Japan Opening Up to Immigration


The Japanese government’s claim that it will not adopt policies encouraging immigration does not reflect reality. The country’s labor shortage means that foreign workers, often on student visas, are filling the gaps in a range of industries.

Japan’s Quiet Immigration Boom

There are more foreigners in Japan than ever.

I am not talking about the tourists enjoying the old-capital ambience of Kyoto, the great outdoors in Hokkaidō, or the bustle of Tokyo’s Roppongi and Akihabara districts. I mean, there are more foreign residents in Japan.

As of the end of 2017, Japan’s foreign population topped 2.5 million. This is a record high and a year-on-year increase of 180,000. In the Tokyo metropolitan region, 1 in 10 residents in their twenties is from another country.

There are foreign staff everywhere from drugstores and family restaurants to hamburger shops and gyūdon (beef bowl) chains. It is not unusual to find Tokyo convenience stores without any Japanese employees on the premises. This rapid transformation feels like it has happened over the past two or three years.

Workers come from many countries, including China, South Korea, Vietnam, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia. In their use of honorific language and counting words when talking to customers, some of them display more fluent Japanese than my American colleague who works for NHK World.

From a global perspective, it is not unusual to encounter people from other countries in everyday life. The Japanese government insists, however, that it will not adopt policies encouraging immigration. The country also only accepted 20 refugees last year. So, what exactly is happening here?

There is a huge gap between the government’s stated policies and reality. It appears to be rooted in Japan’s much-loved culture of tatemae and honne—or what people say and what they really mean.

Expected to Join the Workforce

Most foreign convenience store workers are students from middle-class families in other Asian countries.

Over the past decade, the government has pursued and surpassed a target of 300,000 foreign students. This project’s original aim was to “make Japan a more open country, encouraging interpersonal exchange by establishing a study environment to attract foreign students.”

The first divergence from this goal came when the government allowed students to hold part-time jobs. Under the law, people on a student visa can work “in principle” up to 28 hours per week. The limit comes “in principle” because during summer vacation and other such times, the students can work up to 40 hours per week.

This is very lax by global standards. In countries like the United States or Canada, for instance, the principle is that people on student visas may not hold jobs at all.

While they are learning here, the Japanese government is counting on foreign students to join the workforce. The country’s severe labor shortage—the result of population decline—looms in the background. And, in fact, more than 90% of foreign students do some kind of job while in Japan.

The majority of foreign students working at convenience stores attend Japanese language schools, and are required to pay up to around ¥1 million in advance for entrance and tuition fees and related costs. This means that many are in debt when they come to Japan.

Working 28 hours a week, however, earns barely enough to cover living expenses. It is not uncommon for students to return home still owing money. The Japanese government is aware of this, but rather than lifting a finger to help, it simply waves them goodbye.

What is more, only around 30% of students who go on to university after language school, thereafter hoping to find a full-time job in Japan, achieve that dream.

Government Planning to Increase the Flow

Some people say that these foreign students’ main reason for coming to Japan is to work and earn money to send back home. This is true in some cases. One also hears that they are taking Japanese people’s jobs.

The reality is quite the opposite. They are actually filling gaps in the labor market, where there are not enough Japanese workers.

Japan’s traditional washoku cuisine—recognized by UNESCO on its list of the world's intangible cultural heritage—is dependent on foreign labor. Workers from other countries are crucial to the manufacturing process for onigiri rice balls and Japanese side dishes that then go on to be sold by foreign staff members in convenience stores. Visit a food processing plant in the early hours, and there will certainly be many non-Japanese workers producing the katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and konbu (kelp) essential to washoku. This is not to mention the huge numbers of foreign trainees who are active on fishing boats and in the nation’s farm fields.

I imagine that many Japanese people were not aware of this state of affairs for some time, but by now they have probably finally noticed. While they thought that Japan had no immigration, it actually has 2.5 million foreign residents.

According to information in the OECD International Migration Database, in both 2015 and 2016 Japan ranked fourth in terms of its inflow of foreign population. The government is seeking to increase this flow still more by establishing a new visa status for nonprofessional workers, and has set up a dedicated cabinet committee. Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has spoken of an urgent need to create systems for bringing in a wide range of foreign laborers who can make an immediate contribution.

More local authorities around the country are working to integrate foreign residents. Akitakata in Hiroshima Prefecture is a frontrunner among such municipalities, and has been making active efforts to attract non-Japanese residents since 2010. Mayor Hamada Kazuyoshi comments, “The route to survival for municipalities like ours, which are suffering population decline, is to win foreign fans around the world. It’s not a time for saying, ‘I just can’t get on with foreigners.’ We need to learn how to build a successful multicultural community.”

Undoubtedly, Japan is now entering a new phase in its relationship with people from other countries.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 31, 2018. Banner photo: Foreign trainees handle mackerel at a seafood processing plant in Iwate Prefecture. © Yomiuri Shimbun/Aflo.)

convenience store foreign labor