Japan can be a nice place to live, especially for a blue-eyed native English speaker that likes to teach languages. Or for a middle manager of a multinational corporation, like several I have met.

Now, the perspective can be a little different for someone like my friend Jose (not his real name). Brazilian by birth, of Japanese descent, he worked for years in an office set up by a prefecture of Japan to take care of needs of foreigners in that area. Several other foreigners worked in that office, providing the language and technical skills needed to get the work done.

The rest of the workers were bureaucrats supplied by the prefectural government. For that matter, most of the funding was provided by the prefecture, too, though it was a legally independent corporation and thus followed its own rules. The foreigners were all on one-year contracts and paid considerably less than their Japanese “colleagues”. People on one-year contracts had no chance of promotion and no say in policy matters.

Then there is my friend Bobby, a Filipino working on a technical intern trainee visa. This status does not allow him to travel back to the Philippines to visit his mother and three sisters (his meagre wages help support them), not even when their house burned down. I am not making this up.

My friend Baba-san uses that Japanese name because he thinks it will make life easier for his wife and children. He works as a day labourer, and only lets close friends know his Korean name.

I’m trying to be nice about this, as people have always been nice to me, but it can be a little hard sometimes when I hear people say how wonderful it is to be living in a place that has no problems with racism. Not that immigration is only about race, but it is often hard to separate the issues.

Current immigration policy

The Kishida government is continuing the policy of the late Shinzo Abe: no to large-scale immigration, while allowing short-term and especially highly skilled workers for specific jobs, for economic reasons.

The specifics of this policy keep evolving.  This year a new category was created to attract graduates of elite universities. Adjustments to another category minimize paperwork and processing matters for highly educated, high-income workers. 

Shop managers have made it known to policy makers that current regulations do not allow them to keep the workers they find and train as students.  Foreigners at Japanese universities numbered 135,000 in 2018. Many actually begin work on a part-time basis while students, sometimes performing valuable tasks such as helping as interpreters at large stores in urban areas that are frequented by tourists, but they are not allowed to change their visa status upon graduation to continue working there because their college major is unrelated to the type of work they do. The newly created Designated Activities visa makes it possible to do that in some cases.

Changes were made to the “Specified Skills” visas. This was instituted earlier to fill serious shortages in  sectors like hotels, restaurants, construction and nursing care.  This year the category was expanded to include convenience stores and electronics retail stores, after complaints from managers that have been hard-pressed filling their post-pandemic staff increases.

And the tweaks to this category or another continue, with some categories being called downright “phoney” by legal experts that claim they invite abuses. The business community needs to hire people, with a minimum of paperwork and restrictions on salaries and working conditions; the bureaucracy meanwhile tries to stay in control in their own document-heavy world, and keep the floodgates closed to an appropriate degree to preserve Japan’s unique culture.

Questions that arise: Can a single-minded focus on economics make us blind to the human side of what is going on? Is it possible to protect the uniqueness of a people without being bigoted?

Japan’s demographic history

Demography is obviously a large part of what drives migrations. In Japan its history is like a pendulum on steroids. Births were limited during the Edo period (1603-1867), with some areas even practicing infanticide when peasants had too many children. Meiji Japan (1868-1912) abolished that policy, allowing couples to have as many children as they wanted.  Have them they did, with fertility rates consistently upwards of 5.0 in the early 20th century. Then in the post-WWII period, partly because of counsel from the US occupational authorities, population control policies were adopted that brought fertility rates down, to lows never before seen.

Thus, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Japan had no lack of people for its infrastructure, manufacturing, schools, or even emigration, with large numbers starting communities in Hawaii, California, Mexico, Peru and Brazil.

WWII brought the first serious dearth: as Japanese men were all needed for the war effort, factory workers were brought (often forcedly) from Korea and China. Estimates say as many as 670,000 Koreans came to Japan during that period. Some of their descendants in Japan still carry Korean nationality, though others have been naturalized, often taking a Japanese name and remaining reticent about their background. Their features are similar enough for some Japanese to go on speaking as if their islands are monocultural and monoethnic.

Immigration picked up again in the 1980s. Birth rates were dropping, and Japanese were seeking white collar jobs, so to get the dirty work done, the government had to recruit help from abroad. A preferred way of doing so was to allow people of Japanese descent (plus a few whose agents miraculously produced the proper documentation) to come back to the motherland to visit relatives, on a visa that allowed them to work during their stay.

By the 21st century, however, many of those manufacturing jobs were being outsourced to other Asian countries, and the country was suffering a general economic slump. With the drop in demand for labour, the government offered incentives to these workers to go back to the countries where they were born. Many who had never integrated well took their free plane ticket and returned home.

A shifting mood?

Japan is the second largest donor to the UNCHR, but less than 1 percent of applicants are granted asylum. In 2021, for example, 74 people were granted asylum in Japan, compared to 13,703 in the UK. Change in this humanitarian concern could be considered an indicator of improved awareness of the human side of immigration policy.

Hopes were kindled when Japan accepted over 1,600 Ukrainians last year (compared to the UK’s 170,000). But the government is calling them “evacuees”, not “refugees”, hinting that they are not ready to commit themselves to providing a permanent home.  Local officials also report that treatment of asylum seekers from other countries has not improved.

One might ask next: What of the general populace? Is there at least some discussion of these and related issues?

Gallup rates Japan’s Migrant Acceptance Index at 6.42, just less than France and Italy. A Nikkei survey in 2020 found 69 percent of Japanese say more immigrants would be good.

A telephone survey in 2020 conducted by NHK, the national broadcaster, found that 70 percent are in favour of an increase in immigration, although that drops to 57 percent if the immigrants were to reside in their own neighbourhood. Respondents expressed anxieties (“differences in languages and cultures will cause troubles”; “the public order will deteriorate”) and positive effects, not just economic, such as “new ideas and cultures will be introduced”.

One noteworthy phenomenon is that currently one in 30 new marriages in Japan involve one non-Japanese spouse. This means that in urban areas it is common for young people have a classmate born of an international marriage. Their lives and dilemmas are taken up in popular TV dramas and novels, as well as on YouTube and the blogosphere.

Some go through a certain identity crisis, being regarded as an outsider in their own home culture. Imagine growing up with obviously Caucasian or African features in a society that lives by the adage “hammer the nail that sticks out”. People start out assuming that you must speak English, even when your father is French and you’re speaking fluent Japanese to them, or that you need to be taught everyday customs like using chopsticks, which are second nature to anyone that lives in this country.

Increasing contacts like this, though, put a human face on the numbers and ideologies, and the friendships formed can help raise awareness and reduce stereotypes. Even if no seismic change from the top down is in the offing, at least some shift in attitudes at other levels does seem to be taking place.

David Kolf teaches English in Japan and is living proof that one can live there without ever touching a PS console.