Re-examining the roles of the polity-bureaucracy-industry triad in Japanese immigration policymaking: how have the major actors’ levels of influence changed since 1990?

Maximilien Xavier Rehm, Doshisha University [About | Email]

Volume 24, Issue 1 (Article 3 in 2024). First published in ejcjs on 16 April 2024.


Japan is admitting increasingly more foreign residents, as it faces a structural need for labor due to demographic issues. This makes understanding the Japanese immigration regime, and the policymaking process that led to it, more relevant than ever. This article examines how immigration policy in Japan is debated, formulated, and ultimately passed into law through taking an actor-focused approach and analysing two case studies. Specifically, the interplay between political, bureaucratic, and industry actors in the policymaking of the 1990 system and 2019 amendment will be outlined. The results of this study indicate increased influence of the political executive in lieu of the bureaucracy, especially in terms of agenda-setting, with industry actors broadly maintaining their levels of influence in both cases analysed.

Keywords: Japanese politics, migration policy, policy analysis, foreigners in Japan


As of December 2022, more than 3 million foreigners live in Japan (Immigration Services Agency of Japan, Ministry of Justice, 2023b). This is a record number, and one which follows a steady increase in the foreign population over the last ten years (see Figure 1). Japan is confronted with shōshi kōreika [1]—the coupling of a low birth rate with an ageing society. One consequence of these demographic challenges is a chronic labour shortage among numerous sectors within the Japanese economy, and it is expected that foreign workers will continue to play a more pronounced role in alleviating these shortages. Indeed, a recent study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) estimated that Japan would need to quadruple its foreign workforce to over 6.7 million to achieve the governments GDP growth targets (Japan International Cooperation Agency, 2022). This makes understanding the Japanese policymaking process in the field of immigration more relevant than ever before.

Figure 1. Change in the Total Number of Foreign Residents in Japan, 2012-2022. The above figure was created based on MOJ data (Immigration Bureau, Ministry of Justice, 2015; Immigration Services Agency of Japan, Ministry of Justice, 2020, 2021, 2022a, 2022b, 2022c).

The goal of this paper is to shed new light on how immigration policy in Japan is debated, formulated, and ultimately passed into law through taking an actor-focused approach and analysing two case studies. The three primary actors I am focusing on are political, bureaucratic, and industry actors, and I will evaluate their influence onto the policymaking process in two specific policy decisions, which simultaneously represent arguably the most significant reforms in Japanese immigration policy within the past four decades. These are: (1) The 1990 amendment to the Immigration Control Act that arguably set up Japan’s modern immigration regime; (2) the 2019 amendment to the same law that (primarily) introduced the Specified Skilled Worker (SSW) status.
Through this analysis, I aim to outline how the levels of influence of the primary actors shaping policy in this domain has changed over the past three-plus decades. I will argue that while all three actors remain influential in immigration policymaking, the balance of power has shifted away from the bureaucracy and towards the political executive. At the same time, industry actors have remained at similar levels of influence. In my conclusion, I will consider how this shift in the balance of power could potentially influence future policymaking.

Literature Review

Japan has experienced an influx of so-called “newcomer” migration since the 1980s, which stands in contrast to the “oldcomer migration” of primarily Korean pre-war migrants (zainichi korian). This influx of new migrants has garnered significant scholarly attention. While scholars focusing on Japanese migration policy oftentimes come from a background in Sociology (see for example Kajita, 1994, 2002; Komai, 1994, 2016; Miyajima, 1993), numerous academic works on the immigration policymaking process have also been published that are relevant to this piece. For example, Hachiya was one of the first authors that examined how government and industry actors attempt to influence policy in this domain, outlining the more pro-foreign worker stance of industry when compared to actors in government (Hachiya, 1992). Cornelius accurately outlined the historical power of bureaucratic actors, as well as the occasional friction between ministries with competing agendas on the issue of administering foreigners and foreign workers specifically (Cornelius, 1994).
There have also been numerous macro-perspective analyses on developments in Japanese migration policy, which oftentimes include political and political actor dynamics (Akashi, 2014; Endoh, 2019; Hollifield and Sharpe, 2017; Kondo, 2002). These have increased even further with the passage of the 2019 amendment to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act (hereafter ICRRA). For instance, Strausz focused primarily on the dynamics shaping political actors’ views on immigration, including the interplay with various other state and non-state actors (Strausz, 2019). Similarly, Song focused on the political balancing act that the policies of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe represented, who sought both to bring in more foreign workers to advance his economic agenda while placating his hawkish anti-immigration base of support (Song, 2020). Perhaps the work closest to this paper is a 2010 Japanese-language book by Akashi, in which he scrutinizes all of the actors’ positions, and how they interacted, in great detail to explain how major aspects of the Japanese immigration regime was formed (Akashi, 2010).
This paper builds on the work of previous scholars, and specifically Akashi’s book, in two important ways: (1) By focusing specifically on the three most impactful actors whilst examining two specific instances of policymaking, a more detailed and contextualised look at each actors’ level of influence is possible; (2) through examining one recent instance of policymaking in addition to one historic case, my paper goes further than Akashi’s work (which stops in the late 2000s) to look at how these levels of influence have changed.

