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Reluctant Hosts: The Future of Japan as a Country of Immigration -- Takeyuki Tsuda

Reluctant Hosts:

The Future of Japan as a Country of Immigration

Takeyuki "Gaku" Tsuda

Associate Director

Center for Comparative Immigration Studies

University of California, San Diego

La Jolla, California 92093-0521

Tel#: (858) 822-0526


Introduction: Japan as a Country of Immigration

For many decades, Japan was the only advanced industrial country in the world that did not rely on unskilled foreign labor (Bartram 2000). Driven by the country's insistence on ethnic homogeneity and its refusal to accept unskilled foreign workers, Japan opted to meet its labor requirements by mechanizing and rationalizing production and making greater use of "untapped" sources of labor (female and elderly workers), thereby creating a highly efficient and competitive industrial system supposedly capable of economic expansion without immigration. By the mid-1980s, however, Japan lost its unique status among First World countries and finally succumbed to the pressures of global migration, demonstrating that no advanced industrialized country can sustain high levels of economic growth forever without becoming dependent on large populations of immigrant workers. Because of demographic changes and the refusal of increasingly affluent and well-educated Japanese youth to perform "3K" (dirty, dangerous, and difficult) jobs, the native-born work force became unable to meet the rising demand for unskilled labor. As a result, the country suddenly found itself with a rapidly expanding stock of migrant workers from various Pacific Rim countries (mainly East and Southeast Asia and Latin America), who had come to Japan in response to the growing demand for foreign labor.

As a result, by the mid-1990s, Japan probably had around 800,000 unskilled foreign workers, most of whom were working in small and medium sized companies in the manufacturing and construction sectors. Numerous problems associated with this large (by Japanese standards) and unprecedented immigrant influx began to emerge, including poor working conditions and employer abuses, exploitation by professional labor brokers, inadequate medical and unemployment insurance, housing discrimination, lack of social support services, and difficulties for immigrant children in Japanese schools. Local governments, NGOs, community and volunteer organizations have scrambled to deal with such problems (see Pak 2000).

Just as Japan's "immigration problem" was becoming more serious, in the early 1990s, the country entered a prolonged recession. As a result, the labor shortage became less severe, employer demands for more immigrants abated, the intense public and media debate over immigration subsided, and even Japanese academics lost considerable interest in the issue. Although many of the impending immigration issues Japan was facing in the early 1990s have therefore been deferred until a later date, the immigration problem refuses to go away. The labor shortage has persisted among smaller, subcontracting companies, the foreign-born population in Japan has continued to grow, and long-term residence or permanent settlement among immigrants has become more common (Tsuda 1999, Hirano et. al. 2000). Meanwhile, Japan's demographic profile continues to change in ways that are propelling immigration once again into the public consciousness and onto the government's policymaking agenda. During the last five years, Japan's population grew at the lowest rate since the end of World War II. The proportion of workers of age 15-29 peaked in 1998 and will decline from 24% to 18% of all workers by the end of this decade. Japan is currently tied with Italy as the country with the oldest population and has the most rapidly aging populace in the world. In addition, the labor force is estimated to contract by 10 percent in 25 years (the entire population itself is projected to decline by 21.6 million during the next 50 years), requiring Japan to import over 600,000 immigrants per year simply to maintain its present workforce or face a 6.7 annual drop in GDP. Therefore, if Japan finally recovers from the current recession and enters another period of robust economic growth, the shortage of unskilled labor will become even more acute than in the late 1980s.[i] Given these various pressures, the Japanese government will soon need to reconsider and change its restrictive immigration policies and admit large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled foreign workers to sustain its economy or be faced with an increased deluge of illegal migrants.

Therefore, like it or not, Japan will be forced to come to terms with its future as a major country of immigration. As one of the dominant economic powers of this region, the country will increasingly become a major destination of migrants from various Pacific Rim countries (especially China, Korea, Indonesia, Philippines, Brazil, and Peru). The future impact this will have on Japan's economic system, ethnic composition, public opinion, national identity, and citizenship laws is quite fascinating. After analyzing the structural and permanent demand for immigrant labor in the Japanese economy, this paper will assess current Japanese immigration policy and its problems. Future policy options will then be explored in the current political and public opinion climate.

The Structural Embeddedness of Immigrant Labor in the Japanese Economy
Two important, long-term changes in the Japanese domestic economy have made Japan a country of immigration: an acute unskilled labor shortage and an increasing need for a casual and flexible labor force. Both have become long-term, if not permanent structural features of the Japanese economy that will continue to create an almost insatiable demand for unskilled foreign workers in the future, ensuring their "structural embeddedness" in Japanese society (Cornelius and Kuwahara 1998, Tsuda 1999, Papametriou and Hamilton 2000).

