E.g., 09/25/2023
E.g., 09/25/2023
Japanese Immigration Policy: Responding to Conflicting Pressures

Japanese Immigration Policy: Responding to Conflicting Pressures

ja map

The Japanese are grudgingly acknowledging that their long-cherished sense of ethnic homogeneity may be untenable under the forces of globalization and changing domestic needs, including an aging population and growing labor shortages.

On the question of how widely Japan should open its domestic labor market to foreign workers, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi stated in 2005, "If [the foreign labor] exceeds a certain level, it is bound to cause a clash. It is necessary to consider measures to prevent it and then admit foreign workers as necessary. Just because there is a labor shortage does not mean we should readily allow [foreign workers] to come in."

Some social and economic factors are pushing Japan toward a more open immigration policy, while other factors, such as mounting concerns about public security and growing apprehensions about international terrorism, are prompting Japan to adopt stricter immigration controls.

Historical Background

Despite the widespread image that Japan, until recently, had hardly been touched by immigration, the country actually experienced sizable inflows of people from abroad in its modern history. About a century ago, Chinese immigrants, or "foreign workers," were forming their own communities in Japan's major port cities.

After imperial Japan's colonization of Korea in 1910, migration flows between Japan and the Korean peninsula grew quickly, although they were defined as internal rather than international migration. The Korean population in Japan increased further as conscripted laborers were brought over during the last years of the colonial empire, and reached approximately two million in 1945. Thereafter, over half a million Koreans and much smaller numbers of the Taiwanese and mainland Chinese eventually remained.

Well into the 1980s, the vast majority of foreign residents were colonial immigrants and their descendants. Koreans and the Taiwanese had been declared foreigners in April 1952, when Japan regained independence with the end of U.S. occupation.

Although the Japanese economy experienced labor shortages during the economic boom in the 1960s, both the Japanese government and major corporations chose not to depend on foreign labor. Instead, they pushed for automation in production. The low level of immigration in the 1960s and 1970s later led analysts to adopt a rough division of immigrants into two categories: "old comers," who have resided in Japan since before 1952, and their descendants, and "newcomers," referring primarily to foreigners who came to Japan in or after the 1980s.

The growing status of Japan as a major global and regional economic player was the background for the arrival of newcomers. The rise in the value of the yen, labor shortages, and the development of transnational networks (including the activities of migrant brokers) all contributed to a marked increase in foreign migrant workers in the late 1980s.

The number of visa overstayers, who comprised the bulk of immigrant workers, grew from 100,000 in 1990 to 300,000 in 1993, and stood at around 207,000 as of January 2005. They have come mostly from other Asian countries, such as Korea, China, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Legal Framework and Evolution of Policies

The Immigration Control Law, originally enacted in 1952, provided the basic framework for immigration policy in postwar Japan. Although modeled on the U.S. system, the law from its inception was not designed to encourage migrants to settle in the country. Nor did the nationality law facilitate the acquisition of Japanese nationality by resident foreigners.

The alien registration system served to monitor and control foreigners, whether newly arriving or already residing for years in the country. The concept of foreign residents as members of society was quite weak.

However, in recent decades there has been some shift in policy. The admission of Indochinese refugees that began in the late 1970s was significant in that it contradicted the previous official stance of not receiving foreigners for resettlement. Japan ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1981.

Ethnic Japanese returning from China, where they had been raised as war orphans after World War II, brought over their Chinese family members for settlement in Japan. Foreign residents gradually secured a range of social rights as a result of activism by resident Koreans, on the one hand, and legal changes following Japan's ratification in 1979 of the international human rights conventions on the other.

A major turning point came in 1989, when the Japanese government embarked on reforming the Immigration Control Law in response to growing cross-border population movements and a sharp rise in the number of visa overstayers. The government reorganized visa categories to facilitate the immigration of professional and skilled personnel, while confirming its basic principle of not accepting "unskilled" foreign labor. Employer sanctions were also introduced to discourage "illegal" employment.

However, two channels were available for de facto "unskilled" labor migration. One was the trainee system, which subsequently expanded with the launching in 1993 of the Technical Internship Trainee Program. As of 2004, there were over 75,000 foreign workers in Japan under this program, marking the largest number ever. They found opportunities in agriculture, fishery, construction, food manufacturing, textile, machinery and metal, and other industries.

The other channel was the recruitment of Nikkeijin (descendants of Japanese emigrants), who were given access to residential status with no restriction on employment. The most important visible impact of the legal reform was the influx of Japanese Brazillians.

