by Gabriele Vogt

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 Facing a rapidly ageing society and a declining labour force, this political strategy, however, appears outdated.

Japan's Demographic Development


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).

A country of low fertility


Japan’s fertility rate for decades has continued to decline. The sharp fall in 1966 is attributed to a superstition according to which women born in the year of the Fire Horse will bring grief upon their future husbands (Source: NIPSSR 2006; Schoppa 2008).

A country of centenarians

Japanese on average are living longerlive long. In September 2008, 36,276 Japanese were 100 years of age or older (Source: Japan Times 13.09.2008; NIPSSR 2006).

A country of little international migration

The crude figure of international migration to Japan is on the rise as well as the share of migrants among the total population. Yet both figures come in well below those of other industrialised nations (Source: MOJ 2007; 2008).

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

A shrinking and ageing population

Just as Germany did, Japan also saw a public discourse on the role of women as "birth-giving machines": In January 2007, then Minister of Health, Hakuo Yanagisawa called upon Japanese women to actively contribute to solving the problems of an ageing and declining population by embracing the joy of birth (Source: BBC News 30.01.2007; NIPSSR 2006).

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).


The pension system needs to be adjusted

A declining fertility rate and a rising life expectancy lead to a surge of Japan’s age-dependency ratio. To help alleviate the negative effects on the economy deriving from this development, the retirement age is being raised from 60 to 65 years (by 2013 for men, by 2018 for women). Further rises in retirement age already are on the political agenda (Source: Coulmas 2007; 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
(UNPD 2000).

Characteristics of Japan's Migrant Population


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

More and more Chinese Immigrants?

Since 2007 Chinese immigrants constitute the largest migrant group in Japan. Their rapid rise in numbers stoked up fears of increasing levels of crime committed by foreigners (Source: MOJ 2007; 2008).

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).

Residence status of migrants in Japan



In contrast to Japan's official political directives, most migrants possess a residence permit with a long-term perspective and with no restrictions on the work permit (Source: MOJ 2007; 2008).

Literature / Links


Campbell, John Creighton (2008): Politics of Old-Age Policy-Making. In: Coulmas, Florian; Conrad, Harald; Schad-Seifert, Annette; Vogt, Gabriele (eds.): The Demographic Challenge. A Handbook about Japan. Leiden/Boston: Brill, pp. 653–665.

Coulmas, Florian / Conrad, Harald / Schad-Seifert, Annette / Vogt, Gabriele (eds., 2008): The Demographic Challenge. A Handbook about Japan. Leiden/Boston: Brill.

Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien (DIJ), www.dijtokyo.org.

Kingma, Mireille (2006): Nurses on the Move. Migration and the Global Health Care Economy. Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press.

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MOJ, Ministry of Justice (2007): Immigration Control 2007. www.moj.go.jp/NYUKAN/nyukan68.html.

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NIPSSR, National Institute for Population and Social Security Research (2006): Population Statistics of Japan 2006. www.ipss.go.jp/p-info/e/PSJ2006.pdf.

OECD, Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (2007): International Migration Outlook. SOPEMI 2007 Edition. Paris: OECD Publications.

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UNPD, United Nations Population Division (2000): Replacement Migration: Is it a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations? www.un.org/esa/population/publications/migration/migration.htm.

Vogt, Gabriele (2007): Closed Doors, Open Doors, Doors Wide Shut? Migration Politics in Japan. In: Japan aktuell. Journal of Current Japanese Affairs, 5/2007, pp. 3–30. www.aai.uni-hamburg.de/japan/Personal/docs/Vogt/20071001ja-Studie-Vogt.pdf.

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last update: November 2010

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