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Article 7 in 2009
First published in ejcjs on 30 November 2009

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Importing Human Capital

Contemporary Japanese Attitudes to Immigration


James Llewelyn

Australian Department of Defence

Junichi Hirano

Research Associate
Kobe University

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The notion that migration is taboo in Japanese society is a long-held view that has arguably kept this important topic out of mainstream political debates for decades. In place of a durable strategic immigration policy, Japan has instead utilized short-term ad-hoc policies to import human capital through a number of 'side door' mechanisms that have allowed its industry to meet demand for unskilled labour at the expense of meaningful debate on the issue of immigration. This paper proposes that public opinion, particularly among the younger generation, is much more open to the issue of importing human capital than is commonly thought; therefore, the time is ripe for a more forthright public debate on immigration that will facilitate greater strategic planning and policymaking more in line with Japan's national interests.

Key Words

Generation Y; immigration; human capital; unskilled labour; skilled labour; Japanese immigration policy


James Llewelyn would like to thank the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) for their generous funding while based at Kobe University.


There has been a good deal of literature produced on Japan and the issue of migration due to two factors. First, Japan has a highly restrictive immigration policy that is renowned for its zero tolerance toward migrants who find themselves unlawfully in Japan.[1] Secondly, there is an assumption that Japanese society is generally averse to the idea of importing labour due to the widely held myth that Japan is an ethnically homogenous and therefore unique nation. As Pyle notes, 'the Japanese have long been unusually preoccupied with their uniqueness and special character' (1982: 223).This paper will examine these two issues in further detail.

In the first section of this paper, following a brief review of some of the literature on this issue, the paper will provide an outline of the demographic challenges that Japan is facing and suggest that a targeted and more strategic policy toward migration could negate some of the economic downside related to the impending demographic crisis. Following which, some the 'side door' mechanisms by which unskilled labour is imported into Japan will be examined. Next, an overview of the range of positions by a number of key policymakers, political parties and institutions will be presented. The second half of this paper will present a range of data and analysis concerning contemporary Japanese attitudes toward immigration and importing human capital, with a focus on the attitudes of younger Japanese (Generation Y).

Existing Research

A number of seminal works on Japan and migration have provided an important foundation for future avenues of research. Tsuda and Cornelius et al. (2004) suggest that despite the notion of racial and cultural homogeneity in Japan, it has in fact a significant immigrant population resulting from the demand for imported labour. Importantly, they note that Japan's shrinking population and a better educated local workforce created gaps in the (unskilled) employment market that foreign workers filled, thus suggesting that 'side-door mechanisms' have been a principal means by which Japan has addressed domestic labour shortages. Tsuda has also made a valuable contribution to better understanding the role of Japanese–Brazilian workers in Japan, particularly in respect to the 'myth of Japanese uniqueness' and the inherent (false) assumption by policymakers that this supply of labour would only be short-term, despite being viewed as somewhat more 'ethnically preferable' (Tsuda, 1999: 688).

Yamanaka meanwhile, reminds us of the widely held perception that 'Japan is not a country of immigration' although in reality it has received a significant influx of immigrants from the 1980s onwards, although the absence of political and institutional support has prevented genuine multiculturalism from taking root in Japanese society (2008: 187-93). Matsutani reminds us that 'wrenching demographic change' will produce negative economic growth in Japan, although he explicitly disagrees that importing foreign workers will halt Japan's long-term economic decline (2006: 16). Instead, Masutani sees 'systemic social and economic restructuring' as the only option for Japan to head off long-term economic decline (2006: 19). Finally, Coulmas et al. (2008) provides the debate with a voluminous array of data and analysis from a wide range of qualified authors with a range of views centring on Japan's declining population. Specifically this seminal work examines the nature of Japan's ageing society and the far-reaching economic, social and security challenges that demographic change will present for Japan.

Japan's Demographic Challenge

The rapid decrease in Japan's population is beyond debate. It has been estimated that to keep the working age population constant at the 1995 level (87.2 million workers) Japan would need to import 609,000 migrants per year until 2050, which would lead to 30 per cent of the population being foreign born, while to simply ward off population decline it would require 381,000 migrants annually (Roberts 2008: 770).

A confluence of declining fertility (a low birth rate) and rising life expectancy (longer periods of retirement for the elderly) will have important effects on Japan's future economic growth, intergenerational equity and social welfare infrastructure. A shrinking population means a shrinking workforce, and with it a myriad of economic challenges. For instance, it is predicted that 87 per cent of regions across Japan will be adversely affected by both population ageing and a population exodus, suggesting that outside of Japan's largest cities there will be little economic or social vitality (Elis 2008: 865). In the next 50 years it is predicted that more than 40 per cent of Japan's population will be over 65 years old – a situation requiring an extremely large proportion of the working generation's wealth, alongside funds from government coffers, to cover future health care and pension expenditures (Kawase and Ogura 2008: 841). Recent reporting shows that Japan's ageing population will cause the social welfare budget to swell by $10.7 billion annually over the next five years (Masters, 2009: 18). As such, Japan's previously touted high savings surplus, a result of large-scale wealth accumulation over previous decades, will certainly be eroded as Japan addresses it 'ageing crisis' (Ezrati, 1997: 97-8)

Such a high elderly dependency ratio (estimated at two workers supporting one retiree by 2020) will demand sharply higher taxes (chiefly the consumption tax) and much greater contributions to the three national social insurance programs (the public pension, health insurance and long-term care insurance) by Japan's younger working generation (Kawase and Ogura 2008: 841-43). Some projections show that the overall burden of these social security programs relative to Japan's GDP will exceed 20 per cent by 2033, thus placing an enormous debt on future generations and a fiscal deficit that is unsustainable over the long-term as the capital markets will one day refuse to underwrite such large-scale pubic debt (Kawase and Ogura 2008: 853).

