The Undesirable Other

Assessing Foreigner Incorporation in Japan

Natasha Miner, University of Victoria [About | Email]

Volume 15, Issue 3 (Discussion paper 3 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 13 December 2015.


Despite Japan’s reputation as a closed country, this paper questions whether recent changes to labour and other social factors have created conditions conducive to the successful incorporation of foreigners. While other scholars have been content to examine just one aspect which affects foreigners, such as immigration policy, this paper argues that it is essential to include the multiple facets that shape the immigrant experience in order to develop a more holistic account. Therefore, this paper addresses three main “levels” which contribute to foreigner incorporation: immigration policy; how local governments and civil society have responded to foreigners; and ethnic communities (how established foreigners have responded to new foreigners)—an approach inspired by sociologists Portes and Rumbaut’s theory of ‘modes of incorporation’.

Keywords: Japan, immigration, social change, social incorporation.


Since the 1980s onwards Japan has seen a dramatic increase in immigration, with the number of legally residing foreigners more than doubling between 1984 and 2004 (Gottlieb, 2012). Despite this, there still exists an underlying assumption that Japan is an ethnically homogenous state. This has often resulted in the view that immigration to Japan is merely temporary and that foreigners are fundamentally incompatible with ideas of “Japaneseness.” However, due to demographic challenges such as an aging population, declining birthrate, and subsequent labour shortages, Japan has increasingly had to rely on foreign labour in order to satisfy domestic labour needs. Furthermore, Japan is host to a large population of Koreans and Chinese who emigrated to Japan in the pre- and post-war period, resulting in an established and permanent community of “foreigners.” As Douglass and Roberts (2000) note, the issue of foreigners in Japan can no longer be ignored, as “foreign workers and households are having a substantial impact on Japan’s economic, social, and political landscape” (p.4). Consequently, many changes have been made in the last few decades to Japan’s overall approach to foreigners.

Despite Japan’s reputation as a closed country, I seek to examine whether these recent changes have created conditions conducive to the successful incorporation of foreigners. While other scholars have been content to examine just one aspect which affects foreigners, such as immigration policy, I believe that it is essential to include the multiple facets that shape the immigrant experience in order to develop a more holistic account. Therefore, my paper shall address the three main “levels” which contribute to foreigner incorporation: immigration policy; how local governments and civil society have responded to foreigners; and ethnic communities - or how established foreigners have responded to new foreigners. This approach is inspired by sociologists Portes and Rumbaut’s theory of ‘modes of incorporation’, which shall be expanded on in section III.

Before proceeding, it is important to clarify terminology. According to Japanese immigration policy, a resident is defined as anyone legally residing in Japan for more than 3 months and is accordingly issued a Resident Card. This excludes those whose status of residence is granted as “Temporary Visitor,” “Diplomat” or “Official,” but includes those who are not considered Permanent Residents and may have no intention of permanent settlement (MOJ, 2009). For the purpose of this essay then, the terms immigrant, resident, and foreigner shall be used interchangeably and refer to those falling under this definition. This is consistent with these various terms usage in other works concerned with Japan’s foreigner population. Milly (2014), for example, includes in the term immigrant “temporary and permanent foreign residents and, secondarily, those who may be naturalised citizens of the host country” (p. 8).

Japan as a Homogeneous Society

A major idea which underlies the formation of Japan’s immigration policy and approach to foreigners in Japanese society is the concept of “Japaneseness”—the belief that Japan is a homogenous society and that certain aspects of Japanese culture differ fundamentally from the rest of the world. At the centre of this concept is the assumption that “Japaneseness” has existed indefinitely and that all Japanese share a common set of values and practices, which in turn determines all aspects of the Japanese way of life (Sugimoto, 1999). However, who can be constituted as Japanese is not just determined by a shared set of practices, but is defined in racial terms. Therefore, the “Japanese” are derived from those belonging to the Yamato race, which thereby excludes indigenous Ainu and Okinawans. As a result, the concept of “Japaneseness” has been constructed simultaneously to include all that is Japanese and exclude all that is foreign, which from the onset creates an insider versus outsider mentality (Sugimoto).

As Lie (2000) identifies, the idea of “Japaneseness” was not a spontaneous concept formed against the arrival of foreign workers. Rather, the arrival of foreigners raised the questions of ‘who are the Japanese’ and ‘what kind of society is Japan’? By recognising the “otherness” of foreigners, Japan was forced to evaluate its own self-identity. The answer to this question took form in Nihonjinron or Nihon bunkaron literature, nationalistic writings and theories about Japanese character or culture. Indeed, the popularity of this genre saw immense growth from the 1960s onwards. At the height of their popularity, Nihonjinron books were eagerly purchased by Japanese and were frequently the topic of conversation around the office and in bars. One study estimates that one out of four people in Japan have read one or more books in this genre. (Sugimoto, 1999) When Ezra Vogel published his Japan as Number One in 1979, it soon became one of the best-selling nonfiction books of all-time in Japan (Lie, 2000).