Japan's shortage of unskilled labor arose from a combination of fundamental demographic and economic changes in Japan. Because of a continuous decline in the birth rate,[ii] the rapid aging of the population,[iii] and the depletion of previous rural labor supplies, the Japanese domestic work force became unable to meet the increasing demand for unskilled labor during the period of economic expansion in the 1980s. In addition, Japanese youth have come to actively shun unskilled and undesirable factory jobs, even if opportunities are more limited in the white-collar labor market.

Meanwhile, alternative sources of labor power were becoming increasingly insufficient to alleviate the growing labor shortage. Because the number of women in Japan's labor force had already expanded considerably (especially among part-time workers),[iv] Japanese female labor participation rates had become quite high among industrialized countries,[v] leaving little room for further significant increases. Likewise, a substantial expansion in the number of elderly workers was also impossible, despite the rapid aging of the populace, because Japan's labor participation rate for those over 60 was also quite high and had remained stable for decades.[vi] Although mechanization and rationalization of production as labor-saving techniques had proven effective in the past, and further automation was still possible at many firms, this option began to show its limits partly because Japan's factories were already much more mechanized than in other industrialized countries. Relocation of production abroad remained a viable alternative that continues to be vigorously pursued by large manufacturers as part of industrial restructuring.[vii] Yet, this option also has its limits--manufacturing cannot be completely transferred abroad without gutting the domestic economy, increasing unemployment, and disrupting the closely-knit keiretsu relationships between large manufacturers and smaller subcontractors, which have provided the Japanese production system with its famed efficiency and flexibility. Although total Japanese investment abroad had continued to rise, the rate of increase had declined significantly by the early 1990s.[viii] Also, small and medium-sized firms, where the labor shortage was most acute, generally do not have the know-how and capital required to relocate part of their production overseas.

The structural demand for immigrant workers in Japan is also the result of a long-term casualization of the Japanese labor force. As the globalization of capitalist production has intensified, advanced industrialized economies like Japan have come to increasingly rely on migrant workers in order to cut production costs in the face of intense competition from developing countries with cheaper labor forces. Such global economic pressures have intensified over the past few decades because of the rise in the international value of the yen, which has made Japanese manufactured exports very expensive on the global market. Although many Japanese companies have moved production to Third World countries, those that remain in Japan have been forced to restructure. Because Japanese firms have been unwilling to streamline production by downsizing and dismissing their regular workers (Dore 1986; 93), they have become dependent on an expanding informal labor force of temporary and disposable workers, which serves as a flexible economic "cushion" that enables them to adjust to business cycles and temporary declines in production in a cost effective manner without dismissing their permanent, regular workers. In addition, such temporary workers are generally not paid bonuses or other benefits, making them cheaper to utilize than permanent, regular workers. Before the arrival of foreign workers, the growing demand for more casual workers in the economy led to a dramatic increase in Japanese seasonal and contract laborers and female part-time workers.[ix] However, as the supply of temporary and part-time domestic workers has become insufficient,[x] Japanese companies are increasingly using migrant workers as a casual labor force in order to cut costs and remain competitive in the global economy (cf. Stevens 1997).

Since these factors which have caused Japan's demand for foreign workers are long-term demographic and socioeconomic changes which will not reverse themselves in the near future, they have become structural characteristics of the Japanese economy. In addition, this structural demand for unskilled immigrant workers that has become relatively insensitive to periodic and short-term economic fluctuations and business cycles. Although Japan's current recession has reduced the shortage of unskilled workers in larger companies, many subsidiary companies still remain labor-deficient. In addition, because of the critical economic function of foreign workers as a cost-effective way to adjust to fluctuations in production and business downturns, one can argue that they become more essential during recessions when unpredictable business conditions prevail. Therefore, a robust demand for foreign workers has persisted during the prolonged recession and the stock of foreign workers in fact increased (according to government reports). In other words, not only has a large immigrant labor population become a necessary and permanent feature of the Japanese economy, it remains stable and relatively unaffected by economic recessions and declines in production.

In addition, as Japanese manufacturers continue to relocate production abroad to reduce labor costs, Japan's domestic economy, like that of other industrialized countries, will continue to shift from the manufacturing to the service sector. Japan has already become a global financial and business management center for multinational corporations that depend on various service industries (including financial and technology services), which in turn are concentrated in "global cities" such as Tokyo (Sassen 1991). Since the service industry relies heavily on informal and unskilled workers, the demand for migrant labor is likely to continue to expand in the future. All of these factors ensure that immigrant labor has become structurally embedded in the Japanese.

