JAPAN'S COMING INTERNATIONALIZATION:
By Arudou Debito
CAN JAPAN ASSIMILATE ITS IMMIGRANTS?
(Published as a slightly different version on Japan Focus, January 12, 2006)
With the recent ethnic riots in France, The Economist (London) ran a
thoughtful article ("Minority Reports", November 10, 2005,
http://economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=5135956 about what might
have caused them. It posed an important question: Why are
some countries able to assimilate immigrants and their children more
peacefully than others? It took a stab at comparing
"integrationist" vs. "assimilationist" public policies in France,
England, Germany, Holland, and the United States.
Naturally, the article did not mention Japan, as Japan does not have
much of a record regarding immigration. Registered foreigners
(i.e. those with legal visas staying for more than a period of three
months), assuming previous growth rates continued through 2005,
probably topped two million for the first time in postwar Japan.
However, in a country of 127.7 million, this amounts to 1.6% of the
total population--slender compared to 4.6% (2003) in Britain, 5.5%
(1999) in France, 9.7% (2002) in Germany, 12.1% (2005, legal and
illegal) in the US, and 21.8% (2001) in Australia. 
However, these figures will change, as Japan's population of foreigners
will continue to grow. I believe Japan's future as a multiethnic
society is inevitable. As I argued in a Japan Times column
("Japan and the Immigration Issue", September 14, 2004,
http://www.debito.org/japantimes091404.html), not only is cheap foreign
labor an intrinsic part of the Japanese economy, but also, as the
regional economic superpower, Japan is still by itself about the same
size as all the other Asian economies combined. The economic pull
for immigrants is irresistible.
IMMIGRATION TO JAPAN IS ALREADY HAPPENING
AND IT WILL NOT STOP
Things are changing, most noticeably in the makeup of the
non-Anglophone population (which readers of Japan's English media are
often blind to). Now comprising more than 75% of total registered
foreign residents, this steady growth is no accident.
But first a bit of background. For much of Japan's postwar
history, the majority of "foreigners" here were, surprisingly, born or
raised in Japan--the product of immigration, both forced and unforced,
by former citizens of the prewar Japanese Empire and their
progeny. Called "Special Permanent Residents" (tokubetsu
eijuusha), or "Zainichi" in the vernacular, they are mostly Koreans and
Chinese, who (because Japan only confers citizenship through blood or
naturalization) have remained in Japan for generations as
"foreigners". This is despite the fact they are fully fluent in
Japanese and quite indistinguishable from the general
population--except for ethnic expression, personal identity (of the
non-naturalized Zainichis I have interviewed, none have ever said they
consider themselves "Japanese"), access to jobs and marriage partners,
and legal treatment (about the same as any foreigner fresh off the
That was then. From 1990 a new wave of immigration began.
The Japanese government tried to stem the "hollowing out" of domestic
industry by providing a special "trainee worker" visa for the Nikkei
diaspora. Consequently, the number of registered "returnee"
Brazilians alone has leapt from negligible to around 280,000 in 2005,
lodging them in third place behind the Zainichis. These South
American laborers are more visible than the Zainichis, clustering to
the point where, in some small towns in Shizuoka, Aichi, and Gifu
prefectures, they comprise a startlingly high percentage of the local
population--sometimes even double digits. Given the high standard
of living here and the lack of job opportunities back home, many are
settling down and changing the face of their communities. They
are also changing the commonly-held image of "gaijin" (foreigner),
which was (roughly) "someone from a developed country who larks about
teaching English, then goes home". Foreigners are graduating from
"temporary guest" to immigrant.
"RESISTANCE IS FUTILE":
THE TRENDS FAVORING IMMIGRATION ARE IRREVERSIBLE
To better grasp the pressures on Japanese society towards immigration,
let's first assume what would happen if the government took steps to
reverse the trend: removing foreigners from Japan by cracking
down on illegals, curbing visa programs, targeting them through
anti-terrorist measures (in fact already in the pipeline, see "Here
Comes the Fear", Japan Times, May 24, 2005
or even increased racial
profiling (entirely feasible, given the recent shocking murder of a
schoolgirl allegedly by a Peruvian here on forged papers).
Foreigners will come to Japan regardless. Why? They will
continue to be attracted by Japan's economic opportunities (as the
decades-unbroken rise in the foreign population demonstrates).