Writings of this kind are certainly not unique to Japan. Why then did this kind of literature gain such popularity in the post-war period instead of in the more nationalist pre-war era? Moeran proposes that Nihonjinron is “a means whereby it can practise on the West precisely the kind of orientalism from which it has had to suffer, and to some extent still suffers, at the hands of Westerners” (1989, 183-4, as cited in Lie). In this sense, Nihonjinron can then be read as an attempt at reverse orientalism, or Occidentalism, whereby Japan imagines itself in a superior position vis-à-vis the West (and the rest of Asia). Therefore, it is no surprise that this genre saw such a rise in popularity during the height of Japan’ economic boom.

While the idea of Japan as a homogenous society is already problematic for future discussions of diversity, what is more worrying is the sense of superiority which often seems to accompany the notion of Japan’s racial “purity.” Chung (2010) points to several occasions in the late ’80s and early ’90s where high profile figures in the Japanese governments made discriminatory remarks against the minority populations residing in other countries. For example, in 1986 former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro remarked that in comparison to the United States, Japan’s literacy and intelligence levels were higher due to the absence of racial minorities.1 The frequency of these remarks suggests that these comments were not made in isolation, but rather reflect a broader attitude. “Both Japanese officials and outside observers have attributed modern Japan’s economic, political and social development to its ‘uniquely homogenous society’” (Chung, p. 174). The concept of Japan as a homogenous society is therefore problematic. By creating an insider/outsider dichotomy, discourses on foreigner integration will from the onset be coloured by the assumption that there is some unique quality contained in the Japanese people that foreigners do not, and cannot, possess. This in turn marks foreigner integration as an endeavour fundamentally incompatible with Japanese society.

Portes and Rumbaut’s “Modes of Incorporation”

Developed by the sociologists Alejandro Portes and Ruben Rumbaut, modes of incorporation was initially created in reaction to economic theories of immigrant integration in the United States, which assumes that immigrants with sufficient social capital can successfully integrate themselves into the host society, and ignores other factors affecting the integration process. In contrast, Portes and Rumbaut argue that such theories are too simplistic and do not address the variety of different factors that contribute to immigrant integration (Portes & Rumbaut, 2014). Therefore, they produced an approach that acknowledges that there are three key areas, or levels, which they claim affect the integration process: government policy, societal reception, and the ethnic community.

Representing the first level of reception, the government policy level concerns itself with a government’s immigration policy. How governments formulate their immigration policies can take shape in a number of ways, ranging from the desire to limit immigration through discrimanatory policies—such as routine denial of claims for asylum or granting inferior legal status to immigrants—to actively encouraging it—whether that be through granting special rights or helping with the resettlement process. The level of societal reception includes the reaction of civil society and the public, and examines whether immigrants are welcomed into a community (or at the very least greeted with indifference) or bitterly opposed. Finally, the third level of reception is the ethnic community. As Portes (1995) observes, ethnic communities can play a large part in determining a migrant’s experience in a new host country, “offering some protection against outside prejudice and the shock of acculturation” (p. 25). In addition, established communities can also often provide economic opportunities due to the existence of a professional presence or by offering advice on how to penetrate the job market. On the other hand, immigrants who do not compose a large enough number to form distinct communities will accordingly be dispersed among the native-born population and may not have acccess to the resources or support which are enabled in ethnic communities (Portes and Rumbaut, 2014). By examining these three levels together a holistic picture emerges of what factors affect the overall integration of foreigners into a host society.

The following three sections are influenced by the breakdown of levels found in Portes and Rumbaut’s modes of incorporation, but do not follow their model exactly with slight differences in the exact focus of each levels. Consequently, the next three sections are respectively concerned with Japan’s immigration policy (the state level), local governments and civil society (the community level), and how immigrants support each other (the immigrant level). Furthermore, in contrast to Portes and Rumbaut’s whose model is typically applied to specific immigrant groups, when discussing immigrants in the following sections it shall refer not to a single geographical group of immigrants, but rather to the general treatment of foreigners in Japan unless otherwise stated. Despite these modifications, I believe that this model is still useful, as it emphasises the importance of examining the immigrant experience from three distinct levels. By examining the different conditions which affect migrants at the various levels of reception, a fuller picture emerges that will establish whether Japan provides a conducive environment for foreigner incorporation.