Current Japanese Immigration Policy and It's Problems
As a result, by the late 1980s, the shortage of unskilled labor had become so acute that it threatened to paralyze Japan's manufacturing sector, including its famed automobile industry. In 1989, 46 percent of companies in the manufacturing sector were labor-deficient, and the proportion increased to 58 percent in 1990 (Ministry of Labor Secretariat 1990-1995). Many of these firms were therefore forced to employ foreign workers as the only realistic and cost-efficient source of labor power.

However, even when confronted by a crippling labor shortage, the Japanese government refused to officially open its doors to unskilled migrant workers. The revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act (implemented in 1990) facilitated the acceptance of skilled and professional workers from abroad by expanding the number of legal residence statuses from the former 18 to 28 visa categories and simplifying immigration procedures. However, it maintained Japan's long-standing ban on unskilled foreign workers and imposed tough penalties (fines of up to two million yen--about $20,000--or prison terms of up to three years) on those employers and labor brokers who knowing recruit and hire illegal aliens.

Despite its highly restrictive nature, however, the Japanese immigration law has numerous loopholes that enable the importation of unskilled immigrant labor through the issuance of visas intended for other purposes. Through these "side-door" mechanisms, large numbers of foreigners are legally admitted under various official guises, but actually function as unskilled migrant workers. With the frontdoor tightly closed to all but skilled and professional workers, virtually all of the estimated 800,000 unskilled immigrant workers in Japan have entered either through the sidedoor or the "backdoor" (illegal immigration).

Sidedoors: "Trainees," "Students," "Entertainers," and Nikkeijin "Visitors" to Japan

The Japanese trainee system is one important means through which migrant labor is imported through the sidedoor without undermining the government's official prohibition of unskilled immigrants. Shortly after the revised immigration law was implemented, the Ministry of Justice modified by decree the traditional trainee program (formerly restricted to official agencies and large multi-national corporations) to enable small and medium sized companies to participate in it as well. It is quite apparent that the Ministry took such action in order to implement a sidedoor mechanism that would supply labor-deficient companies with necessary immigrant labor since it has been precisely these smaller-sized companies that have suffered the most from the labor shortage and had been clamoring for the legal acceptance of unskilled foreign workers. Some had even proposed a number of trainee and guest worker programs to the government. Since 1990, about 40,000 trainees have been admitted annually to Japan, mostly drawn from China, Thailand, and the Philippines.

Although the trainee program is supposed to provide foreigners from developing countries with critical technical skills through on the job training and classroom instruction at Japanese firms, it is being widely abused by employers, most of whom use the "trainees" simply as a legal source of unskilled foreign labor (see e.g. Cornelius 1994:399, Miyajima 1993: Chapter 5, Oishi 1995, Shimada 1994:68-9). Not only do the "trainees" perform unskilled labor that requires minimal or no training, most of the companies that participate in the program are too small to have the resources to provide any substantial skills training or Japanese language instruction required by the program. In fact, 50 percent of the companies participating in the program are quite small with 100 employees or less (Oishi 1995:35). In addition, Japanese employers have to pay these trainees only a "trainee allowance" since they are not classified as workers entitled to full wages and insurance coverage under Japan's labor laws. Therefore, the widespread abuse of the "trainee program" has basically made it an exploitative guest worker program that provides very inexpensive migrant labor. However, because the program continues to be designated as "skills training," the government is able to disguise its true nature by ideologically justifying the it as a benevolent form of overseas development assistance and technology transfer to developing countries.

In 1993, the Ministry of Justice (in another decree) implemented a new, Practical Trainee program, which considerably expanded the conventional trainee program. The length of stay of trainees in Japan was extended to two years from the previous one year duration. The new system requires that the first nine months be devoted to both on-the-job skills training and off-the-job classroom instruction (including studying the Japanese language). If trainees pass a skills evaluation under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice, they are allowed to change their residence status to "technical interns" who then become official employees who receive a full wage and all the benefits and insurance coverage guaranteed under Japan's labor laws. Since the new program allows trainees to become full-blown workers for a full fifteen months, it thus moves closer to an officially acknowledged (frontdoor) guest worker program when compared to the old trainee system. However, despite its extended duration and other benefits, participation rates for the new trainee program have been very low with only 2,320 foreigners admitted to this program in 1995. Undoubtedly, the greater paperwork, higher required salaries, and closer governmental monitoring (though the skills evaluation exam) has discouraged most companies from participating. Most employers who wish to use trainees as unskilled immigrant workers undoubtedly find the old trainee system to be much cheaper and more convenient despite its shorter duration.