More importantly, Japanese companies (especially those in the "3K"
industrial sectors which Japanese laborers avoid) will still want
them. According to prominent economics magazine Shuukan Diamondo
(June 5, 2004), Japan's 760,000 foreign workers are now powering
companies like Toyota, Suzuki, Sanyo, Honda, and Yamaha. During a
2004 crackdown on Chinese due to fears of SARS, factories in rural
regions like Shikoku simply closed down. Thus any drastic
action against foreigners will have severe economic effects.
Moreover, these "newcomer" foreigners are making themselves
unremovable, by taking out Permanent Residency (eijuuken).
According to the Ministry of Justice
(http://www.moj.go.jp/PRESS/050617-1/050617-1.html), the number of
"General Permanent Residents" (ippan eijuusha) swelled from 145,336 in
2000 to 312,964 in 2004. Meanwhile, the number of "oldcomer"
Permanent-Resident Zainichis actually shrank (due to death or
naturalization) from 512,269 to 465,619. It is not inconceivable
that the permanent Newcomers will outnumber the Oldcomers in just a few
years, a sea change in terms of visible immigration and acculturation.
On top of that, it is simply impossible for "foreigners" and their
influence in Japan to disappear--for so many of the people who once
might have been considered "foreign" are now even citizens. There
are huge numbers of multiethnic Japanese, thanks to the record numbers
of international marriages and international children, the number of
naturalized citizens, even (to give an extreme example) Japan's role as
safe haven for abducted Japanese children following international
divorces (http://www.crnjapan.com/en/). And of course, people do
naturalize--to the tune of 12,000 to 14,000 people per year (the author
of this article included); not a huge number, but it adds up, according
to the Ministry of Justice, to more than 300,000 newly-minted citizens
between 1968 and 2001. Of course, all of these trends, which
amount to no less than Japan's true internationalization, are invisible
because these people are not included in numbers for registered
foreigners, and Japan's Census Bureau does not measure the population
In fact, it seems the tide is turning--back towards a grudging
acceptance of the inevitability of immigration. And none too
soon. As far back as 2000, under the Obuchi Administration, "The
Prime Minister's Commission on Japan's Goals in the 21st Century" (as
well as the UN) famously advised Japan to import around 600,000 people
per annum. This would maintain Japan's tax base, and ameliorate
the effects of record-high longevities and record-low birthrates
contributing to an aging population. Even though this trial
balloon was soon deflated, through government-sponsored public scares
about hooliganism (during the 2002 World Cup) and terrorism, and
assiduous reportage on purported rises in foreign crime
(http://www.debito.org/foreigncrimeputsch.html), cooler heads have
since prevailed, running some fanciful proposals up the flagpole, such
as bringing in Filipina nurses or robotizing elderly health care (see
pie-in-the-sky article "Japan's Humanoid Robots--Better Than People",
The Economist, December 20, 2005
a watershed was inevitable, and it came in December 2005--due to
THE WRITING MEETS THE WALL:
IN THE REALM OF A SHRINKING POPULATION
It's official: As of 2006, Japan's population is in
decline. Japan's Ministry of Health announced that, thanks to the
declining birthrate, deaths in 2005 unprecedentedly outnumbered births
by 10,000 souls.  From 2006 the population is projected to
dwindle, falling to 100.7 million by 2050. This means that the
foreign resident influx, about 50,000 people per year, is buoying the
numbers in the black, at least for now.
The subsequent intake of wind from policy circles and pundits was
audible. Even frequent foreigner basher Tokyo Governor Ishihara
Shintarou, in a December 22, 2005 press conference
(http://www.mxtv.co.jp/tochiji/index.html minute 11), stated that Japan
needs a firm immigration policy, and offered suggestions (such as
granting Permanent Residency to foreign graduates of Japanese colleges)
to make it easier for educated people to stay.
So now that people know that Japan needs foreigners warts and all, how equipped is Japan to deal with a future of immigration?
"THE AMERICAN... er... JAPANESE DREAM":
GETTING FOREIGNERS TO STAY AND FIND "THE GOOD LIFE" HERE
Can Japan allow foreigners to reach their potential, become productive
and contributing members of Japanese society, without the prospect (as
Governor Ishihara feared in his infamous 2000 "Sankokujin Speech") of
unrest and rioting?
The Economist article, which opened this essay, concluded that peaceful
immigrant assimilation requires five basic things: a) lingua
franca skills, b) income, c) mobility, d) home ownership, e) political
representation, and e) intermarriage. How does Japan rate?
