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As Its Population Ages, Japan Quietly Turns to Immigration

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As Its Population Ages, Japan Quietly Turns to Immigration

An elderly Japanese woman makes the long trek to visit the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. (Photo: Hansel and Regrettal/Flickr)

Japan has one of the most rapidly aging societies in the world, with people ages 65 and older accounting for more than one-quarter of the population—a share expected to increase precipitously going forward. To address the increased labor shortages this pronounced aging brings, the government since the 1990s has turned to immigration, albeit in very small numbers and largely without public debate. In recent years, while the national government has claimed to promote labor force participation of elderly and female workers over increased immigration, the resident foreign workforce has in fact steadily risen, growing 40 percent since 2013 alone. Politicians remain reluctant, however, to draw attention to this growth or label it the outcome of explicit policy decisions.  

Why work to foster immigration on the one hand yet refuse to acknowledge such deliberate actions on the other? The answer lies in the particularities of the Japanese context. The society retains a strong perception of ethnic and cultural homogeneity, and immigration remains resoundingly unpopular. Yet demographic realities are forcing policymakers to court immigrants as potential solutions, or at the very least mitigating factors, to address some of the economic problems resulting from aging.

This country profile offers a brief overview of Japan’s migration history before examining the current immigration system, along with issues and areas likely to be addressed in the future as the country continues to age and its immigrant population expands.

Historical Background: From Isolation to Expansion

Japan’s historic isolation is well noted. Aside from being geographically difficult to reach for much of its early history, the country for the most part remained willfully closed to foreign influence up through the Meiji Restoration of the mid- to late 1800s and the colonial era in the early 1900s. This is not to say that immigration was nonexistent: There were noted immigrant enclaves in major port cities by the late 1800s. Yet, for the most part, the notion of ethnic and cultural homogeneity was largely accepted and actively promoted by the government.

Imperial expansion during the Japanese colonial era from approximately 1905 to 1945 brought with it an influx of Korean, Chinese, and Taiwanese immigrants to the Japanese mainland. Korean nationals represented the majority of colonial residents in mainland Japan, peaking at approximately 2 million in 1945. Although not technically considered immigrants at the time because they came from Japanese territories, all former colonial subjects lost their Japanese nationality following World War II and the subsequent signing in 1952 of the Treaty of San Francisco. Still, approximately 600,000 Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese nationals remained in Japan. This sizeable contingent includes children born in Japan to foreign parents, considered foreign nationals themselves due to the revocation of their parents’ Japanese nationality. These former colonial subjects and their descendants, known as zainichi in Japanese, comprised the bulk of Japan’s foreign population through the 1980s and continue to make up a significant, although diminishing, proportion of foreign nationals in the country.


Zainichi refers to the population of former colonial subjects living in Japan—primarily from Korea, Taiwan, and China—who lost their Japanese nationality following World War II, and their descendants. In 2016, the zainichi numbered about 340,000, or 15 percent of Japan’s foreign population.

Because Japan follows jus sanguinis and confers nationality based on bloodline, not place of birth, Japan-born zainichi are included as foreign nationals in government immigration statistics. As such, they are referred to in this article as part of the foreign population.

Rapid postwar economic development saw substantial rural-to-urban migration in Japan, where cities expanded considerably. New immigration levels remained low as internal migration and the postwar baby boom provided an adequate supply of labor. By the early 1980s, Japan was highly urbanized, with approximately 60 percent of the population living in densely populated areas. However, the growing urban workforce was no longer sufficient to meet labor demands, particularly for the so-called 3-D jobs (dirty, demanding, and dangerous). These positions typically did not require a high level of skill, were often monotonous, and paid relatively poorly. As such, they carried little appeal to Japanese nationals. Due to the availability of low-skilled jobs, combined with the rising value of the yen and a national government that did not strictly enforce immigration regulations, Japan began to appear more attractive to new immigrants.

Immigration policy remained largely unchanged during this period, based on the 1952 Immigration Control and Refugee Act, which intended to discourage long-term settlement of foreign workers. After a marked increase in visa overstays by short-term visitors, the government in 1990 tightened visa requirements and immigration enforcement, while also opening up a new avenue for unskilled workers, primarily of Japanese descent, known as nikkeijin.