Another informal sidedoor immigration mechanism involves the admission of a large number of pre-college "students" (shugakusei). In 1994, there were 44,418 shugakusei registered in Japan, a vast majority of whom had come from China. Although they are in Japan ostensibly to learn the Japanese language or to participate in vocational training programs, they are permitted to work part-time for 20 hours a week to support themselves. However, most work illegally for much longer [xi] and many of them are becoming full-time, unskilled foreign workers. Undoubtedly, a considerable number of these "students" are now coming to Japan only to work and may have no intention of studying from the very beginning. Therefore, the granting of "student" visas has partly become another full-blown sidedoor ploy to admit unskilled foreign workers.

There are also indications that this sidedoor policy is beginning to resemble a backdoor mechanism which imports illegal workers. Although the shugakusei enter legally as "students," many end up working illegally over the 20 hours per week limit. In addition, 23,995 shugakusei overstayed their visas in 1994 and a number of them are now entering Japan illegally as fake students. In fact, labor brokers in Asia charge high fees in order to provide the false documentation needed to obtain a student visa (Komai 1993:75-6) and some of the "language schools" that these "students" are enrolled in may be nothing more than migrant labor broker agencies.

A third sidedoor mechanism for bringing unskilled workers to Japan involves those who enter Japan as "entertainers." Like "trainees" and "students," they are legally admitted to Japan under a professional visa category, but most actually work as bar hostesses in sleazy nightclubs catering to the desires of Japanese salarymen. A vast majority of them are from the Philippines (24,843 in 1993), but small numbers also come from other Asian countries. Again, this sidedoor supply of bar hostesses has a backdoor, illegal component as well. A good number of the bar hostesses come to Japan not on entertainment visas, but as part of the flow of illegal aliens and overstayers and rely heavily on labor brokers. Indeed, 38 percent of the illegal female foreign workers detected in Japan in 1994 were bar hostesses from various Asian countries. Called Japayuki-san (literally Ms. Going-to-Japan), a substantial number of such illegal bar hostesses began surfacing in the early 1980s before the main wave of illegal migrants in the late eighties made the "foreign labor problem" a prominent social issue in Japan.

The largest group of unskilled foreign workers that Japan admits through the sidedoor are the nikkeijin (Japanese descendants born and raised abroad), who are mainly from Latin America. There are currently well over 300,000 Latin American nikkeijin immigrants in Japan, mainly from Brazil, but also from Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. As long as they can prove their Japanese descent, the nikkeijin (up to the third generation) are legally accepted under "Spouse of Japanese" or "Long-Term Settler" visas, which have no activity restrictions and can be renewed an indefinite number of times. Although the nikkeijin work exclusively as unskilled migrant laborers primarily in small and medium-sized Japanese factories (and were tacitly admitted for this purpose), the government officially justifies the policy as an opportunity for the nikkeijin to visit their ethnic homeland, travel the country, meet their Japanese relatives, learn the Japanese language and culture, and thus explore their ethnic heritage. Just as the "trainee" policy is cloaked in an ideology of overseas development assistance, the nikkeijin policy is presented under the official disguise of ethnic ancestry and homeland.

Similar to the trainee program, the legal admission of the nikkeijin is again shifting from an informal sidedoor policy to a more frontdoor mechanism for the open acceptance of unskilled foreign labor as the government begins to fully acknowledge that the nikkeijin are indeed being brought to Japan as migrant workers. Because the nikkeijin immigrant population has expanded beyond all initial expectations and Japanese employers have become highly dependent on them as a convenient source of unskilled labor, the Japanese government's official ideology that the nikkeijin are ethnic visitors has simply become untenable in the face of obvious and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In fact, in order to counter the increasing activity of professional migrant labor brokers, mainly of whom are technically illegal and some of whom exploit the nikkeijin, the Ministry of Labor (with the consent of the other related ministries) established Nikkeijin Employment Centers in both Tokyo and Nagoya which enable Japanese companies to hire the nikkeijin directly instead of through brokers. Even the more ideologically oriented Ministry of Justice now openly describes the nikkeijin as unskilled foreign workers in its reports (Ministry of Justice 1994).

