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Japan’s all too tentative opening to immigration

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Membership of the Japanese tribe is a question of blood.  Japanese nationality is based on jus sanguinis.  But what is surprising is that it was only in 1990 that the Japanese government allowed free entry into the country of foreigners of Japanese ethnic origin.  And it is also disturbing that these poor immigrants have such a difficult time in Japan.

Although Japan has traditionally been a very closed country, large numbers of Japanese citizens left their country to settle overseas (known in Japanese as “Nikkeijin”).  Indeed, Japanese emigration began in 1868, the first year of the Meiji era.  In the following decades, the Japanese government encouraged substantial emigration to deal with its stagnant economy, to Hawaii, mainland United States, Australia, New Caledonia and Fiji.

In the first half of the 20th century, private migration companies began to handle Japanese emigration.  Emerging restrictions on Japanese migration to the US and Canada coincided with an increased demand for labour in Latin America on coffee plantations, with the result that many Japanese emigrated to Brazil and Peru.  Between 1899 and 1941, more than a quarter of a million Japanese migrated to Latin America.

As happens today, these migrants were falsely led to believe that they would make fortunes and return to Japan in triumph.  Although very few were able to return home, this did not stop the flow of migrants, in part thanks to travel subsidies by the Sao Paolo Government and plantation owners.  Since migrants often did not stay in their original plantations, these subsidies were removed.  But then the Japanese government provided travel subsidies to Japanese emigrants who wanted to go to Brazil.  With Japanese increasingly becoming plantation owners, there was a policy of promotion of Japanese colony plantations.

In the lead-up to the Second World War, the Brazilian Government took measures to force assimilation, and prohibit the teaching of the Japanese language (the Nikkeijin placed a high priority on Japanese language education for their children, because many still held the dream of going back to Japan).  And by 1942, Japanese migration to Brazil was stopped.

In 1952, however, Japanese migration resumed, as the Japanese government promoted migration to mitigate poverty and unemployment in Japan.  This wave of migration was short-lived in light of the rapid economy recovery of Japan.  Following the mid-1960s, Japanese migration to Brazil tended to be replaced by foreign direct investment.  Nikkeijin play important roles in Brazil today as politicians, doctors, lawyers and professors, thanks to their good education.

Since the late 1980s, an increasing number of Nikkeijin have been returning to Japan.  This was provoked in part by economic and political instability in Latin America.  It was also facilitated by a revision of the Japanese immigration law in 1990 which allowed anyone whose parent or grandparent was Japanese to apply for a long term resident visa (after two or three renewals, they can even apply for a permanent resident visa).  The Japanese thought that because Nikkeijin had Japanese blood that they would integrate better and faster, and that they would be more reliable as workers.  It was also thought to be a good first step for Japan to open its doors to labour migration.  Another back door opening to migration is the 3-year trainee system for people from developing countries – in reality, these poor people are usually exploited as cheap labour.

The number of these Latin American migrants (mainly from Brazil) has increased from practically zero to more than 300,000.  There are about 2 million Nikkeijin living in Brazil.  They are regarded as a model minority with high educational achievements.

According to Japanese immigration policy, the entry of skilled migrants should be promoted, while the entry of unskilled foreign workers is prohibited, unless they are Nikkeijin.  But in recent decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of foreigners living in Japan – from 1.1 million in 1990 to 2 million in 2005!  Three-quarters of the migrants are from Asian countries (many illegal and unskilled), while close to 20 per cent are from Brazil (this is why ATM machines in Japan offer Portugese language services, as well as English).  Nevertheless, the size of migrants in the resident population is very small compared with European countries.

While in the past migrants from other Asian countries tended to be bar hostesses, there are now increasing numbers of men working in construction and other services industries where Japanese workers do not like to work -- Japan’s 3K jobs, kiken (dangerous), kitsui (diificult) or kitanai (dirty).  This may be a response to the decline in demand for Asian workers in the oil producing Middle East countries which created a large pool of Asian workers eager to find jobs.

Nikkeijin workers tend to work in manufacturing, not services like other migrants.  A large share obtains jobs through private temporary staff agencies.  They have become a fundamental part of Japan’s industrial work force, indispensable for achieving high flexibility in manufacturing, especially among secondary and tertiary subcontractors in automobile and electronic parts sectors.

The migration of Nikkeijin is likely to have a significant impact on both the Brazilian and the Japanese economies, given the substantial amount of remittances they send to Brazil.  There are various estimates of the level of remittances from around $700 up to $1700 a month.

In the early 1990s, they were mostly temporary guest workers, who intended to return home in a few years with a fortune made in Japan. However, they have gradually begun to settle in Japan with their families.  Many live in public housing, and are not registered for health insurance or pensions.