These seemingly inevitable demographic challenges have forced many in the Japanese government to grudgingly accept that a higher immigration intake could be economically beneficial to Japan, although in practice new policies have not been forthcoming and a restrictive immigration policy continues to be enforced (Kawase and Ogura 2008: 853). It seems that an open and public discussion aimed at formulating a more realistic immigration policy has not happened. Richard Samuels observes that 'Japan is getting older and losing population faster than any other country in the world, yet immigration policy has remained less than an after thought' (Newsweek, August 24-31, 2009: 21).

As a result of these dire statistical predictions, and the fact that many small and medium-sized enterprises have become quite dependent on foreign labour (New York Times, August 15, 2008), discussion on the topic of immigration is finally becoming more frequently raised in Japan's domestic media. However, a consensus on whether it is necessary or desirable, and who and what numbers of foreigners to allow into Japan has been far from reached, thus meaning that Japan's present immigration policy still firmly remains premised on the twin pillars of enforcement and restriction.

A key caveat in this paper is that immigration per se is not being proposed as a quick and painless panacea for Japan's far-reaching demographic challenges. However, this paper does support the view that a strategic, long-term and more transparent immigration policy that supports the intake of unskilled and skilled migrants could bring significant economic benefits to Japan. Jacoby's (2006: 50-6) research suggests that 'newcomers enlarge the economic pie' thus resulting in a 'bigger, more productive economy.' He also suggests that 'the global integration of labour markets' has made transnational movements of human capital an inevitable dimension to globalisation (Jacoby, 2006: 50). Other research also suggests that immigrants can be a key driver of economic dynamism, being more likely to launch new businesses in engineering or technology (50% of Silicon Valley's engineering and technology start-ups were founded by immigrants) (Wadhwa, 2008). Skilled migration therefore, seems to bring substantial and tangible economic benefits to a receiving nation. In the United States in 2005 for instance, 'immigrant-founded engineering and tech companies employed 450,000 people and generated $52 billion in sales' (Smalley, Newsweek, August 24-31, 2009: 57).

Not only skilled immigrants are beneficial to a destination country however, unskilled workers also produce economic dividends (Jacoby, 2006; Borjas, 1995). A recent report by the Cato Institute notes that 'even low-skilled immigrants expand the economic pie and create jobs farther up the ladder' (Smalley, Newsweek, August 24-31, 2009: 57). Notwithstanding this, Borjas' economic modelling explicitly suggests that the economic benefits that result from a targeted policy of skilled migration are significantly greater than for unskilled migration (1995: 5). Today's global knowledge workers therefore, who dominate IT, medicine, education, architecture and science, can bring sustained and substantial economic dividends to a receiving country through entrepreneurialism (job creation) and pure innovation in a specialized field (Friedman, 2009).

In light of the prevailing research, it is generally well regarded that importing human capital is a positive development (especially skilled workers), as it produces 'positive externalities that spill over into other sectors and regions of the host economy' (Straubhaar, 2000: 7). This paper therefore, agrees with Yamanaka (2008: 194) that if the Japanese state can show the appropriate leadership that will facilitate Japan transforming from a homogenous and exclusionist society to a heterogeneous and inclusive one it will be a 'beneficial transformation' that will bring a wide range of advantages to Japan.

The Rising Tide of Foreign Workers

Globalisation, which has not only reduced the costs of cross border flows for commodities, cultural products and investment, has also made labour increasingly borderless, and human capital accumulation for the developed countries never more easy to achieve. Castles and Miller (2003: 1) note that 'increased transnationalism' has meant that 'international population movements constitute a key dynamic within globalisation.' As a result, efforts aimed at preventing migrants from entering Japan will prove almost impossible. Even in Japan's 'lost decade' of economic doldrums inward migration failed to slow down. As Yamanaka (1993: 85) states 'all advanced countries are subject to global migrations' and as a result 'Japan's policy of excluding foreign unskilled labor cannot entirely succeed, given the widening wage gaps between Third World countries and Japan.' The official statistics support this assertion, showing that the number of foreigners residing in Japan over the last two decades has almost doubled to around 2 million (see Figure 1). As Japan has had a long-held policy not to import unskilled migrants, it has had to develop various 'sidedoor' mechanisms by which to import unskilled labour to meet domestic demand.

Figure 1. Number of foreign residents in Japan 1987-2006

Source: Japan Immigration Association, Statistics on Foreigners Registered in Japan (2007), pp. 3-4.

Importing Unskilled Human Capital through 'side door' Mechanisms

As the Japanese economy achieved ever higher degrees of export-led growth labour demands began to substantially outstrip supply, particularly in low-skilled manufacturing jobs.