The Backdoor: Illegal Immigrant Labor

Japan has a large number of illegal immigrants, mainly from East and Southeast Asia, but also from as far away as Iran, Nepal (Yamanaka 2000), and Peru (Watkins). However, their exact numbers are difficult to estimate. Most of this backdoor immigration consists of those who enter Japan with short-term tourist visas, work illegally, and overstay their visas. In addition, a number of trainees overstay their visas and become illegal foreign workers. In 1994, the government counted 288,092 visa overstayers. However, the total number of illegal immigrant workers in Japan considerably exceeds this number because it does not include those who enter Japan with false documentation or work illegally in violation of their visa activity restrictions. In addition, there are illegal aliens who have entered Japan clandestinely by various means, whose true numbers cannot be accurately estimated. In 1994, 6,295 foreigners were apprehended while attempting to enter Japan illegally (697 of these were by boat). Considering that this is only the very tip of the iceberg since a majority of such illegal entrants are probably not caught, we can only say that their numbers are substantial. When these different types of illegals are considered, the total number of illegal immigrants in Japan is probably in the 400,000 to 500,000 range.

The Japanese government has not been systematic in the apprehension of illegal aliens. Although virtually all of them enter Japan through Narita International Airport and are thus relatively easy to detect, those who are denied entry into Japan are relatively few compared to the stock of visa overstayers, and their numbers have been declining in recent years.[xii] In addition, only a relatively small portion of the total illegal immigrant population in Japan is actually apprehended by the government each year (65,618 in1994 and 55,740 in 1995). However, even these modest apprehension statistics may be deceptive as an indication of the government's efforts against illegal immigrants. According to one ranking bureaucrat at the Immigration Bureau of the Ministry of Justice, a good number of the illegal aliens who are "apprehended" actually turn themselves in.[xiii] He remarked, "We mainly rely on rumors, threats, and propaganda efforts to get the illegals to turn themselves in." Appropriately enough, next to him hung a Ministry of Justice anti-illegal immigration poster which read: "Let's obey the immigration law. Your cooperation is appreciated." For instance, in the months of May and June in 1995, about 60 percent of those apprehended actually turned themselves in (Agence France Presse, August 2, 1996).

The enforcement of employer sanctions against businesses that employ illegal foreign workers has been even less effective than the apprehension of illegals, with only a small number of employers being penalized for violations of the immigration law (351 in 1992, 692 in 1993). This is obviously only a minuscule portion of the large number of employers and brokers who hire illegal workers. According to one Ministry of Justice bureaucrat responsible for immigration policy, when the revised immigration law was passed by the Japanese Diet, there was an implicit agreement with the Ministry of Justice that it would not aggressively enforce the new employer sanctions law in apparent deference to the large numbers of Japanese companies which need illegal immigrant workers to survive.

Ostensibly, the immigration law cannot be effectively enforced because of a lack of resources at the Immigration Bureau (Ministry of Justice) and the woefully insufficient number of immigration officers responsible for the apprehension, detention, and deportation of illegals. There is also reported to be a lack of detention space for illegal aliens. As a result, apprehensions of illegal immigrants and their employers are usually restricted to mainly sporadic and token efforts. According to one local government official in an area with a high number of foreign workers, "They [Immigration Bureau officials] mainly come up here once in a while to harass some local companies and catch some illegals. It then makes the news. They hope that this will serve as an example for other companies using illegal immigrants." Another official said, "If the Immigration Bureau receives a report about a company employing illegals, they are obligated to go out and apprehend them. But otherwise, they tend to leave the illegals alone."

The Japanese police with a force of 220,000 officers (Miyazawa 1987:15) and on-the-ground community policing have much better knowledge and ability to catch illegal immigrants.[xiv] High ranking police officials even in Ota city, which has one of the highest concentrations of illegal foreign workers in the country, stated that if ordered to do so, they would probably be able to round up all of the illegal immigrants in the area with the help of a vigilant public.[xv] Although police officials do state that they deal with all criminal violations, including those of the immigration law, they do not actively search for and apprehend illegal aliens.[xvi] Instead, the illegals who are caught by the police are usually those who have been arrested for criminal activities, upon which it is discovered that they are also in the country illegally. In addition, there seems to be almost no coordination between Immigration Bureau agents and local police in the apprehension of illegals. According to one local police official, "we aren't informed when they [Immigration Bureau agents] plan a raid of illegal aliens in this area. They simply come up here by themselves and catch some illegals. Then we hear about it in the newspaper later." The police tends to view the issue of illegal immigrants as mainly a Ministry of Justice problem that should be dealt with by the Immigration Bureau and does not expend precious time and resources to the effort themselves.