FACTORS CONDUCIVE TO ASSIMILATION
1) Foreigners can own property, which means they can buy homes and
establish a business in Japan. However, without Permanent
Residency, they face great difficulty getting loans from established
organizations at competitive interest rates. Permanent Residency,
it should be noted, is actually quite difficult to get, as it requires
at least five years' investment (if married to a Japanese, ten years'
if not) and paperwork showing commitment and financial stability
(http://www.debito.org/permres.html). That said, with the
enormous rise in people taking out PR, more people are qualifying for
credit than ever before, as long as they are willing to make the
personal investment of several years of their life.
2) Foreigners can found and run their own businesses (as the ethnic
restaurants, kitchen-sink importers, used-good exporters, and nightlife
around Japan can attest). Naturally, there are some barriers to
entry. Based upon your visa, you either face a local-hire
requirement (if you try to sponsor your own visa with your business),
or local-guarantor requirement, with heavy deposits for business
loans. Moreover, even minor financial institutions, such as
credit card companies and cellphone operators like NTT Docomo, consider
foreigners too risky or fly-by-night, denying them credit avenues or
requiring deposits without looking at credit records or income.
However, things have been loosening up, with things such as "1-yen
companies", and open-secret loopholes (such as getting a visa separate
from your business, and treating your business as a side-job).
 More concretely, setting up a company in Japan is not all
that difficult anymore. According to the World Bank's
International Finance Corporation
costs for a company in Japan (around US$4,000), number of days you have
to wait for paperwork to clear (31), and number of procedures you have
to go through (11), are expensive but not unreasonable for the region
(average: 52.6 days' wait, 8.2 procedures); at a stretch Japan is
even less cumbersome than China (US$175 start-up, 48 days' wait, 13
procedures). However, Japan is uncompetitive compared to the
high-income OECD (average: 19.5 days' wait, 7.9 procedures),
particularly France (US$350 start-up, 8 days' wait, 7 procedures),
Germany (US$1400 start-up, 24 days' wait, 9 procedures), the USA
(US$210 start-up, 5 days' wait, 5 procedures), and Canada (US$250
start-up, 3 days' wait, 2 procedures). Based upon raw numbers
alone, Japan is actually on par with countries like Russia, Egypt,
Malawi, and Jordan. And these numbers do not reflect things like
Japan's informal barriers to capital access for newcomers, and minimum
capital investment in banks to qualify for loans.
3) Unemployment rates are nominally low in Japan and there is a labor
shortage, meaning chances are there will be less indigency: You
come here, you will probably find a job. That's not to say,
however, that employment is secure or lucrative. According to
Louis Carlet of the National Union of General Workers, Tokyo Nambu, 90%
or all foreigners in Japan are on fixed-term contract labor. Low
incomes for the most recent newcomers (such as the above-mentioned
"trainees") are not necessarily helping them invest in their future.
4) There are few, if any, clearly-delineated "foreigner enclaves" in
Japan (as opposed to France's state-supported banlieues, the scene of
much unrest). However, there is little or no protection against
housing discrimination, resulting in the creation of "gaijin
apartments" and de facto "foreigner zones" in towns near factories.
5) There is a promising degree of cultural acceptance and social
mobility for multiethnic residents and cultural expression. There
have been booms in Korean pop culture, African-American rap culture,
even international marriage in Japan's huge manga market. A
cursory view of Japanese media will demonstrate that Japanese are
culinary culture vultures for foreign foods. Foreign entertainers
and sportspeople are highly visible (even if many of the long-term TV
personalities choose to hide their ethnic roots). There are even
politicians and prominent businesspeople with international
backgrounds, (even if the foreign community has yet to become a
recognizable voting or consumer bloc). Nevertheless, there are
jobs from which foreigners are excluded (see below), "foreigner quotas"
in many areas, such as sports, even "no foreigners" rules in some
And of course:
6) It's very easy to marry a Japanese, as tens of thousands do every
year. That's the strongest possible root for any non-Japanese
resident, and it opens doors in terms of working visas and community
UNCONDUCIVE TOWARDS ASSIMILATION
1) Unlike Japanese children, foreign children are not required to
attend primary schooling, which means the government has turned a blind
eye to a growing underclass of uneducated children just because they
are foreign. Moreover, until recently, the Ministry of Education
has refused to recognize most international schools as accredited
educational institutions. Result: Foreign children who
couldn't hack a Japanese grade or junior-high school could drop out,
face no other education choices, and grow up into youth gangs (cf. the
Herculano Murder Case). Foreign children who do make it through
an unaccredited ethnic school in Japan, like one set up by Koreans and
Brazilians, find themselves unable to enter a Japanese university and
thus shut out from most upwardly-mobile jobs. Though there have
been some steps to accredit ethnic schools at long last, and
universities, desperate for students, are increasingly accepting ethnic
school diplomas, it may be too late for some teens; we don't know--we
have no official recognition of the problem or data on its depth.