State Level—Immigration Policy

For migrants, a state’s immigration policy has widespread ramifications for shaping their experience in a state. As Portes and Rumbaut (2014) observe, “in every instant government policy represents the first stage of the process of incorporation because it affects the probability of successful immigration and the framework of economic opportunities and legal options available to migrants once they arrive” (p. 139). That is, government policy sets the overall tone for a migrant’s experience by determining “whether sizeable immigrant movements can occur at all, and once under way, the forms that they will take” (Portes & Rumbaut, p.139). Government policy, therefore, plays a significant role in shaping a migrant’s daily life, as only the state has the ability to grant consent for legal migration. Although illegal immigration certainly occurs without the approval of the state, those who engage in it are severely limited in regards to resources they can rely on,2 employment opportunities, and must always be aware of the need to evade the state’s enforcement machinery.

In the aftermath of World War II, Japan effectively reinvented itself from “a multiethnic empire to a homogenous society” which was based on consanguinity rather than a shared past or destiny (Chung, 2010, p. 62). As such, former colonial subjects were stripped of their Japanese nationalities as they were no longer considered a part of the Japanese nation. This decision directly applied to over 2 million people, and contributed to the creation of a permanent population of “foreigners” (hereafter referred to as zainichi). Operating under the assumption that former colonial subjects would voluntarily choose to repatriate, the Japanese government subsequently designed immigration policy which sought to close Japan’s borders to outsiders and assimilate those who remained. As Chung notes, “Japanese officials simply did not anticipate that there would be any foreign community to incorporate” (p. 82). This assumption has continued to shape official stances on immigration, leading to only incremental changes in policy despite the changing face of Japan’s immigration landscape.

Up until the 1990s changes to Japan’s immigration policy were fairly minimal, as until the 1980s Japan was largely an immigrant exporting country. Notable exceptions are efforts made by Japanese government in the 1970s to change domestic laws to reflect the principles laid out in various international conventions, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). These efforts, combined with the lobbying of the zainichi population in Japan for increased rights, resulted in the gradual removal of exclusionary clauses against foreigners from the national pension law, child allowance law, and child support allowance law. In addition, in 1986 the National Health Insurance system became available for any foreigners residing in Japan for at least a year3 (Chung, 2010; Milly, 2014).

These gradual changes could not be sustained. Due to the continual growth of Japan’s economy throughout the 1980s, labour shortages began to emerge which could not be filled domestically, despite attempts to mobilize underutilised sections of the population such as women and the elderly (Shinkawa, 2012). Responding to domestic business pressures, a series of revisions to Japan’s Immigration and Control Act were developed (Fuess, 2003; Milly, 2014). Among these revisions, two in particular are significant for the effects they have made on the composition of foreigners admitted to Japan.

First, the existing “trainee” visa classification was expanded, resulting in the creation of the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP). Officially TITP was developed to provide learning opportunities for those from lesser developed countries by allowing trainees to train for a year with companies in Japan (JITCO, 2015). However businesses have essentially utilised this program as a means to import unskilled, cheap labour. Due to new revisions, companies were able to sponsor trainees without the facilitation of local governments or the Japan International Training Cooperation Organisation (JITCO). Additionally, changes were made that allowed trainees to extend their visas for an additional one to two years (Iguchi, 2012; Milly, 2014). The combination of these two factors has resulted in the gradual expansion of this program, with the numbers of new entrants classified as “trainee” rising from 39,795 in 1993 to 68,150 in 2008 (Milly, 2014; MOJ, 2000).

Second, a new visa category called “long-term resident” was created for the descendants of Japanese emigrants (Nikkeijin), up to the third generation. This new classification is unique, as it allows up to three years residence with no restriction on socio-economic activities and can be renewed without limitations (MOFA, 2014). Furthermore, non-Japanese spouses and children are also permitted to stay in Japan on renewable one year visas. This new category almost exclusively targeted Japanese-Brazilians, as many Japanese immigrated to Brazil before the 1960s to seek economic opportunities, but were faced with a down-turning economy throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The number of Nikkeijin in Japan subsequently rose from just over 2000 in 1986 to over 200,000 by 1996 (Milly, 2014; Yamanaka, 2000). Despite this, both the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and Ministry of Labour (MOL) claim that this visa category was not created for the intention of satisfying domestic labour shortages or becoming a substitute to relying on other forms of foreign labour. This claim is further discredited by the fact that new penalties were introduced that penalised employers for hiring other nationalities, creating an incentive for companies to hire Nikkeijin (Milly). As Yamanaka observes, by constructing this new category the government was able to “accommodate labour-starved small-scale employers and… maintain racial, ethnic and social homogeneity in the face of progressive internationalisation” (p. 133). Ever reluctant to open Japan’s doors to unskilled labour, the expanding of the “trainee,” and creation of the “long-term resident” visas represent an attempt by the government to satisfy business pressures without changing their official closed door policy or jeopardising the principle of a homogenous nation.

