Japan's New Challenge

Becoming a Multi-Ethnic Society?

Atsuko Abe, Obirin University [About | Email]

Volume 2, Issue 1 (Book review 3 in 2002). First published in ejcjs on 10 February 2002.

Komai, Hiroshi (2001) Foreign Migrants in Contemporary Japan (translated by Jens Wilkinson), Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press
ISBN 1-876843-06-3, Paperback, xiv, 230 pages, includes bibliographical references and index.

Globalisation generally implies freer movement of everything: goods, services, capital and people. While there is a long history of cross-border migration in many parts of the world, people are less readily accepted in foreign lands than goods or services. The surge of foreign migrants into Japan in the past two decades needs to be understood in the context of globalisation. Japan can hardly isolate itself from the flow of people if it wants to stay integrated in the global political economy. Simply put, Japan cannot stop immigrants from entering the country and must, therefore, deal with the existence of foreign residents within its borders. Immigration issues are relatively new in Japan compared with other developed economies, although as many as one third of foreign nationals residing in Japan are people who came to Japan from its colonies before the end of World War Two, as well as their descendants, a large majority of whom are Koreans. Immigration has not so far caused as much concern in Japan as in other developed countries where recent national elections have been fought over the issue of immigration (for example, Australia, Belgium and Denmark). However, it is only a matter of time before Japan is faced with similar social and political strains. Therefore, it is important for Japanese society, as well as the state, to deal with immigration issues before political and social crises arise.

For this task, it is essential to understand the facts and the reality surrounding immigrants in Japan. This book by Hiroshi Komai, Foreign Migrants in Contemporary Japan, provides valuable information and raises important concerns. Foreign Migrants is an excellent guide to the immigration issue for postgraduate level students as well as advanced researchers of Japanese society. It will also help civil right activists by providing them with considerable data highlighting the problems that foreign residents face. The original Japanese edition (Komai 1999), consisted of articles written between 1993 and 1999,1 and followed up Komai’s (1994) earlier work, Japan as a Multi-Ethnic Society.

Komai has published extensively on issues relating to foreign residents in Japan (see Komai 1990, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997a, 1997b, 1999, 2000). In most of his works, including this book, he discusses numerous issues surrounding immigrants in Japan from the perspective of human rights protection. He focuses on the so-called newcomers – those who came to Japan after the high-growth period, mostly in the 1980s and the 1990s. Indeed the proportion of oldcomers is declining with the change of generations and more importantly with the sharp rise in immigration since the 1980s. In Japan the misperception that these newcomers are almost all “foreign workers” is fairly common, along with another misperception that all foreigners will eventually go back their home countries. Komai makes a great effort to eradicate such misperceptions, while searching for ways to build a new, multi-ethnic society in Japan.

Its purpose is to warn the general public as well as researchers about the problems that immigrants are up against in Japan, Foreign Migrants has more emphasis on data than analysis. Ironically, the amount of data overshadows Komai’s conclusions about the barriers faced by immigrants. Since the book’s emphasis is on the vast, variable issues surrounding immigrants, not some abstract concepts, a reader would expect some concrete suggestions, such as what action is needed on immigration, and what difficulties are associated with such action. The book does offer such suggestions and the evidence of actual movement. However, it seems that each chapter, lacking a substantial conclusion, ends abruptly. Moreover, the reader may find that the overall picture built up by the data is not sufficiently clear. In other words, for the most part Komai avoids drawing concrete conclusions, leaving this task up to the reader. The introduction makes an attempt to highlight some of these themes, but is rather too short for the task. One needs to go back to the author’s earlier works (mentioned above) in order to figure out the framework, or the base, from which Komai starts out this latest journey. Nevertheless the information the book provides is highly valuable. In short, the book is stimulating and suggestive, but readers may have many unanswered questions for the author after finishing it.

The book does offer very extensive data, including various cases of specific localities in Japan where immigrants are concentrated. When it is possible, the book compares statistics from different years in the 1990s in order to study the trends in immigration that developed during this decade; for example, statistics concerning the nationalities and occupations of immigrants, surveyed in 1992, 1995, and 1998, indicate that the number of people from Southeast Asia, such as Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia (but with the exception of Indonesia), is decreasing. In terms of status, the number of foreign nationals connected to Japanese nationals (that is, as a wife, husband or child of a Japanese national) shows a steady increase. This means that it is more likely that these ‘foreigners’ will stay permanently in Japan.

In addition to the valuable quantitative statistics, there is also qualitative data on such material as immigrants’ primary motivation to migrate, their images of Japan, what employers and employees think about immigrants, and so forth. The treatment of immigrants by employers and employees provides an insight into how Japanese accept or reject immigrants, which shows that Japanese public opinion is getting increasingly tougher towards irregular immigrants (Komai avoids using the term “illegal immigrants”). Irregular immigrants include over-stayers and those who have been smuggled into the country.