Method & Sourcing

In the United States, a significant concept in policymaking is the "iron triangle," representing the dynamics and relationship among bureaucrats, politicians, and interest groups. Similarly, in the Japanese context, scholars have described the triangular dynamic among bureaucrats, politicians, and industry as akin to a game of jankenpon, or rock-paper-scissors (Vogel, 2022). In this context, politicians may be seen as prevailing over bureaucrats, bureaucrats over industry, and industry representatives over politicians, each leveraging these dynamics to secure concessions during the policymaking process. Regarding immigration policy, I propose a simplified framework—the notion of a "triad"—highlighting the bureaucracy, politicians, and industry as the primary cohort of influential actors shaping policy (see Figure 2).


Figure 2. The “Triad” of Influential Policy Actors in Japanese Immigration Policymaking.Table created by author.

Figure 2 broadly outlines the major players, separating politicians into the members of the executive (including Prime Minister’s Office, or kantei, and Ministers of State) and non-executive (members of the legislature, the Diet). The figure was inspired and adapted from a similar figure outlining the changes in Japanese decision-making that was originally created by Hideaki Tanaka, and then adapted into English by Tomohito Shinoda (Shinoda, 2022). Of course, Figure 2 is a simplified visual representation, and there are also significant differences in the policy priorities advocated for among the various actors (e.g. ministries, different political factions, industry organisations) in addition to between them.
Historically, and therefore especially relevant for the first case study that I analyse in this article, the Japanese bureaucracy was an extremely strong player in policymaking, with low numbers of political appointees resulting in comparatively high levels of autonomy, in addition to a steady pipeline of capable administrators from Japan’s top universities (Vogel, 2022: 101). When it comes to immigration policy, the most dominant ministry in immigration is the MOJ, which controls the admittance, control, administration, and parts of the integration of foreigners in Japan. On the other hand, political actors were comparatively weaker for much of Japan’s post-war history. In Japan, political actors that influence policymaking primarily include the Prime Minister through his cabinet as well as non-cabinet politicians through their intra-party factions, policy subcommittees, or other more informal groupings (Shinoda, 2022). In the late 1980s, executive power through the cabinet was still lacking, with Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) “tribes” of policy specialists from subcommittees, called zoku, having comparatively more influence on policymaking. Industry actors generally influence the policymaking process through business federations and other advocacy organisations representing their interest, who publish policy proposals and whitepapers as well as oftentimes having direct access to powerful politicians. Over the course of this article, the interplay within and among these actors—and how their influence has changed—will be a major focal point and will form the basis of the analysis to come.
Finally, this article is predominantly based on an analysis of primary source documents, including policy proposals, whitepapers, and records Diet sessions. At times, it is augmented through secondary sources, such as academic articles.

Case Study 1: The “1990 System”

What Is the “1990 System” and Its Significance?
The “1990 system” refers to a set of laws and reforms that were passed and instituted in and around 1990. It was implemented following an influx of foreign workers throughout the 1980s, many of whom initially entered Japan under a tourist visas, which they then overstayed to find work in Japan—meaning that these workers did not have legal status. Other foreign workers entered as trainees, vocational students, or as predominantly female nightlife workers utilising the Entertainer residence status (Yamanaka, 1993). The reasons for this influx were complex. However, one primary dynamic was the booming Japanese economy in the 1980s leading to labour shortages in subcontract manufacturing, construction, and other traditionally “blue-collar” jobs—labour shortages that were increasingly difficult to fill domestically as young Japanese workers shifted towards higher paying jobs with better working conditions in other sectors. Collectively, the policy problem that emerged due to the rapid increase of these workers was known at the time as the gaikokujin rōdōsha mondai, or foreign worker problem. Discourse surrounding this problem, fueled by politicians, other interested stakeholders, the media, and the public at large, was heated. Eventually, policymakers were forced to act, and this section describes how the three main actors in the triad outlined their positions and interacted to formulate a policy response.
To begin, it is important to provide a baseline of understanding as to what the 1990 system entails exactly. Hiroshi Komai (2016: 14) defines the 1990 system in the following way:

1.     In principle, Japan will not admit so-called lower skilled workers. (Japan does not have an immigration policy.)
2.     Nikkeijin, i.e., 2nd and 3rd generation Japanese emigrants and their spouses, will be admitted and allowed to work (with limited restrictions to length of stay and type of work).
3.     The trainee system will be reorganised (eventually into the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP) in 1993), and more trainees will be admitted.
4.     So-called highly skilled foreign workers will be admitted pro-actively.
*The comments in brackets were added by me for clarity.

