Migration policy in Japan so far has been a political issue of minor importance. Yet, against the backdrop of demographic change, a set of noteworthy political reforms have been implemented over the past few years. Up until now the guiding principle behind Japan’s migration policy read that only highly qualified migrants – and only for a certain period of time – should be allowed to gain residency in Japan. Facing a rapidly ageing society and a declining labour force, this political strategy, however, appears outdated.
All three demographic variables – fertility rate, life expectancy and migration flows (Figures 1 to 3) – show extreme figures for Japan: The birth rate of 1.29 children per woman is one of the lowest worldwide, whilst life expectancy for men (79 years) and women (86 years) is among the highest in the world. Only about 2.2 million foreign nationals reside in Japan. They represent a share of 1.7 per cent of Japan’s total population of 127.8 million. Compared to other OECD states this is an exceptionally low figure (MOJ 2007; 2008; NIPSSR 2006; OECD 2007).
In 2005, for the first time in Japan, the number of deaths surpassed that of births and population influx combined. If these demographic variables were to continue to develop along those lines, by 2050, Japan’s population will have declined by about twelve per cent, down to 100.5 million persons (Figure 4). More than one third of the population (35.7 per cent) will by then be 65 years or older, and only 10.8 per cent will be 14 years or younger (NIPSSR 2006). This rapid demographic development affects Japan’s society, culture, politics, economy and social security system in manifold ways (Coulmas, Conrad, Schad-Seifert, Vogt
The economic challenge that population ageing poses to Japan becomes evident when taking into account the age-dependency ratio, that is the share of over 65-year-olds to the 15- to 64-year-olds. According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (NIPSSR), the share of elderly will grow from 25.5 per cent (2000) to 66.5 per cent (2050) within half a century (Figure 5). During the same time frame, the rate of seniors (over 65) to children (under 14) will almost triple (NIPSSR 2006).
Labour migration can serve as a political option to slow down this development towards a highly imbalanced age-dependency ratio. A 2000 calculation by the United Nations outlines the dimension of replacement migration, which would be needed for several scenarios: The age-dependency ratio could, for example, be kept constant until the year 2050, via the unrealistic influx of a total of 553 million immigrants. Following this model, by 2050, 87 per cent of Japan’s total population of by then 818 million would have a migratory background
Japan's current immigration policy stands in clear contrast to the concept of replacement migration, which was brought into the political discourse by the United Nations. For decades, it has revolved around two principles: First, immigration should be restricted to highly qualified labour; Secondly, the length of stay of migrants in Japan should be temporary (as a rule five years at most). A thorough look at the structural features of the country’s migrant population reveals, however, a significant gap between policy output and policy outcome.
The number of non-Japanese registered residents has continuously increased over the past two decades. The percentage of migrant population per total population doubled within the past 15 years, reaching its current stance at 1.7 per cent – a very low figure in international comparison. The reason for this percentual as well as numeric increase (from one to about two 6 million) of non-Japanese residing in Japan is closely linked to the revision of the 1990 migration act
The graph of foreign nationals in residence in Japan (Figure 6) indicates which groups have been affected the most by the revision. Of the five biggest foreign ethnic groups to Japan, four display a rise in population. These migrants come from China, Brazil, the Philippines and Peru. Only the group of Koreans in Japan face a continuous decline in numbers. In 2007, for the first time in 90 years, the group of Koreans was not recorded as the largest migrant group in Japan; they were pushed to second place by the rapidly growing group of Chinese (MOJ
The size of the Korean minority in Japan has historical roots. From 1939 onwards, Japanese firms recruited workers for the war industry from Korea, which had been annexed in 1910. After the end of the Second World War, several hundreds of thousands of Koreans based in Japan for family and economic reasons opted against a return to Korea. Today, together with their descendents, they hold a so-called special permanent residence permit in Japan. Their dwindling numbers are the result of two developments: First, the ageing first generation of migrants is dying; Secondly, many young Koreans opt for naturalization in Japan. Every year several tens of thousands of Koreans of the third and fourth generation accept Japanese citizenship.
Since 2007, the Chinese represent the largest group among non-Japanese citizens of Japan. Their rise in numbers since the early 1990s is proceeding at a rapid pace: In the decade between the turn of the millennium and today, their size doubled to the current population of 600,000 persons. The Chinese minority is one of the groups that profited the most from the revision of the 1990 migration act. It is in particular Chinese students and trainees who seek a resident permit in Japan. Currently more than three quarters of foreign trainees in Japan come from China. In 1990, access to the trainee system, which had been established in the 1980s, was granted also to businesses with less than 20 employees. The trainee system, which is being portrayed as part of Japan’s offical development assistance with the objective of guaranteeing the transfer of technology and knowledge, often provides cheap labour for the textile industry and the agricultural sector. After some harsh international criticism, Japanese trade associations have recently started to plead for its abolition.
Nikkeijin, persons of Japanese descent are yet another group of migrants for whom the 1990 legislative revision has paved the way to Japan. Since 1990, Nikkeijin have profited from a special regulation granting persons of Japanese descent a long-term residency permit with no strings attached in terms of work permit. Nikkeijin migrate to Japan mostly from South American countries, particularly from Brazil and Peru. They are the descendants of former emigrats from Japan: Until 1942, 190,000 Japanese emigrated to Brazil alone; until the end of the 1980s, the Japanese community in Brazil grew, due to an additional influx and families being raised, to over one million persons. Within fifteen years after the 1990 law revision, the Brazilian Nikkeijin population in Japan quintupled to 300,000 persons (MOJ 2007; 2008). Nikkeijin currently constitute, next to the trainees, an additional pool of cheap labour. They mostly work in the automobile and electrical industry.
While the official directive of Japanese migration policy provides for only temporary highly skilled migration, reality shows a completely different picture. Breaking down Japan’s migrant population into categories of residence permit, it becomes apparent that 64.8 per cent of all migrants to Japan posses a permit to permanent residence (mostly Koreans) or long-term residence (mostly Nikkeijin), or rather hold an unlimited residence permit as family members of Japanese citizens. The acquisition of a residence permit by these visa categories does not require any proof of a higher vocational qualification. Moreover, if the 14.2 per cent of different groups of students and trainees is also taken into account, the amount of low qualified labourers of other nationalities in Japan reaches as high a figure as 79 per cent (Figure 7).
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last update: November 2010
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