Whereas the aggregate number of visa overstayers began to decrease in 1993, according to Immigration Bureau statistics, the Brazilian population more than tripled from 56,000 in 1990 to over 176,000 in 1995, and to over 286,000 in 2004.

Immigrants Today

Just as in other countries, "counting" immigrants in Japan is no easy job. Annual publications of the statistics on legal migrants issued by the Justice Ministry provide the basic trend in the flows and stocks of immigrants in Japan. However, these official figures have a few important limitations. For example, they do not capture the trend in unauthorized or clandestine migrant entries.

A separate report annually released by the Justice Ministry examines the estimated number of visa overstayers, who represent a large segment of unauthorized immigrants. Another serious limitation of the existing immigration statistics is the dichotomous categorization of Japanese and foreigners. This makes it very difficult to learn about Japanese nationality holders with immigrant backgrounds.

View Related Table

As of the end of 2004, 1.97 million foreign nationals were registered in Japan, accounting for about 1.6 percent of the total population (127.69 million) and representing a 1.3 percent increase from 1.7 million in 2000. (See Table 1.)

Koreans composed the largest group (607,000), followed by Chinese (488,000), Brazilians (287,000), and Filipinos (199,000). Well over 90 percent of resident foreigners came from either Asia (74 percent) or South America (18 percent).

Approximately 41 percent of registered foreigners are permanent residents, including 466,000 "special permanent residents," or former colonial migrants and their descendants.

Roughly one out of two foreign nationals in "nonpermanent resident" categories holds a status with no employment restrictions, such as "long-term resident" status. A long-term resident can be a Japanese relative, a child of Japanese descent, or the child of a foreign-national spouse from a previous marriage. Such individuals may stay in the country for a designated length of time (three years, one year, or less than one year as may be specified by the Minister of Justice).

The overall trend toward the settlement of newcomer immigrants is also indicated by the rise in the annual number of permanent resident authorizations, from less than 10,000 in 1996 to nearly 20,000 in 1999 and to 48,000 in 2004. The "permanent resident" status, for which there is no limit to the length of stay in the country, differs from the long-term resident status noted above. Meanwhile, approximately 15,000 people, mainly Koreans and Chinese, have been naturalized every year.

The number of foreign nationals entering Japan, including new and returning visitors and residents, has grown substantially in recent years. The total number of entrants was 3.5 million in 1990 and increased to 5.27 million in 2000. By 2005, the number had grown to 7.45 million; it included over two million Koreans, 1.32 million Chinese from Taiwan, 780,000 Chinese from the People's Republic of China, 250,000 Chinese from Hong Kong, and 221,000 Filipinos.

Among Koreans, many were students; the Chinese were generally trainees and students; and nearly 40 percent of the Filipinos arrived with "entertainer" visas. The "entertainer" status is given to actors, singers, dancers, and professional athletes; it permits an individuals to work in Japan for three months, six months, or up to one year.

Japan continues to be relatively closed to asylum seekers. The number of applicants has also been very small. Between 1982 and 2004, there were 3,544 applications; only 330 of them were approved. Of the 3,544 applications, 408 (11.5 percent) were filed by Indochinese (Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian) nationals, mostly before 1985. Citizens of Myanmar, Turkey, Iran, China, and Pakistan represent the largest groups of applicants in recent years.

Recent Developments in Policy

Several themes have emerged in Japan's immigration policy in recent years. First, there is a growing perception among the public that migrants, particularly those with unauthorized or questionable status in the country, are contributing to the rising crime rate and general deterioration of public security.

In response, the government amended the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act in 2004 in order to decrease the number of unauthorized foreign residents, currently estimated at about 250,000. Due to the questionable claims by some that their presence has increased crime rates, the government instituted a plan in December 2003 to halve the number of such persons in five years.

Among other measures, the plan calls for

  • stricter examination of the status of residence upon entering the country,
  • strengthened detection of illegal residents and more efficient deportation procedures,
  • more pressure on foreign countries to exercise control over their nationals who have been deported from Japan,
  • expansion of immigration control personnel, and
  • upgraded detention facilities and related equipment.

Second, the ageing of the population — and the beginning in 2005 of a population decline — have raised the urgency with which Japan must alleviate labor shortages and fiscal burdens resulting from these demographic trends. In particular, the business community has stepped up its call for a relaxation of labor-import control.