Since 2000 however, Japan’s immigration policy has been frequently amended, with an overall trend of providing greater access to the Japanese labour market. In an examination of these recent changes, Sato (2010) identifies three particularly noteworthy cases: how Japan deals with refugees; the creation of economic partnership agreements with the Philippines and Indonesia; and revisions to the TITP. Despite having ratified the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Japan accepted a mere 301 refugees between 1982 and 2002. Instead, Japan frequently grants claimants special permission to stay on humanitarian grounds without conceding them the rights accorded to refugees. A 2005 amendment to the Japanese Immigration Control Act attempts to provide more channels for asylum seekers, with the the appointment of 20 refugee examination counselors whose jobs are to review asylum claims should a rejected claimant raise an objection. In the late 2000s, Japan also established economic partnership agreements with the Philippines and Indonesia which allows nurses and caregivers to work in Japan for periods of up to three to four years. Should these nurses and caregivers successfully pass their professional examination they will be granted licenses allowing practice in Japan, which in turn contributions to their eligibility for permanent resident status. This revision is significant, as due to previous classification, foreign nurses and caregivers were considered “semi-skilled” and not permitted to immigrate to Japan for economic purposes (Sato).

The third significant revision regards the TITP. Under the old system, interns had little to no protection against mistreatment by their company as they were not classified as ‘employees’ and therefore were not protected under existing labour laws. However, under a 2009 amendment, those recruited as a part of this program are now categorized as employees and are now protected by all labour laws, such as the Labour Standard Law and the Minimum Wage Act (Milly, 2014; Sato, 2010). Sato attributes these overall revisions as an attempt at dealing with the forces of globalisation and greater regionalisation in East Asia. However, when considered alongside previous revisions, these recent changes seem to stem from the continued need to cope with the increasing amount of immigration to Japan since the 1980s, as well as a response by the government to remedy domestic labour shortages.

In addition to the revisions noted by Sato (2010), over the past 20 years many proposals have emerged which have suggested large scale immigration reforms. Most of these proposals have advocated for a more open immigration system, including such ideas as opening the country to unskilled immigration or a greater focus on integration of foreigners through increased benefits, social programs, and allowance of family reunification. But as Milly (2014) observes, none of these proposals have yet to be fully implemented. Instead, changes have often been incremental and nonuniform, with focus on short term rather than long term solutions. This, combined with the current restrictive nature of Japan’s immigration policy, make it difficult to conclude that Japan’s immigration system is conducive to foreigner incorporation.

Community Level—Local Governments and Civil Society

In contrast to the incremental changes made at the state level, Japanese municipalities and prefectures have frequently taken an active role in supporting its foreigner populations. Although every community’s situation is different, local governments have shared concerns over the shortcomings of national policies. Milly (2014) identifies three ways in which local governments are providing positive examples for foreigner incorporation: “by creating measures specific to their circumstances, by developing collaborative forms of governance, and by lobbying the national government for policy changes to help them build inclusive communities” (Milly, p. 82). Despite the differences which exist between communities, some commonalities can be established, principally in the way which issues affecting foreign residents such as housing, education, and health or social insurance are considered (Milly, 2014; Pak, 2000).


Housing has traditionally been an issue of contention for foreign residents in Japan, not just due to the difficulties of access, but also because housing puts them in direct contact with local residents, which can result in practices of discrimination. A survey conducted in 2002, for example, revealed that around 12% of landlords refused to rent to foreigners, a number which did not change in a follow up survey in 2006 (Milly, 2014). In attempting to deal with housing issues, local governments have typically focused on increasing access to public housing, and endeavoured to address the correlation between housing and general community relations. Since 2006, responsibility for public housing has changed from the national to prefectural governments, allowing local governments greater autonomy in admitting larger numbers of foreigners. This however can lead to strained relations with the surrounding community, as larger concentration of foreigners may not follow, or even be aware of, accepted societal norms.4 Therefore, local governments often play an important role in shaping community relations and may end up as a mediator in community disputes (Milly).


Ensuring foreign residents and their children have access to education is an important, yet difficult issue for local governments to address. On the one hand, local governments are invested in providing education to foreign children as successful advancement through the education system is often tied to successful integration into Japanese society. On the other hand, a vast majority of foreign residents do not intend to settle in Japan, which limits school choices, and severely hampers children’s societal integration. In responding to these issues, local governments have had to create innovative solutions while still complying with national regulations, along with balancing the provision of a public service while monitoring private alternatives.