The foreign share of the overall population has steadily grown, rising from 0.7 percent in 1990 to 1.8 percent in 2016 (see Figure 1). While that proportion is tiny compared to other highly industrialized economies, the population has risen in absolute numbers from just under 900,000  (including zainichi) in 1990 to approximately 2.3 million as of mid-2016—a 160 percent increase, according to official government data. 

Figure 1. Foreign Share of Japanese Population (%), 1970-2016

Source: Compiled from Japan Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Statistics Bureau, “Historical Statistics of Japan, Chapter 2: Population and Households; Foreigners by Nationality and Age,” accessed March 9, 2017, available online; “Japan Statistical Yearbook 2016, Chapter 2: Population and Households; Total Population” and “Foreign National Residents by Nationality,” accessed March 9, 2017, available online; and Japan Ministry of Justice, “Foreign Resident Statistics [Zairyū Gaikokujin Tōkei],” accessed March 9, 2017, available online.

Postwar Policy Development

Modern Japanese immigration policy traces its roots to the Immigration Control and Refugee Act of 1952, implemented following the U.S. occupation, and a subsequent revision in 1990. The immigration system permits a variety of work-related visas, including categories such as professor, journalist, specialist in the humanities, and entertainer. There are also a number of family-related categories, including dependent, spouse of a Japanese national, and spouse of a permanent resident. Most visa categories are uncapped, allowing for some flexibility in the number of foreign nationals admitted in a given year.

Figure 2. Immigration to Japan by Visa Status, 2006-16

Source: Japanese Ministry of Justice, “Foreign Residents by Visa Status, Nationality, and Region [Kokuseki, Chiiki betsu Zairyū Shikaku (Zairyūmokuteki) betsu Zairyū Gaikokujin],” various years, accessed March 9, 2017, available online.

Immigration to Japan was and remains relatively exclusionary. Children gain citizenship based on their parents’ Japanese nationality rather than by virtue of their birth on Japanese soil (jus sanguinis rather than jus soli). Consequently, zainichi and their descendants can retain foreign nationality even though they may be third- or fourth-generation descendants born and raised entirely in Japan. Naturalization is available, though the path is often regarded as arbitrary and quite strict in nature. The government has taken steps to ease the naturalization process somewhat in recent years, particularly for zainichi. However, there are only about 1,000 new naturalizations each year, compared to approximately 30,000 new permanent resident visas. In other words, the majority of long-term foreign residents in Japan acquire permanent residency rather than Japanese nationality.

Until the late 1970s and early 1980s, foreign residents were largely excluded from a number of social privileges enjoyed by Japanese citizens, including access to public housing, national health insurance, and public-sector employment. As the Japanese economy continued to develop, and the country looked to increase its international stature, the government signed onto a number of international conventions and covenants. In addition to bringing Japan more fully into the international community, these agreements also provided greater equality to foreign residents already in Japan. As a result, and also due to considerable lobbying from zainichi communities and a handful of municipalities, national and local governments have removed discriminatory barriers to accessing government services. Foreign residents can join the national health insurance system and receive a pension provided they qualify, and their children can enroll in public schools. However, legislators in the National Diet have yet to ratify antidiscrimination policy, and as such discrimination by individuals, perhaps most apparent in access to housing, remains legal.

The 1990 revision to the Immigration Control and Refugee Act excluded unskilled laborers in principle, officially permitting visas only for high-skilled work- and family-based visas. However, by allowing entrance (ostensibly to foster “cultural understanding”) to nikkeijin of Japanese heritage, mainly from Brazil and Peru, as well as their immediate families, the revision opened a significant side door to unskilled labor. The nikkeijin population quickly grew throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, peaking at about 375,000 in 2007, or close to 20 percent of Japan’s foreign population.

A technical trainee program, also implemented in the early 1990s, opened the door even further to unskilled labor. The program allows Japanese companies to employ short-term workers mainly from developing Asian nations, officially to learn about Japanese business practices and technology and bring those insights back to their home countries upon completion of their term of up to three years. In practice, the technical trainee program works as a means of importing cheap labor to complete menial tasks, with little technical knowledge passed on to the temporary worker. Instances of trainees being paid rates below the minimum wage and working for long hours and in unsafe conditions have been documented. In response, the government pledged to closely monitor companies participating in trainee programs and ensure compliance with Japanese labor laws. It has also considerably expanded the program: In 2006, technical trainees represented 3 percent of the foreign population (70,519 trainees), a share that rose to 9 percent (212,510 trainees) in 2016. 