Although some questions may remain unanswered, Komai certainly raises many issues in the book. He indicates that the problems faced by immigrants differ depending upon the type of immigration; consequently, problems relating to immigrants cannot be analysed by a single format or solved by a uniform governmental policy. Nikkeijin, for example, who are mostly from Latin America, do not have legal difficulties in staying in Japan. In the ageing Japanese society, their labour is in high demand, which explains the government’s preference for Japanese descendants over other ethnic groups. But there are only about 1.3 million Japanese descendants outside Japan, which means that Japan cannot rely solely on the Nikkeijin to remedy the labour shortage in the near future.

Komai also dispels an assumption that Nikkeijin are well integrated in Japanese society. In reality, they are not much more accepted in the society than other groups of immigrants: according to Komai (page 37), while the ethnic origin of Nikkeijin is indistinguishable from other Japanese, “Nikkeijin society is going through a process of cleavage from Japanese society.”

Japan’s reliance on Nikkeijin labour is also problematic for other immigrants. Cases of disguised labour under the vocational training system are often found among the Nikkeijin, but are not restricted to this group. Komai points out the existence of the “dual labour market”; in its lower layer, Nikkeijin and other immigrants compete against each other. In other words, the Nikkeijin, whose legal status is secure, are replacing irregular workers in the manual labour market, while the latter are pushed down to jobs with lower wages in service sectors or become unemployed. Consequently, irregular workers are more susceptible to economic downturn or outright recession.

Saskia Sassen (1998, p.55) noted that Japan “lacks belief in the positive contributions made by immigration.” Despite this finding, the data in Komai’s book shows the significant economic function of immigrant workers in Japan, regardless of their legal status. At the same time, Komai argues that jobs are not the only reason for immigrants to come to Japan: “economic factors may be very important … (but) in the initial period and the period of stagnation, non-economic factors also played vital roles” (page 19). In fact, “most foreigners in Japan are working, but few came to Japan specifically to work. However, there is very little understanding in Japanese society of the diversity in the life plans of these foreigners” (page 54). Komai lists categories of non-working immigrants among newcomers: “pseudo-exiles”, “self-actualization” (for example, foreign students aiming to stay after their academic training), “marriage/family group”, and a “homesick group” (pages 50–52).

Another group the book focuses on is the Chinese “war orphans” (page 60). Within the Chinese group there are Japanese who stayed in China after the end of World War II, as well as their descendants. While people from this group are also at least partly Japanese in terms of ethnicity, they face severe difficulties in being integrated into Japanese society. The book describes the tough economic and social conditions they face, which are not always same as those of Nikkeijin from Latin America. More analysis comparing these groups would be interesting, but the book instead moves on to other themes.

Among the various problems born by these different groups of immigrants, the issue of religion, especially for Muslims from Pakistan and Iran, Protestants from Korea, and Catholics from the Philippines and Latin America (Chapter 4) is particularly significant. The Chinese, on the other hand, who form the biggest ethnic group among the newcomer immigrants, do not seem to put much emphasis on religious activities in their lives. Religious activities provide one of the core venues for the immigrants to build their own communities, but the book only looks at isolated incidents and does not analyse the patterns of such activities. As a result, the role of religion in the acceptance or rejection of immigrants in Japanese society is left unexamined.

Chapter 5 is devoted to human rights issues involving immigrants in Japan. Komai argues that entrance to the country for foreigners whose native language is not English tends to be difficult even when they have valid visas. Irregular immigrants, in particular, face serious problems because of their struggle to obtain legal protection, especially with medical issues. Their irregular status makes it nearly impossible to acquire medical insurance, national or private, and their economic difficulties, combined with this lack of insurance, often deny them access to proper medical care. Komai strongly criticises the administration by questioning whether this is a violation of human rights.

There are also cases of irregular immigrants who seek asylum, but the criteria for foreigners to be given asylum in Japan are very strict. Only recently (November 2001), a case occurred where nine Afghans were denied refugee status. Although Komai’s book recognises that the second basic immigration control plan, released by the Ministry of Justice in March 2000, has a more positive attitude towards refugees, the actual attitude of the Japanese government remains quite parsimonious in recognising the risk of persecution these people face.

Komai clearly criticises the Japanese government for doing little other than trying to stop the incoming flow of migrants, but he does not go further into the issues surrounding the state’s responsibility to provide security. Tomas Hammer’s proposal of “denizenship” is referred to in the book (Hammar, 1999). By introducing the concept of denizenship, Hammar and Komai assert that non-nationals should be entitled to certain rights and protections from the state in which they live. “[S]ettled foreigners are not temporary visitors but rather members of the societies into which they have moved” (page 164); therefore, the substance rather than the formality of the membership (that is, nationality) should be the key in terms of who gets state protection. However, such a shift if policy is unlikely to occur in Japan in the near future. Otherwise, Komai refrains from debating whether Japan, as a state, should provide broader rights and protections to foreign nationals.