Since Nikkeijin are clustered in smaller industrial cities (e.g. Hamamatsu, Toyota, Toyoshashi, and Oizumi), the social and economic impacts of Nikkeijin workers on these cities are enormous.  Since very few Brazilians speak Japanese, and since social custom in Japan is very different from that in Brazil, the Brazilians often encounter various problems: e.g. while a party with Samba music at midnight might be common in Brazil, such behavior often results in a serious conflict with Japanese neighbors.  Nikkeijin children have poor attendance at school because of their lack of Japanese language schools.  And juvenile delinquency and crime has also increased dramatically.

There have been no attempts at national integration policy, until recently.  Local governments are making various efforts – interpreters, counseling, public information, special teachers, etc -- to create harmonious living of Nikkeijin workers in Japanese communities.

Migrant support organizations (MSOs), which are NGOs, are very active in local-level service provision to migrants.  They help migrants with everyday life issues through counselling services, thus assisting migrants in coping with challenges they might face at their workplace or in the local community where they reside. MSO also, for example, provide language classes, thereby not only addressing a potentially immediate need of migrants, but also supporting of integration.  Japan’s MSO as service-providers often act in cooperation with government agencies.

Political advocacy among Japan’s MSO occurs on a case to case basis, highly concentrated on a local level. It rarely occurs on a national or even transnational level, not even among MSO with salaried staff, which could be expected to move more skilfully within the political realm.

MSO in Japan are not successful political advocates for foreigners. Too tightly are they knit into the structure of interdependence that binds together political actors in Japan and excludes NGOs from political advocacy.  MSO in Japan indeed overwhelmingly ‘act local and think local.’ Given the fact that immigration and emigration are border-crossing issues per se, an approach of ‘act transnational and think transnational’ would seem to be the more natural (and probably more successful) choice for them.

But guess what happened when the global financial crisis struck?  The Nikkeijin were hit the hardest of any social group, in part because of their temporary work contracts.  Many have now gone back to Brazil.  The Japanese government offered free travel back home for the Nikkeijin … on the condition that they do not come back!  This is called the repatriation bribe!  As it turns out, very few took up this kind offer.  And thanks to God, the Nikkeijin are a lot more fun than the regular Japanese!

Leaving aside this short term treatment of Nikkeijin, does Japan’s immigration policy make sense?  For example, as reported by Goto, according to Japanese immigration policy “It is improper to consider immigration as a way to cope with the expected labor shortage due to the aging population and declined fertility in Japan. In order to deal with the labor shortage, it is important to create a society where elderly and women can actively participate in the labor market”.

In many ways, the Japanese immigration policy does NOT make sense in many respects (and many people agree – LDP politician Hidenao Nakagawa called for increasing Japan’s foreign born population to up to 10 per cent by 2050):

.  Elderly care workers and nurses are not considered to be skilled workers with free entry, even though the country needs such people.  Recent Economic Partnership Agreements with Indonesia and the Philippines include provision for the entry of a limited number of such workers, but these measures are far too timid.

.  A more general increase in immigration could contribute to offsetting ageing, re-financing the social security system and increase public transfers to the treasury.

.  Japan invests in and exports to many developing countries, and migrants from these countries arguably have a moral right to be able to sell their services as migrants.

.  Japan is a rich country surrounded by much poorer countries.  Again morally, but also for its own security, it should have a responsibility to open itself up to greater immigration.

.  Experience is showing, as everywhere, when there is a need for migrants, they enter either legally or illegally, and Japan is building up a stock of illegal migrants, and thus a problem for the future.  One way to solve this is by a more open, but better managed immigration policy.  And better management means more serious efforts to facilitate economic and social integration to avoid migrants becoming an uncoupled social underclass.  And this includes promoting tolerance and respect by Japanese natives towards immigrants – there are too many press reports of Japanese bullying Nikkeijin.

We can only hope that Japan’s all too tentative opening to immigration may pave the way for bolder openings in the future – but that requires a stronger economy, with sustainable job opportunities for migrants.



Latin Americans of Japanese Origin (Nikkeijin) Working in Japan: A Survey, Junichi Goto, Kobe University

World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 4203, April 1, 2007


Immigration of Nikkeijin to ease the Japanese Aging Crisis by Chieko Tanimura. Vancouver Centre for Excellence: Research on Immigration and Integration in the Metropolis (RIIM) Department of Economics. Simon Fraser University. Burnaby, B.C., Canada. V5A 1S6, May 2000


Migrant Support Organizations in Japan – A Survey by Gabriele Vogt & Philipp Lersch.  German Institute for Japanese Studies.  Working Paper 07/1.


Nikkeijin in Japan: Institutional Framework and Issues of Integration by David Chiavacci, Freie Universitat, Berlin