The legal framework of the 1990 system can found in the 1990 amendment to the ICRRA, which effectively codified the 1st and 4th aspects given above. The 2nd and 3rd aspects were implemented through smaller law changes, primarily unilateral notices (which function close to decrees) from the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) in the period from 1990 to 1993. The 1990 system is extremely significant to understanding how the modern Japanese immigration regime works for two main reasons. First, it reaffirmed the principle that Japan does not formally allow pathways for lower skilled foreign workers, which was tied by policymakers to the establishment of a formal immigration policy. At least nominally, this principle still underpins Japanese migration policy today. Second, it established the pathways for many foreign workers to enter Japan. As of October 2022, there were 318,850 workers holding the status Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services, 121,008 holding the status Long-term Resident, and a total of 343,254 participants in the TITP (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2023), which together account for almost half of the foreign workforce in Japan. All these pathways were created through the 1990 system.
Ironically, many of the foreign workers entering through these pathways, especially nikkeijin and technical interns, ended up working in jobs that can be classified as lower skilled labor, leading to many scholars identifying them as so-called “side door” systems (Cohen, 2020) or “de facto guest workers” (Chung, 2019). This is the core contradiction of the 1990 system: while it reaffirmed the principle of barring lower skilled foreign workers de jure, it actively created pathways to admit them de facto—all the while denying a formal immigration policy.