Within education, the issue of language has received the most attention by local governments. Of the 74,000 foreign children enrolled in public schools in 2010, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) estimated that 38% required additional language assistance (Milly, 2014). Responses to this issue have been varied, but generally local governments have pushed the national government for more funding and support, on top of allocating local funds for additional support staff in schools. Although the national government provides a budget for support staff, as well as sets the basic standards for Japanese as a second language learning, prefectural governments are ultimately responsible for developing programs appropriate to their constituencies and assisting municipalities in their implementation. By 2010 at the elementary and junior high school level, 22 out of the 47 prefectures had established training measures for teachers dealing with foreign students, 13 ensured that foreign children were provided with counselors who could speak their first language, and five provided full-time teachers or teaching assistants responsible for foreign children (Milly).

A city which has gone above and beyond for providing support for foreign children is Hamamatsu. In addition to support staff funded by the national and prefectural government, Hamamatsu also provides its own support staff for foreign children. By 2012, 14 schools had permanent support staff assigned and 46 temporary bilingual employees (covering six foreign languages) served 64 schools (Milly, 2014). Japanese classes during or after school are also offered for those needing additional language support. Uniquely, Hamamatsu also tries to provide classes for maintaining foreign children’s first language, as well as incorporating bilingual assistance into classes, an effort which truly demonstrates respect for foreigners as opposed to mere attempts at assimilation. In addition, outside of the regular school system basic Japanese training is provided for newly arrived children or for those who attend foreigner schools. Yet the efforts made by Hamamatsu do not exist in isolation, rather Hamamatsu is a leader in a trend of cities which are seeking to provide more assistance to its foreign resident population (Milly).

For adults, access to Japanese education is less uniform, often depending largely on the availability of volunteer citizen groups. A 2011 survey conducted in member cities in the Conference of Cities5 found that only 18.7% of Japanese language classes were provided directly or subcontracted by local governments, 14.8% were provided through subcontracting or subsidies from prefectural or national government and a mere 2.1% were provided by industry. In over 42% of cases classes were taught by volunteer organisations (Milly, 2014). This implies that a significant gap still exists in the provision of services to adult foreigners and that greater efforts are needed in order to produce the conditions conducive to integrating foreigners. And yet, compared to other issues, providing education to foreigners is the area in which local governments have made the most visible impact, achieved through a mixture of innovative solutions and lobbying of the national government.

Health and Social Insurance

Despite the importance of Health and Social Insurance, a surprisingly large number of foreigners remain uninsured under Japan’s two largest insurance programs: the National Health Insurance program (NHI) and the Employees Social Insurance program (ESI). In Hamamatsu, for example, the number of uninsured foreign residents was estimated to have reached over 50%, a number which is believed to have risen further after the 2008 financial crisis (Milly, 2014). Despite the principle of universal access to health insurance coverage, the NHI is only available to those residing in Japan for at least a year. For those who are eligible, the difficulty of accessing health benefits combined with “the incentive structure and contradictory regulations” have created a health system that many foreigners chose to decline. In regards to ESI, two main reasons contribute to foreigner residents’ under-enrollment. First, in order to gain access to health and sickness insurance, employees must also pay into Japan’s pension plan. As there is no way to opt-out, for those already paying into a pension plan in their home country or who have no intention of retiring in Japan, any contributions made will be lost. Second, both employers and employees must pay into ESI, many employers chose not to register their employees in order to cut costs. This is an issue particularly prevalent for those who are indirectly employed through contracting companies (Milly).

In order to address this issue, local governments—with the help of civil society groups—have attempted to remove barriers caused by the national health and social insurance systems, and create innovative solutions in order to provide other means of service. This has taken form in a number of ways. In order to encourage foreigners to register under one of these two insurance systems, many local governments have tried to ensure that multilingual resources or interpreters are available (Milly, 2014; Pak, 2000). Others have provided free medical examinations and consultations for those without insurance, or have offered to subsidize the unpaid medical expenses clinics and hospitals must deal with after helping uninsured foreigners. Still, other local governments have ignored Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (MHLW) rules and have chosen to enroll foreigners in the National Health Insurance despite their ineligibility, illustrating the disconnect between Japan’s national and local governments (Milly).

