Photo/IllutrationA foreign student from Vietnam, right, is taught how to deal with customers at a convenience store in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. Foreigners are often seen at convenience stores in urban areas of Japan. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Foreign workers in Japan are increasingly being seen as a valuable resource amid Japan’s declining birthrate and growing elderly population.

However, recent headlines in the media express concern about the influx of immigrants.

“Should we accept immigrants?” one publication asked.

Another worried that, “What will happen if foreigners become our bosses?”

The reality is that the number of foreign workers now totals more than 1 million. Japanese are increasingly coming in contact with foreigners in their daily lives, so they are no longer an "invisible presence."


The Justice Ministry announced in January that foreigners working in Japan totaled 1,083,769 as of the end of October 2016.

Economic magazines such as Nikkei Business or Weekly Toyo Keizai have published articles related to immigration and foreign workers.

One contentious point among those articles is the existence of foreign workers working under a status akin to “unskilled labor,” which is not permitted, in principle, in Japan.

The Justice Ministry says that there are no rules and definitions concerning immigration in domestic law. So, Japan accepts immigrants under the title of “technical intern trainees,” who are expected to disseminate technology upon their return home, or “foreign students,” instead of accepting them as unskilled workers.

An article in the June edition of the monthly business magazine Wedge was titled, “Before we realized it, Japan has become a nation of immigrants.”

The article analyzed the situation where foreign students are employed in physical labor, working on farms and in factories and in the service industry, such as at hotels as cleaning staff, while introducing local communities that accepted immigrants as a measure to halt declining populations.

“When we are in Tokyo, it is hard for us to notice, but a work force shortage in local areas is so serious that those areas have no choice but to accept immigrants," said Shinya Shiokawa, editor in chief of Wedge. "No one can be apathetic to them.”

While accepting immigrants has been discussed, foreign workers are more likely to be employed at restaurants or convenience stores in urban areas.

“Foreigners or people who have roots in overseas countries are talked of as if they do not exist, although they are already present in Japan’s society,” said Hiroshi Komai, professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University, specializing in international sociology.

Until the 1950s, Japan was a nation that was dispatching immigrants to South America and other countries. In the 1980s amid a rising yen and the nation's economic bubble, Japan was attracting an influx of foreigners.

In 2006, the internal affairs ministry drafted a plan to facilitate diversity in local communities.

While the central government banned immigrants from employment in low-skilled jobs, it allowed them to work under the name of trainees or on-the-job training. Komai said that local governments and nonprofit organizations have taken the lead in accepting immigrants and encouraging multiculturism in society.

“The central government has consistently treated immigrant workers as ‘they are present but non-existent,’ but the measure has already met limitations,” Komai said.


In the literature world, immigrants figure prominently in many stories in other countries. In Japan, however, the presence of immigrants in literature is not as common.

In Japan, there are many books on ethnic Koreans who were born and grew up in the country. One is "Geni's Puzzle," written in 2016 by Che Sil, a third-generation Korean, who was awarded the prestigious Oda Sakunosuke Prize. On the other hand, novels themed on "immigrants who come to Japan" are extremely rare.

“There are many overseas mystery novels that deal with immigration issues," said Fuyuki Ikegami, a literary critic. "But in Japan, perhaps because Japan hasn't accepted immigrants politically and socially, the theme can’t be as easily utilized and matured in a story."

However, there are signs of change. Novels such as “i,” written by Kanako Nishi in 2016, and Yuzaburo Otokawa’s “R.S. Villasenor,” in 2017, describe immigrants coming from other countries.

The latter is the story of the daughter of a man from the Philippines who brings traditional Filipino craftwork to the traditional Japanese art of dyeing.

“While describing cultural integration, it tactfully addresses the immigration issue as a theme in a natural way,” Ikegami said.

Hiroshi Tanaka, a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University who specializes in Japan-Asia relations, said the existence of a “nationality dogma” in Japanese society is a barrier.

“Japanese people have a strong sense that Japanese society exists for people who have Japanese citizenship," he said. "The length of residing in Japan doesn’t matter, and people other than Japanese can’t be admitted as a member of society.”

Tanaka said that the most important thing now is to operate on a standpoint of “for whom society exists.”

“Society exists particularly for people living there. If residing there, people should be treated the same whether they come from other countries or they don’t have roots in Japan. But that sense is still weak in Japan, and we have to change that,” he said.

(This article was written by Jun Takaku and Yusuke Takatsu.)