From this point onwards, the paradox between a restrictive immigration policy and the necessity to import unskilled labour became apparent. In response, the Japanese government concocted a number of disingenuous ways to meet domestic labour demands using foreign unskilled labour while ostensibly preserving Japan's cultural and ethnic homogeneity. That is, visa categories by which to enter Japan temporarily to undertake jobs that were relatively underpaid with little security and scorned by Japanese young workers for being dirty (kitanai), dangerous (kiken) and overly demanding (kitsui) (the so-called 'three K' jobs) were created. Importantly, this foreign labour was seen as temporary in nature and was often under the guise of supposedly different purposes, therefore preserving Japan's restrictive 1951 Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law that aims at limiting imported labour in order to maintain social and ethnic homogeneity.


An early and significant case of importing human capital occurred in the form of the 'trainee' program, a system still in place that allows people to be trained and later to assume a technical internship for up to three years. This program has become a reliable source of cost-effective unskilled labour for the manufacturing and construction industries with workers mainly sourced from South Asia and Southeast Asia, with Japan presently hosting around 177,000 trainees (for more information see the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization official website). As this program only permits trainees to stay in Japan for a fixed period, this rule was seen as a convenient way to bypass potential long-term social and resettlement issues (Komai, 1995: 37). Notably, 'trainees' are also not covered under domestic labour laws and therefore can be exposed to abuse in the workplace. In fact, it was recently reported that 34 trainees died from overwork between 2007 and 2008 (Daily Yomiuri, June 25, 2009). Moreover, many trainees are frequently paid well below the minimum wage (in fact they are paid a stipend of around $200/week) and in reality receive very little technical or specialised training in many cases. Komai (1995: 38) states quite explicitly that 'labour being carried out by trainees is being legitimized under the pretext of 'on the job training'' and suggests that this is done with the acquiescence of the Japanese government. Yamanaka (1993) unabashedly describes the trainee program as 'disguised cheap labor.'

Nikkeijin or People of Japanese Descent

Revision of the 1951 Immigration Law in 1990 introduced two important measures, one of which was creating a new category of long-term visa (3 years) to attract exclusively foreign descendents of Japanese emigrants (up to third generation).[2] Consequently, in the early 1990s more than 100,000 Nikkeijin arrived from Latin America (mostly from Brazil and Peru) to work as casual laborers in Japan's manufacturing industries on visas that permitted them Japanese residence without any restrictions on socio-economic activities (Yamanaka, 2008). This program clearly reflects the high-level of cultural sensitivity toward the issue of migration in Japan because the Nikkeijin workers are generally 'presumed to be more culturally similar to Japanese than other foreigners' (Tsuda 1999: 688). Yamanaka explicitly notes that 'the 1.28 million descendents of Japanese immigrants in Brazil came to be viewed in Japan as an expedient: a source of ethnically acceptable unskilled labor, highly motivated to come to Japan' (2008: 133).

Foreign Students

Foreign unskilled workers are also able to enter Japan through obtaining a 'pre-college' student visa (usually to study Japanese) or becoming an undergraduate or graduate college student. Such students in Japan are allowed to work up to twenty hours per week, although in reality they frequently surpass this limit. Recently, many cheap chain restaurants and convenience stores in Japan's major cities rely on foreign students as a source of labour, as seen by Yoshinoya (a fast food restaurant chain) for instance that has 16 per cent of its total staff being foreign students (New York Times, August 15, 2008). While the Nikkei Shinbun reports that foreign students represent 20 per cent and 10 per cent respectively of the total employees at the two largest Japanese convenience store chains Lawson and Family Mart (Nihon Keizai Shinbun, June 26, 2009: 3). This particular pool of cheap labour is likely to grow further from the present number of 118,000 students in the wake of the July 2008 government announcement that Japan aims to have 300,000 foreign students studying in Japan by 2020, ostensibly with the goal of creating 'a nation more open to the world' (The Japan Times, July 2008). Even the conservative Mori Eisuke, a former Minister for Justice, highlighted his support for this program (Nihon Keizai Shinbun, January 23, 2009).


Until 2005 (this year Japan was publicly shamed by being named on a US State Department watch list for international trafficking in women and children) another side-door mechanism by which foreign labour (mostly women) could enter Japan was on an 'entertainment' visa. This system was originally introduced in 1981 at the height of Japan's bubble economy (Roberts 2008: 767-68). The majority of women who entered Japan under this category undertook work as bar hostesses with many falling prey to unscrupulous employers in the Japanese sex industry which has close ties to organised crime.

These side-door ad-hoc mechanisms can be criticised as only seeking to satisfy a short-term need for unskilled labour, while such policies purposely ignore the issue of how to assimilate and support such workers if they do become long-term residents. Tsuda's (1999) work on the Brazilian Nikkeijin in Japan demonstrates that temporary workers very frequently choose to become permanent residents, despite the government's contrary expectations. Noguchi (2006) critically points out that the more than 350,000 Latin Americans residing in Japan, along with the significant and clearly expanding pool of foreign students and trainees, principally serve to 'supply docile low-wage labour' for the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs shunned by middle-class Japanese in the construction and manufacturing sectors.

Although skilled migration and spouses of Japanese citizens form a group of 'front-door' foreign labour in Japan, it is undeniable that unskilled immigrants have been increasing and are now the largest group. As Table 1 shows, if the Nikkeijin, foreign students and trainees are taken into consideration, this forms a substantial amount of imported unskilled human capital that provides a cost-effective source of labour for Japan's important small and medium-sized industries (SMEs). The fact that Aichi prefecture, where Toyota Motor Corporation and its plethora of keiretsu supply chain firms are based, has the second largest number of foreign residents (220,000) after Tokyo, underpins this point (Yamanaka, 1993: 76). With unskilled migrant workers making up around 25 per cent of the total foreign population (a quarter of a million potential workers), this source of human capital has arguably become indispensable for key sectors of the Japanese economy.

