Keeping the Door Closed:

The 2018 Revisions to the ‘Immigration’ Control Act as a Continuation of Japan’s ‘No-Immigration’ Principle

Chris Burgess, Tsuda University [About | Email]

Volume 20, Issue 1 (Article 1 in 2020). First published in ejcjs on 14 April 2020.


This paper examines the December 2018 revisions to Japan’s ‘Immigration’ Control Act which came into effect in April 2019. Since this marked the first time in the post-war period for Japan to officially accept blue-collar workers, the revisions were generally seen as ground-breaking, an inevitable response to Japan’s rapidly declining and ageing population. Here, however, I argue that Japan’s ‘No-immigration’ principle, an institutionalisation of the ethno-nationalistic ‘homogenous people’ discourse, remains alive and well and the door remains firmly closed to migrant settlers. An examination of the historical background to the revisions plus an analysis of the revisions themselves shows that Japan’s policy on accepting and managing foreign workers has actually remained remarkably consistent over the years, with migration anathema as a solution to demographic problems. The central argument is that Japan is a ‘no-immigration’ country rather than simply a ‘no-low skill immigration’ country since the ethno-nationalistic discourse has acted as a consistent barrier to the social integration of all newcomers, preventing the development of proper support infrastructure.

Keywords: Migration policy, ethnic/labour migration, foreign workers, multiculturalism, discourse of homogeneity (nihonjinron)

1. Introduction

At 4:00 AM on December 8th 2018, amid chaotic scenes in the Japanese Diet, a bill to revise the ‘Immigration’ (1) Control Act was passed (Asahi Shinbun, Dec. 9, 2018). Deliberation time had been relatively short and details were sketchy—the opposition criticised it as a ‘carte blanche law.’ Certainly, the fact that many of the specifics were to be decided later by ministerial ordinances appeared odd given the apparent ground-breaking nature of the legislation: for the first time in the post-war period Japan was to officially accept blue-collar workers.

Given the rapidly declining and ageing population (2),  reform was seen as ‘essential’ by a business community feeling ‘a strong sense of impending crisis’ due to growing labour shortages and a lack of diversity and vitality in the economy (Keidanren 2016). However, here I argue that the reforms, despite outward appearances, actually changed very little: they are best seen as a continuation of rather than a break from Japan’s ‘No-immigration’ principle which keeps the door firmly closed to migrant settlers. In fact, against the background of an increasingly conservative body politic, this principle, an institutionalisation of the ‘homogenous people’ discourse, remains alive and well and continues to play a key role in policy making.

This paper proceeds as follows. The first section examines Japan’s place in the theoretical literature on national approaches to migration and citizenship, contrasting the lack of change in that country with that seen in countries like Germany and Korea. The following section gives a brief overview of post-war migration in Japan. This section shows the influence of the discourse of homogeneity, a discourse known as Nihonjinron, which is introduced in more detail in section three. The fourth section outlines the ‘No-immigration’ principle which is an institutionalisation of this ‘homogenous people’ discourse. Section five shows how this principle has worked in practice by examining post-war debates on ‘immigration’ policy as well as broader policies such as internationalisation (kokusaika) and Japanese-style multiculturalism (tabunka-kyōsei). The final section details and analyses the 2018 revisions and demonstrates how, despite initial appearances, these remain firmly within the framework of the ‘No Immigration’ principle.

2. Japan in the Theoretical Literature on Migration: A Comparative Overview

In the literature, Japan has been described as an ‘outlier’ (Vogt 2013), a ‘significant anomaly’ or ‘negative case’ (Bartram 2000, 15). This characterisation is mainly due to its status as one of the few major industrialised countries not to have experienced the tremendous inflow of international migrants in the post-war period. Of course, care does need to be taken in portraying Japan as unique. Castles, Haas, and Miller (2014, 170) note that the dominant Asian model of migration has centred on principles of strict state control, prohibition of settlement and family reunion, and (in East Asia) the maintenance of ethnic homogeneity—all of which are good descriptions of Japan. However, Castles et al follow this discussion of the classic Asian ethno-nationalist migration state by highlighting the rapid changes brought about by the globalisation of migration in this region, including the growing strength of civil society. The problem is that the key feature of Japan has been the lack of change, particularly in government policy—a startling immunity, regardless of the political hue of the administration in power, and over a long period of time, to the political, economic, and demographic factors and considerations that migration models and theories are generally based upon.

One illustration of how others have changed while Japan has stood still is Germany, a country with a discourse of ethnic homogeneity and ‘No-immigration’ principle similar, in the past at least, to Japan’s. Thus, Brubaker (2009, 7-13), drawing a contrast with France, describes the dominant idea of German nationhood as an ‘ethnocultural conception of nationhood’. Indeed, Japan’s discourse of homogeneity was heavily influenced and shaped by nineteenth century German nationalistic thought, especially the writings of Fichte and Heidegger, with which it shared striking ‘congenial affinities’ (Dale 2012, 84, 134, 218). A key point of affinity is the Japanese word minzoku (national ethnic group, i.e., the Yamato race) which Morris-Suzuki (1998, 32/87) notes is more or less identical to the German concept of volk. Another example is the word Ausländer—in the sense of ‘unwanted foreigner who does not belong… unintegratable outsider, alien’ (Mandel 2008, 80)—which is very close to the Japanese gaikokujin. These ideologies centring on a mystic spiritual connection between genes, culture, and land—’a fluid conjunction of blood, culture, history, and political form’ (Dower 2012, 267)—are manifested in nationality laws based on jus sanguinis (parentage/descent) and a refusal to recognise dual nationality.

Today, of course, Germany looks very different. By 1973, when a recruitment stop was placed on its gastarbeiter (guest worker) program, Germany’s foreign population had already doubled (Ellermann 2015, 1242). While the ‘not a country of immigration’ slogan was re-emphasised post-1973, the reality of this population made it untenable; the 1990s saw the start of a political shift away from the ‘No-immigration’ principle and ‘foreigner’ policies (Ellermann 2015, 1244-5; Rauer 2011). Today, Germany has one of the biggest migrant populations in Europe, children born in Germany of immigrant parents can acquire German citizenship (with certain conditions), and dual nationality is granted to most naturalised Germans (Klingholz 2011, 114-15; Deutsche Welle 2018).