Policymaking Process (1): Bureaucratic Infighting
What then was the policymaking process that led to this system? Basically, there were two main dynamics at play: an initial phase of bureaucratic infighting that led to the MOJ to reaffirm its control over the immigration portfolio and push through its more conservative agenda, as exemplified by the 1990 amendment. This was followed by a post-amendment phase that saw the emergence of industry and political actors, who demanded the establishment of some pathways for lower skilled foreign workers to alleviate the still pressing labour shortage in certain sectors of the economy. Therefore, at least until after the 1990 amendment went into effect, advocates for a more open policy towards foreign workers were not able to have their views reflected in legislation. This is because the two ministries with the most direct stake in the issue, the MOJ and then-Ministry of Labour [2] (MOL), were exerting their influence to push through their agenda. While both had exhibited hesitant or hawkish views on immigration, they were engaged in a battle over who was to exert administrative control over the immigration portfolio.
As an example, MOJ bureaucrat Tetsuo Yamazaki, who played part in drafting legislation at this time, was emblematic for the conservative views dominating the bureaucracy during this time. In a speech on the issue, he outlined that Japan’s ethnic homogeneity as being a core characteristic of Japan, tying it directly to the country’s economic successes (Yamazaki, 1987). He said that Japan’s economic miracle was thus achieved “not through letting foreigners and foreign capital control our economy,” but rather due to the “intelligence and diligence of the Japanese people.” Furthermore, Japan’s strict rejection of foreign workers up until that point had enabled the country to avoid “chaos in the labor market and low economic growth” and “social tensions resulting from slums and crime.”  
Despite such thinking, the MOJ did initially float an idea of a work permit system capped at three years (Akashi, 2010: 101). However, this was quickly scrapped due to both ideological and administrative concerns, as it would have probably entailed granting more power to the MOL. As a response to the MOJ’s first move, the MOL began in earnest to study and summarise its own policy priorities. The ministry launched the “Foreign Worker Problem Research Group” in December of 1987, and came up with its own work permit system that was presented to the Minister of Labour. While the proposed system was quite limited in scope, explicitly barring unskilled labourers from coming to Japan, it would have essentially handed over administrative control to the MOL (Koike, 1988). Therefore, it was unsurprisingly criticised by the MOJ. For instance, then Minister of Justice Yukio Hayashida outlined the most common such criticism during a session of the National Diet in April 1988: “If we create a new work permit system, this will create a system of duplicating checks” (National Diet Library, 1988). He thus argued the work permit system was essentially redundant, as the MOJ already performed a similar function in administering the various status of residences. As there was limited intra-government support for the MOL’s plan, the MOJ won this “turf battle” within the bureaucracy and the work permit idea was shelved. Aside from their fundamental disagreement with regards to the (MOL-proposed) work permit system, however, the two major players in the bureaucracy essentially had converged in their stance towards unskilled foreign workers. In the same Diet session cited above, Hayashida said that “I agree with the MOL’s research group that we should not admit unskilled foreign workers.”
This convergence is also reflected in the proposals of the subsequent research groups launched by the MOJ and MOL from 1988 to 1989. The MOJ’s “Committee to Study the Foreign Worker Immigration Problem” produced two reports that emphasised the need to eliminate illegal foreign workers, while adopting increasingly hesitant language on the issue of unskilled foreign workers (Committee to Study the Foreign Worker Immigration Problem, 1988, 1989). For its part, the MOL’s “Foreign Worker Problem Investigative Committee” also produced two reports (Foreign Worker Problem Investigative Committee, 1988a, 1988b). However, these were notable only in how they began to echo the MOJ’s position, dropping the request for a work permit system.
Furthermore, the MOJ wasted no time in beginning to draft the upcoming amendment to the Immigration Control Act, starting the process in March of 1988. Interestingly, as part of their announcement that they were doing so, the MOJ stated that “with regards to the acceptance of unskilled foreign workers, while the majority view is that we should not accept them, there are some who argue that we should” (Immigration Bureau, Ministry of Justice, 1988). However, it is difficult to argue that this “majority view” on the issue of unskilled workers had truly been achieved. Many research groups within the triad of influential actors were still studying the issue, and important proposals from other actors would only be released later. Nevertheless, the MOJ was determined to push forward, opening themselves up to criticism from other actors. This was reflected within debate in the National Diet as well, with one opposition lawmaker saying that “it really feels the MOJ is an exceptional hurry” (National Diet Library, 1989). Overall, the haste with which the 1990 amendment was drafted reflects the MOJ’s fear, in part due to the MOL’s initial push, that they their dominant position on the matter of immigration was being challenged. 
Policymaking Process (2): The Emergence of Industry and Political Actors
As mentioned above, the 1990 amendment, which was pushed through by the MOJ and largely reflected their policy priorities, was extremely limited in scope. It primarily focused on establishing new residence statuses for highly skilled foreign workers, smoothing out bureaucratic procedures for the admittance of foreign workers, and tightening regulations with regards to foreigners not holding legal status (Shimada, 1991: 125). This, however, decidedly left the needs of one of the other major actors in the triad: industry actors representing Japan’s powerful business community.
The most prominent such organisation representing business interests today is the Japan Business Federation, which is commonly known by their Japanese name Keidanren even in English-language publications. This organisation represents more than 1,000 of Japan’s biggest companies, as well as numerous regional industrial/economic organisations. Today’s Keidanren was established in 2002 through the absorption of the Japan Federation of Employers’ Associations (Nikkeiren) into the former Keidanren, which was established in 1946. The other two major organisations are the Japan Association for Corporate Executives (Keizaidōyūkai) and the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (known as Nisshō), as well as their regional offshoots—with the Tokyo and Osaka (Kansai) branches playing an outside influence even nationwide.
The easiest way to understand the industry position is by looking at the various policy proposals major associations representing business interests put out during this period. Given business’ historically prominent role in shaping Japanese policy and their very clear position as stakeholders (either directly as employers or indirectly through supply chain needs), the late 1980s saw a many such business organisation summarising their views on immigration in the form of such policy proposals. While there was a divergence of opinion between some prominent organisations, with the Kansai Association of Corporate Executives (Kansai Association of Corporate Executives, 1989) being more explicitly in favour of foreign workers while the Nikkeiren (Japan Federation of Employers’ Associations, 1992) decidedly was not, a convergence of opinion on the issue was eventually achieved among many prominent actors.
The position that would become most influential in policymaking was a quasi-middle ground approach between the two proposals cited above. This position was most famously outlined by the Japan Association for Corporate Executives, and it also focused on the idea of “skills transfer.” They released a policy paper in 1989, arguing that “while we should proactively admit foreigners with excellent knowledge and skills, we should avoid the admittance of cheap foreign labor. As part of an open Japan that contributes to the world, we should develop a large-scale intern program” (Japan Association of Corporate Executives, 1989). This “large-scale intern program,” based on on-the-job training, would simultaneously allow the admittance of foreigners to improve the labour shortage, decrease the reliance on unregistered workers, and facilitate the skills transfer and thus economic development of sending countries. Interestingly, they admit that such a program would de-facto act as a substitute for the formal admittance of foreign labour, stating that “the institution of a large-scale intern program would give employment opportunities for foreign workers in sectors that are not covered by employment visas.” The Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 1989), Keidanren (Keidanren, 1992), other regional organisations, as well as those representing small and medium-sized businesses also released policy proposals converging around the idea of expanding the trainee system to a larger on-the-job intern program (Hachiya, 1992).
