Immigration to Japan: Demographic and Geopolitical Perspectives

Discussion of Japan’s demographic decline is proving to be a popular topic for the blog (based on reader hits) so I thought it’d be nice to delve a little bit more into the topic by discussion one way of reversing the trend, immigration (in-migration). In the original post, I mentioned in passing that Japan has a “strict” immigration policy (quoting a National Bureau of Asian Research article). While I can’t comment on the strictness of the immigration policy, I can say that it is apparently modeled after the United States’ in that it favors skilled, rather than unskilled, labor. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, I’m confident that most states would prefer skilled laborers, such as doctors, nurses, technologists, and the like, to immigrate than “unskilled” laborers, typically those involved with manual labor occupations.

Looking at statistics for immigration to Japan (from the Ministry of Justice) reveals some interesting points. But an introductory note, if you do decide to take a look at the Ministry of Justice data be sure to keep in mind the two “loopholes” which the Migration Policy Institute relates in a 2006 article. That article mentions the establishment of the 1993 Technical Internship Trainee Program. The MoJ data reports numbers of immigrants (arrivals and registrations) in table 7-1/2, “Changes in the number of New Arrivals of ‘Thechnical [sic] Intern Training (1)’ by Nationality”. The other loophole was through recruitment of Nikkeijin (descendants of Japanese emigrants, i.e. persons from Japan who left and settled elsewhere). The article notes that the primary beneficiaries of this loophole were Brazilian Japanese. One should also note that there are a number of categories related to various “trainees” but whether these are all “unskilled” workers is subject to speculation. An additional word on Brazilian Japanese, I can’t remember where I read this now but one of the reasons why the Japanese went with a much more open policy of immigration for descendants of Japanese emigrants was due to the prevailing assumption that they would be culturally similar to resident Japanese. Of course, we know better now – but that’s for another post.

What can we glean from the immigration data? First, is the widespread presence of Chinese immigrants in the Japanese economy. Probably two-thirds to three-quarters of the categories tracked list Chinese immigrants as the largest population group (among new arrivals). Other notable mentions are Filipinos, Koreans (from South Korea), Brazilians, and Americans. The most ludicrous one first, Americans, this group comprise the largest number of immigrants in two categories, “Specialist in Humanities/International Services”, of which there were 986 Americans of 4,113 immigrants in 2010. This reflects the generally services-oriented economy that the United States currently operates. The other category is, wait for it, “Entertainer”, where Americans represented 6,785 of 28,612 immigrants in 2010. The second largest is the United Kingdom in this group. To the Japanese, Americans are the equivalent to troubadors and wandering minstrels (and we’re just as annoying).

China and (South) Korea of course have some, shall we say negative, history with Japan, as this blog has touched upon in 1, 2 geopolitical cartoon posts. Many Koreans, in particular, are considered part of the “old wave” of immigrants having come to the Japanese archipelago over a century ago. Chinese immigrants are relatively more recent, many arriving after World War II (the MPI article discusses this). Other countries, such as the Philippines and Brazil, are much more reason and coincide with the relative loosening of immigration policy. Beyond this, Chinese (and to a lesser extent Korean) immigration to Japan is interesting from a geopolitical standpoint. Much has been made over the past year over the Japan-China dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands (which shall be yet another Z Geography post). Admittedly the decision to go to war is primarily political but an era characterized by rising Asian nationalism (Diaoyu/Senkaku island dispute for instance), the large numbers of Chinese immigrants present in Japan, and supporting the Japanese economy, is worth a mention. Would we think that Japan’s government would shoot first, assuming they’re aware of Chinese nationals contribution to society? Of course, this assumes that Chinese workers in Japan would side with China during a conflict. This “fifth column” potential isn’t a foregone conclusion, as the United States learned during World War II with Japanese and German immigrants. However, in that case its worth remembering that both groups had been present in the United States for about a century, the Germans longer. Incidentally a good book on Asian migration to the United States is “Strangers from a Different Shore”. A book review is forthcoming.

The second interesting point is the collapse in new arrivals of Brazilians (see Table 14-1) from 2008 to 2009 in the “spouse or child of Japanese national” category. The number dropped from 2,895 arrivals to 483, though this corresponds (roughly) to a general decline in new immigrant arrivals, it was the greatest proportional drop. Another group disproportionately affected by the immigration decline were Filipinos, whose arrivals decreased from 5,133 to 3,308. Undoubtedly, this drop in immigrant arrivals is partly explained by the global economic decline. Since this category partially represents “unskilled labor”, its reasonable to assume that the global economic decline both dropped incomes for immigrating families (thus making it harder to immigrate abroad especially from places far away, like Brazil or the Philippines) as well as resulted in tighter restriction in Japan for “unskilled labor” immigrants (in order to protect low-skilled work positions at home). For perspective on Japan’s view of immigration check out, this Japan Today article, quite insightful. I mention it here because the Philippines might strike many as strange.

According to that article, nurses are “being groomed” (interesting choice of words) in Indonesia and the Philippines for the “Japanese system.” I assume the nurses are being trained, not only to Japanese medical standards, but also given a healthy dose of Japanese culture. Under the “trainee” category, the Philippines and Indonesia place 2nd and 4th, respectively. Behind China (first) and Vietnam (third). Why the call for Indonesian and Filipino nurses? You know without me telling you, Japan’s aging population (see chart below). With legions of elderly set to arrive in the not-too-distant future, Japan is attempting to import labor now to meet that eventual demand. With fewer and fewer younger Japanese able to take care of aging parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, not to mention however many children are born, it will increasingly fall upon the state, hospitals, and private nurses, to make up the care gap. While the MoJ’s numbers highlights the Japanese government’s identification of one part of the demographic decline problem, that is the scarcity of healthcare workers for the elderly, it misses another entirely, the actual demographic decline.

Japan Population Pyramid, 2000 (via U.S. Census)

Japan Population Pyramid, 2000 (via U.S. Census)

With disappearing populations, Japan’s answer (as reported by the MPI article) has traditionally been to automate the workforce, rather than expand the labor pool with immigrants. One wonders if immigrants are likely to remain in Japan indefinitely if their status doesn’t change and they have little say in the government, despite their burgeoning numbers. The MoJ’s numbers tell this story too, of the 2.3 million Korean immigrants in 2010, some 2.2 million were codified as “temporary visitors”, 124 were codified as “long-term residents.” Among Brazilians, we see that the liberal policies for Japanese descendants continue, of 22 thousand new arrivals in 2010, about 10% were codified as “long-term residents”. To a certain extent, Chinese immigrants also benefit from this policy as many Japanese took Chinese wives or had mixed children. Of 1.1 million Chinese immigrant arrivals, about 2,000 were marked “long-term resident”. Finally, Filipino immigrant arrivals may reflect the long-term nature of their stay (or perhaps a large number of Japanese-descended children?) of 66 immigrant arrivals, 2,195 were marked “long-term resident.”

Japanese immigration statistics offer us valuable insights into the country, its economy, and its society. As we saw here, Japanese preference for highly skilled workers continue though an informed read of immigration policies reveals certain loopholes for the “unskilled”. Moreover, we saw in detail the Japanese government’s “cultural” preference for Japanese-descended (in the case of South America) or Asian (particularly East Asian) immigrants. In this latter group, East Asians, we speculated on the geopolitical implications of the presence of large numbers of Chinese immigrants (nationals) in the economy. Finally, we explored the meaning behind the large numbers of Filipino migrants and the Japanese actions, and inaction, in regards to population decline.


One thought on “Immigration to Japan: Demographic and Geopolitical Perspectives

  1. Pingback: Population Decline: A Map | Z Geography

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