Table 1

Categories of Foreign Residency in Japan (2006, %)

Status of Residency
Permanent Resident (mostly of Korean descent) 40.2
Long-Term Resident (Nikkeijin) 12.9
Spouse or Descendant of Japanese National 12.5
College Student 6.3
Dependent 4.4
Trainee 3.4
Specialist in Humanities/International Relations (teachers) 2.7
Pre-College Student 1.8
Skilled Labor 1.7
Others 14.1
Source: Japan Immigration Association, Statistics on Foreign Residents in Japan (2007): 32-47.

Ironically, this temporising yet effective disingenuous approach has stymied any honest debate over migration, while the fear of a conservative backlash has continued to keep this issue mostly out of public discourse. Notwithstanding Japan's official immigration policy that states otherwise, demand for unskilled labour remains, and unskilled immigrants continue to enter Japan to meet this demand.

It would seem that reconciling an increasingly multicultural and globalised world (where transnational human capital quickly flows to meet demand from industry) with a collective ideology premised on the idea of possessing a 'unique' and 'ethnically homogenous' national identity is becoming increasingly difficult for Japan. Following on from decades of immigration into Japan already, continuing increases in the foreign population will arguably further dilute the claims made by the proponents of Nihonjinron that Japan possesses a unique national and cultural identity that is markedly different from the outside world.

McCormack (2001: 265) ironically notes that Japan tends to see the outside world in a 'classical "orientalist" fashion' and thus fails to possess a realistic perspective of the world and its own place in it. Arguably, this disconnection with globalisation due to a number of insular and conservative cultural and social factors has impeded debate and policy formulation on the issue of immigration in Japan. A combination of inevitable demographic change, continued demand for foreign labour, and increasing numbers of foreign workers entering Japan indicate that the time is now ripe for a greater level of discussion on immigration, particularly in light of the recent ousting of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in August 2009.

Positions for and against Migration in Japan

Opponents of Migration

We can see that several key bureaucracies have traditionally stood on either side of the debate, while skilled migration has long been officially much more preferred than unskilled. Overall, the Ministry of Justice, which has jurisdiction on this issue, and Japan's Ministry of Labour have tended to be supportive of a more conservative policy, while Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been more generally supportive of a less exclusionist policy (Komai 1995: 208).

Not surprisingly Japanese labour unions generally oppose importing even skilled labour. The Japanese Nursing Association adamantly opposes the entry of nurses from Southeast Asia, while the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, a pro-labour quasi-governmental think tank, expresses a fear that foreign workers will deprive Japanese workers of jobs and that the 'social costs relating to accommodating foreign nations' would prove to be a 'substantial burden' for Japan (Japan Labor Flash 2004).

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ), which polices Japan's borders, has an authoritative voice in the immigration debate, albeit a resolutely conservative one. For instance, the recently drafted legislation by the Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau, if supported by the incoming government, will make it easier for immigration authorities to enforce immigration laws and punish those who fail to conform to them. The legislation plans to transfer the responsibility of managing personal information on non-citizens from local municipalities to a consolidated database in the Justice Ministry (The Japan Times, June 26, 2009). This can be seen as one method of achieving the MOJ's long stated aim of 'cutting the number of illegal immigrants by half' (estimated to be around 220,000), an explicit aim of the outgoing minister Mori Eisuke. However, while the MOJ has traditionally been vocal about restricting immigration, the incoming Minister of Justice may prove to be a different leader. Chiba Keiko, the new Justice Minister, who is both a well-known liberal within the ruling party and a lawyer, has in the past expressed opposition to the deportation and break up of foreign families found to be residing in Japan illegally. With such a background therefore, she promises to take a more humanitarian approach to her predecessors.

Essentially however, the MOJ has strived to keep the percentage of foreign residents to the total population at under 3 per cent (Burgess, 2007) through enforcing the Japanese government's three fundamental principles on migration:

  1. that no unskilled workers will be admitted;

  2. only skilled and professional workers should be admitted; and

  3. all foreigners should be admitted on only a temporary basis (Tsuda 2008).

Supporters of Migration

The notion of skilled migration, which is generally more supported than unskilled migration into Japan, first appeared in the March 2000 Justice Ministry's 'Basic Plan for Immigration Control'. This report created some controversy at the time as it suggested that Japan should at least seriously consider the possibility of accepting foreign workers to assist in nursing care for elderly people as there was a clear skills shortage in this area, a notion that since has become more accepted (Chapple, 2004). Former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro's economic agreements with the Philippines and Indonesia, which specifically called for these Southeast Asian countries to send care workers to Japan, seems to be an official recognition that chronic shortages exist in the health care sector. Accordingly, even in official circles today, little contention exists over the idea of attracting and accumulating skilled human capital. As a result of the greater willingness for immigration to be discussed in official circles therefore, a number of key officials and organisations have put forward positive viewpoints on this issue.

