Much has been written in the past on Japan’s unique views on immigration. Some praise the nation’s commitment to the preservation of tradition, while others question the ethics of such hard-line policies. This article is written not as a critique for either side of the argument – merely as an examination of what is currently in place, and how it may change in the near future.
Japanese society is famously homogenous, with 2016 statistics indicating that 98.1% of citizens in Japan are of Japanese ethnic origin. Japanese immigration policies have been historically tight, reflecting the strong sense of national identity that Japanese society traditionally fosters. Due to population issues, these immigration policies are proving increasingly impractical.
Will Japan open its borders to more immigration in the coming years, and if so what will the experience of assimilation be like for the migrants on the ground?
Japan has a rapidly aging population. Life expectancy in Japan is high compared to the rest of the world (coming in at approximately 85 years), and this is not being balanced by birth rate. It is difficult to make judgment on exactly why this is happening, but there are many aspects of Japanese society that one could argue are impacting the birth rate.
One strong argument is that the intense working schedule of the career person in Japan does not lend well to family life. Another hypothesis is that the continued population density in urban areas has limited accommodation options to small apartments, again not suitable for big families.
Traditional gender roles are also rapidly changing in Western countries, and this has led to an increased amount of people choosing to stay single (marriage rates have halved since the 1970s), or to be part of a child-free couple. Women who would have traditionally stayed at home to raise families are now encouraged to pursue higher education and enter the skilled workforce. Despite this social progression, the rate of non-nuclear families (for example, single parents) in Japan is astonishingly low compared to other Western countries – a strong stigma still exists around starting a family outside of monogamous marriage.
If this issue is ongoing, Japan is going to find itself in trouble in the next generation. Large amounts of elderly people will have high care needs, with small amounts of younger people available to act as carers and to keep the economy booming. This issue is starkly highlighted in the common phenomenon of Japanese schools being closed and converted into nursing homes.
Despite government incentives to increase the fertility rate (including cash gifts and childcare subsidies) the birth rate in Japan has continued to plummet, reaching an all-time low by the end of 2019. One way of alleviating these issues would be to introduce young, fit, and healthy workers into the country through the loosening of Japanese immigration policies.
Current Immigration Policies
Japanese immigration policies have historically been tight. While the country is happy to welcome tourists (many nationalities do not require a tourist visa to enter Japan and can freely explore the country for up to 90 days), the government is much more selective about who can live and work in Japan. The 1952 Immigration and Refugee Control Act (revised in the 1990s) was put in place to effectively discourage long-term settlement in Japan by those who are not ethnically Japanese, and this is reflected in current visa policies.
For example, Japanese citizenship is awarded to children born to ethnically Japanese parents, rather than children born on Japanese soil. A relaxation in policies relating to the naturalization of ethnically Japanese children living in other countries has been instigated by the Japanese government in recent years, but with minimal success. There was an influx of Brazilian workers with Japanese heritage immigrating to Japan in the 1990s, but many have since returned to Brazil.
To obtain a work visa for Japan as a foreigner without Japanese roots, you generally need at minimum a Bachelor’s degree and sponsorship from a Japanese company that wants you to join their team. In order to gain permanent residency, a points system is in operation. Points are calculated on factors such as age, education, and income – a minimum of 80 points is required for your residency application if you have lived in Japan for less than five years. Essentially, you must prove that you would add something to the Japanese economy if you are to be considered for residency.
Changes in Immigration Policy
In the past, many rights afforded to ethnically Japanese citizens were denied to foreign residents – for example, in relation to housing. This is no longer the case. Japan has joined a number of international alliances that demanded changes be made to these policies. However, some hangovers from the past still remain – for example, landlords are still entitled to reject potential tenants based on nationality. In 2016, a law banning hate speech was introduced with the intention of stamping out casual racism against non-nationals.
Recently, Japan introduced an “immigration experiment”. The creation of specified skills visas in 2019 has made it possible for workers in certain under-staffed sectors to immigrate. These visas come with conditions, however – including proficiency in conversational Japanese, tested via examination. Approved workers currently cannot bring families with them – though this is set to change in 2021, with the introduction of the second category of visa which includes a worker’s spouse and dependents.
Sectors covered under this new visa include agriculture, nursing care, and construction. These visas were introduced in response to limited numbers of Japanese nationals with these specified skills and with an aim of introducing 350,000 medium-skilled foreign workers to the Japanese workforce over a five year period. It is interesting to note that there is no legal cap on immigration numbers in Japan – meaning that there has always been the flexibility to grant more visas as needed.
Issues for Immigrants
While the above described legal steps make it easier for people to migrate to Japan, the social experience of migrating needs some time to catch up with these new policies. Japan is a society known for its homogeneity, which can add an extra layer of challenge to the migrant experience. The written and unwritten rules of Japanese society can be extremely difficult for migrants to understand and adhere to, leading to some migrants being socially ostracised.
Very few Japanese people speak languages other than Japanese. For migrants, this can make communication with Japanese people difficult unless they have a high level of proficiency in Japanese. Classes teaching Japanese as a foreign language are available, but far less widespread than in countries where immigration is common.
For Japanese people, mixing with foreigners can be an alien concept – something they are not used to doing and may be nervous or unsure about. This can lead to an element of social distance between Japanese people and foreigners, even if a high level of Japanese language skill is present.
All of these issues can combine to create a lonely experience for foreign migrants. Migrant groups often end up forming their own social circles of migrants from similar backgrounds after moving to Japan, which can inhibit assimilation into mainstream Japanese society on a long-term basis.
It will take generations to see the true fruits of the immigration experiments currently taking place. If we use other countries as an example, immigration and assimilation of different people into national society has wonderful benefits. Migrants bring with them new attitudes, skills, languages, and culinary delights that add color to society – and I can only imagine that the relaxation of immigration policy will add to, rather than take away from the wonder of Japan.