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July 2011, Volume 18, Number 3

Japan, Korea

Japan and Korea officially welcome skilled immigrants, and want more. Both are zero net migration countries, with about as many natives and foreigners leaving as newcomers arriving.

There are also important differences between Japan and Korea. In Japan, the labor ministry points to an aging population and shrinking workforce to urge the government to open doors to immigrants and guest workers, while the justice department looks at crime rates and social disharmony to argue that migration doors should remain largely closed. In Korea, the government is united in opening doors to low-skilled guest workers and improving conditions for them. For example, guest workers admitted under the Employment Permit System can change Korean employers three times during their three plus two years in Korea, and have 60 days after losing a Korean job to find another before they must leave the country.

Japan. Japan is a case of relatively few gaps between migration goals and outcomes. The Japanese government has restricted entries of low-skilled foreign workers and reduced unauthorized migration while opening doors to tourists and the highly skilled.

Japan had 2.2 million foreign residents in 2010, almost three times more than the 850,000 of 1985 but about the same number as in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Foreigners were 1.7 percent of Japan?s 127 million residents.

Some 680,000 or almost a third of Japan's foreign residents are Chinese nationals, and 578,000 or 30 percent are Koreans, often descendents of Koreans brought to Japan when Korea was a Japanese colony. Brazilians (267,000) and Filipinos (212,000) are about 10 percent each of the foreigners in Japan. Japan has many NGOs devoted to migrants, and they have been able to win some rights for foreign residents at the local level that should speed their integration.

The Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act of 1990 introduced employer sanctions for hiring unauthorized workers and opened the door to descendents (Nikkei) of Japanese who migrated to North and South America, most of whom were Brazilian and Peruvian citizens. The number of unauthorized foreigners was reduced from a peak 300,000 in 1993 to less than 100,000 in 2010.

Korea. Korea had almost a million foreign residents in 2009, up more than five-fold from 170,000 in 2000.

Low-skilled foreign workers entered Korea as trainees under an employer-controlled system until 2004, when the Employment Permit System (EPS) that considered low-skilled foreigners to be workers entitled to the minimum wage and the protections of Korean labor laws came into operation. The Korea Immigration Service was launched in 2007, a top-down approach to liberalizing labor migration.