The former Director General of the Economic Planning Agency, Sakaiya Taichi, explicitly sees migration as a solution for maintaining a competitive workforce, stating that Japan's falling population makes it 'inevitable that Japan will look for foreign workers to make up the shortfall' (Chapple, 2004). In similar fashion, Tokyo University's well-known economist Ihori Toshihiro suggests that the new government should offer incentives to attract skilled foreign labour, seeing this as a key driver of future economic growth (Time, September 14, 2009: 18). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, concerned with Japan's image and its international relations, understandably takes a softer line on immigration and cross border labour flows than the Ministry of Justice traditionally has. The former parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs stated at an address at the UN High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development that 'societies should promote cultural diversity and strive for openness, flexibility and more mobile workforces' (Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations 2006).

The powerful business lobby the Keidanren, or the Japan Business Federation, has also offered a range of proposals for admitting more skilled labour to Japan as outlined in its 'Japan 2025' policy proposal. The Keidanren understands that labour shortages exist and thus strongly urges the 'finalization of a system for bringing foreigners to work and live in Japan' (Keidanren 2003).

Meanwhile, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations has loudly criticized the MOJ in the past over its strict control over the entry of foreign nationals into Japan. It has publicly chastened it on humanitarian grounds, criticising the MOJ for neglecting 'the conditions for creating a society where diverse ethnics and cultures live together and everybody understands each other's differences by the establishment of fundamental human rights of foreign nationals' (Japan Federation of Bar Associations, 2006).

Within the conservative LDP not all politicians are unsympathetic to a more progressive immigration policy for Japan. Kono Taro has openly and consistently expressed a range of positive views on the issue of Japan developing a more progressive stance on immigration. While other individual LDP parliamentarians, and even the LDP's former Secretary General, Nakagawa Hidenao, have sought to establish a system by which Japan accepts more unskilled foreign workers (Daily Yomiuri, June 4, 2008). In fact Nakagawa submitted a forthright report to former Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo on June 20, 2008, titled 'A Proposal for a Japanese-style Immigration Policy' that explicitly stated that for Japan to overcome its aging society and low birth rate it needs to become an 'immigrant state' and create a 'multiracial symbiotic society' by opening the door to '10 million immigrants' (The Japan Times June 21, 2008; The Japan Times September 19, 2008). Eighty other LDP heavyweights, including former prime minister Mori Yoshiro, were also firmly behind Nakagawa's proposal, with this grouping unambiguously seeing increasing immigration as 'the only way forward for Japan in the 21st century' (Asahi Shinbun, May 21, 2008). Their views and subsequent proposal were more than political rhetoric, even explicitly suggesting the creation of a new ministry of immigration to oversee the radical influx of imported human capital, much of it unskilled and targeted to satisfying domestic labour market demands. One interesting quarter from which criticism soon arose over this proposal was from the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. The former head of this ministry, Masuzoe Yoichi, strongly criticised this proposal on the grounds that the 'social costs' (chiefly education, reduced wages and worsening public security) that he directly associated with increasing the numbers of migrants into Japan would vastly outweigh any economic benefits they would bring, preferring to see local non-permanent and women employees prioritised in Japan's employment system (Asahi Shinbun, May 21, 2008).

Prior to ousting the LDP from power the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took a number of policy positions that are inextricably tied to the immigration issue. For instance, the DPJ's manifesto states that it will ban the despatch of temporary workers (a policy installed by the LDP that is now widely criticised in Japan as behind the worsening wealth divide). This policy will potentially affect the 31,000 Brazilian Japanese presently working in Japan in small and medium-sized enterprises who are generally employed as non-permanent employees. Furthermore, this pre-election promise ostensibly rules out the DPJ assertively advocating increasing the numbers of unskilled workers into Japan, clearly seeing the priority in the present economic malaise as shoring up and improving employment conditions for Japan's domestic workforce, particularly those who have been overlooked during Japan's lost decade (Nikkei, September 1, 2009). In fact, one year prior to coming to power, the DPJ's own committee on 'the problem of foreign workers' (led by Nakagawa Masaharu the then shadow Finance Minister) took the rather conventional position that the DPJ would only support revisions to the existing immigration legislation to allow more unskilled foreign labour into Japan if four legal requirements were met. These were:

  1. that temporary residency would be only granted to the sole applicant (not his/her family) for a period limited to three years;

  2. if the employee's family are granted entry to Japan they must possess a sufficient level of Japanese to participate smoothly in daily life in order for their application to be considered;

  3. if the employee's children enter Japan they must attend local schools; and

  4. the employee must pay tax while working in Japan (Asahi Shinbun, July 26, 2008).

The second issue that the DPJ has also widely discussed is the issue of voting rights for permanent foreign residents in local elections, with many DPJ politicians on the left within the party supportive of this idea (Nikkei, September 1, 2009). However, a consensus has so far proved difficult to attain within the DPJ on the issue of immigration due to the diverse range of ideological positions amongst Japan's new ruling coalition. Positions range from pro-business neo-liberalists to civil libertarians and human rights advocates to nationalists, with Nakagawa's abovementioned caveats to revising the present immigration law reflecting some of these positions.