The Japanese government's disingenuous sidedoor and backdoor immigration policies inevitably lead to abuses. Female migrants from the Philippines and Thailand who come to Japan as "entertainers" are often deceived by labor brokers and sometimes forced into sexual slavery or prostitution. As mentioned above, "trainees" are exploited by Japanese employers, since they mainly perform unskilled jobs without receiving skills training, proper wages, or basic worker rights. Illegal aliens in Japan are sometimes forced to toil under exploitative working conditions and low wages and cannot report employer abuses because of fear of apprehension. They also do not have basic worker rights and protections or access to adequate medical insurance and care. Even the legally-accepted and privileged nikkeijin are sometimes deceived by labor brokers, who promise them easier jobs and higher pay than is actually available.

In addition, the national Japanese government has done almost nothing to provide basic social services and facilitate the social integration of these immigrants (beyond token gestures), forcing local governments and organizations to take on such responsibilities by attempting to provide immigrants with medical insurance, worker protection, social services, counseling, education, housing, intercultural exchange with Japanese residents, and even limited political representation. Thus, a de factor division of labor has emerged where the federal government is concerned only with immigration policy (the regulation of immigration flows and border control) while local governments, organizations, and NGOs take care of immigrant policy (provision of basic social services, rights, and protections for immigrants who are actually living in their neighborhoods). Because of the national government's refusal to grant basic human rights to foreign workers, a type of "local citizenship" for immigrants is emerging (Pak 2000). However, it is an uneven, haphazard, and uncoordinated conferral of rights without firm governmental guarantees.

The Current Policymaking Climate and Future Policy Options

The general Japanese political and public climate is not necessarily antithetical to more open and transparent immigration policies. Small and medium-sized employers (and the Chambers of Commerce that represent them) have been clamoring for more immigrants for years, reports about the need for massive immigration to sustain the Japanese economy are proliferating, and local governments and organizations that have been assisting foreign workers are favorably disposed and want better policies and supervision. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has not been anti-immigrant either. In addition, Japanese public opinion has been surprisingly tolerant toward foreign workers with 64 percent agreeing that unskilled migrant workers should be accepted under certain conditions according to a nation-wide Asahi Shimbun poll. This percentage has actually increased during the recession. 39 percent even support amnesty for illegal immigrants.

However, the Japanese political system is not highly democratic, despite the external trappings of democracy (elections, political parties, Diet, official policy debates). This is especially true in immigration policymaking, where the bureaucracy dominates and there is little active participation by the democratically-elected Diet, beyond rubber-stamping legislation handed down by the bureaucrats after pro-forma policy debates. There is also little active and effective lobbying by special interest groups, NGOs, and other advocacy groups nor much influence of public opinion on immigration policymaking (in stark contrast to the U.S.).

Even within the bureaucracy, there is considerable concentration of power over immigration policymaking, with the Ministry of Justice having almost complete control (after a power struggle with the Ministry of Labor in the late 1980s ). In fact, two of the most important immigration policies (the trainee program and the admission of the nikkeijin), which have supplied Japan with most of its unskilled immigrant workers, have simply been imposed as Ministry of Justice decrees without Diet scrutiny or ratification or even public notification. In contrast, the only aspects of Japan's immigration policies which have been publicly debated and officially ratified by the Diet have been minor modifications in visa categories for skilled and professional foreign workers and widely ineffective employer sanctions.

Unfortunately, the Ministry of Justice is one of the most conservative, closed-minded institutions in Japanese society that still operates with ideologies of ethnic homogeneity, cultural purity, and a nation-state based on jus sanguinis (the principle of blood and descent). Like all bureaucracies, Justice Ministry officials are not democratically elected, publicly accountable, and responsive to public pressure. In fact, the Justice Ministry is less responsive than other ministries and government agencies to political pressures for more open immigration policies from Japanese employers and foreign countries. The ministries that are most affected by such pressures and demands (the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Construction, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) have taken a more liberal stance toward immigration but are not directly involved in immigration policymaking. The Ministry of Justice has not only overridden other ministries and agencies on the immigration issue, but its restrictive stance and policies have constrained other ministries (like Health and Human Welfare) from adopting more immigrant-friendly measures.

Undoubtedly, this does not bode well for more open and responsive (and responsible) future immigration policies. Fortunately, the Japanese bureaucracy is currently being "restructured" and downsized to reduce its disproportionate power and make the Japanese political system more responsive to the democratic process. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Justice has not been a direct target of these reforms.