The change in Germany has also been seen in many other European countries like Finland, Norway, Denmark, Spain, and Italy, ‘negative case’ countries like Japan which did not experience a significant inflow of foreign workers in the immediate post-war period but which—unlike Japan—have all opened their doors to a greater or lesser extent since then (Figure 1).

Figure 1: International Migrants as % of Total Population in some ‘Recent Countries of Migration’ plus Japan and Germany in 1980 and 2019

Sources: 1980 data from Iguchi (1998, 294); 2019 data from United Nations (2019)
Notes: The 2.0% figure for Japan is based not on the foreign-born population (as for the other countries) but for the ‘population of foreign citizens’; it therefore includes the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation so-called ‘oldcomer’ Korean and other Special Permanent Residents who were born and brought up in Japan but who have not naturalised—321,416 based on 2018 data (Ministry of Justice 2019a). As Chung (2010) points out, Japan is currently the only advanced industrial democracy with a fourth generation immigrant population. The Japanese figure also includes international students which many countries count as ‘temporary visitors’ not migrants.

Even Korea, a country whose hangukinron discourse, with its focus on the purity of the Korean race/nation/culture (minjok), bears striking similarities to Japan’s Nihoninjinron (Hurt 2014, 26-7), has changed dramatically in recent years. Hurt (2014, 1) notes that the homogeneity discourse peaked between 1987-1997 but lost credence after the near collapse of the Korean economy in 1997. That set in train a series of dramatic reforms, including replacement of the Industrial and Technical Training Program (ITTP) with an ‘Employment Permit System’ in 2004 (Chung and Kim 2012, 208), introduction of a job-seeker (D-10) visa in 2007 (Kim 2013, 15), a multicultural ‘explosion’ characterised by progressive national policies such as the 2008 Support for Multicultural Families Act (Kim 2015), and (partial) recognition of dual nationality in 2010 (Kim 2013). Although still relatively small in terms of numbers, there has been a dramatic increase in international migrants from 0.5% in 2000 to 2.3% in 2019 (United Nations 2019). In sum, not with-standing the widespread misunderstanding over the 2018 revisions, only Japan has failed to change, with dual nationality, national multicultural policies, and an official immigration policy as far away as ever.

3. Post-War Migration in Japan: An Overview

While there were substantial numbers of Korean and Chinese unskilled workers in the 1920s and 1930s even before the start of forced labour (Yamawaki 2000), it is true that migrants—aside from the zainichi resident Koreans who remained in or returned to Japan—were not, unlike many other countries, a feature of the rapid economic growth in the early post-war years. Although often considered a blank in terms of migration, Morris-Suzuki (2011, 6) considers the early post-war years from 1945 to the late 1970s ‘a time of crucial (though often forgotten) cross-border movement... the formative period in the creation of a migration control system that remains largely intact to the present day.’   

The first ‘migrants’ to enter Japan during the post-war period were in fact refugees, namely the Indo-Chinese who first arrived in 1975, though the Japanese government only officially decided to resettle these ‘Boat People’ in 1978 (Kawakami et al 2009, 13-16). The ‘Immigration’ Control and Refugee Recognition Act, mentioned in the Introduction, was enacted in 1982 as part of the response to these newcomers. Japan still only accepts a handful of refugees every year, another facet of the ‘No-immigration’ principle. In 2018, it approved only 42 applicants from over 10,000 applications (Ministry of Justice 2019b).

The arrival of the Indo-Chinese refugees was followed by two immigrant waves: female ‘entertainers’ from Asia from the late 1970s to 1986 (Douglass 2000) and male undocumented migrant workers from South and Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Iran from the mid-1980s (Sellek 1996). While the former received very little public attention, the latter received a great deal; Sassen (1994) refers to this second wave as the ‘new migration’ while Lie (2001, chapter 1) calls it the ‘second opening of Japan’. Lie (2001, 7/18) suggests that the reason this second wave got so much attention, despite the still relatively small numbers, was because the social visibility of such racially different workers posed a potential (though largely symbolic) threat to prevailing notions of Japan as an ethnically homogeneous society.

By the late 1980s, market pressures pushed the government to implement two new schemes to address growing labour shortages. One, taking effect in 1990, allowed non-Japanese of Japanese descent (Nikkeijin), mostly from Brazil, to live and work freely in Japan on ‘Long-Term’ visas renewable every 3 years (Yamanaka 2000). The prioritising of ethnic Japanese—those with Japanese blood—while excluding other migrants demonstrated the influence of the discourse of ethnic homogeneity on policy (Sellek 1997, 202). As such, the Nikkeijin case clearly demonstrates how the ‘homogenous nation’ discourse has been institutionalised at the policy level in post-war Japan: 'Japan’s ethnic-return migration initiative…,' writes Tian (2018, 13), 'was the manifestation of Japan the ethno-nationalist state, which prioritised an ideology of ethnic homogeneity over market realities.'

The second scheme to address labour shortages was the Trainee and Technical Intern Programme (TITP) officially established in 1992 ostensibly (like the German Gastarbeiter program) to help foreigners from designated developing countries in Asia (plus Peru) to acquire technical skills. The two are typically described as ‘sidedoor’ schemes since they function to get around the prohibition on officially employing blue-collar workers (Mochizuki 2019, 89). Neither, has fared well. The former has typically been seen as a failure due to perceived integration problems: Tsuda (1998) describes in detail the ‘cultural disappointment’ towards the Nikkeijin who (unsurprisingly) acted South American not Japanese (3).  Meanwhile, the latter—the TITP—has been widely criticised as a de-facto guest worker programme beset with human rights issues  (4) even as it has been gradually expanded to make up for the shortfalls in the former. For example, the 2016 revisions to the ‘Immigration’ Control Law, which came into effect in November 2017, expanded both the type of work interns could do to include nursing care and extended their maximum length of stay from three to five years (Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 19, 2016). In sum, as Tian (2018, 1) notes, these two sidedoor labour schemes exemplify the ‘restrictive immigration policies that uphold a narrow view of a homogeneous nation’, policies which have been repeatedly reoriented to adapt to changing economic conditions.

