Japan is growing smaller. Since 2005 births have steadilly declined and last year saw a decrease of more than 200,000 in a population of less than 128 Million. The Japanese, like most developed peoples, are having smaller families and the current ratio of 1.39 children per woman is less than population growth, or even replacement, requires. This statistic has not escaped the notice of Japanese bureaucrats, officials, and politicians. Other nations — such as Canada and the US — facing this kind of decrease have turned to immigration to keep their population growing. But Japan has not been able to adopt this kind of policy.
It is very difficult to become a naturalized Japanese citizen unless you can show either Japanese ancestry or a Japanese spouse. “Japanese” in this context may be narrowly defined so as to exclude, say, Okinawans. When the Japanese say “Japanese”, they generally refer to the descendants of the Yamato clans who worshipped the sun goddess Amaterasu and accepted her grandson as their first emperor. The current ruler is a direct descendant of the goddess, so we are told. So the Japanese are god-blessed and special. They disdain the Ainu, who have probably lived in the islands longer than other peoples, and the Koreans, who have the same ancestral Jomon heritage as the Japanese.Japan invaded Korea in 1910, when they were beginning their push toward an Asian empire, and Koreans officially became Japanese nationals. So Koreans began entering the Japanese workforce. During World War II, large numbers of Koreans were forcibly conscripted to work in Japanese mines and other dangerous, dirty places. At the end of the war, many returned to Korea but by 1950, the Korean War caused some to flee the country and seek work in Japan. In that year, Japanese nationality was removed from all Koreans, leaving those resident in Japan stateless persons. By 2002 there were perhaps 750,000 people of Korean ancestry living in Japan. Many were third- or fourth-generation who could not speak Korean, which was forbidden by law in Japan in 1940. These people had the opportunity to become citizens and were often not included in counts of resident foreigners. Following the popularity of K-Pop and Korean soap opera in Japan, there was a “Korea Wave”, a celebration of the culture common to both Japan and Korea. This ended abruptly around 2005 with backlash typified by the publication of Hating the Korea Wave, a Japanese comic that sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Koreans in Japan are encouraged to take Japanese names and apply for citizenship, although that may be arbitrarily denied if applicants seem “inappropriate”. Around 10,000 a year do naturalize though. (Japanese citizenship is not granted automatically to those born inside the country, as in the US or Canada.) In the early 20th Century, many Japanese emigrated to countries such as Brazil, where they now make up a substantial portion of the population — about a million and a half people. In the 1990s, Brazilians of Japanese origin were invited to come to Japan as part of the government’s policy of admitting up to third generation Japanese as permanent residents, possibly eligible for citizenship. Although several hundreds of thousand did accept this invitation and perhaps 25000 became citizens, the program was not a complete success and the government has subsidized the return of many of these workers to Brazil. Still, Brazil is second only to Korea as the origin country of legally resident foreigners.
Resident Koreans, whose ancestors may have been in Japan for a century, and many Japanese-Brazilians are usually not counted as “foreign workers”, a labor category that has become increasingly important. Since Japanese industry cannot find enough workers at home, labor must be imported from elsewhere. The government has been very cagey about admitting the extent of this situation and official numbers are suspect. It is estimated that 1.5% of the residents of Japan are of foreign origin. This would be a negligible amount in most countries, but it is disturbing to Japanese who blame crime and social unrest on these foreigners. Still, needs must, and an illegal traffic in foreign labor, mostly Chinese, increased in the 1980s and early ’90s. By 1993 there were almost 300,000 illegal residents in Japan. Following a government crackdown, this number was reduced to less than a hundred thousand. But these are official estimates of the numbers of people overstaying a visa and do not include those who have been smuggled in and manage to stay under the radar. In order to alleviate general concern over foreign illegals, the government brought in the Action Plan for Realization of a Society Resistant to Crime at the end of 2003 and has duly reported a decrease in illegal overstayers every year thereafter.Seeing a need to regularize the traffic in labor, the Japanese government introduced a policy of temporary residence for “technical training” in 1993. Supposedly, this means that foreign workers come to Japan to learn advanced methods of doing things; in practice, it means that cheap foreign labor is provided to the industries that need them.
Workers coming to Japan under this program are limited to a three-year residency period. Working conditions vary but it is not uncommon for small manufacturers of textiles and electronic components to house these workers in compounds where they are isolated from Japanese society. Freedoms may be restricted:
[Temporary foreign workers] are taught that fundamental rights of workers such as the right to claim a complain about work conditions, join a union, have a cell phone, negotiate work conditions with the employer, etc. and fundamental personal rights such as the right to move about freely are violations of workplace and personal discipline.
It is difficult, under these conditions, for workers to compare notes, much less unionize, and foreign worker organizations are mostly limited to ESL instructors and the like who live a very different sort of life from factory laborers.
One special employment niche is that of geriatric caretaker. As Japan’s population shrinks, it also becomes disproportionately old. About half of Japan’s entire budget now goes into pensions and elder care. A program to train Indonesian and Filipino people as caretakers was launched in 2008. These workers are given special training and Japanese language instruction. After two years of working in Japan they have the opportunity to apply for permanent residence. This application includes a difficult examination that seems designed to cause failure. Out of 95 workers taking the exam in 2012, only 36 passed. “More than we expected,” said a ministry official – in the two preceding exam years only three applicants passed the test.These small numbers are indicative of the cautious approach that government in Japan has taken to immigration. There have been numerous studies and sets of recommendations from government ministries, business organizations, and labor groups. Most of these are full of high-sounding words without practical application. The general shared sense is that foreigners are a problem, not a solution. Although it is recognized that foreign workers are often exploited, there is little sympathy for them. “If they don’t like it here…They can go home,” is the refrain. Discrimination against foreigners is commonplace in Japan. Signs reading “Japanese Only” are often posted on Japanese establishments. A 2002 move to create a national Human Rights Code met with general opposition and was dropped. The Liberal Democrats have ruled Japan since the end of American occupation, with the exception of two minor hiatuses. They have just returned to power after the Democratic Party of Japan government, which proposed opening up to more immigration (but not too much), proved unable to solve the economic downturn that has persisted now for thirty years. That will be the focus for the new government, not the problem of decreasing population. Prime Minister Abe is unlikely to bring in changes to immigration policy — he is agressively nativist and nationalist.
Japan is not the only country to face depopulation in the 21st Century, but it does appear unique in its inability to adopt useful remedies. One can visualize a number of ways this situation might develop but Japan’s population is estimated to drop to 87 Million by 2060 — that is, losing a third of its present population — and half of that will be over the age of 65. If Japan is to maintain its workforce through foreign immigration then it will have to accept around a million new immigrants every year and that is very unlikely to happen.
Masahiko Yamada, The Current Issues on Foreign Workers in Japan (2010)
opentopia article on Hating Korea Wave
package of anti-Korean materials sent to an MIT anime group is dissected in “Row Row, Fight da Soft Power” by Jennifu
Chieko Kamibayashi, “Rethinking Temporary Foreign Workers’ Rights”
Seiko Yasumoto, “The Impact of the ‘Korean Wave’ on Japan”
John Lie, “Zainichi Recognitions: Japan’s Korean Residents’ Ideology and Its Discontents“
also of interest, the Jackie Chan movie about illegal Chinese workers in Japan: Shinjuku Incident