This converging view was thus eventually reflected in policy. In addition to the calls for the “orderly admittance” of foreign workers, the request to expand the trainee system into a larger scale intern program became core elements of the 1990 system. However, it took the re-emergence of political actors to put pressure on the bureaucracy to implement the requests of big business.
Political actors were at first notably absent from exerting meaningful influence on the policymaking process. In general, political actors come primarily from the LDP, who has been in power successively outside of a brief period from 1993-1994 and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government of 2009-2012. In the period of 1999-2009, and from 2012, the LDP ruled together with their junior coalition partner Kōmeitō (generally referred to as Komeito in English)—a centre-right party that is closely aligned with the Buddhist movement Sōka Gakkai. However, it is important to note that the LDP is not a monolithic entity, as the politics of factionalism have produced internal fragmentation, including on immigration.
The LDP studied the foreign worker problem through a total of four policy subcommittees, who each submitted their findings between April and May of 1988 (Akashi, 2010: 101). The most influential grouping was without a doubt the “Special Committee to Study the Foreign Worker Problem,” which received media attention when it submitted their interim report in May 1988 (The Mainichi Shimbun, 1988). However, these subcommittees added little new proposals and generally reflected the dominant view of the bureaucrats at the time. Additionally, the political executive was able to exert very little leadership on the issue in the late 1980s. Noburu Takeshita was, in power as Prime Minister from 1987 to 1989, was perhaps most identified with the foreign worker problem. However, as the debate on immigration was heating up, he was embroiled in one of the most dramatic scandals in Japanese political history. The so-called rikurūto jiken (recruit scandal) was a major insider trading and corruption scandal, and one that led his long-time aide Ihei Aoki to commit suicide—eventually prompting the resignation of many prominent Japanese politicians, including Takeshita in June of 1989. His successor, Sosuke Uno, had to resign after just 69 days following a separate scandal involving his affair with a geisha. Considering these circumstances, it is perhaps of little surprise that the political executive exerted “little to no leadership” on immigration policy (Cornelius, 1994: 386).
It took until after the 1990 amendment’s passage for political actors to re-emergence in a meaningful way, and they were especially influential in pushing through reforms to the trainee system, which eventually culminated in the establishment of the TITP in 1993. For example, the LDP’s Special Committee to Study the Foreign Worker Problem became increasingly more vocal in their advocacy for an expansion of the trainee system. In July 1990, they outlined their idea for a one-year extension to the trainee system, where participants who passed a skills test would be allowed to de facto engage in employment (Asahi Shimbun, 1990). As outlined above, the LDP was undoubtedly responding to their constituents in the business community, who felt that their needs were not met by 1990 amendment.
The political executive also acted through the “Subcommittee about Japan’s Place in the World” (hereafter Subcommittee). The Subcommittee was part of the “Interim Committee for the Promotion of Administrative Reform,” which in turn served an advisory role to the Prime Minister. It was thus directly tied to the highest level of the political executive. The Subcommittee began discussing the admittance of foreign workers in July of 1991, and submitted what would become one of the most influential reports in shaping policy on this matter in December of the same year (Subcommittee about Japan’s Place in the World, 1991).
Specifically, the Subcommittees report outlined the primary characteristics of what was to become the TITP in the following way: (1) Setting a limit to the total number of technical interns accepted, and acceptable industries where interns could be admitted; (2) a period of stay of two years , with no room for extension; (3) strict limits on family reunification and ability to change employees; (4) in principle, access to laws guaranteeing labour rights and other social welfare systems (if the intern passes a skills test following a period of initial training). While this proposal did mirror many requests already made by industry in the late 1980s, it basically represented the rough outline of the program that would eventually be set up in 1993. Even the name, Technical Intern Training Program, was taken from this proposal.
While the proposal by the Subcommittee did receive some backlash from the bureaucracy, it was eventually realised due to heavy pressure by political actors. However, the MOJ was determined to make a stand on the issue that they felt most strongly about: barring the formal admittance of lower skilled workers in any capacity. Having just legally reaffirmed this principle through the 1990 amendment, the MOJ was not prepared to diverge from this core policy. Therefore, the TITP had to be presented in a different way. A workaround to formally admitting trainees as workers was already built in towards the various proposals that were influential in shaping policy. As was initially proposed by industry and then underscored by the Subcommittee’s report, the core vision for the expansion of the trainee system/establishment of the TITP centered around the idea of “skills transfer.” The MOJ doubled down on this idea, stating that “we are planning (to establish the ‘Technical Intern Training Program’) not from the perspective of ‘compensating for the labor shortage,’ but rather from the viewpoint of ‘international cooperation and contributing to international society’” (Policy Division, Immigration Bureau, Ministry of Justice, 1992: 112–113).
One notable exception was the decision to liberalise the admittance of the nikkeijin in 1990, which was made largely outside of the larger policymaking process vis-à-vis the foreign worker problem during this period. While going into effect at the same time as the 1990 amendment, the initial draft of that law contains no mention of the nikkeijin or the Long-term Resident visa status that was granted to them. Rather, this status was added through the issuance of a notice from the MOJ on May 24th, 1990, to go in effect together with the revised law just one week later (Fukuda, 2002: 44). Scholars have long debated whether policymakers were aware that the liberal admittance of Japanese co-ethnics would lead to a surge in lower skilled nikkeijin workers, or whether this was an “unintended consequence” of the policy (Kajita, 2002: 21–25). Regardless of the initial intent of the policy, it is undeniable that it was to become a major component of the 1990 system. The establishment of the Long-term Resident status enabled the Japanese government to frame the mass migration and permanent settlement of hundreds of thousands of lower skilled foreign workers as a simple ethnic repatriation program—allowing them to maintain their position regarding the just-passed 1990 amendment, that unskilled workers were not to be admitted.
Policymaking Process (3): Mapping the Actors’ Level of Influence
Taking aside the unique dynamics regarding the decision to admit nikkeijin, the policymaking process surrounding the 1990 system can be summarised as follows. Firstly, there was a primarily bureaucrat-led push to codify a hawkish set of reforms to the Immigration Control Act, culminating in the 1990 amendment. This push was initially beset by infighting over administrative control between the MOJ and MOL, which the former was able to maintain. The amendment’s primary significance is the re-affirmation of the principle that no unskilled foreign workers were to be admitted to Japan. However, as this amendment did not alleviate the labour shortage concerns of industry actors, a second phase of policymaking commenced starting in 1990. Actors representing business organisations were joined by political actors in pushing for a reform to the trainee system, eventually culminating in the establishment of the TITP in 1993. The TITP is notable in that does not allow formal access to unskilled workers, but rather admits them as technical interns under the guise of skill transfer to developing countries. This allowed the MOJ maintain the principle of no unskilled workers codified through the 1990 amendment.