Notwithstanding the present lack of a unified vision by the DPJ, across a number of powerful groupings and among many politicians on both sides, a significant degree of recognition exists that Japan needs to promote a more coherent migration policy in order to address pressing domestic population problems and secure human capital. In light of the inevitable continuity of Japan as an attractive destination country (particularly from nearby Asian countries with labour surpluses), a wide-reaching consensus on a strategically sound, equitable and well-articulated policy on immigration is long overdue. This challenge, not unrelated to some of the major problems facing Japan today (such as the viability of its welfare system and continued domestic economic growth), will hopefully not be shunned by the new Japanese leadership. In fact, with 143 of the incoming DPJ candidates relatively young (having the average age of 49) and possessing local and prefectural government experience in many cases, there are some grounds for optimism that this issue may be taken up more earnestly by the new ruling party. Moreover, if public opinion is indeed receptive to debate and supports reforming Japan's hitherto restrictive immigration policies, this should help create the necessary conditions for more proactive policymaking on this issue by the DPJ. This public opinion, with a focus on the younger generation from both urban and rural Japan, is examined in the data below.

Public Opinion on Immigration and Foreign Labour

This paper uses the results of a number of official surveys concerning Japanese attitudes toward migration undertaken by the Japanese Cabinet Office (Naikaku-fu) and the Japan Immigration Association, in combination with a number of surveys conducted by the authors. This section will demonstrate that the issue of immigration is not politically toxic; therefore, Japan's new leadership can approach this topic in a more forthright manner and engage the electorate in greater debate on this topic. Arguably, frank and more transparent discussion both within the DPJ and the public will lead to a consensus on immigration that Japanese leaders can turn into a more strategic and purposeful policy. Against this context, this section will highlight public attitudes on immigration and suggest that conditions are quite favourable for greater debate and more forthright policymaking on immigration by the DPJ.

To set itself apart from other analyses, this paper will have a distinctive focus on the attitudes and opinions of Japan's present day young adults from both urban and rural areas (those born after 1978 also known as Generation Y),[3] who are a generation that will certainly experience the economic and social effects of Japan's demographic contractions. This data provides a neat snap shot of contemporary opinions among Generation Y on issues related to immigration that the official surveys did not capture.[4]

Japan's Generation Y is highly familiar with the Internet and mobile phone technology; it also is arguably the first generation in Japan that does not take lifetime employment for granted and will quite readily change jobs and even careers if the opportunity arises and economic conditions permit. The Generation Y respondents that this paper surveyed numbered approximately 400 undergraduate university students in the greater Tokyo and Osaka areas while a similar sample was taken from rural university students in Shikoku and Yamaguchi prefectures. It was decided to use data from Generation Y from both urban and rural areas in order to attain a better representative sample of this group's opinions. Moreover, we wanted to test the hypothesis that rural views might be different to the urban respondents because of higher unemployment in rural areas and the frequently held view that migrants are to blame for 'taking jobs' in a scarce job market. The Generation Y data will be introduced from Table 4 onwards. First however, the opinions of the Japanese public as a whole will be examined.

General Attitudes of Japanese Ordinary People toward Migration

Table 2

Japanese Public Opinion on the issue of Foreign Workers in Japan (1990, 2000, 2004, %)





Significant Concern




Some Concern




Little Concern




Almost no concern




Don't know




Total number




Sources: Cabinet Office, Japan, Gaikokujin roudousha no ukeire ni kansuru yoron chousa [Opinion survey on the intake of foreign workers]

Table 2 measures the degree of general concern the Japanese public has had regarding immigrant workers. From 1990-2004, the figures did not change significantly. However, those respondents who had 'significant concern' over the issue of foreign workers increased by 3.7 per cent, while those respondents who had 'almost no concern' declined by 4.4 per cent in this period. This suggests a reasonable degree of public anxiety, particularly over the last decade, indicating that issues relating to immigration are being increasingly featured in Japan's media and not always in a good light.

Table 3

Public Opinion on Skilled and Unskilled Migration (1990, 2000, 2004, %)





Skilled only




Conditional intake in response to domestic labor shortages




Unconditional intake regardlessof domestic economic conditions








Don't know




Total number




Sources: Cabinet Office, Japan, Gaikokujin roudousha no ukeire ni kansuru yoron chousa [Opinion survey on the intake of foreign workers]

Against this context, Table 3 in contrast shows that public support for skilled migration has steadily increased while the percentage of people who are in favour of a more conditional (stricter) intake in response to specific shortages has continued to decline. The impression from this data is that Japan's public is becoming generally more receptive to the importation of human capital, yet only lending unqualified support to skilled migration (as opposed to unskilled), therefore being generally in line with the government's hitherto official policy on immigration.

However, our survey showed that Generation Y more enthusiastically supports increasing the overall number of migrants entering Japan. Interestingly, 70 per cent of female respondents agreed with increasing levels of migration while around half of the male respondents supported this proposition. Notably, rural respondents also supported increased levels of migration in essentially the same degree as their urban counterparts (Table 4).

In Table 5, a majority of respondents from Generation Y saw migration as beneficial from the standpoint of making Japan more international and multicultural. Of significance, relatively few respondents saw increased levels of migration as a solution to Japan's declining population, thus showing that these two issues have not yet been successfully linked in the fledgling immigration debate.

Table 4

Generation Y's Opinion on Increasing Overall Number of Migrants into Japan (Urban-Rural comparison) (2007 %)













Don't know




Total number




Source: Authors' survey


Table 5

Generation Y's Opinion on the Benefits of Migration to Japan (2007, %)

Positive Aspects/Rank




Strengthens the country & society through hard work and individual talent




Enhances internationalization and multiculturalism




Reduces the population decline








Source: Authors' survey 
Note: Respondents ranked their reasons from 1 to 3 with 1 representing their strongest positive answer.