4. The Discourse of Homogeneity: Nihonjinron and Jus Sanguinis

The brief overview of post-war migration in Japan above revealed the influence of the discourse of homogeneity on Japan’s acceptance of foreigners and foreign workers. This discourse is most closely associated with Nihonjinron or ‘theories on Japanese identity’, a brand of cultural nationalism with pre-war roots (Kawamura 1980) that only properly took hold after the war (Befu 2001, 14; Oguma 2002). Mouer and Sugimoto (1986, 406) define Nihonjinron as having has two central tenets: (1) Japanese society is ‘uniquely’ unique and (2) group orientation is the dominant cultural pattern which shapes behaviour. A central premise of Nihonjinron is that the Japanese are a homogeneous people (tan’itsu minzoku) who constitute a racially unified nation (tan’itsu minzoku kokka). Occasional statements by conservative politicians that Japan is a country with ‘one culture, one race, and one language’ both reflect and reinforce this belief (Burgess 2010, Table 1). The most recent was in January 2020 when Deputy Prime Minister Aso said that Japan’s 2000 year history as a homogeneous country was unique (Asahi Shimbun, January 15th, 2020).

Here, I am not going to ‘debunk’ such statements or analyse whether they are ‘true’ or ‘false’. As I (2007, 2010) have written in detail elsewhere, debating the ‘truth value’ of Nihonjinron misses the point; what is important is the strength of these systems of belief and the effects they have, that is the role they play in the construction and maintenance of national identity, Japanese social reality, and (most importantly in the context of this paper) public policy in Japan. Of particular importance is the Othering function of Nihonjinron. Because Nihonjinron is concerned with Japanese identity—who the Japanese are and are not—it generates a sharp ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ binary that places non-Japanese in diametric opposition to the Japanese. This focus on separation and exclusion—the management and control of difference—underlies the ‘No-immigration’ principle which is an institutionalisation of the ‘homogenous people’ discourse.

The argument that Nihonjinron is an enduring and persistent narrative in post-war Japan is supported by empirical data. Elsewhere, I (2010, Tables 2-6) show the strength of Nihonjinron related beliefs through an analysis of the 1995 and 2003 International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) on national identity. The data showed that Japanese attach more importance to ancestry (blood) than in many other countries and also have a stronger sense of identification with their minzoku (ethnic group) (Burgess 2010, Tables 2, 4). While questions changed in the 2013 survey (the minzoku question was absent), a number of answers did reveal a continuing insular worldview. For example, there was a fall in the number of Japanese who disagreed with the statement ‘it is impossible for people who do not share Japan’s customs and traditions to become fully Japanese’ (GESIS 2015, 100).

Against this continuing belief in homogeneity, opinion polls have tended to show growing support for accepting more foreign workers, against the background of a growing demographic and labour pinch. For example, a 2010 survey in the Asahi Shimbun (June 11, 2010) found 65% against ‘accepting large-scale immigration in the interests of reviving Japan’ but 51% for just five years later (Asahi Shinbun, April 18, 2015)—'if Japan becomes unable to maintain its economy.’ Similarly, the Yomiuri Shimbun (May 5, 2019) found 51% for and 42% against in a 2019 poll compared with 61% against four years earlier (Yomiuri Shinbun, August 26, 2015) (5). However, grudging acceptance of the necessity of foreign workers to offset labour shortages does not necessarily mean that the discourse of homogeneity is weakening: in the same Yomiuri survey cited above, 40% said they didn’t want to work with foreigners. This tallies with the World Values Survey (Vogt 2017, 93-95) in which 36.3% said they didn’t want migrants or foreigners in their neighbourhood and only 13.6% said that they trust people of other nationalities (by far the lowest figure among OECD nations).

A discourse of homogeneity in itself should not automatically result in exclusion rather than inclusion. Denmark, for example, is a country that, like Japan, has a strong discourse of homogeneity. Moldenhawer (1995, 88) describes the popular view in Denmark of the country as a ‘unitary nation-state, with one people, one language, one culture, one well-defined territory’—something which sounds remarkably like Nihonjinron. Yet in contrast to Japan, Denmark has accepted migrants while at the same time emphasising cultural integration and assimilation through strict adoption of ‘Danish values’ in what Jensen (2010, 11) calls ‘insisting on sameness.’ Perhaps the difference is that ‘purity of blood’ (kettō shugi) is a core Nihonjinron belief; as noted earlier, Japan’s citizenship law is based on jus sanguinis (parentage/descent), something which, as Kashiwaki (1998, 1) notes, fits well with the image of the ethnically exclusive nature of post-war Japanese society.

5. The ‘No-Immigration’ Principle and Foreign Residents in Japan

The ‘No-immigration’ principle states that Japan, fundamentally, does not accept people to stay long term or settle permanently; entrants are temporary ‘guest’ workers who will eventually return ‘home’. Unlike countries like Australia, for example, permanent residence (PR) is not available at the time of initial entry in Japan. As Hirowatari (1998, 88/90) explains, admitting foreigners as ‘immigrants’ would imply admission of foreigners from the start as ‘future citizens’ so the lack of PR as an entry category makes it clear that Japan does not admit immigrants, effectively closing off the option of immigration. This point was re-emphasised in a 2016 ruling party policy document which defined immigrants (imin) as those with PR at the time of entry; consequently, it explained, those who enter for the purpose of work with a specific residence qualification (zairyū shikaku) are not ‘migrants’ (Liberal Democratic Party of Japan 2016, 2).
As well as the lack of PR as an entry category, once in Japan, as Roberts (2017, 90) points out, there is no ‘clear and easy path’ to either PR or citizenship. Nevertheless, both are possible. To apply for PR, 10 years (consecutive) stay is, in principle, required, though this is considerably shorter for those married to Japanese, those with the Long-Term visa, and highly-skilled professionals (6) (the English guidelines are available here: For naturalisation, while more application materials are required, the actual conditions themselves are not much different, with a minimum of five years residence needed; one big difference, however, is that current citizenship must be relinquished since Japan does not recognise dual nationality (naturalisation information, in Japanese, available here: Interestingly, there are no language or cultural values tests, no compulsory civic-orientation courses, and no ceremonies for either PR or naturalisation (7), as seen in other countries (though there are checks on the applicant’s degree of cultural assimilation). Undoubtedly, the discourse of homogeneity is at work here too; the idea that one has to be ethnically Japanese to be ‘truly’ Japanese.

