Hi Blog. Japan Times on how the foreign community, particularly the composition of its ethnicities, is changing. An interesting case study of one Chinese’s immigration to Japan. Debito
The Japan Times: Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2007
Foreign permanent residents on rise, filling gaps
By SETSUKO KAMIYA, Staff writer
PHOTO: Eika Ma, a Chinese permanent resident in Japan and president of Tokyo
Elevator Co., is interviewed last month at her office in Chuo Ward, Tokyo. SETSUKO KAMIYA PHOTO
Japan’s population started declining in 2005, but in contrast,
registered foreigners soared to a record high 2.01 million, a leap
from 1.36 million a decade ago and accounting for 1.57 percent of the
nation’s total population.
As baby boomers born between 1947 to 1949 start to retire this year,
getting more foreign nationals into the workforce and into
communities is increasingly becoming a hot topic for the government
Foreigners are becoming increasingly visible, particularly Chinese
people, the largest-growing ethnic segment.
They are not just part of the labor force but are also the brains
behind many new jobs, technologies and services. They also bridge the
two major trading partners, and more are increasingly considering
Japan their home and are finding opportunities to succeed here.
Koreans still comprise the largest ethnic minority in terms of
special permanent residency. In 2005, this group, including those in
Japan before the war and their descendants, numbered some 598,000.
Statistically, however, their numbers are declining yearly as the
elderly pass away and younger Koreans opt to become Japanese citizens.
Other ethnic groups are steadily on the rise, a flow that started
around the early 1990s when the country opened its doors to more
foreigners to cover a labor shortage. Prominent among them are
Brazilians and Peruvians of Japanese descent, but Chinese account for
the most, at 519,000, or 25 percent of all registered aliens.
In addition to being long-term residents, entertainers or spouses of
Japanese, Chinese like most Brazilians, Peruvians and Filipinos hold
status at various levels.
In 2005, some 89,000 were registered as exchange students, 14,700 as
engineers and 40,500 as trainees, while 2,500 came as university
professors and 1,380 as investors.
Many meanwhile work in industries that depend on them — students
employed as part-timers in restaurants, convenience stores and
supermarkets, and trainees providing labor in industries ranging from
textiles to fisheries to agriculture. An increasing number of small
companies also want foreign information technology engineers to run
The most notable demographic trend, though, is the rise in permanent
residents. This status is generally conferred on foreigners who have
“contributed to Japan” for at least five to 10 years. While the
number is up for most nationalities, Chinese top the list again. More
than 106,000 registered as permanent residents last year, nearly
twice the figure of five years ago.
The 1998 deregulation of permanent residency criteria helped expedite
the rise, the Justice Ministry said.
“Many of (the Chinese) came as exchange students, got hired in
Japanese companies, and as they get used to living here they like it
and decide to stay,” said Zhang Shi, a senior editor of Chinese
Review Weekly, which is circulated in Japan. He and many others
believe the trend will continue, as long as opportunity knocks.
Eika Ma, 41, from Dalian, China, came to Japan in 1988 as an exchange
student to study Japanese, and acquired permanent residency in 2004.
To her, the nation has opened up compared with when she first arrived.
“Japanese were very closed to foreigners, especially Asians,” Ma
said, recalling how difficult it was to land a part-time job just
because she was not Japanese.
She now runs an elevator maintenance company in Tokyo with 25
employees and annual turnover of 500 million yen. She is also a
practicing Chinese lawyer and consults with Japanese companies
looking to expand business in China.
Ma’s path highlights the changes Japan’s economy and society have
undergone over the last two decades. Her case may be unique, but it’s
an indication that foreigners now can reach the top.
After an unpleasant first year in Japan, Ma, who was a Japanese major
at Dalian University of Foreign Language, could have gone back to
China and secured a teaching job. But the Tiananmen Square crackdown
in 1989 prompted her to stay, and to find a way to survive.
She entered Waseda University and studied commercial law, a
discipline not then offered in China. She later got a master’s degree
and passed the Chinese bar exam.
While studying, Ma worked for an elevator maintenance firm to make
She started her own elevator business after working at a Chinese law
firm in Shanghai, where a local official asked her to find a Japanese
company to repair elevators.
The city was undergoing a building boom, and the structures’ Japanese-
made elevators required maintenance. Most were being serviced by
subsidiaries of the manufacturers that literally dominated the market.
Ma believed she could fill a niche by creating an independent firm to
do the work that could pose a challenge to the monopoly. She returned
to Japan and launched Tokyo Elevator Co. in 1996 with a few Japanese
partners. Their strategy: undercut the competition.
Ma initially struggled for customers because most wanted to stay with
the manufacturers’ subsidiaries. The makers also hesitated to sell
the necessary repair parts. Her firm hovered on bankruptcy.
Ma said she took advantage of every opportunity she could to promote
her business, showing up at friendly gatherings and distributing name
cards. “Eventually, people started introducing me to customers,” she
said. “I came to realize that even if you are a foreigner and a
woman, Japanese will accept you if you continue to make efforts to
meet your target.” She also feels that being a foreigner helped
because she was unshackled by old business traditions.
Her strategy eventually fit the needs of building owners as they
looked for ways to cut costs. The government ordered the elevator
industry to open up its business to independents, making it much
easier to compete, she said. The firm has served more than 500
clients, including those in Shanghai.
Ma also started bridging the two nations by providing legal advice to
Japanese businesses entering China.
“The fact that I know business in Japan also helps,” she said.
It won’t be just China and Japan anymore. Through her Swedish husband
she met in Japan, she is also starting to consult with Swedish
companies interested in doing business here.
“It’s really time for Japan to introduce more foreigners with skills
to support this country,” Ma said.
The couple are expecting their first child later this month. Ma says
the family will be based in Japan but will be moving around in China
and Sweden, integrating business and life in a multicultural way.
The Japan Times: Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2007