Immigration in Japan

Article by Skyler Pang

Over the past few decades, Japan has become one of the most rapidly aging societies in the world, with people aged over 65 years accounting for a fourth of its population (Green). The country is now experiencing longer life expectancies, lower birth rates, and a smaller population of working people that are available to support its social welfare system. To address this labor shortage, it is essential for the government to turn towards immigration to obtain more workers; however, the Japanese government is reluctant to do so. Prime Minister Abe wants skilled foreigners such as engineers, entrepreneurs, managers, and professionals immigrating into Japan, but does not want people immigrating into Japan who do not have a proper education, who normally end up working as convenience-store clerks and fry cooks (Kohei). Instead, Prime Minister Abe tries to encourage the elderly and females to work such jobs, but it isn’t working. These elderly and females don’t want low-paying jobs, especially when they would not receive the wages they actually deserve. Why does Prime Minister Abe not let foreigners work those jobs? The answer lies within how the Japanese feel about immigrants.

Currently, the government of Japan is facing an overall drop in productivity. Out of all the solutions the government has generated to address this problem, the best answer has been found in foreign immigration. In the past few decades, the foreign share (the percentage of foreigners) of the overall population has slowly grown. Although this percentage is tiny compared to other highly industrialized economies, the population of foreign share has risen in numbers from just under 900,000 in 1990 to approximately 2.3 million as of mid-2016, a 160 percent increase, according to official government data. (Green)

The graph above (Smith) portrays a steady growth in Japan’s population, but not fast enough to help solve Japan’s labor shortage. To increase the growth rate of the foreign share, Japan needs to change how it treats foreigners.

Japan for the most part remained closed to immigration through the Meiji Restoration of the 1800s to the colonial era in the 1900s. Although Japan was influenced by foreigners, mostly westerners, it was never invaded and has always kept its own culture; however, because of Japan’s isolation, the Japanese are not used to meeting and seeing foreigners. Although in recent years, the number of tourists has increased, the Japanese have not adapted to seeing many foreigners in Japan, and there is a wide gap between the way young people and old people think about the presence of these foreigners. Most young Japanese are curious about foreigners, and to this day, think that foreigners are cool. In fact, young Japanese like to take photos with foreigners and practice their English with them. It can be said that these young Japanese do not loathe foreigners and, in fact, are curious and interested in them. Some of Japan’s senior citizens, on the other hand, of Japan are not happy about foreigners living in Japan. They look at foreigners unfavorably, calling them “gaijin” out in the open. These old people often are angry because of their experiences in wars against other countries, and they don’t want foreigners coming in to “their” country. Older citizens can also often believe and hold onto the old ideas of economic protectionism, because they think that this will prevent the dilution of their culture.

Just as the elderly aren’t fond of foreigners, it turns out that foreigners are also are not inclined to favor Japan as a permanent residence. According to the IMD World Competitive Center as of 2017, Japan is the Asian country least appealing to live in for foreign talent (skilled workers such as engineers, etc.).


As someone living in Japan, I was surprised to find Japan lower in ranking than countries such as India and the Philippines. How could Japan be considered less appealing to live in when it is such a clean, safe, and convenient place to live?

This lack of appeal to foreign workers most likely stems from Japan’s inflexible corporate system. Although Japan has many English signs in streets and train stations, business and communication is mostly done in Japanese. This may lead to foreigners feeling isolated and ignored. Japan also has low starting salaries, unlike countries such as India, who pay foreigners a substantial starting salary. The system of starting from low salary was put in place for Japanese companies who hired Japanese people who just graduated from college. It was definitely not aimed towards skilled foreign workers who are probably not going to stick to a company for three to four decades. It especially isn’t worth the salary when Japanese companies expect people to work long hours, and not creating systems to let employees take their work home with them.

Japan needs to change as a nation in order to finally start accepting immigrants. It is essential for the elder citizens to change their image and attitude towards foreigners, and the country is obliged to accept all levels of foreign workers, skilled or unskilled instead of just the skilled. The old corporate system must not be reviewed once again, but fixed, so that it works for foreigners. To do this, salaries and wages must be adjusted and Japan’s English proficiency should be raised to prevent foreigners from feeling isolated and ignored. By making such changes, Japan can finally start accepting immigrants with confidence and say that our country is friendly, safe, and accommodating to foreigners.