February 11, 2023 - 8:00am


Has Japan, a country with one of the world’s most notoriously strict immigration policies, finally begun to open its doors to outsiders? That would seem to be the conclusion from the latest figures for migrant workers, which stand at the highest in history. 

A record 1.82 million foreign nationals were working in Japan at the end of October 2022. This constituted a rise of 5.5% on the previous year and marked the tenth consecutive annual increase. The figures would likely have been even higher had it not been for the strict border controls imposed as part of Japan’s response to Covid-19.

The new intake comes mainly from Vietnam (25.4%), China (21.2%) and the Philippines (11.3%) and most seem to be working in the manufacturing or care sectors. The number of Indonesian technical trainees has also risen in recent months, up 56.7% from the end of 2021. Tokyo, unsurprisingly, has seen the biggest influx, with 500,000 foreign workers now resident in the capital. Aichi and Osaka prefectures now have large foreign worker communities as well.

This suggests that a significant shift is underway in Japan, where ethnic homogeneity has long been seen as not just desirable but essential for the preservation of a complex and unique culture. The country has long had a reputation for being unwelcoming to migrants, with political scientist Jun Saito going so far as to describe Japan’s historical attitude as “aggressive”.

Saito suggests that an origin for this exclusionary position can be found in the immediate post-war period, when the final ordinance issued by Emperor Hirohito — before the new US-imposed constitution came into force — redefined citizenship to exclude naturalised Koreans and Chinese, and introduced tight controls over new entrants. This was done out of fear of an exodus from war-ravaged Asian countries, ironic since much of the ravaging had been done by Japan.

For decades entry was difficult, and for the unskilled nearly impossible. There was a lingering belief that newcomers posed a serious threat not only to the labour market — taking jobs from local people and forcing a downturn in wages — but also to culture and social harmony. 

Things started to change in the 1990s when a consensus emerged that, in order to revitalise the economy, more skilled workers were required. Restrictions were accordingly loosened. Significantly, though, while the official policy to resist unskilled entrants was retained, they too could gain backdoor entry through the creation of a new ‘long term resident’ visa category and through the vaguely titled ‘Technical Intern Training Program’.  At this point, the Japanese government policy was one of increased immigration by stealth.

Crucially, Japan was then facing a demographic crisis. Due to a steadily declining birthrate, the working age population began to decrease in 1996 and the total population in 2008. This has not since been arrested, and some estimate that by 2060 the country will lose a third of its population. Those who remain will likely have the highest average age in the world, meaning a dearth of young workers to power the economy and care for their geriatric compatriots.  

In 2022 births fell below 800,000 for the first time. This provoked Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to declare that Japan was on the brink of “social dysfunction”. He announced plans to vastly increase spending on social programmes setting children as top priority, but a possible subtext of the speech was the implicit need to further relax immigration restrictions.

Will this mean the end of Japan as we know it? It is certainly a less distinct country than when I arrived 24 years ago, partly because of increased immigration which has diluted its culture. Gone, or rarely glimpsed now, are most of those bizarre Japanese fashion trends, like the grotesque panda-eyed ‘gyaru’ look or the vaguely creepy Gothic Lolita tribe. The kanji skills of the smartphone-dependent, cosmopolitan young decline yearly. I am no longer the subject of intense curiosity. English-language signage is everywhere. Woke culture has arrived.

For better or worse Japan is becoming less ‘Japanese’, and further immigration can only accelerate that trend. Perhaps it is for the best, but if you want to experience that unique and complex culture, you had better visit soon.

Philip Patrick is a lecturer at a Tokyo university and a freelance journalist.