.  Even in a recession jobs continue to be available due to the low birth rates, with a recent rise in healthcare-related occupations due to Japan’s aging population.  These do not by any means erase Japan’s faults, but if an immigrant—legal or otherwise—does not make trouble, the government and people will not go out of their way to antagonize them.

Japan’s history as an immigrant nation, or perhaps its relative lack of, makes it an interesting case among prosperous nations.  From having an immigrant population consisting almost solely of forced migrants before World War II, it has grown into a, if not ‘multi-cultural,’ than certainly less-than-homogenous nation.  Though the foreign population only makes up a little over 1% of the population, immigrant workers can be found in every sector of the society, from manufacturing to small businesses to doctors and lawyers, helping to facilitate Japan’s fast-moving economy.  The structural difficulties that precipitated the 1990 Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act still persist today and will continue to bring foreigners to Japan for the foreseeable future.  Whether Japan will decide that enough is enough and to once again close its doors to immigration as it did centuries ago will depend on future events, and perhaps more importantly, on whether it can learn to get along with those immigrants it has already allowed in.

Works Cited

  1. Brody, Betsy.  Opening the Door: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Globalization in Japan.  Routledge, New York, 2002.
  2. Gurowitz, Amy.  “Looking Outward: International Legal Norms and Foreigner Rights in Japan.”  Local Citizenship in Recent Countries of Immigration: Japan in Comparative Perspective.  Ed. Takeyuki Tsuda.  Lexington Books, New York, 2006.
  3. Ishikawa, Yoshitaka, Kao-Lee Liaw. “The 1995-2000 Interprefectural Migration of Foreign Residents of Japan: Salient Features and Multivariate Explanation.”  Population, Space and Place 15: 401-428.  December 2008.
  4. Komai, Hiroshi.  Foreign Migrants in Contemporary Japan.  Trans Pacific Press, Melbourne, 2001.
  5. Sellek, Yoko. Migration Labor In Japan.  PALGRAVE, New York, 2001.
  6. Tsuda, Takeyuki. “Localities and the Struggle for Immigrant Rights: The Significance of Local Citizenship in Recent Countries of Immigration.”  Local Citizenship in Recent Countries of Immigration: Japan in Comparative Perspective.  Ed. Takeyuki Tsuda.  Lexington Books, New York, 2006.


[1] Brody, Betsy.  Opening the Door: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Globalization in Japan.  Routledge, New York, 2002. Pg. 3

[2] Sellek, Yoko. Migration Labor In Japan.  PALGRAVE, New York, 2001.  Pg. 9

[3] Ishikawa, Yoshitaka, Kao-Lee Liaw. “The 1995-2000 Interprefectural Migration of Foreign Residents of Japan: Salient Features and Multivariate Explanation.”  Population, Space and Place 15: 401-428.  December 2008. Pg 404

[4] Ibid. 405

[5] Sellek, Yoko.  Migration Labor In Japan.  9

[6] Ishikawa, Yoshitaka, Kao-Lee Liaw. “The 1995-2000 Interprefectural Migration of Foreign Residents of Japan: Salient Features and Multivariate Explanation.”  401

[7] Sellek, Yoko.  Migration Labor In Japan. 31

[8] Ibid. 16

[9] Brody, Betsy.  Opening the Door: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Globalization in Japan. 21

[10] Ibid. 32

[11] Tsuda, Takeyuki. “Localities and the Struggle for Immigrant Rights: The Significance of Local Citizenship in Recent Countries of Immigration.”  Local Citizenship in Recent Countries of Immigration: Japan in Comparative Perspective.  Ed. Takeyuki Tsuda.  Lexington Books, New York, 2006.  Pg. 4

[12] Brody, Betsy.  Opening the Door: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Globalization in Japan.  37

[13] Ibid. 34

[14] Tsuda, Takeyuki. “Localities and the Struggle for Immigrant Rights: The Significance of Local Citizenship in Recent Countries of Immigration.”  17

[15] Komai, Hiroshi.  Foreign Migrants in Contemporary Japan.  Trans Pacific Press, Melbourne, 2001.  Pg. 18

[16] Brody, Betsy.  Opening the Door: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Globalization in Japan.  40

[17] Tsuda, Takeyuki. “Localities and the Struggle for Immigrant Rights: The Significance of Local Citizenship in Recent Countries of Immigration.”  15

[18] Sellek, Yoko.  Migration Labor In Japan. 167

[19] Tsuda, Takeyuki. “Localities and the Struggle for Immigrant Rights: The Significance of Local Citizenship in Recent Countries of Immigration.”  15

[20] Sellek, Yoko.  Migration Labor In Japan. 75

[21] Brody, Betsy.  Opening the Door: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Globalization in Japan.  41

[22] Ibid. 42

[23] Ibid. 57

[24] Ishikawa, Yoshitaka, Kao-Lee Liaw. “The 1995-2000 Interprefectural Migration of Foreign Residents of Japan: Salient Features and Multivariate Explanation.”  406

[25] Brody, Betsy.  Opening the Door: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Globalization in Japan.  4-5

[26] Gurowitz, Amy.  “Looking Outward: International Legal Norms and Foreigner Rights in Japan.”  Local Citizenship in Recent Countries of Immigration: Japan in Comparative Perspective.  Ed. Takeyuki Tsuda.  Lexington Books, New York, 2006.  Pg. 163

[27] Ibid. 166

[28] Brody, Betsy.  Opening the Door: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Globalization in Japan. 66

[29] Gurowitz, Amy.  “Looking Outward: International Legal Norms and Foreigner Rights in Japan.” 166

[30] Sellek, Yoko.  Migration Labor In Japan. 152

[31] Ibid. 202

[32] Gurowitz, Amy.  “Looking Outward: International Legal Norms and Foreigner Rights in Japan.” 166