Japan’s Ethnic Enclaves

Tokyo’s Multiplying Ethnic Enclaves

Society Culture

South Korean soccer fans drew people and attention to Tokyo's Koreatown in Shin-Ōkubo during the 2002 FIFA World Cup. In the years since then, Japan's capital has seen a proliferation of foreign communities.

Ethnic Enclaves Multiply and Evolve

Tokyo's urban landscape is transforming through the appearance of ethnic enclaves around the city. Japan’s largest Koreatown, also known as Asia Town, centers on Shin-Ōkubo Station in Shinjuku. Other prominent enclaves in Tokyo are the new Chinatown in Kita-Ikebukuro, a little Manila in Takenotsuka, Adachi, a little Thailand around Kinshichō Station in Sumida, and an Indian enclave in Nishikasai, Edogawa.

Tokyo is also home to other groupings, including enclaves of Vietnamese (Kamata), Burmese (Takadanobaba), Indonesians (Meguro), Bangladeshis (Ōyama), and Nepalese (Ōkubo and Hyakuninchō). People from Turkey and Arab nations have congregated around Yoyogi-Uehara in Shibuya, while Ethiopian refugees have formed a community in Katsushika, where they continue the movement calling for more democracy in their homeland.

As Japan’s birthrate remains low and its population ages, these ethnic enclaves appearing mainly on the periphery of large cities continue to multiply and evolve, despite restrictions placed on the influx of foreigners. What is their current situation? Are these really places where multiculturalism is taking root?

Diversity and Its Challenges

Koreatown in Shin-Ōkubo, a significant community with a concentration of 500 or so businesses, is an exception to Tokyo’s small ethnic enclaves. More typical is Ikebukuro's new Chinatown, where a few ethnic restaurants, grocery stores, and gift shops are scattered among a conventional Japanese shopping district. Their presence, however, clearly contributes an exotic feeling to an otherwise ordinary Japanese street.

Most Japanese know surprisingly little about the foreigners living nearby and often make little effort to find out about their overseas neighbors. Why have these foreigners come to Japan? What kind of lives are they living? Although they may have a passive interest in these questions, cultural gaps make it difficult for some Japanese to become acquainted with foreign residents.

In the multicultural nation of Canada, Toronto is famous for its ethnic enclaves. People from more than 100 countries are said to live in the city, and they steadfastly maintain their cultures centered on communities of long-term immigrants. Japan is less diverse than Toronto, and its ethnic enclaves have a shorter history. Tokyo’s patchwork of these diverse communities is in a constant flux, and their precise situation is not easy to ascertain.

The recent growth of these enclaves is highlighting Tokyo’s diversity as an international city and augmenting its attractiveness—developments that come at an opportune time for the host city for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. At the same time, though, Tokyo’s ethnic enclaves are giving rise to new challenges, such as difficulties with neighbors arising from Japanese residents' concerns over safety and public manners. The appearance of ethnic enclaves can be viewed as a mirror in whose reflection we can see the future shape of Japan.

Japan’s Largest Koreatown

Ethnic enclaves differ in how they have formed, but a common factor is that the process is almost never easy. There are people like Burmese and Ethiopians who have experienced political persecution at home and fled to Japan. Chinese students remaining in Japan after completing their studies have become entrepreneurs and have founded the new Chinatown in Ikebukuro. And IT technicians form the core of an Indian community of more than 2,000 people.

People passing through the Ōkubo and Shin-Ōkubo areas are certain to notice the large number of people speaking foreign languages, which at times even outnumber speakers of Japanese. This immigrant-heavy district bustles with activity. While young Chinese and Koreans often wear the same clothing as the natives, making it difficult to distinguish them solely on appearance, a person's gait or manner as they pass by may be a giveaway that they are not Japanese. A significant number of workers at convenience stores in the Ōkubo district are foreign, with many being young Chinese women. The same can be said for staff at eating and drinking establishments, giving the appearance that businesses in this area rely heavily on foreign labor for survival.