‘It is quite remarkable,’ writes Roberts (2017, 99), ‘how much hidden immigration can be sanctioned without actually embracing the term.’ This argument is quite common in the literature. Komine (2018) highlights the ‘dissonance’ between the government’s policy rhetoric and policy outcome. Similarly, Vogt (2007, 3, 26) and Vogt and Roberts (2011, 9) talk about the ‘(enormous) gap’ and ‘striking disparity’ between policy prescription (in other words, the ‘No-immigration’ principle) and policy reality/outcome (the presence of many people who are migrants in all but name). Mochizuki highlights the gap between the government’s “public stance” (tatemae) and the “reality” of Japan as an “immigrant nation” (imin kokka). And Chiavacci (2012, 44) highlights the ‘contradictions’ between official policy and actual immigration (policy). This is explained by a ‘piecemeal’ (Vogt and Roberts 2011, 15) and ‘fragmented’ (Chiavacci 2012, 44) policy-making process.

In actual fact, I would argue that this ‘disparity’ is over-stated and that policies to date have shown a remarkable consistency: in general, the ‘No-immigration’ principle has been both successful and resilient. Indeed, Morris-Suzuki (2002, 164-65) notes that the key principles of Japan’s migration and nationality structures—what she calls the ‘1899 system’ after Japan’s first Nationality Law—remain intact, including the ‘exclusionary system in which only a few carefully specified categories of skilled foreign migrants’ are allowed to live and work in Japan. The consistency is reflected in the relatively small number of foreign residents in Japan shown in Figure 1—and the small numbers being proposed under the revisions.

In terms of unskilled foreign workers the system has been very successful in discouraging settlement. Aside from Permanent Resident and Spouse visa holders, the largest group of foreign workers (8) in Japan are the TITP interns and foreign students (who can work up to 28 hours a week). In recent years, these two groups have become a mainstay of low-paying jobs at construction sites, factories, and restaurants/convenience stores. Nevertheless, interns can only stay a maximum of five years (extended from three in the 2016 revisions) and must then go home. Similarly, foreign students who want to stay in Japan after graduation face red-tape in changing visas and restrictions on the type of work they can do: only around 30% find jobs in Japan despite double that number wanting to stay (Burgess 2015b, 495). Seemingly aware that they are losing valuable human resources, the government has taken some steps to make it easier for international students to find jobs after graduating (Conrad and Meyer-Ohle 2019) including a recent proposal for a one-year visa extension (Japan News, Jan. 22, 2019).

The other ‘sidedoor’ source of blue-collar labour—the Nikkeijin on Long-Term visas (9)—do have semi-permanent status but are typically the first to lose their jobs during economic hard times: following the 2008 global financial crisis, almost half returned home, encouraged by a government repatriation scheme (Time 2009). In sum, rather than there being an ‘enormous’ gap between what the government says it is doing and what it is actually doing, it has actually been remarkably successful in maintaining a consistent policy of using unskilled workers as throwaway or disposable assets to offset labour shortages. Decades of ‘debate’ on ‘immigration’ policy—and the actual policies themselves, including the latest revisions—have shown little change in this attitude and approach.

6. The Management and Control of Difference: ‘Immigration’ Debates and Policies

The growing visibility of foreign workers from the mid-1980s required new ideological tools to manage and control difference—through indirect rather than overt exclusion—in order to maintain a mono-cultural, homogeneous, and ‘unique’ Japanese identity (Burgess 2004). As Mackie (1998, 45/58; 2002, 181/191) writes, since it was no longer possible to exclude these ‘Others’ physically (by keeping them outside Japan) it became necessary to displace them through discursive means. As mentioned above, a key discursive construct has been the strict ‘Japanese’ vs. ‘Foreigner’ binary that sees newcomers incorporated into Japanese society as foreigners (gaikokujin) rather than as Japanese nationals (Nihonjin) thereby reinforcing the dominant ethno-cultural conception of Japanese nationhood (Kashiwazaki 2013).

Kokusaika (literally, ‘internationalisation’), dominant in the 1980s, is the first example of one such discourse of displacement (10). Despite its English translation, in its dominant conservative manifestation at least, it was a nationalistic discourse concerned with defence/protection of national identity and the strengthening of boundaries (Burgess 2015a, 18-19). Chiavacci (2012, 35-39) also identifies the years 1989-1993 as the first ‘immigration’ debate proper in Japan, in part a reaction to economic needs and the increase in so-called ‘illegal’ workers, though discussions faded quickly after the bursting of the economic bubble in the early 1990s. The two ‘sidedoor’ labour schemes identified earlier were products of this debate.

The second example of a discourse of displacement is Tabunka Kyōsei (Multicultural Co-existence). This brand of Japanese-style multiculturalism—a conservative brand of multiculturalism that has been referred to as ‘cosmetic multiculturalism’ (Morris-Suzuki 2002)—emerged in the 1990s at the local level and was perhaps first properly codified in the 2001 ‘Hamamatsu Declaration’, a document written by a coalition of localities with large non-Japanese populations to pressure the national government (Gaikokujin Shūjū Toshi Kaigi 2018). The national government did, belatedly, adopt the term starting with the 2005 Tabunka Kyōsei Promotion Plan for the Regions (Nakamatsu 2014, 141-142). However, although the focus is on providing services and support for foreign residents, this is almost entirely delegated to the localities—including local NPOs—and only partially funded by the national government. As Pak (1998, 237) explains, the discourse of homogeneity means the political parties—and national bureaucrats—effectively avoid or abstain from the issue of what do with those non-Japanese who are present in Japan legally: ‘national state actors,’ she writes, ‘have by default allowed local actors to formulate their own response.’ Here we see clearly how ethnonationalism—the ‘homogenous people’ discourse—acts as a barrier to the integration of newcomers (Kashiwazaki 2018, 22). The result is that Japan still does not have a multiculturalism policy at the state level: it has an ‘admission policy’ not an ‘integration policy’ (Sato 2009, 359).

While Tabunka Kyōsei is sometimes portrayed as different from Kokusaika, as Nakamatsu (2014) points out, it is better seen as an extension of Kokusaika. Like the former, Tabunka Kyōsei functions to define, contain, reify, lock in, and reinforce (categories of) difference, thereby limiting access to social resources and maintaining the power of the dominant group. As Ishiwata (2011, 1605) writes, it works ‘to entrench rather than undermine ethno-cultural hierarchies.’ Evidence that the Japanese brand of multiculturalism is exclusionary and essentialising comes from Nagayoshi (2011) who demonstrates a strong statistical correlation between Japanese people’s ethno-nationalistic feelings and endorsement of Japanese-style ‘multiculturalism’; she concludes that Japanese regard their own brand of multiculturalism not as conflicting with but rather as strengthening homogeneity.