Recent Developments: Policy in the Face of Crises

Japanese immigration trends have been shaken by external events in recent years. One of the most significant was the so-called Lehman Shock in 2008, following the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers firm in the United States and onset of the global economic crisis. This had major reverberations in Japan, leading to stalled economic development, especially in the manufacturing sector. Demand for exports shrank, prompting a number of employers to lay off their foreign workers. The government subsequently established vocational and job-training programs aimed at helping foreign workers find new employment.

More controversially, the government also offered cash payments for nikkeijin to leave Japan. The pay-to-go scheme, in existence from 2009 through 2010, offered approximately US $3,000 to workers and $2,000 per dependent willing to leave Japan. Initially the program mandated permanent departure, although this was subsequently reduced to three years outside Japan. Approximately 20,000 nikkeijin took advantage of the return scheme, and many others left on their own. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of Brazilian and Peruvian immigrants shrank by more than 87,000 combined, and has continued to decrease in recent years.

The size of the foreign population declined as well in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters. While the hardest-hit regions—northern Japan and the Fukushima area in particular—are not major immigrant population centers, the subsequent economic uncertainty and concerns about aftershocks and radiation took a toll on foreign and native residents alike. Between 2010 and 2012, Japan’s foreign population shrank approximately 5 percent, though it has since recovered.

Competing Immigration Pressures

Despite the pressures resulting from the global economic crisis and 2011 disasters, a number of other trends have promoted greater immigration to Japan. Key among them: Japan’s rapid aging, one of the fastest rates in the world. Confronting a low birthrate, long life expectancy, and a baby-boom generation that is quickly reaching retirement age, Japan has a much smaller cohort of younger people available to support the social welfare system. The government faces significant concerns over the solvency of its national pension scheme, an overburdened health-care system, loss in tax revenue from its shrinking labor pool, and an overall drop in productivity. This is occurring at a particularly sensitive time as the country has only recently been able to shake the largely stagnant economy experienced during the “lost decades” of the 1990s and 2000s. Just as Japan is beginning to show signs of economic growth, the demographic problem threatens to bring another recession.

Immigration remains deeply unpopular in Japan according to public opinion polls, however, and no explicit, large-scale efforts have been undertaken to increase immigration levels. To serve as a viable solution for Japan’s aging, immigrants would need to make up at least 10 percent of the overall population by some estimates—an unfeasibly large number by most accounts given the strong preference that remains for ethnic and cultural homogeneity and the public backlash that would likely ensue. What appears to be happening instead is a concerted effort to improve immigrant retention and boost recruitment incrementally under existing immigration policy, resulting in a gradual increase in numbers while avoiding a potentially contentious public referendum.

The government may be moving one step in that direction—whether intentionally or not—first by actively encouraging a broad familiarity with Japan through tourism and short-term visits. The number of short-term visits to Japan is growing rapidly, with a record 24 million visitors traveling to Japan in 2016 alone. Not only is tourism good for the Japanese economy, but it has brought with it a relaxation of short-term visa requirements, as well as an increased need for foreign workers to provide services to the ever-growing numbers of visitors. Increased tourism may additionally encourage some to visit Japan again on longer-term visas.

Japan also revised its Alien Registration System in 2012, moving management from local governments to the national government. While this change in registration helped to facilitate noncitizen tracking, particularly for visa and residency violations, and was described as a national-security enhancement, it also improved the re-entry system process for foreign nationals. Immigrants are, in most cases, no longer required to obtain re-entry permits from their regional immigration offices before leaving Japan. The revision also fully abolished local government fingerprinting requirements for foreign residents (although these are now required on entry at the airport), and extended maximum residency periods from three to five years, effectively making it easier for foreign residents to remain in Japan longer without having to renew or change visas.

The government also has implemented immigrant recruitment schemes targeted at workers across the skills spectrum. On the low-skilled end, the technical trainee program continues to grow, with the government considering additional expansions in number and length of stay, potentially offering trainees up to five years of residency. The government has also been actively recruiting international students, allowing them to work part-time during the academic year and full-time during vacation periods. Between 2006 and 2016, the student share of the overall foreign population rose from 6.3 percent (131,789 student visas) to 11 percent (257,739). In the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the government is taking steps to double the number of work visas for middle-skilled positions in specific industries, particularly construction, the  service sector, and health care. Experience suggests, however, that such an effort might prove difficult to achieve. Since 2008 Japan has sought to bring in health-care workers from other countries, primarily the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia; while these workers have been permitted initial entry, the Japanese-language examination required for final certification to practice has proven too difficult for many.