Figure 3. Policymaking Process Leading to the 1990 System. Table created by the author. Size of each square represents level of influence.
Figure 3 visualises the policymaking process outlined above. While all three actors that form the triad were influential in pushing through their policy priorities during this period in Japanese immigration policymaking, the relative strength of the bureaucracy and relative weakness of the political executive undoubtedly played a decisive role in how the 1990 system was formed.

Case Study 2: The 2019 Amendment to the Immigration Control Act

What Does the 2019 Amendment Entail and What is Its Significance?
There have been numerous other reforms to the Japanese immigration regime since the 1990 system was established. These include the 300,000 International Student Plan of 2007, the 2012 introduction of a points-based system for highly skilled foreign professionals and 2017 Technical Intern Training Act. At the same time, many of the core elements of the 1990 system, including the principles of no formal immigration policy and no (front door) admission of unskilled foreign workers, remain nominally in place. As described above, many foreign workers still rely on the pathways established by the 1990 system to enter Japan. The 2019 amendment to the ICRRA is significant in that it is arguably the first piece of legislation that has the potential to change the status quo established around 1990.
The 2019 amendment was initially passed by the 197th National Diet in December of 2018 before going into effect on April 1st of 2019. Most significantly, the amendment created two new visa categories (Specified Skilled Worker, or SSW, 1 and 2) for a total of 12 economic sectors identified as having a labor shortage. Other major aspects of the amendment include the implementation of the “Comprehensive Measures for Acceptance and Coexistence of Foreign Nationals” (hereafter Comprehensive Measures) at a cost of ¥21.1 billion. These are various integration measures for foreigners, including improving access to public services as well as enhancing Japanese language education and job-matching services. Finally, on the institutional level, the Immigration Services Agency (ISA) was established to run the immigration regime, replacing the Immigration Bureau (IB). While still part of the bureaucratic apparatus of the MOJ, it is now an external bureau with more autonomy and a larger budget. Overall, the 2019 amendment can be said to be significant for two reasons:

(1)  The establishment of the SSW visa category created a regulated pathway (front door) for the admission of a large number of low- and medium-skilled workers for the first time, with its cap being set at 345,150 over the first five years.
(2)  The SSW (ii) visa, which provides a pathway towards permanent residency and a route for family migration, and the Comprehensive Measures protruding policies that recognize long-term settlement and the need for social integration.