The rise of the Tabunka Kyōsei discourse coincided with the second immigration debate starting in 1999 and peaking in the years 2004-2008 (Chiavacci 2012, 31). Again, this was partly a reaction to the rise in ‘illegals’ and their perceived effect on public security, the so-called ‘foreign crime’ discourse (Yamamoto 2004; Shipper 2005). Thus, a key outcome of the discussions was the strengthening of immigration controls and regulations (Suzuki 2017). One concrete example was the 5-year plan (2004-2008) to cut the number of over-stayers by half (Immigration Bureau of Japan 2009). Although there were also discussions on a new medium skill visa category and a proper guest-worker programme, like the first debate, these discussions came to nothing with the start of recession in 2008 (Chiavacci 2012, 31/39-43). ‘Despite some fundamental and even revolutionary reform proposals during these two debates…,’ summarises Chiavacci (2012, 31), ‘the basic framework of Japan’s immigration policy has not officially changed; it is still based on the principle that only highly skilled foreign workers should be admitted to Japan.’ As we shall see below, despite initial indications to the contrary, this principle has remained largely intact with the revisions which emerged at the end of 2018 following the third and most recent ‘immigration’ debate.

7. The December 2018 Revisions

While Abenomics has been a cornerstone of Abe Shinzō’s administration, ‘immigration’ has been noticeably missing from this key economic policy (Fortune 2013). Indeed, the Prime Minister himself—reflecting the consensus in the ruling LDP—has repeatedly emphasised that any kind of immigration policy is taboo. For example, in April 2014, during discussions on utilising foreign workers in nursing care and house-keeping, Abe emphasised that such measures should not be misunderstood as immigration policies (imin seisaku to gokai sarenai yō ni) (Prime Minister of Japan and his Cabinet 2014). Similarly, in October of the same year he declared that his administration was not thinking of adopting a ‘so-called immigration policy’ (iwayuru imin seisaku o toru koto o kangaeteinai) (Sankei Shimbun, Oct. 1, 2014). This stance of not adopting an immigration policy (imin seisaku wa toranai) has remained consistent even during the latest ‘immigration’ debate (Hashimoto 2019).

Given the clear opposition to migrant settlement, the proposal to accept blue-collar workers surprised many, though others speculated Abe had little choice, faced as he was with acute labour shortages that threatened to undermine the steady economic growth seen under Abenomics. In fact, Abe remained less than positive about accepting foreign workers—the initiative for the revisions came from Suga, the Chief Cabinet Secretary; Abe reportedly acquiesced on the condition that it was not an immigration policy and the workers ‘not immigrants’ (imin dewa nai nara) (Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 11, 2018).

As Table 1 shows, the revisions introduced two new Tokutei Ginō (Specified Skill) visa categories. Type 1 is best understood as a further extension of the TITP. Indeed, it is estimated that almost half of those applying for the new visa will be current technical interns who will be allowed to switch their status after 3 years as technical interns (Japan News, Dec. 26, 2018). In contrast to the TITP, the Type 1 visa will see workers directly hired by employers, will cover more industries (such as the hotel and food industries), and will allow individuals to change jobs. In sum, Type 1 is very much in line with previous revisions, such as those of 2016, which expanded the scope and period of stay of technical interns—while limiting numbers and maintaining term limits and strict oversight of what is effectively a guest worker-type disposable labour programme. In this way, although the Type 1 visa does officially accept blue-collar workers for the first time, it is merely formalising an informal ‘sidedoor’ arrangement that has long existed, an arrangement that remains firmly within the ‘No-immigration’ principle.

Table 1. New ‘Tokutei Ginō’ (Specified Skill) Visas   

Sources: Ministry of Justice (2019) and multiple media sources

*Nursing care, accommodation, food-services, building-cleaning, food-manufacturing, fisheries, agriculture, construction, shipbuilding, car maintenance, aviation, forging technology, industrial machinery, and electronics (the first three to start in April 2019, others by the end of March 2020).
**Construction and ship-building (car-maintenance and aviation to follow; other areas pending—see Japan News, Dec. 26, 2018).

In contrast, the Type 2 visa does at first appear to challenge the ‘No-immigration’ policy that Japan does not accept people to stay long term or settle permanently. This is because, although the hurdles to securing it—in terms of (supervisory level) vocational and Japanese language skills—are higher, once secured it is possible to bring family members and, in theory, stay indefinitely. The concept of the Type 2 visa was apparently added as a result of pressure from small and mid-size companies worried that investments in training workers would be wasted if they ultimately had to return home (Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 11, 2018). However, as the debate on the revisions unfolded during November and December 2018, criticism that this was in effect a de-facto immigration policy mounted. This led to the sight of policy-making on the hoof as the government tightened conditions, including eligible industries, for Type 2, and stressed that visa renewals were not automatic and were subject to regular screenings and review; moreover, once the labour shortages that were the reason for the new visa were deemed to be addressed, visa issuances were to stop. These points, according to the government, meant that the Type 2 visa remained within the ‘No-immigration’ principle: ‘We are not adopting a policy on people who will settle permanently in the country, or so-called immigrants,’ said Abe the day before the bill was approved by the Cabinet, ‘the new system we are creating is based on the premise that the workers will work in sectors suffering labour shortages, for a limited time, in certain cases without bringing their families’ (Japan Times, Nov. 2, 2018).  

In sum, just as the Type 1 visa can be seen as a formalisation of the TITP ‘sidedoor’ scheme, Type 2 is similar to the second ‘sidedoor’ for blue-collar workers, the semi-permanent Long-Term visa held by most Nikkeijin who have been hired and fired depending on economic circumstances. In fact, at the time of writing, details regarding numbers, content, and implementation of the Type 2 visa remain unclear and progress appears to have stalled due to something of a push-back from the LDP core which is staunchly opposed to family reunion and settlement. In sum, there is a real possibility of a delay in the start date for Type 2 (more so given the current COVID-19 pandemic).