The government has been most forthright in recruitment of high-skilled immigrants, as they have the highest levels of approval from the Japanese public. A new Highly Skilled Foreign Professional (HSFP) visa was launched in 2012, aiming to recruit scientists, researchers, engineers, and businesspeople. The HSFP visa introduces a point-based calculation of eligibility, borrowing from earlier Australian and Canadian schemes, and provides a number of new benefits including the ability for visa holders to bring their parents or spouse to reside with them, along with a foreign domestic helper (typically a maid or nanny). The HSFP visa represents a significant departure in the Japanese immigration system, both with the introduction of a points-based assessment and the provision of new benefits, although relatively few visas have been issued so far. In 2012, 313 HSFP visas were issued, a number that rose to 2,642 in 2015.

Finally, as all recruitment categories have expanded, the path toward permanent residence has been clarified and eased somewhat. In general, immigrants must maintain a minimum of ten years continuous presence to qualify for permanent residency, and are able to change their visa status within that period. For example, a foreigner can enter Japan as a student, continue as a technical intern, then transfer to a more specialized work permit before securing permanent residency. HSFP visa holders are eligible for permanent residency within five years, while other categories, such as spouses of Japanese nationals, are eligible in less time. Permanent residents represent the largest single category of foreign residents in Japan: 38 percent in 2016. Combined with zainichi special permanent residents and other long-term residents, these categories encompass 53 percent of Japan’s foreign population.

Immigration to Japan Today

While immigration to Japan has steadily increased since the 1990s, incoming streams are almost exclusively comprised of “desirable” immigrants, meaning those who clearly offer some perceived immediate benefit. Refugees remain largely barred from entering. In 2015, the country received a record 7,500 refugee applications yet granted refugee status to just 27 people. In stark contrast to the comparatively generous policies of Western Europe and North America, Japan’s interpretation of the 1951 Refugee Convention remains quite narrow, excluding war refugees from eligibility. The Japanese government provides high levels of foreign and humanitarian aid, however.

Japan’s overall picture of immigration is diversifying. Prior to the 1990s, the vast majority of foreigners were of Korean descent, many born in Japan and speaking native-level Japanese, with Chinese nationals occupying a much smaller proportion (see Figure 3). During the 1990s and 2000s, the Brazilian and to a lesser extent Peruvian populations increased dramatically before shrinking in the early 2010s. Now Japan is seeing an influx of various Asian nationalities, including Filipino, Vietnamese, Nepalese, and Thai residents.

Figure 3. Share of Foreign Population in Japan by Nationality (%), 1970-2016

Source: Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Statistics Bureau, “Historical Statistics of Japan, Chapter 2: Population and Households; Foreigners by Nationality and Age” Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Statistics Bureau, “Japan Statistical Yearbook 2016, Chapter 2: Population and Households; Total Population;”Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Statistics Bureau, “Foreign National Residents by Nationality;” Japan Ministry of Justice, “Foreign Resident Statistics [Zairyū Gaikokujin Tōkei].”

While foreign residents continue to make up only about 2 percent of the total population, they tend to congregate in a handful of urban areas and surrounding suburbs. As of 2015, 43 percent of Japan’s foreign population lived in the greater Tokyo area; and approximately 10 percent apiece in Osaka Prefecture and Aichi Prefecture. Just one-fourth lived outside the top five urban areas. At the city level, most of Japan’s larger cities show concentrations of noncitizens above the national average, with Osaka (4.4 percent foreign as of 2014), Tokyo (3 percent), and Nagoya (2.9 percent) showing some of the highest concentrations. Within cities there can be substantial variation as well, with foreign populations encompassing up to 10 percent of some city wards in Tokyo and Nagoya, for example.

Noncitizens in Japan tend to be employed in occupational niches, working in service, manual labor, and specialized health-related fields, as well as business and research. Foreign residents, for the most part, remain on employment tracks well outside the traditional Japanese system, where workers are hired by large companies directly out of university. Although the traditional “lifetime employment” system that characterized business in Japan since at least the 1960s has been steadily eroding for Japanese residents as well, foreign workers typically find themselves in a comparatively more precarious position, often employed under short-term contracts with little job security, in many cases with limited language skills to navigate an almost exclusively Japanese-language system. Long-term employment prospects for many noncitizens in Japan can thus be problematic.