Japan may soon be in for a surprise, with future incidents redolent of
the youth riots in France.
2) Foreigners are still barred from some job sectors, most famously
government-sponsored food preparation (for "security reasons") and
firefighting ("because foreigners damaging Japanese property could
create an international incident", runs the argument). Glass
ceilings in Japan's entry-level corporate culture are rife.
Foreigners are still not permitted to sit civil-service examinations
for promotion in certain regions, such as Tokyo, because "foreigners
cannot be permitted to have administrative duties over Japanese" (cf.
health worker Zainichi Korean Chong Hyang Gyun lawsuit
2) Foreigners are not entitled to the same job security, social
security, or legal protections as Japanese (extensive writings at
http://www.debito.org/handout.html). Many of them work either in
the black-market economies or for severely low wages, without social
safety nets such as health or unemployment insurance. This does
not encourage the establishment of firm or honest roots, or a larger
stake in society.
3) Japan keeps its foreigners on separate and tight (moreover
tightening) leash, while the Zainichis are denied the rights of
citizens even after four generations here. The Zainichis and
others who decide to fully assimilate, that is, naturalize, often do so
at great sacrifice of their ethnicity and family ties (see "Koreans
Weigh Merits of Gaining Japan Citizenship", Japan Times, April 21,
There is also a perception problem fostered by the government:
Many policy proposals are written a rubric of application to "kokumin"
(nationals), as if official definitions of "community members deserving
social benefits and protections" are rooted in blood-and-soil
arguments. At times these policies explicitly exclude foreigners
from regular taxpayer benefits and treatment (such as Shizuoka
Prefecture's erstwhile guidelines for "Kokumin Kenkou Hoken" national
The clearest case of unnecessary segregation is within the Residency
Certificate (juuminhyou) and Family Registry (koseki) systems, where
only citizens ("kokumin", i.e. those with a koseki) are permitted to be
listed as "residents". What other developed country (including
Germany, with a similar family registry system) requires citizenship
for formal residency? The systems even split international
families apart, so that officially foreigners are not allowed to be
listed amongst their families as "parent" or "spouse".
(More at http://www.debito.org/residentspage.html#juuminhyou) I
can think of few things more officially unwelcoming and alienating to
immigrants on a basic level than this.
4) Policywise, Japan is, again, a) not collecting sufficient data on
ethnicity (cf. last year's National Census), b) not allowing
"Japaneseness" to be seen as a matter of legal status (as opposed to
blood and culture), or c) not making much of an attempt to recognize or
appraise Japan's current, or future, multiculturality. Japan
still officially promotes homogeneity as part of national identity,
regardless of social exigency or even research to the contrary. 
5) Portraying the outsider as social bane instead of boon at the
highest levels of government and media is simply not helpful for
Japanese society in general, not to mention for the vast majority of
hardworking foreign taxpayers who support this aging society.
Instead, Japan's law enforcement is falsifying statistical
interpretation ("Generating the Foreign Crime Wave", Japan Times,
October 24, 2002 http://www.debito.org/japantimes100402.html),
encouraging public witch hunts of foreigners ("Downloadable
Discrimination", Japan Times, March 20, 2004
http://www.debito.org/japantimes033004.html), using outright racism in
crime research ("Forensic Science Fiction", Japan Times, January 13,
2004 http://www.debito.org/japantimes011304.html), even stretching or
breaking their own laws ("Checkpoint at Check-In", Japan Times October
18, 2005 http://www.debito.org/japantimes101805.html) to justify their
pursuit of the foreigner in our midst. This must stop.
MUST TRY HARDER, EVERYONE
Here are a few suggestions that Japan could undertake if it is truly
serious about allowing immigrants to come, stay, and become
assimilated, peacefully contributing members of society:
1) Illiteracy saps the potential of people in every society, so
institute free government-sponsored language classes (as seen in places
like the US) to get immigrants up to speed on their reading, writing,
and spoken Japanese. At the moment, second-language education for
immigrants is generally undertaken by local NGOs. Of course, this
assumes that immigrants will make the effort to become functional if
not fluent in the local language. However, initial signs, such as
popular city-sponsored language classes I have attended in Anjo, Aichi
Prefecture, indicate that they will.