While anti-immigration voices worried about ‘foreign crime’ and the ‘deterioration of public safety’ did feature in the reform debate, other critics were more concerned over the lack of support infrastructure for the new foreign residents. As discussed earlier, the ‘No-immigration’ principle has effectively seen the national government abstain from developing such ‘migrant’ infrastructure (because it does not accept ‘migrants’), leaving support up to local actors. While the government has promised to introduce more support measures to cope with the increase in foreign workers, the lack of concrete details in the actual revisions—the government promised to address these issues ‘later’—was a key cause of concern during the debate. Four key areas in need of improvement were highlighted: Japanese language education, multilingual support and consultation services (including medical interpretation), rental accommodation (11), and support in times of disaster (Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 22, 2018). Japanese language education is particularly under-developed: problems include lack of schools in rural areas (12), reliance on volunteers many of whom are elderly (13), disparate qualifications (14), and absence of unified national teaching guidelines and curriculum (15).

Following up on its promise, at the end of December 2018 the government did introduce a raft of new measures together with a 21.1 billion yen budget in order to realise a ‘co-existent society with foreigners’ (gaikokujin to no kyōseishakai no jitsugen) (Ministry of Justice 2018). These support measures are based around the four key areas mentioned above, and include one-stop ‘Centres for Multicultural Information and Assistance’, new Japanese language schools, materials, and teacher qualifications, multilingual services at hospitals and child-care centres, and an increase in the number of languages used for emergency advisories about natural disasters (Nikkei Asian Review 2018; see also Japan Times, Dec. 25, 2018).

Nevertheless, most of these measures—probably better viewed as ‘goals’—remain at the proposal stage and a huge amount of work has to be done—most of it dependent on local actors. With the prospect of a significant increase in the number of foreign residents, many municipal governments expressed concern whether they would be able to cope, especially financially. In one poll, 72% of local governments said they were concerned over the need to establish basic infrastructure such as living arrangements and other systems (Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 16, 2019). Another poll found almost half of municipalities were worried about ‘co-existence’, specifically with regard to proper or equal treatment of newcomers in terms of livelihood support and salaries, highlighting the government’s ‘lack of specific measures’ as a major reason for their anxiety (Japan Times, Feb 10, 2019). Companies too are worried and concerned since they are obliged either to prepare their own support systems for foreign workers under the new status—something usually too costly—or outsource this work to a ‘registered support institution’ (tōroku shien kikan). Of course, as mentioned in footnote 6 earlier, whether foreign workers will even want to come (16) to a country with poor support infrastructure, a strong discourse of homogeneity, and a ‘No-immigration’ principle may ultimately make these concerns a moot point.

8. Conclusion

At the end of December 2019, nine months after the ‘immigration’ law revision had come into effect (and even before the coronavirus hit), only 1,621 had been accepted for the new skilled worker visa, a little over 3% of the government quota for fiscal 2019 (Ministry of Justice 2020). Concerns were expressed that the application requirements—some 20 types of documents—were too strict and the process itself overly complex (Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept 27, 2019). In particular, those on the TITP, who made up more than 90% of the new applicants, were reportedly having trouble obtaining the necessary ‘evaluation record’ (hyōka chōsho). A headline in the Yomiuri Shimbun (Feb. 12, 2020) said that new system was of “limited attraction.” Coupled with revised guidelines for Type 1 workers that time spent working under this category (and as a technical intern) would no longer count towards permanent residency (Japan Times, May 31, 2019) there is no doubt that the ‘No-immigration’ principle remains as strong as ever. The tough stance taken towards accepting even temporary ‘guest’ workers—coupled with efforts to cut off any possibility of long-term settlement—belies the popular argument that Japan has a migration policy and migrants ‘in all but name’ (17) (Tian 2018; Roberts 2017).
Despite the slow start, this hasn’t stopped outside observers framing the 2018 revisions as dramatic and ground-breaking. The New York Times, for example, called them ‘a remarkable turn for Japan’ and a ‘significant turnaround’ (Rich 2018). Here, one is reminded of Bartram’s (2000, 9) remark that observers tend to use ‘exaggerated language’ ‘out of proportion’ to the actual figures when discussing small increases in the number of foreign workers in Japan. In contrast, the Japanese media has been rather more circumspect, framing the revisions simply as an expansion in the number of foreign workers (gaikokujin rōdōsha ukeire kakudai), though the fact that it is frequently front page news highlights just how controversial even such limited ‘change’ has been in Japan. Indeed, the crucial point to remember in all of this is that ‘change’ is in fact nothing more than the dropping of the long-held façade that Japan does not allow blue-collar workers coupled with a small increase in numbers. Talk of the Type 2 visa, which does, in theory, offer the possibility of some change—at least the de-ethnicisation of the Long-Term visa, albeit with various strict provisos—has been entirely absent, raising questions about when, and perhaps even if, it will be fully implemented.

To conclude, I have argued that Japan’s ‘No-immigration’ principle has proved remarkably consistent over the post-war years and, despite all the attention given to the 2018 revisions, remains alive and well to this day. Undoubtedly, Japan’s refusal to fit neatly into any of the explanatory models and theories in the literature—its apparent immunity to economic, demographic, and political factors that have triggered significant change in other countries like Germany and Korea—is a key reason why Japan is frequently misunderstood and expectations about change misplaced and exaggerated.

The continuing strength of the ‘No-immigration’ principle has been explained by the discourse of homogeneity, a discourse that has played a key role in limiting the kind of political solutions that are actually possible, meaning migration as a solution to demographic problems is practically taboo in Japan (Vogt 2007, 27; Vogt and Roberts 2011, 10). For example, in one poll only 14% thought it was necessary to actively accept foreign settlers in order to keep their regions going (Japan News, Nov. 14, 2018). A central question for future research is therefore to explain the resilience of this discourse, the reason it continues to resonate so strongly among public and politicians where in other countries it has faded. Understanding the continuing strength of the discourse of homogeneity is central to understanding why, in contrast to other liberal democracies such as Germany, humanitarian and other normative pressures to reform a system that treats workers as disposable ‘commodities’ have been absent or at least ineffectual in Japan (Tian 2018, 14). Tian (2018, 6,14) suggests, echoing Bartram (2000, 24-26), that an insulated bureaucracy working within ‘an institutional history of ethno-nationalist politics’ could be important; she also speculates that less competitive elections and low public awareness of migrant issues may also be factors. But neither of these writers directly address the role, tenacity, or influence of the nihonjinron discourse. ‘[B]eyond the recognition that immigration ideologies matter,’ writes Ellerman (2015, 1236), ‘we know little of the ways in which policy-makers navigate their way within their ideational confines.’ In sum, there is a clear need for future research to address the question of Nihonjinron directly and explicitly if we are to properly understand exactly why the door continues to remain firmly closed to migrant settlers in Japan.