Despite their wide-ranging social integration, the zainichi population remains distinct from Japanese nationals. Zainichi typically speak fluent Japanese, can frequently blend in with Japanese nationals, and often adopt Japanese surnames. However, because the descendants of immigrants are unable (or unwilling) to acquire Japanese nationality, they remain a separate and distinct class. Owing to a history of discriminatory Japanese government policies, including mandatory municipal registration and fingerprinting, and ineligibility for pensions and national health insurance schemes, the zainichi traditionally have had a strong sense of collective identity, with community norms discouraging naturalization. However, the government has been making greater efforts in recent years to incorporate zainichi into the general population. Due partially to these efforts, intermarriage with Japanese nationals, and elderly zainichi mortality, the number of zainichi has been steadily declining. The approximately 340,000 zainichi special permanent residents, who represented about 15 percent of Japan’s total foreign population in 2016, continue to see their numbers shrink.

Starting in the 1990s with the initial influx of nikkeijin, many Japanese cities have begun to offer increased services to foreign residents, particularly as newer arrivals tend to be less familiar with the Japanese language. Municipal-level services now include multilingual consultations, Japanese language classes, translation services, medical referral services, employment assistance, and explanatory sessions for accessing public education. However, immigrant outreach and service provision remains largely decentralized, with services offered based on city assessments and budgets with little oversight from the national government. For its part, the national government has been encouraging cities to produce “multicultural cooperation” plans, outlining how they will work to integrate their foreign populations, usually in five-year increments, while providing some basic logistic support.

Japan’s foreign population is steadily growing, becoming more diverse, and increasingly planting long-term roots. At the same time, the government appears to be reducing discriminatory barriers to most foreign populations, refugees excepted, while slowly increasing the types of services targeted to immigrants with lower levels of Japanese proficiency. While cities remain considerably inconsistent in providing services to foreign residents, the broad picture is one of movement on the part of urban centers to accommodate this growing diversity.

Future Immigration Issues

Given Japan’s rapid population aging, growing foreign population, active government recruitment of targeted immigrant groups, and efforts to better integrate the foreign population already in Japan, it is a reasonable assumption that immigration will continue to grow. The main questions: How will the Japanese government continue to recruit new immigrants? And to what degree?

Despite some calls for dramatic increases in the foreign population, immigration remains unpopular in Japan, and the government has been hesitant to make explicit public pronouncements supporting increased immigration or changes to immigration policy. A reasonable expectation would therefore be a continuation of the status quo, at least in the short- to mid-term. Japan’s immigrant population will likely continue to grow incrementally over the next decade or so, barring further economic shocks. At the same time, the native population will continue to grow older and labor shortages will become more pronounced. In the longer term, as economic pressures continue to bear down on Japan and the country seeks to maintain the solvency of its labor market and health-care and pension systems, larger-scale increases in immigration appear inevitable. It is also reasonable to expect greater promotion of immigration to rural Japan in the longer term, as these areas continue to depopulate. Japan may never ultimately look like a “traditional” country of immigration with an open door and relatively easy access to full citizenship, but the Japan of the 2050s will look very different demographically than that of the 2010s.

The country’s very limited openings for refugees will likely need to be considered in more detail in the near future as well. Japan often strives for recognition of its status as a world leader. Should there be some concerted international outcry that Japan is not doing its part in welcoming refugees of war, a marked increase in refugee admissions would be very likely. At the very least, a debate over refugee admission criteria seems due given the backlash Japan has already faced in this regard from domestic refugee assistance groups, international media and nongovernmental organizations, and others.

At the municipal level, services offered to foreign residents will likely continue to improve, although the more fundamental issues of immigrant integration will need to be addressed. As greater numbers of immigrants settle in Japan’s cities, some means of incorporating the voices of foreign residents will need to be considered, going beyond basic accommodation such as language classes and multilingual consultations.

Lastly, a more open dialogue over immigration is overdue. Should the government continue working to gradually increase the foreign population without explicitly saying so, there will likely come a tipping point where the public takes note and holds the government accountable. If increased immigration to Japan is indeed a foregone conclusion, the government will need to make its case to the Japanese public.


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