2) Extend compulsory education to all children, including foreign
children, in accredited schools, and accredit more ethnic schools to
give them a choice.
3) Take concrete measures to protect the human and civil rights of
non-Japanese residents. This includes not only passing laws
against racial discrimination at all levels of government, but also
enacting additional statutes ensuring equal access to living quarters
and public goods, empowering governmental or non-governmental agencies
with policing and punitive powers (such as the ombudsman proposal
currently stalemated in the Diet), and clarifying labor laws protecting
workers and their families against discrimination by nationality.
4) As Governor Ishihara suggested, enact a clear immigration policy,
with targets to bring in educated people from overseas and ensure them
stable jobs and visa status. Many countries, including the US,
have benefited from "brain drains", and Japanese society has plenty
going for it to attract people of talent. On that note:
5) Eliminate the oft-cited "nationality clause" (kokuseki joukou) for
all government employment, and let individual qualifications and civil
service examination results overrule citizenship requirements. At
the moment, this is left up to local governments to decide, where it
often is used to bar Zainichis from leadership posts.
6) Take steps to resolve the grey legal status of the Zainichis and
other Permanent Residents. This would include, in addition to the
above proposals, legalizing dual nationality, reducing the
arbitrariness of naturalization procedures, granting local suffrage to
Permanent Residents, and conferring citizenship by birth.
7) Eliminate the separation of "resident" and "citizen" fostered by the
vagaries of the "koseki" and "juuminhyou" registry systems.
8) Make public statements (this would not require much budgetary
outlay) at the highest levels of government explaining why foreigners
are in Japan, the good works they are doing, and their indispensable
roles in Japan's past and future. Underline the fact that
foreigners are community residents and taxpayers like anyone
else. Too much ink has been spilled reporting the crimes a tiny
minority commit, and making a hullabaloo about the potential threats to
public order they have not caused. Time to balance things out.
For all the talk about Japan's ill-conceived immigration
policies, Japan doesn't seem to be doing as badly as some
societies. As of this writing, Japan has not had a single
foreigner riot. Many non-Japanese are laying down roots as
residents: getting by in Japanese, getting a decent (if insecure)
wage, buying homes, intermarrying, and, on rare occasions, naturalizing
and even entering politics. Japan also, fortunately, has not
resorted to old bad habits of forced assimilation (such as the "douka
seisaku" policy, "Japanizing" indigenous peoples by eliminating their
language and ethnic awareness). It is also, with some glaring
exceptions, relatively tolerant of the cultural expression of
Japan has, however, since 2000 switched its treatment of foreigners
from benign neglect to scapegoating for social problems. Even if
this is taking place in many other countries too, neither extreme is
In short, Japan has trouble knowing what to do with foreigners once
they get here, or trusting them to carry on by themselves.
Unpredictability and unprecedentedness, which foreigners by their very
presence embody, are too readily seen as a threat by many of Japan's
conservatives. Moreover, policy prescriptions to deal with them
often seem to forget that many foreigners are now immigrants, not to
mention human beings with feelings, livelihoods, and rights. This
Fortunately, Japan is a society remarkably open to outside ideas, and,
given time and enough debate from fluent immigrants arguing their case,
I believe that Japan can, and will, do a lot better. Japan is
world-class at welcoming strangers with kindness in the short
term. Japan's future now requires that the nation learn how
to do this in the long term.
Arudou Debito wrote this article for Japan Focus. He is the author of "'JAPANESE ONLY': The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan" (Akashi Shoten Inc., revised 2006)
Arudou Debito will be on a speaking tour in the United States between
March 20 and April 4, 2006. Confirmed schedule as of this
writing: March 23: University of Michigan, Center of Japanese
Studies (see program at http://www.umich.edu/~iinet/cjs/events/noon.html).
March 28: Columbia University, Faculty of Law. To arrange a talk
at your institution, contact him directly at email@example.com
 ILO website, Center for Immigration Studies website citing US Census Bureau
 AP, "Japan Marks Shift, as Deaths Outpace Births", December 23, 2005.
 Simon Jackson, Director of Ridgerunner
Architectural Design and Development in Sapporo, developing ski-resort
condominiums in Niseko, Hokkaido.
 John Lie, "Multiethnic Japan", Harvard Belknap.
Copyright 2006, Arudou Debito, Sapporo, Japan