However, in expressing what they saw as the demerits to increasing levels of migration almost two thirds of our respondents viewed increased crime as a significant negative factor (74% of respondents in the general public survey expressed this as their chief concern), with only around a quarter of the Generation Y respondents viewing 'social costs' (welfare and education costs for instance) as a negative issue. This anxiety over public safety can be explained by the fact that crimes perpetrated by foreigners gain widespread and often sensationalized coverage in Japan's television and print news reporting, even earning its own Japanese term gaijinhanzai (foreign crime). Needless to say, crimes which are committed by foreigners are not as rife as they are portrayed, although their impact on public perception is disproportionately powerful.

In contrast to nationalist groups in Japan that disapprove of immigration on grounds related to preserving Japanese cultural purity and cultural homogeneity, this issue was seen as relatively unimportant among Generation Y. This result could be explained by the fact that the overall number of foreign residents in Japan is relatively small in comparison to most Western countries, and foreign cultures have yet to make any major inroads into local culture or customs. Moreover, while Generation Y are more prone to see the Japanese language as a potential hurdle for migrants, the general public tended to view a lack of understanding of Japanese culture as a more serious obstacle to new migrants arriving in Japan.

In sum, these findings challenge the common assumption that Japanese are adverse to allowing migrants into Japan and that it is a taboo topic for public debate. On the whole therefore, on the basis of our survey, both Generation Y and the general public appear receptive to a less restrictive immigration policy for Japan.

Preferred Sending Areas and Countries

The largest group of foreign residents in Japan comes from Northeast Asia (55%), suggesting that geography still matters when considering Japan in the context of international migration. This group consists of primarily people from China (606,889) and Korea (593,489) respectively, as the two largest groups. The second largest group is from Brazil (316,967), making up the aforementioned Nikkeijin group who are able to reside in Japan legally due to their Japanese ancestry (resulting in South Americans making up 19% of the total). While the fourth largest group comes from South-East Asia, notably the Philippines (202,592), reflecting the large number of people brought to Japan under the trainee program and on the euphemistically labelled 'entertainer' visas (making up 16% of the total number of foreign residents in Japan) (Japan Immigration Association, Statistics on Foreign Residents in Japan, 2007: 2-3).

Table 6

Generation Y's Preferred Country Of Origin for Foreign Workers (2006, %)


Southeast Asia 38.7
South Asia (India) 29.7
Western Europe


Northeast Asia 13
Africa 11.2
North America 11
Eastern Europe/Russia 10.7
South America 7.2
Source: Authors' survey 

In light of the data, there is a disconnection with where migrants are coming from and where Generation Y prefers they come from. While most of the migrants in Japan are from surrounding Asian countries (i.e. Northeast Asia), Generation Y seems more open to accepting workers from either India or Southeast Asia. In contrast, Northeast Asia is relatively less popular as a source region for foreign workers. In a series of informal discussions, the prevailing rationale behind this disparity is that young Japanese people feel that Northeast Asian migrants are already sufficiently represented in Japan and that migrants from South Asia and Southeast Asia are underrepresented (for instance at Kobe University half of the foreign students are Chinese ).

Skilled Migration

Due to the unwillingness of many young people to do menial and relatively low-paid work, these jobs are frequently filled by unskilled foreign labour. Although skilled and highly-skilled positions (such as in IT and finance) are filled by foreign labour in very small numbers, demand for unskilled labour is by far greater. Notably, most of Japan's unskilled workers are employed in Japan's large manufacturing and agricultural sectors chiefly in the prefectures of Aichi, Gifu, Hiroshima and Shizuoka. Despite the prevalence of foreign workers in unskilled positions however, there is a high degree of support by Generation Y in both urban and rural Japan for increased levels of skilled migration to Japan as Table 7 below shows. Interestingly, female respondents were more supportive than men by around 12%, thus young Japanese women support unskilled and skilled migration to a similar degree (unlike males who favour the former category).

Table 7

Generation Y's opinion on skilled migration (Urban-Rural comparison) (2007, %)

Answer/Sex Total Urban Rural
Agree 73.2 74.7 70.7
Disagree 24.2 22.7 27
Don't know 2.5 2.6 2.3
Total number 594 379 215
Source: Authors' survey

Meanwhile, Table 8 below tells us that Generation Y accurately sees demand for skilled migration as existing chiefly in the areas of IT and health, thus reflecting critical service sectors where Japan has been, albeit lackadaisically, attempting to recruit foreign workers.

Table 8

Where Generation Y sees a need for skilled migration (2007, %)
Answer/Sex Total Men Women
Medicine/health 19.4 18.9 19.8
IT 18.1 18.7 17.5
Education (teachers/lecturers) 17.8 16.8 18.8
Engineering 10.8 9.7 11.9
No Answer 10.6 12.6 8.5
Business/entrepreneurs 10.4 10.3 10.6
Science 8.2 8.9 7.4
Professional services 4.7 3.9 5.6
Total number 758 380 378
Sources: Authors' survey

Concluding Discussion

To date, the Japan's conservative government has preferred an ad-hoc and low-risk policy approach to plugging labour shortages for unskilled jobs using a range of 'side-door' mechanisms, while at the same time being officially opposed to any overt policy that smacks of importing unskilled labour. At the same time, it upheld an explicit policy of importing skilled labour, although it has been quite passive in carrying out this aim. Paradoxically, despite public opinion and policymakers being unanimously in support of increasing the intake of skilled workers, no serious policymaking aimed at attracting and retaining such workers has taken place to reflect this. Japan's leadership could learn from countries like Australia that use their English speaking universities as a 'magnet' to attract foreign students (particularly in the fields of science and technology) who are then eligible to gain permanent residency upon graduation. In contrast, Japan only grants strict two year terms for postdoctoral researchers in science and technology, while graduate and undergraduate scholars are also sent home upon completion of their studies. The crux of the issue, as one commentator noted is: 'No matter how much Japan speeds up the processing of scientific visas, it will not attract more foreigners unless Japanese firms are prepared to give them senior jobs' (The Economist, October 6, 2006).