Shin-Ōkubo’s Koreatown has existed for 20 years. You can approach it by heading east along Shokuan Street from the Shinjuku Tax Office. Once you pass under several overhead railroad tracks, you will find Koreatown situated on the left side of the street. When Japan and South Korea cohosted the FIFA World Cup in 2002, South Korea fans residing in Tokyo gathered at Ambassador, a Korean restaurant in the area. This restaurant is now closed, and the center of Koreatown appears to have shifted to Ikemen Street at a right angle to Shokuan Street and connecting it northward to Ōkubo Street.

Koreatown in Shin-Ōkubo

A Worrisome Worsening of Relations

I was able to interview the owner of a restaurant along Ikemen Street who also publishes a map of Koreatown. After studying political science at a Korean university, he came to Japan five years ago to do graduate studies at a private university in Tokyo. Upon finishing his studies, he began to work in the Shin-Ōkubo area. He withheld his name from concerns related to the frequent demonstrations in Shin-Ōkubo by the Zaitokukai, a right-wing extremist organization that is openly opposed to what it claims are special privileges for Koreans residing in Japan.

The restaurant owner said he felt powerless against the demonstrators resorting to hate speech but that he is happy things have quieted down more recently. He reported that worsening relations between Japan and South Korea, although worrisome to him, have not directly affected his business. He also emphasized that he believes he is contributing, albeit in a small way, to greater diversity in Japan by representing a different culture here.

From around the time of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, Koreatown benefited from the growing popularity of South Korean culture in Japan, referred to as the “Korean wave,” and the number of Korean businesses surged. This Korean wave gathered momentum with the broadcast in Japan of the Korean TV show Winter Sonata in 2004 and drove the development of Koreatown.

The Korean wave boom faltered, however, when then South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the island of Takeshima (Dokdo in Korean), which is claimed by both South Korea and Japan, in the summer of 2012. What followed was a growing number of demonstrations where hate speech was openly heard. According to an association of Korean businesspeople in the Shinjuku area, sales at most Korean-run businesses have fallen by half from their peak, and several dozen restaurants, bars, and variety shops have closed down. In addition, Chinese and other Asian stores are advancing into the Shin-Ōkubo area and squeezing out Korean businesses.

No Consensus on Immigration

It is no easy matter to gauge the actual number of immigrants and long-term foreign residents in Japan, given the existence of illegal residents. There are no official statistics to refer to. Even so, there is estimated to be more than 2 million foreigners residing in Japan, of whom more than 400,000 live in Tokyo. While their number fell after the global economic downturn in 2008, it is believed that the number of foreigners living in Japan has begun to climb in recent years.

The four largest nationalities residing in Japan are, in order, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Brazilians. Together they account for about 70% of all foreigners living in the country. Many Chinese and Korean residents were born and raised here by parents who have lived in Japan since before World War II. Most Brazilians in Japan, meanwhile, are descendants of Japanese emigrants who have come to Japan through preferential measures for Brazilians of Japanese heritage. Many of them work for Japanese companies. A leading example is the Brazilian community in Ōizumi, Gunma Prefecture.

Despite some exceptions, Japan has maintained strict restrictions on immigration. Rapid demographic change, however, is propelling the nation toward a future of smaller families and a higher share of elderly people. As the working-age population (people aged 15–64 years) shrinks, there are limits as to what can be achieved to secure labor through the greater participation of women and the elderly in the workforce. Therefore, it is likely only a matter of time before moves are made to ease immigration restrictions.

With this prospect in mind, how will immigrants be received in Japan? Will they be expected to integrate into Japanese society? Will the formation of parallel communities be accepted based on multiculturalism? Or will they be treated as seasonal labor? Consensus on these issues has yet to be reached in Japan. What does seem certain, however, is that ethnic enclaves will continue to multiply in Tokyo.

(Originally written in Japanese by Murakami Naohisa of the Nippon.com editorial department and published on July 30, 2015. Banner photo: Koreatown around Shin-Ōkubo Station in Shinjuku, Tokyo. © Natsuki Sakai/Aflo.)

Japanese language Korea hate speech Korean Shin-Okubo Okubo Hyakunin-cho Shinjuku Korean Wave