Unfortunately, some local governments are more proactive than others. What each case study on prefectures or cities6 with a special interest in foreigner incorporation has in common is a large7 presence of either old or newcomer foreign resident populations (Pak, 2000). According to estimates made in 2010 by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 70% of the foreign resident population resided in just 10 of Japan’s 47 prefectures (Milly, 2014). Therefore, it is not surprising that in the case of prefectures with small populations of foreign residents, little effort has been spent trying to ensure that these prefectures’ services are accessible to current or future foreign residents. This, however, should not undermine the importance of local government initiatives in shaping future actions. As Pak notes, “local government policies… signal the potential for reconsideration of the dominant national identity and its implication in defining immigration as a political issue in Japan” (p. 245).

In terms of civil society, foreign residents actually have access to hundreds of organisations which provide services, support, and advocacy specifically for foreign residents. Many of these organisations emerged after the 1995 Hanshin earthquake, and have especially gained prominence after the passage of the Non-profit Organisation Law in 1998 which provided greater financial support to those organisations that were granted official NPO status (Chung, 2010; Milly, 2014; Shipper, 2006). While these organisations are certainly important, often these groups only address very specific issues—such as providing medical services to uninsured immigrants—or are open to a very selective demographic—such as Thai or Filipina entertainers (Roberts, 2000).

A notable organisation which has attempted to overcome this and provide a more comprehensive look at foreigners’ issues is Ijūren. Founded in 1997, Ijūren sought to bring together a variety of smaller groups with the aim of “building greater national coordination and stronger organisational networks, formulating policy proposals, and engaging in systematic lobbying.” (Milly, 2014, p.112) And yet, what makes this organisation successful is the focus on attracting “a broad spectrum of members and creat[ing] a network of locally based member organisations with differing competencies and familiarity with street-level policy implementation” (p. 112). In addition, rather than focusing on a single issue, over the past decade Ijūren has sought to address a variety of topics affecting foreigners, ranging from issues related to the community and discrimination, and children’s education to the rights of trainees and asylum seekers.

The combination of civil society groups such as Ijūren and local government efforts have helped to fill the gaps left by national government policies, and have continued to push for changes that will benefit Japan’s foreign populations. As Milly (2014) so aptly notes, “local government-led advocacy has focused pragmatically on what is needed to improve the policy system and local administration, but civil society’s advocacy has appealed to values in ways that have more directly challenged the existing immigration system” (p. 130). Although the gains made by local governments and civil society groups are not uniformly spread throughout Japan, their efforts have contributed to creating communities which are more accessible and accepting to foreign residents. Indeed, the community challenges the “national rhetoric and official statements of immigration policy,” and will perhaps one day provide the grounds for social transform in Japan (Pak, 2000, p. 252).

Immigrant Level—Immigrant Led Support Measures

While it is of course encouraging to see local governments and civil society organisations run by Japanese attempt to create an atmosphere favourable to foreigners, it is important that foreigners themselves take a leadership role and make efforts to support each other. Due to the very uneven spread of foreigners in Japan, it is difficult to generalise about foreigner run support networks in Japan. As the vast majority of foreign residents are concentrated in prefectures or cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Aichi, or Kanagawa, those not living in prefectures with large foreign populations will necessarily receive less support than in those with larger populations (Milly, 2014).

Two ethnic communities that particularly stand out are the Nikkei Brazilians and Zainichi Korean, who have been fairly proactive in creating supports for current and future foreign residents. In areas with large Nikkei Brazilian population, it is common for stores or organisations run by Brazilians to emerge which aim to serve the surrounding Brazilian community. Brazilian run churches have also played an important role in supporting its local members, as well as acting as a bridge between Brazilians and the native population (Matsue, 2012). Sometimes called ‘the most Brazilian town in all Japan’, Carvalho (2003) shows how the city of Ōizumi has come to serve as ‘the best example of the integration of the Nikkeijin.” (Made in Japan, 1997, as cited in Carvalho) Host to the highest concentration of foreigners in Japan—80% of which are Brazilian—Ōizumi grows even larger on weekends when Brazilians from the surrounding area travel there to take advantage of its services. Many stores have opened which cater specifically to Ōizumi’s Brazilian demographic, with some stores beginning to use bilingual labels in both Japanese and Portugeuse. What is notable about these businesses is that the large majority are owned and run by established Nikkeijin who often emigrated before more recent arrivals, are fluent in Japanese, and serve as a contact between the local Japanese population and newcomer Nikkei (Carvalho).