In contrast to skilled labour, the pool of unskilled labour continues to increase in Japan due to a wide range of temporary visa categories being created and introduced by the Japanese government in part to satisfy demands by its manufacturing sector for a steady yet flexible supply of cost effective imported labour. Ironically therefore, by importing unskilled labour through various side door mechanisms under a range of euphemistic headings, Japanese policies have been purposeful and strategic, although they have come under intense criticism on ethical grounds and are clearly out of sync with the immigration policies of other wealthy democratic nations.

Under the LDP's stewardship, Japanese officials devised a range of socially and politically acceptable side-door mechanisms to import unskilled labour over past decades, while proactive policymaking to attract skilled labour was seriously lacking. Accordingly, the restrictive Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, which forms the cornerstone of Japan's immigration policy, has seen few significant amendments since it came into force in the early post-war period. Japan has instead preferred to focus on enforcement measures thus reflecting the conservative party's ideology of maintaining a distinct, culturally homogenous and 'beautiful Japan'. The limited residency time allotted to those foreign workers who came to Japan to undertake lowly paid and unskilled jobs thus reflected an embedded notion of 'short-termism' in Japan's long-standing restrictive immigration policy.

Despite the fact that Japan's policy stance on immigration has been inchoate and stubbornly resistant to change, in practice this 'path of least resistance' was relatively successful in delivering migrant workers to certain sectors of the manufacturing economy. Whether this was achieved in the most optimal or egalitarian way however is open to debate. Nonetheless, this temporising policy has appeared to have reached the limits of its usefulness in the face of an increasingly interconnected and hyper competitive global economy.

The extent to which Japan's new ruling coalition headed by the DPJ revises Japan's hitherto restrictive immigration policies and pursues a bolder, more strategic and ethical immigration policy will depend largely on whether an intra-party consensus can be achieved and as to how well this new leadership can engage with the public in discussing this important issue and achieving at least some broad-based agreement on what type of immigration policy best serves Japan's future needs.

As the data reflecting contemporary public opinion on this issue suggests, the time seems to be right for Japan to be bolder in establishing a public consensus on immigration that will underpin more strategically sound policymaking that will prove fairer, more transparent and produce better long-term tangible economic ends for Japan. Importantly, the generation that will no doubt face the consequences of an ageing population and declining economy are relatively upbeat about the prospect of greater levels of immigration; seemingly understanding that immigration can be an economic multiplier, especially skilled migration.

In short, Japan's present stance on immigration is overdue for an honest discussion and reappraisal. The present policy is clearly not working as unskilled foreign workers continue to enter Japan, while it has become widely accepted that strategically importing skilled human capital can bring a wide range of economic benefits to a receiving nation. It appears therefore, to be in Japan's own self-interest to re-evaluate its long-held restrictive immigration policy and formulate a more sophisticated and less conservative immigration policy that is more in line with global trends and domestic realities.

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[1] The recent case of a Filipino couple who were deported but were forced to leave their daughter who had been born in Japan with a legally residing Tokyo-based relative is a case in point.

[2] The other measure was introducing criminal penalties on employers for recruiting unskilled workers illegally residing in Japan.

[3] Generation Y is also known as the ‘Millennial Generation’; a demographic cohort following Generation X, they are also often the offspring of baby boomers and more recently referred to as ‘Generation Next’. For more information see the Pew Research Center’s ‘A portrait of Generation X’, January 9, 2007.

[4] The survey was conducted from 1 September 2006 until 30 April 2007. The total sample size (ages 18-25) that this paper surveyed numbered 400 undergraduate university students based in the greater Kobe, Tokyo and Osaka areas. Most of the respondents were Kobe University students from a range of academic disciplines; this is also the institution where the researchers themselves were based. To reduce sampling errors the survey was also conducted at 2 universities in both Tokyo and Osaka (one public and one private in each city). Moreover, to further reduce the chance of sampling error, the survey was written in Japanese and limited to 10 questions.


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About the Authors

James Llewelyn undertook his PhD at Kobe University in Political Science from 2002 until 2006, after which he completed a two year postdoctoral fellowship at the same university under the auspices of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. During this period he focused on Japan and conflict in Southeast Asia. He presently conducts historical research for the Australian Department of Defence.

Jun Hirano is presently a doctoral candidate at Kobe University. Concurrently he is also a Research Associate at the same university within the Faculty of Law. Using modelling, his research is focused on analyzing the results of Japanese mayoral elections from theoretical perspectives, particularly the pattern of confrontation in these elections between new candidates and the incumbent mayor.

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Copyright: Jamese Llewelyn and Junichi Hirano
This page was created on 30 November 2009. It was last modified on 30 September 2010.

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