Agency for Cultural Affairs. 2016. "Heisei 28 nendo Nihongo Kyōiku Jittai Chōsa no Kekka ni tsuite (On the Results of the Survey about Japanese Language Education in 2016)." July 28.

———2017. "Japanese Language Education." Sept. 25.

Bartram, David. 2000. "Japan and Labor Migration: Theoretical and Methodological Implications of Negative Cases."  International Migration Review 34 (1), Spring. 5-32. doi: 10.2307/2676010.

Befu, Harumi. 2001. Hegemony of Homogeneity: An Anthropological Analysis of Nihonjinron. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Brubaker, Williams Roger. 2009. Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Burgess, Chris. 2004. "Maintaining Identities: Discourses of Homogeneity in a Rapidly Globalising Japan."  electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies 4 (1), April 19.

———2007. "Multicultural Japan? Discourse and the ‘Myth’ of Homogeneity."  Japan Focus: The Asia-Pacific Journal, March 24.

———2010. "The ‘Illusion’ of Homogeneous Japan and National Character: Discourse as a Tool to Transcend the ‘Myth’ vs. ‘Reality’ Binary."  Japan Focus: The Asia-Pacific Journal 8 (9-1), March 1.

———2015a. "‘National Identity and the Transition from Internationalization to Globalization: "Cool Japan" or "Closed Japan"?’" in Languages and Identities in a Transitional Japan: From Internationalization to Globalization, edited by Ikuko Nakane, Emi Otsuji and William Armour, 15-36. New York and London: Routledge.

———2015b. "To Globalise or not to Globalise? “Inward-Looking Youth” as Scapegoats for Japan’s Failure to Secure and Cultivate “Global Human Resources”"  Globalisation, Societies and Education 13 (4), October. 487-507

Castles, Stephen, Hein de Haas, and Mark J. Miller. 2014. The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World (5th edition). Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Chiavacci, David. 2012. "Japan in the ‘Global War for Talent’: Changing concepts of valuable foreign workers and their consequences." Asien: The German Journal of Contemporary Asia 124: 27-47

Chung, Erin Aeran. 2010. Immigration and Citizenship in Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chung, Erin Aeran, and Daisy Kim. 2012. "Citizenship and Marriage in a Globalizing World: Multicultural Families and Monocultural Nationality Laws in Korea and Japan."  Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 19 (1): 195-219.

Conrad, Harald, and Hendrik Meyer-Ohle. 2019. "Transnationalization of a Recruitment Regime: Skilled Migration to Japan."  International Migration 57 (3), June. 1-16. doi: 10.1111/imig.12529.

Dale, Peter N. 2012. The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness. London: Routledge.

Deutsche Welle. 2018. "Dual Citizenship Granted to most Naturalised Germans." August 10.

Douglass, Mike. 2000. "The Singularities of International Migration of Women to Japan: Past, Present, and Future." in Japan and Global Migration: Foreign Workers and the Advent of a Multicultural Society, edited by Mike Douglass and Glenda Susan Roberts, 91-119. London and New York: Routledge.

Dower, John. 2012. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon Books.

Ellermann, Antje. 2015. "Do policy legacies matter? Past and present guest worker recruitment in Germany."  Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 41 (8), July 3. 1235-53. doi: 10.1080/1369183X.2014.984667.

Fortune. 2013. "What Japan’s Abenomics is Missing: Immigrants." Nov. 14.

Gaikokujin Shūjū Toshi Kaigi. 2018. "Gaikokujin Shūjū Toshi Kaigi no Gaiyō (Outline of Council for Cities of Non-Japanese Residents)." Nov. 22.

GESIS. 2015. "ISSP 2013: National Identity III."

Hashimoto, Naoko. 2019. "‘Imin Seisaku wa Toranai’ toshitsutsu Gaikokujin Ukeire o Kakudai Shitsuzukeru toiu Saiaku no Iminseisaku (Maintaining a ‘No Immigration Policy’ Stance while Continuing to Expand the Acceptance of Foreigners - The Worst Possible Immigration Policy)."  Huffington Post

Hennings, Matthias, and Scott Mintz. 2018. "Is Japan’s Foreign Workforce Really Growing Rapidly? Understanding the Government Statistics Behind the Myth."  The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 16 (24:1), Dec. 15.

Hirowatari, Seigo. 1998. "Foreign Workers and Immigration Policy." in The Political Economy of Japanese Society, edited by J. Banno, 81-106. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hurt, Michael William. 2014. "Hangukinron: The Shape of Korean National Ideology." P.h.D, University of California, Berkeley (available at

Iguchi, Yasushi. 1998. "What we can Learn from the German Experience regarding Foreign Labor." in Temporary Workers or Future Citizens? Japanese and U.S. Migration Policies, edited by Myron Weiner and Tadashi Hanami, 293-318. New York: New York University Press.

IMD World Competitiveness Center. 2019. "IMD World Talent Ranking 2018." March 22.

Immigration Bureau of Japan. 2009. "Fuhō Taizaisha 5nen Hangen Keikaku no Jisshi Kekka ni tsuite (The Results of the Plan to Reduce Overstayers by Half over 5 years)." Feb. 17.

Ishiwata, Eric. 2011. "‘Probably Impossible’: Multiculturalism and Pluralisation in Present-Day Japan."  Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37 (10), Dec. 1. 1605-26. doi: 10.1080/1369183X.2011.613334.

Jensen, T. G., G. Schmidt, K. Vitus, and K. Weibel. 2010. "The Historicity of (Anti-)Racism and the Politics of Integration in Denmark."  Working paper produced within the TOLERANCE project: 1-24

Kashiwazaki, Chikako. 1998. "Jus Sanguinis in Japan The Origin of Citizenship in a Comparative Perspective."  International Journal of Comparative Sociology 39 (3): 278-300. doi: 10.1177/002071529803900302.