Although many Korean organisations initially only focused on issues related to Japan’s Korean population, recently many of these have shifted their attention to include other recent foreigners. An example of this is the organisation Zenchōkyō (Zenkoku zainichi chōsenjin kyōiku kenkyū kyōgikai, or the National Association for the Study of Education for Korean Residents), which wasinitially concerned with providing education to Koreans residing in Japan (Chung, 2010). However, this organisation has since made it its mandate to tackle issues of education relating to all foreign residents in Japan, changing its name to Zengaikyō (Zenkoku zainichi gaikokujin kyōiku kenkyū kyōgikai, or the National Association for the Study of Education for Foreign Residents) in order to reflect this change. Korean activists known for their previous work in progressing the Korean rights movement in the 1970s and 80s also remain active in supporting causes pretaining to new foreign residents. Korean run organisations are also notable for their focus on empowering foreign residents as foreign residents, as opposed to just providing a path to naturalization (Chung).

A final example exists to demonstrate how foreigners have coalesced into networks to support one another. In the 1980s, a bilateral agreement existed between Iran and Japan that allowed citizens of each country to stay in the other’s country for up to three months without a visa. After the collapse of the Iranian economy at the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), many Iranians traveled to Japan to work illegally (Morita, 2003). As Morita notes, the numbers of Iranians travelling to Japan at its peak reached about 500 each week, with flights from Iran to Japan fully booked for several years. Since the majority of those travelling to Japan had little understanding of Japanese culture and the Japanese language, Iranians quickly developed means of supporting each other. These supports took shape in the form of ‘public information stations,’ or parks, where Iranians would gather to share information about work, housing, and shopping among other things. These stations also served as a focal point for Japanese and Iranians to meet. Often Japanese who came to these areas were brokers; however, interviews conducted by Morita reveals that many other Japanese also came to learn about Iranian culture and language. However, this support network did not last. The combination of Japan’s worsening economy with the start of Japan’s harsh crackdown on illegal immigration resulted in a drastic drop of the Iranian population in Japan, falling from an estimated 37,457 in 1992 to 14,448 by November 1998 (Morita).

These examples serve to show how foreigners in Japan have developed methods to cope with being in a foreign environment, often in the form of established residents creating ways of strengthening an existing community or developing means to help newcomer foreign residents. Unfortunately, many of these communities are mostly concerned with helping those with a similar ethnic background. An exception to this is the zainichi Korean population which has often extended its outreach to the immigrant population at large and have taken part in struggles faced by other groups of foreigners. While measures taken by the three immigrant communities examined are the first steps to foreigners expressing their cultures in a Japanese setting, I believe that greater efforts are also needed to engage the Japanese community in order to avoid the creation of overly segregated sections of society.


Considered separately, the three different levels of reception paint different pictures of the environment currently facing foreigners in Japan. However, by examining these three different levels a more accurate representation emerges of whether Japan has become a nation which is conducive to foreigner incorporation. In contrast to the official rhetoric found at the national level which constructs Japan as a homogenous society with no place for immigrants, local governments have “defined resident foreigners as local citizens… by virtue of their contributions to the community, payment of taxes and, more generally, because of their involvement in everyday life” (Pak, 2000, p. 252). While the efforts made at the community and immigrant level are not uniformly found throughout Japan, when considered together, these two levels reveal the progress that has been made in reforming Japan as a society receptive to foreigners. Yet, the overall lack of any major policies at the national level to reform Japan’s stance on immigration, combined with the uneven geographic distribution of foreigner and local government initiatives, makes it difficult to conclude that Japan is a country which is conducive to foreigner incorporation. Nevertheless, progress has certainly been made in the past few decades, which perhaps signals an eventual opening up of Japanese society. What is clear is that change will likely be driven from the bottom up, with local governments and immigrants acting as a catalyst for change, rather than through top-down government initiatives.


Carvalho, D. (2003). Nikkei Communities in Japan. In R. Goodman, C. Peach, A. Takenaka, & P. White (Eds.), Global Japan: The Experience of Japan’s New Immigrant and Overseas Communities (pp. 195-208). New York, US: RoutledgeCurzon.

Chung, E. (2010). Immigration and Citizenship in Japan. New York, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Douglass, M., & Roberts, G. (2000). Japan in a Global Age of Migration. In M. Douglass & G. Roberts (Eds.), Japan and Global Migration: foreign workers and the advent of a multicultural society (pp. 3-37). New York, USA: Routledge.

Fuess, S. (2003). Immigration Policy and Highly Skilled Workers: The Case of Japan. Contemporary Economic Policy, 21(2), 243-257.

Gottlieb, N. (2012). Language Policy in Japan: The Challenge of Change. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Iguchi, Y. (2012). What Role Do Low-Skilled Migrants Play in the Japanese Labor Markets?. American Behavioral Scientist, 56(8), 1029-1057. Doi: 10.1177/0002764212441785

Japan International Training Cooperation Organisation. (2015). Outline of Technical Intern Training Program. Retrieved March 15th, 2015, from

Lie, J. (2000). The Discourse of Japaneseness. In M. Douglass & G. Roberts (Eds.), Japan and Global Migration: foreign workers and the advent of a multicultural society (pp. 70-90). New York, USA: Routledge.