Given the huge numbers of migrants already working in Japan as manual laborers, the government will find it increasingly difficult in future years to maintain an officially exclusionary stance toward unskilled foreign workers. Instead, it must acknowledge and reform the current backhanded importation of unskilled workers under deceptive visa categories, especially since issuing visas that lead to human rights abuses (such as for "entertainers" and "trainees" as outlined above) is basically equivalent to condoning and promoting these activities. As the demand for foreign workers increases, the government will have to establish visa categories to officially admit unskilled and semi-skilled migrant workers, as suggested by a current proposal for a visa category for unskilled elderly care-givers and nurses. The government must also establish some type of monitoring system to ensure that migrants admitted under these categories are actually doing work specified by their visa and that they are guaranteed basic working rights and protections. Otherwise, the visa system will continue to remain a conduit for overexploited and underpaid unskilled migrant workers.

Nonetheless, the most likely and politically possible policy option in the near future is a further expansion of the existing "trainee program" in terms of the numbers admitted, length of stay in Japan, and job categories. This will undoubtedly be much more politically acceptable and feasible at this moment than a proposal that attempts to radically alter and overhaul the immigration system by granting visas and openly admitting massive numbers of unskilled foreign workers. Although this would perpetuate and increase the current abuses inherent in the trainee program, it may be a necessary evil for the short-term. As shown by the newer Practical Trainee program, the "trainee" ideology is already being gradually eroded as the true nature of the program as a means to import unskilled foreign workers is officially acknowledged. This pressure will increase as it becomes more and more apparent that the trainee regulations are a hindrance and obstacle for employers who are openly and widely violating the program's regulations. As the program continues to lose its deceptive trainee appearances, it will gradually change from a sidedoor "trainee" system to a frontdoor immigration "guest worker" program.

Over the longer term, however, Japan may have to consider some type of more formal guestworker program that will admit specified numbers of migrants for a certain duration as true workers who are guaranteed proper wages and worker rights instead of "trainees" on stipends. Although guestworker programs in Europe failed partly because employers wanted their workers to stay longer than stipulated by the program, this should be less of a problem in Japan, where migrant workers are predominantly used as a disposable, temporary labor force. Since guestworkers frequently become indentured servants bound to one employer, such a program must enable migrants to be employed in a number of industrial sectors and switch employers if necessary.

Of course, guestworkers do not always go home, indicating that Japan will have to confront the inevitable permanent settlement of immigrants in Japanese society. Therefore, the national government will have to become engaged in immigrant and social integration policy instead of leaving local governments to cope with such issues by themselves in a relatively uncoordinated, piecemeal manner. Through cooperation of local and national governments, the current patchwork of disparate local immigrant policies need to be coordinated with some type of coherent national policy directed by the Japanese government and backed by federal resources. This will be especially important as immigrants begin to demand better access to schools, housing, medical and social services, and eventually, political representation. The current debate about granting local voting rights to permanent foreign residents (most of whom are Korean-Japanese born and raised in Japan but still not granted Japanese citizenship) will therefore have serious future implications for immigrants in Japanese society. The refusal of the ruling political party to compromise on this issue is a bad sign for the future.

If Japan continues to refuse to openly admit unskilled migrant laborers, it will be confronted by an increasing flood of illegal immigrants, thus indirectly promoting the human rights abuses that this entails. At the same time, the government will have to consider some type of amnesty program to legalize the status of those undocumented migrants already in Japan. The Ministry of Justice has begun to slowly grant amnesty to a very limited number of illegals who have been in Japan for a long time and have children attending Japanese schools, but it has not promulgated any general criteria for legalization. The Ministry must establish formal and clear guidelines, procedures, and an appeal process for illegal aliens who wish to apply for amnesty. Again, transparency in immigration policy is needed.

One serious future concern is the possible rise of anti-foreigner sentiment and xenophobia among the Japanese populace. This greatly depends on the rate at which foreigners are brought into the country and how successfully they are socially incorporated into Japanese society. For a country with exclusionary ethnic tendencies, a sudden and massive influx of alien, unassimilable foreigners is likely to produce a serious backlash. As in the case of Germany, even if the general public remains tolerant and restrained, violent reactions from extreme right groups is enough to create a general social crisis. In Japan, such groups are quite prominent and vocal and have already protested the presence of illegal immigrants (including the posting neo-Nazi flyers). 46 percent of the Japanese public already want the government to more seriously crack down on illegal workers (up significantly in 10 years). To avoid a public backlash, the government must act early and begin the orderly admission of immigrant workers in order to stem to tide of illegal immigration and then adopt successful social integration policies. The government may also need to mount a pro-immigration campaign to convince the public of the economic necessity and benefits of admitting large numbers of unskilled foreign workers to Japan in order to avoid perceptions (especially during recessions) that immigrants take jobs away from native workers, depress wages, and are an unjustified burden to an already overstrained economy and social welfare system. Whether under the guise of "internationalism" or in the name of continued economic prosperity, the government will have to prepare the Japanese public for the future as Japan becomes a major country of immigration.