Komai argues that local governments are effective in accepting foreign immigrants into their communities. This raises the question of who is responsible for what in terms of immigration policy. Komai suggests an alternative form of governance in relation to immigration in the form of stronger local autonomy, but this would involve enormous change to the Japanese political system. The book also highlights the role of the NGOs which support immigrants in various aspects of life such as language training. Considering the role of these organisations (local governments and NGOs), it is questionable whether the national government should be the main actor searching for a new societal structure in Japan. Moreover, the state is unable to do any better than other actors in attracting global talent into the high-technology sector, although Komai dismisses the impact on Japan of those immigrants with professional or highly technical skills. The traditional role of the state tends to exclude foreigners for the interest of nationals, but in this era of globalisation the state is under pressure to accommodate the needs of non-nationals owing to both international human rights concerns and economic pressures.

I would also like to have seen the book tackle some historical elements that have impaired the Japanese government’s ability to view immigrants as long-term contributors to the national economy. For example, the Japanese custom of domestic “dekasegi” (which is translated as “money-seekers” in the book) originally meant workers who had left their hometown or village and as a rule eventually or seasonally went home. Therefore, calling foreign workers “dekasegi” strengthened the notion that they would (and want to) go home. In short, the migrating pattern of workers in Europe is historically different from that of Japan, and this has resulted in the difference in the governmental policies. In the 1970s, at the time of two oil crises, Western European states did not send back their foreign workers, although the unemployment rates in then West Germany, France and United Kingdom were much higher than in current-day Japan. So far the scale of social schisms is much smaller in Japan than in Europe, thus social problems with regard to immigrants have been quite benign in Japan. However, the problem will continue to grow, and it is only a matter of time before Japan must face the transformation of its society. Together with the ageing problem, the structure of the Japanese society will inevitably change, and yet the state, as well as the society as a whole, seems slow to tackle these tasks.

Foreign Migrants is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the issues surrounding immigration and immigrants in Japan. It provides a sound basis for a long-needed, nation-wide debate on the immigration issue. The book’s purpose is not to shed a new light to the immigration issue in an academic or political debate, but to draw wider attention to the significance of the issue so that real improvements can be made to the lives of foreign residents in Japan. The problems that Komai highlights will grow much bigger and more severe in the very near future. And in this sense, Foreign Migrants is not an academic text, but is an important contribution to Japanese society.


Hammar, Tomas (1999), Denizen to Kokumin-kokka (Democracy and the Nation State). Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.

Komai, Hiroshi (1990), Gaikokujin Rodosha o miru Me [The View Towards Foreign Workers], Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.

——— (1993), Gaikokujin Rodosha Teiju e no Michi [The Road to Settlement of Foreign Workers], Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.

——— (1994), Imin Shakai Nihon no Koso, [also entitled, Japan as a Multi-Ethnic Society], Tokyo: Kokusai Shoin.

——— (1995), Migrant workers in Japan, translated by Jens Wilkinson, New York: Kegan Paul International.

——— (1996), Nihon no Esuniku Shakai [Ethnic communities in Japan], Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.

——— (1997a), Jichi-tai no gaikokujin Seisaku: Uchinaru Kokusaika e no Torikumi [Local Government Policies towards Foreigners], Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.

——— (1997b), Shinrai Teiju Gaikokujin ga wakaru Jiten [Encyclopaedia of Newcomers and Foreign Residents in Japan], Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.

——— (1999), Nihon no Gaikokujin Imin [Japan’s Foreign Migrants], Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.

——— (2000), Choka Taizai Gaikokujin to Zairyu-tokubetsu-kyoka: Kiro ni tatsu Nihon no shutsunyukoku Kanri Seisaku [Over-stayers and Special Permission to remain in Japan], Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.

Sassen, Saskia (1998), Globalisation and Its Discontents, New York: The New Press.


[1] Chapter 8 in this English version is updated from the equivalent chapter of the Japanese original. Two pages have been added with the latest information on the immigration policy of the Ministry of Justice.

About the Author

Atsuko Abe is a Lecturer of international relations at Obirin University, Tokyo. Prior to her current position she was a Research Fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science at Tsukuba University, Japan. As a visiting Assistant Professor, she taught in a master’s program at George Mason University, Virginia, USA. She holds a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of Tokyo, an M.Phil. in European Studies and a Ph.D. in International Relations from Cambridge University, UK. She has published The Relationship between Japan and the European Union: Domestic Politics and Transnational Relations (London: Athlone Press, 1999).

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