In response, the government has begun to consider relaxing restrictions on employment of certain categories of workers for which there are serious labor shortages, such as medical doctors and nurses. Foreign doctors and nurses must pass Japan's national examinations in those respective fields before they are allowed to practice.

Third, the misuse or abuse of certain visa categories by both foreign nationals and Japanese employers has also attracted much attention. Of particular note is the training system, which small- and medium-sized Japanese firms use to hire cheap, unskilled foreign labor in the name of training. There have been many reports of excessively low wages and harsh working conditions and foreign trainees disappearing and becoming "unaccounted for."

The government responded to problems with the trainee system by introducing stricter review procedures in 2005. Also, it has begun to consider the application of some labor law rules to trainees, who are currently not protected by labor law. It remains to be seen whether these changes will be effective in both meeting the labor demand and eliminating abuses.

Fourth, another visa category that has received public scrutiny in recent years is that of "entertainer." This classification has been used by known and suspected criminal groups in Japan and abroad to bring prostitutes into the country. The government has begun enforcing stricter procedures for screening employers and employees in the "entertainment" industry and heavier punitive measures against violators.

Fifth, a related problem is human trafficking, an area in which Japan has come under mounting international criticism for its insufficient efforts in combating the problem. Japan signed the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in December 2000 and, in December 2002, the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (the "Protocol on Smuggling") as well as the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (the "Protocol on Human Trafficking").

As of January 1, 2005, the government amended the penal code, raising the statutory penalties for heinous and serious crimes and extending the statute of limitations for prosecution. The government is also working on legislation to remove domestic legal barriers to the execution of criminal provisions of the revised penal code, a necessary step in ratifying the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

The government further amended the penal code and the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law in June 2005 to provide for the protection of foreign victims of human trafficking; this means women trafficked from the Philippines to work as prostitutes cannot be deported because of their illegal entry and activity in Japan. In addition, the amended laws deny entry to foreign nationals known to have engaged in human trafficking in Japan or abroad and allow for their deportation if they are caught in the country.

Sixth, in 2004, the government launched a campaign to double the number of international tourists visiting Japan from five million in 2004 to 10 million by 2010. In particular, Japan is targeting Korean and Chinese visitors.

Since March 2004, Japan has allowed Korean citizens on school excursions to visit the country without a tourist visa if they stay for less than 30 days.

In September 2000, Japan instituted a new, relaxed tourist visa regime for Chinese citizens from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong Province who visit Japan in organized groups. The program was expanded to include four additional provinces and one major city of China in September 2004. In July 2005, all Chinese citizens became eligible for the program.

In large measure, these changes for tourist visas for Korean and Chinese citizens resulted in a 14 percent increase over the previous year in the number of tourists visiting Japan, to 3.54 million in 2005.

Seventh, and finally, the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent "war on terror" have had important impacts on Japan's immigration policy.

In December 2004, the government adopted an action plan for the prevention of terrorism. Accordingly, the Immigration Bureau is undertaking stricter entry and admission procedures. These include the finger-printing of all foreign nationals 16 and older entering Japan, the use of an advanced passenger information system, and the installation of crisis management officials at major ports and airports. Japan has also initiated closer international cooperation, particularly with the United States, to stop the entry of known and suspected terrorists.


As the Japanese gradually and grudgingly open their country to foreigners, they have felt the positive and negative impacts of the growing presence of foreign communities. They are beginning to realize they cannot escape the consequences of border-crossing forces of globalization. They feel challenged in their cultural foundations, social fabric, and even national identity.

In the face of this challenge, where the balance will be struck between liberal social forces and conservative nationalist pressures will determine the future direction of Japanese immigration policy.

This article, with the exception of updated statistics throughout and the section "Recent Developments in Policy," retains verbatim much of "Japan: From Immigration Control to Immigration Policy" by Chikako Kashiwazaki, published on the Migration Information Source in August 2002.


Basic Plan for Immigration Control, 3rd Edition (Ministry of Justice, 2005).

Immigration Control (Immigration Bureau, Ministry of Justice, 2004).

Shutsunyukoku Kanri (Immigration Bureau, Ministry of Justice, 2005).

Statistics on Immigration Control (Japan Immigration Association, 2005).

The Ministry of Justice Available online.

The Ministry of Justice Available online.

Asahi Shimbun, December 28, 2005.

Asahi Shimbun, February 27, 2006

Mainichi Daily News, February 8, 2006.

Daily Yomiuri Online, March 3, 2006.