While the above does read like a significant policy divergence, the implementation of the 2019 amendment has resulted in more incremental rather than radical change. This is primarily due to the institutional intersection of the SSW system with the TITP, both in the industries covered by the new system and its administration. For instance, the SSW heavily relies on so-called registered support organisations to fulfill a similar role to the supervising organisations of the TITP, and about half of these organisations are registered in both systems as of 2021 (Rehm, 2021).
Furthermore, the haste with which it was implemented together with the COVID-19 induced global pandemic have contributed to a slow initial rollout. Once the strictest border controls for foreign workers subsided throughout 2022, admission to the SSW system picked up, but it still looks set to miss the target of 345,150 admissions for the first five years. As of June 2022, there were 87,472 SSW workers, a number that increased to 173,101 by June 2023 (Immigration Services Agency of Japan, Ministry of Justice, 2023a). Perhaps unsurprisingly, most admissions—121,090 out of 173,101 (about 70%) at time of writing—come from the TITP. Finally, the SSW (ii) status, which admits SSW workers permanently, has seen a meager uptake. Only 12 SSW (ii) status holders have been admitted, raising doubts as to whether Japan wants to welcome workers using the SSW track permanently. Still, the 2019 amendment looks to play a major role in admitting workers going forward. Post-pandemic, admission into the program is set to grow, and the government has recently expanded the SSW (ii) system to include all applicable economic sectors covered but nursing, which already has its own separate residence status allowing for permanent settlement.
Policymaking Process (1): Increased Executive Leadership
Let us now look at the policymaking process that led to this major reform. First, I want to underscore that the 2019 amendment was born in a vastly different context to the 1990 system. The admission of foreign workers was not an issue that captured broad-ranging attention of elites and the public like the “foreign worker problem” did beginning the in late 1980s. Rather, the context within which the 2019 amendment was born in is inherently related to the late former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, whose second stint in office lasted from December 2012 to September 2020. During this time, Abe tied his political legitimacy to his plans for the “economic revitalization” of Japan, known generally as “Abenomics.”
It follows then that policy documents from the Abe era consistently framed his policies with regards to foreign labour admittance as an economic measure. For instance, the MOJ’s 2015 Basic Plan outlined the need to “proactively accept those foreign nationals who contribute to the vitalisation of the Japanese economy” (Immigration Bureau, Ministry of Justice, 2015: 3). Abe initiated numerous reforms to Japan immigration control policy even prior to the 2019 amendment, including increasing pathways for foreign care workers, reforming the points system for highly skilled professionals, passing the Technical Intern Training Act, and allowing for the admittance of 4th generation nikkeijin. The 2019 amendment was thus the latest, and largest, in a series of reforms to the way Japan admits foreign workers specifically. How was he able to exert so much leadership on this issue?
The first reason why the political executive has gained greater power within the policymaking process in Japan are reforms that happened outside the domain of immigration. Since the 1990s, the power balance has slowly shifted away from the bureaucracy and towards more executive control through the Prime Minister and his cabinet (Vogel, 2022). One reason for this shift were the bureaucratic reforms of 2001, which decreased the number of cabinet-level ministries, increased political appointees and gave the Cabinet Secretariat significant control over policymaking (Shinoda, 2022: 251). More recently, Abe’s second government consolidated executive power even further, especially through increasing control over top civil service appointments in 2014 (Vogel, 2022: 110). As we will see, while the power balance within government has shifted between the bureaucracy and polity, the influence of industry remains relatively unchanged—at least when it comes to the field of immigration.
In general, Abe made full use of his newfound powers to run his administration through the political executive first and foremost, with especially his Chief Cabinet Secretary (the head of the Cabinet Secretariat [3]) Suga Yoshihide assuming an influential role in agenda-setting. In addition, Abe’s administration also enjoyed strong political support, consolidating his power within the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) factional system through winning 5 straight elections, benefitting from a splintered and weak opposition, and enjoying relatively high approval ratings despite numerous scandals—most significantly related to cronyism (Song, 2020). In many ways, his administration was a break from the past, as post-war Japan was generally known for having high turnover at the political executive, a “revolving-door” of Prime Ministers. Abe became the longest-serving Prime Minister in Japan’s history, and Suga the longest-serving Chief Cabinet Secretary. This consistency allowed them to exert strong leadership in implementing their policy priorities. Finally, with majorities in both houses of the National Diet, the legislative branch oftentimes merely rubber-stamped the laws conceived by the executive. Overall, Abe managed to preside over an administration that enjoyed unprecedented executive control over the policymaking process, including on immigration. This specifically cut into the influence of the MOJ.
Policymaking Process (2): Pressure from Industry Actors
However, or perhaps because of Abe’s priority on the economy, industry actors were also able to exert influence on the policymaking process that led to the amendment. Here, their motivations were broadly similar to the period surrounding the establishment of the 1990 system: finding a solution for chronic labor shortages. As Japan’s economy normalised following the dual shocks that the global economic recession of the late 2000s and the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 represented, the country’s demographic issues unearthed a structural lack of labour supply. Government data shows that the labour shortage in 2018 was as severe as in the late 1980s, the first time this had been the case since the 1990 system was established (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2019: 79). As ever, the labour shortage was most pronounced in small- and medium-sized businesses.
It is thus no surprise that calls to increase foreign workers grew louder throughout the 2010s. Keidanren, today without a doubt the most influential organisation representing business interests, released their “Basic Stance with Regards to Promoting the Acceptance of Foreign Human Resources” at the end of 2016 (Keidanren, 2016). Reading this document with the benefit of hindsight, it is remarkable how many of their proposals (e.g., expanding pathways for foreign nurses, more liberal permanent residence requirements for highly skilled workers, etc.) would end up being realised as official policy. Most significantly, they called for foreign workers with “a certain skill level” to be admitted under a new residence status for up to 5 years, while mentioning the construction, manufacturing and shipbuilding industries along with nursing as being in need of workers (Keidanren, 2016: 9). The SSW system established through the 2019 amendment reflected this policy proposal quite closely, even mirroring the vague definition of “skills” used by Keidanren. The Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Nisshō), which represents the interests of smaller sized companies, also called for a “a new system of admission for non-technical fields that is outside the framework of a formal immigration policy” in 2017 (The Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 2017). Finally, there is evidence that lobbyists representing business interests had direct access to Suga, who relayed their concerns and proposals to Abe (Song, 2020: 629).
Overall, the industry actors and the political executive were in agreement leading into 2018, when Abe announced the upcoming policy change at a February session of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy (CEFP). The CEFP is the top executive body in the Cabinet Secretariat dealing with economic policy. It is unsurprising then that Abe, who heavily leaned on the political executive and consistently framed the admission of foreign workers in economic terms, would choose this setting for announcing his biggest immigration control reform. He instructed Suga and then Minister of Justice Kamikawa Yoko to proceed with formulating the details of the policy and announced the draft of the bill at a June 5th session of the CEFP. There, he stated that:
Labor shortage is becoming an increasingly serious issue, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises in local districts. For this reason, there is an urgent need to establish a system for accepting a wide range of foreign personnel who have specific expertise and skills, and can be of immediate help. The draft Basic Policy that was presented today clearly sets forth the creation of a new category of residence status, as a matter separate from immigration policies (Cabinet Public Affairs Office, 2018).
Abe’s statement, and the draft bill, clearly show how convergence between his political executive and industry actors was achieved. Indeed, Abe and his administration would consistently double down on this messaging, underscoring the labour shortage, structural need for foreign workers, and the fact that this was not to be confused with a formal immigration policy. Arguably, this focus on economic considerations allowed him to outmaneuver opposition from his traditional, more conservative-minded support base—both within the LDP and outside of it. Buoyed by his third straight election as the LDP’s President in September of 2018, he and Suga accelerated the bill’s passage even further. It was first presented to the House of Representatives of the National Diet on November 2nd, and was officially passed into law on December 12th, to go into effect on April 1st of 2019. Despite a law of this magnitude usually facing a much longer deliberation in the Diet, Abe used his large parliamentary majorities to effectively push it through—even though many of the details of the SSW system were not settled. This would fall to the bureaucrats within the MOJ, who finalised these details in the period leading up to its implementation in April 2019.
Policymaking Process (3): Mapping the Actors’ Level of Influence
The manner with which the 2019 amendment was ultimately drafted, passed, and implemented thus reflected a changed relationship between the actors within the triad, which I have summarised in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Policymaking Process leading to the 2019 Amendment. Table created by the author. Size of each square represents level of influence.
In comparison to the environment that led to the establishment of the 1990 system, the political executive, led by Abe and Suga, was much more instrumental in driving policy change. On the other hand, political actors outside of the executive as well as bureaucratic actors have seen their influence reduced dramatically. While the MOJ still retains administrative control of Japan’s immigration regime on the national level through the ISA, it was not able to harness any agenda-setting powers. Finally, industry actors have broadly retained their levels of influence in the policymaking process, being able to pressure the political executive directly.