Matsue, R.Y. (2012). “Being Away from Home”: Vulnerability, Religiosity and Social Support among Brazilian Migrants in Japan. Ciênc. saúde coletiva, 17(5), pp. 1135-1142. Retrieved from

Milly, D. (2014). New Policies for New Residents: Immigrants, Advocacy, and Governance in Japan and Beyond. New York, US: Cornell University Press.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. (2014). Specified Visa: Long-term Resident. Retrieved March 29th, 2015, from

Ministry of Justice of Japan. (2000). Basic Plan for Immigration Control (2nd ed.). Retrieved March 25th, 2015, from

Ministry of Justice of Japan. (2009). Section IV: Residence and Departure, Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act. Tokyo, Japan: Ministry of Justice.

Morita, T. (2003). Iranian Immigrant Workers in Japan and Their Networks. In R. Goodman, C. Peach, A. Takenaka, & P. White (Eds.), Global Japan: The Experience of Japan’s New Immigrant and Overseas Communities (pp. 159-164). New York, US: RoutledgeCurzon.

Pak, K.T. (2000). Foreigners are Local Citizens, too: Local Governments Respond to International Migration in Japan. In M. Douglass & G. Roberts (Eds.), Japan and Global Migration: foreign workers and the advent of a multicultural society (pp. 244-274). New York, USA: Routledge.

Portes, A., & Rumbaut, R. (2014). Immigrant America: A Portrait (4th ed.). London, England: University of California Press.

Portes, A. (1995). Economic Sociology and the Sociology of Immigration: A Conceptual Overview. In A. Portes (Eds.), The Economic Sociology of Immigration (pp. 1-41). New York, US: Russell Sage Foundation.

Roberts, G. (2000). NGO Support for Migrant Labour in Japan. In M. Douglass & G. Roberts (Eds.), Japan and Global Migration: foreign workers and the advent of a multicultural society (pp. 275-300). New York, USA: Routledge.

Sato, Y. (2010). Immigration Law and Policy of Japan in the Age of East Asian Community-Building. Journal of East Asia and International Law, 3(2), 293-305.

Shinkawa, T. (2012). Substitutes for Immigrants? Social Policy Responses to Population Decreases in Japan. American Behavioral Scientist, 56(8), 1123-1138. doi: 10.1177/0002764212441789

Shipper, A. (2006). Foreigners and Civil Society in Japan. Pacific Affairs, 79(2), 269-289. Retrieved from

STK (Gaikokujin shūjū toshi kaigi) (2014). Gaikokujin shūjū toshi kaigi no gaiyō (An Overview of the Conference of Cities with Large Foreign Populations). Retrieved March 25th, 2015, from

Sugimoto, Y. (1999). Making Sense of Nihonjinron. Thesis Eleven 57, pp. 81-96. doi: 10.1177/0725513699057000007

Yamanaka, K. (2000). “I will go home, but when?”: Labour Migration and Circular Diaspora Formation by Japanese Brazilians in Japan. In M. Douglass & G. Roberts (Eds.), Japan and Global Migration: foreign workers and the advent of a multicultural society (pp. 123-152). New York, USA: Routledge.


[1] Chung also lists remarks made in 1988 by the LDP foreign minister Watanabe Michio, who made derogatory remarks about African Americans in the US, and in 1990 by Japan’s Justice Minister Kajiyama Seiroku who compared foreign prostitutes in Tokyo to African Americans who have moved to white neighbourhoods. (see pg 175)

[2] For example, schooling for their children, medical access, access to the legal system, etc.

[3] Previously, enrollment in the National Health Insurance system has been up to local governments’ discretion.

[4] Issues which frequently arise between foreigners and locals are the following of socially accepted neighbourhood rules, for example rules about parking, garbage sorting, or noise.

[5] The Conference of Cities refers to the Gaikokujin Shūjū Toshi Kaigi, or the Conference of Cities with Large Foreign Populations is an association of mayors of cities with large foreign-resident populations, which formed in 2001. (STK, 2014)

[6] See for example Pak’s (2000) account of Kawasaki and Hamamatsu in ; Milly’s (2014) study of Hyōgo or Ōta.

[7] I use “large” loosely, as even in prefectures with high numbers of foreign residents rarely exceeds 3% of the prefecture’s overall population.

About the Author

Natasha Miner has recently completed her BA at the University of Victoria, Canada, where she majored in the Department of Pacific and Asian Studies. Her primary research focus was Japan.

Email the author

Back to top