Conclusion: Japan as a Country of Immigration in Historical Perspective

As Japan comes to terms with its current status as a country of immigration and engages in future public and policy debates about the proper course of action, it is perhaps useful to consider the country's history of immigration. Despite the common Japanese assumption that they have never been an immigration country, migration has always been essential for the formation of the Japanese nation-state (Miyajima 1997, Weiner, ed. 1997). During prehistoric times, of course, the Japanese themselves originated on the Asian continent and migrated to Japan in successive waves. In early recorded Japanese history, a significant number of Korean and Chinese migrated to Japan and brought Chinese learning and knowledge, which was essential to the development of Japanese culture. Many of these individuals remained in Japan and intermixed with the native population. During the Meiji period (1868-1912) and afterwards, many Westerners came to Japan to provide expertise for Japanese modernization. From 1910-1945, when significant numbers of Japanese left the country to colonize Asia and then fight in World War II, 2.1 million Koreans were forcibly relocated to Japan to work in Japanese factories, eventually creating a large Korean-Japanese minority. In this manner, the recent migration of unskilled foreign workers to Japan is merely the most recent phase of a long history in which immigrants have contributed to the cultural and socioeconomic development of the country. Therefore, only the level of immigration will be unprecedented this time. Not only is this long immigration history essential for contextualizing the current immigration situation in Japan, it is important to dispel the myth of Japanese ethnic homogeneity and insularity. An awareness of this history is necessary to overcome Japan's current reluctance to admit migrants and would have an important impact on Japanese public opinion and political debates over immigration.


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[i] As indicated by the above statistics, even if the recession continues (which is more likely if the American economy enters a recession), current demographic trends alone will force Japan to admit millions of immigrant workers.

[ii] The birth rate has declined by almost 32 percent, from 2.14 children per family in 1965 to 1.46 in 1993--the world's lowest fertility rate (Cornelius 1994, 378).

[iii] Japan has the fastest growing elderly population among industrialized countries. The proportion of the population over the age of sixty-five grew from 7.1 percent in 1970 to 10.3 percent in 1985 and then jumped to 14.5 percent in 1995. Future projected increases are equally steep, with the over-sixty-five population expected to constitute 19.1 percent of the entire population by 2005 and 25.8 percent by 2025 (Minister of Labor Secretariat 1990-1995).

[iv] The total number of women in Japan's labor force grew from 19 million in 1965 to 23.7 million in 1985. In 1994, there were 27 million women in the work force.

[v] Japan's female labor force participation rate is rather high, even compared to other industrialized nations, and has generally hovered in the 48-51 percent range since 1965. In 1994, the female labor force participation rate was 50.2 percent, which was higher than Germany, Spain, Italy, and France, and was comparable to rates in the United Kingdom (52.9) and Australia (52.7), although considerably lower than in the United States (58.2) and Canada (57.6).

[vi] Despite the early retirement age of 60 in Japan, 56.6 percent of those between the ages of 60-64 and 24.8 percent of those over the age of 65 are still working (1994 figures).

[vii] Japanese direct foreign investment abroad increased over fourfold, from $12.2 billion in 1985 to $56.9 billion in 1990.

[viii] The amount of annual Japanese foreign investment decreased from $56.9 billion in 1990 to $36 billion in 1993.

[ix] Since the 1970s, the proportion of part-time workers has steadily increased, especially among women (see Cornelius 1994, 405). For instance, in 1980, there were only 5,403,000 part-time female workers, whereas by 1992, the number had jumped almost threefold to 14,456,000.

[x] For instance, in 1990, the demand/supply ratio for part-time workers was 4 to 1.

[xi] Miyajima (1993:19) estimates that 80 percent of such students work, and most beyond the legal 20 hours limit.

[xii] The numbers of foreigners denied entry into Japan in recent years has declined steadily from 27,137 in 1991 to 14,434 in 1994.

[xiii] Most illegals turn themselves in right before they plan to return to their home countries.

[xiv] Japanese community policing is designed around an effective system of local police boxes (koban). The officers who man these boxes keep close tabs on neighboring residents.

[xv] These officials also said that such aggressive apprehensions of illegals would never be done because it would be too controversial and bring up human rights issues. Although not openly admitted by the officials themselves, such a major crackdown would also put many local companies out of business and seriously depress the local economy.

[xvi] However, I did hear that the police in Oizumi-town (Gunma prefecture) do occasionally ask foreign-looking immigrants for their papers.