Through an actor-focused approach to understanding the Japanese policymaking process, this article has outlined how two arguably most significant policy achievements in the field of immigration have been formulated and implemented. At the same time, this study faces clear limitations: the selection of only three actors and two case studies. There are actors beyond the triad that have the potential to impact the immigration policymaking process, including but not limited to labour unions, migrant advocacy groups, the Japanese public, the migrants themselves, and international actors such as the countries of origin. In the period leading up to the 1990 amendment, public opinion was not necessarily opposed to expanding pathways for all foreign workers (Public Relations Office, Cabinet Secretariat, 1988, 1990), while Japan’s largest labour union argued for a more restrictive approach (Senoo, 1988). With the increase in the foreign-born population in Japan, civil society actors advocating for migrants’ rights have also increased. This has led to organisations such as ijūren (the Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan) being granted access to government officials. Analysing how these actors have, or have not, been able to influence policy is important to conceptualise a broader framework on immigration policymaking in Japan. Similarly, there have been numerous other significant policies beyond the two cases analysed in this paper, and further research is needed to test whether the findings from this paper have broad applicability.

Figure 5. Immigration Policymaking in Japan, 1990 System and 2019 Amendment. Table created by the author. Size of each square represents level of influence.
Despite these limitations, this article has shed new light on the immigration policymaking process in Japan (see Figure 5). Specifically, there are two significant differences when comparing the processes that led to the 1990 system and 2019 amendment. First, the agenda-setting power of the bureaucracy has noticeably diminished. In the late 1980s, bureaucrats from the MOJ and MOL were pro-active in outlining their policy priorities and moving towards having them reflected in policy. It took a concerted effort by industry and political actors to gain concessions during this process, and only after the 1990 amendment was initially passed were their goals able to be realised. The inconsistency of the 1990 system, which protrudes to bar the admittance of unskilled foreign workers while admitting them through the side door, is emblematic of this patchwork process. While it can be said that all actors’ priorities were eventually acknowledged, the 1990 system was thus ideologically inconsistent. This inconsistency has been felt the most by many of the foreign workers it admitted: both the integration struggles faced by nikkeijin and numerous human rights issues within the TITP reflect this policy gap.
Secondly, the political executive has gained prominence in the policymaking process, and the Prime Minister, through the Cabinet Secretariat, is now able to exert strong agenda-setting powers. While industry actors have broadly retained their influence, the fact that they consolidated their lobbying power towards the executive during the process of creating the 2019 amendment reflects this. This power shift towards the political executive also has another implication: Considering that the bureaucracy—and especially the MOJ—has traditionally been the most conservative actor vis-à-vis immigration, these developments do increase the potential for further policy breakthroughs in the future. On the other hand, a concentration of influence at the political executive also has the potential to limit policymaking moving forward. Indeed, whether future reforms can be realised increasingly depends on the political will of the executive, and whether the executive has the political strength to push through these policy change. The Japanese government machinery was able to draft, debate and put into law the 1990 amendment despite a weak political executive at the time.
Japan’s structural need for foreign workers is well established, as are the flaws with the current immigration regime. It remains to be seen whether the Kishida administration, or any potential future administration that replaces him, can harness the power of the executive in the same fashion Abe did to set the agenda for future policy change.
This work was supported by JST, the establishment of university fellowships towards the creation of science technology innovation, Grant Number JPMJFS2145. The author declares no conflict of interest.


1. In this paper, Japanese words are Romanised using the modified Hepburn style. Japanese names are written using the last name, first name convention. All translations from Japanese to English are done by the author unless otherwise indicated. 

2. The bureaucracy was reformed in 2001, and the MOL became the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare of Japan (MHLW).

3. The primary body that coordinates and manages the political executive. 


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About the Author

Maximilien Xavier Rehm is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of Global Studies Doshisha University in Kyoto Japan. His research focuses on the politics of immigration in Japan, specifically on the policymaking process using an institutionalist approach. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from Ritsumeikan University. Aside from academic publications, Maximilien’s writing has been featured in The Diplomat and The Japan Times. An updated list of his recent publications can be found here. 

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