Kashiwazaki, Chikako. 2013. "Incorporating immigrants as foreigners: multicultural politics in Japan."  Citizenship Studies 17 (1), Feb. 1. 31-47. doi: 10.1080/13621025.2013.764216.

Kashiwazaki, Chikako. 2018. "Nihon no Shakai to Seiji・Gyōsei ni Okeru Esuno・Nashonarizumu (Ethnonationalism in Japanese Society, Politics, and Administration)." in Imin Seisaku no Frontier: Nihon no Ayumi to Kadai o Toinaosu, edited by Imin Seisaku Gakkai Setsuritsu 10 Shūnen Kinen Ronshū Kankō Īnkai, 39-44. Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.

Kawakami, Ikuo, and et al. 2009. A Report on the Local Integration of Indo-Chinese Refugees and Displaced Persons in Japan. Tokyo: UNHCR (available online at

Kawamura, Nozomu. 1980. "The Historical Background of Arguments Emphasizing the Uniqueness of Japanese Society." in Japanese Society: Reappraisals and New Directions (A Special Issue of Social Analysis, no. 5/6), edited by Ross Mouer and Yoshio Sugimoto, 44-62. Adelaide: University of Adelaide.

Keidanren, (Japan Business Federation). 2016. "Fundamental Approach to Facilitating Employment of Workers from Overseas: Summary." Nov. 21.

Kim, Nora Hui-Jung. 2013. "Flexible but Yet Inflexible: Development of Dual Citizenship in South Korea."  The Journal of Korean Studies 18 (1), Spring. 7-28.

———2015. "The Retreat of Multiculturalism? Explaining the South Korean Exception."  American Behavioral Scientist 59 (6): 727-46 doi: 10.1177/0002764214566497.

Klingholz, Reiner. 2011. "Demographic Change and Migration in Germany." in Migration and Integration—Japan in Comparative Perspective, edited by Gabriele Vogt and Glenda S. Roberts, 111-23. Munich: Iudicum.

Komine, Ayako. 2018. "A Closed Immigration Country: Revisiting Japan as a Negative Case."  International Migration 56 (5): 106-22. doi: 10.1111/imig.12383.

Liberal Democratic Party of Japan. 2016. "‘Kyōsei no Jidai’ ni Muketa Gaikokujin Rōdōsha Ukeire no Kihon-teki Kangaekata (The Basic Thinking on Accepting Foreign Workers in age the ‘Age of Co-existence’)." May 24.

Lie, John. 2001. Multiethnic Japan. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Mackie, Vera. 1998. "Japayuki Cinderella Girl: Containing the Immigrant Other."  Japanese Studies: The Bulletin of the Japanese Studies Association of Australia 18 (1), May. 45-63. doi: 10.1080/10371399808727641.

———2002. "‘Asia’ in Everyday Life: Dealing with Difference in Contemporary Japan." In Gender Politics in the Asia-Pacific Region, edited by Brenda Yeoh, Peggy Teo and Shirlena Huang, 181-204. London: Routledge.

Mandel, Ruth. 2008. Cosmpolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. 2018. "‘Gaikokujin Koyō Jōkyō’no Todokede Jōkyō Matome (Heisei 29nen 10gatsumatsu Genzai) (Compilation of Reports on the ‘Employment Situation of Foreigners’ as of end of October 2017)." Jan 26. doi:

Ministry of Justice. 2018. "Gaikokujinzai no Ukeire/Kyōsei no Tame no Sōgōteki Taiō (Gaiyō) (Measures to Deal with the Acceptance/Co-existence of Foreign Human Resources: An Outline)." Dec. 25.

——— 2019a. "Heisei 30 Nenmatsu Genzai ni okeru zairyū Gaikokujin Sū ni tsuite (About the Number of Foreign Residents as of the end of 2018)." March 22.

———2019b. "Heisei 30 nen ni okeru Nanmin Nintei Shasū nado ni tsuite (Number of Refugee Approvals for 2018)." March 27.

———2019c. "Aratana Gaikokujinzai Ukeire (Zairyū Shikaku ‘Tokutei Ginō’ no Sōsetsu nado) (Accepting New Foreign Human Resources [Establishment of the Residence Qualification ‘Specified Skills’])." March 18.

———2019d. "Kika Kyoka Shinsei Shasū no Suii (Change in the Number of People Approved for Naturalisation)."

———2020. "Tokutei Ginō Zairyū Gaikokujin Jinsū no Kōhyō (Official Figures for Specified Skill Foreign Residents)." Feburary 7.

Mochizuki, Hiroki. 2019. Futatsu no Nihon: ‘Imin Kokka’ no Tatemae to Genjitsu (Two Japans: Public Stance and Reality of’Immigration Nation’). Tokyo: Kodansha.

Moldenhawer, Bolette. 1995. "Discourses on Cultural Differences: The Case of Schooling." in Negotiating Identities, edited by Aleksandra Alund and Raoul Granqvist, 71-89. Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi.

Morita, Liang. 2017. "Why Japan isn’t more attractive to highly-skilled migrants."  Cogent Social Sciences 3 (1), Jan. 1. 1-12. doi: 10.1080/23311886.2017.1306952.

Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. 1998. Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe.

———2002. "Immigration and Citizenship in Contemporary Japan." in JapanContinuity and Change, edited by Javed Maswood, Jeffrey Graham and Hideaki Miyajima, 163-78. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

———2011. Borderline Japan: Foreigners and Frontier Controls in the Postwar Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mouer, Ross, and Yoshio Sugimoto. 1986. Images of Japanese Society: A Study on the Structure of Social Reality. London and New York: Kegan Paul International.

Nagayoshi, Kikuko. 2011. "Support of Multiculturalism, but for Whom? : Effects of Ethno-National Identity on the Endorsement of Multiculturalism in Japan."  Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37 (4), May. 561-78. doi: 10.1080/1369183X.2011.545272.

Nakamatsu, Tomoko. 2014. "Under the Multicultural Flag: Japan’s Ambiguous Multicultural Framework and its Local Evaluations and Practices."  Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 40 (1): 137-54. doi: 10.1080/1369183X.2013.830498.

Nikkei Asian Review. 2018. "Japan approves 126 measures to attract more foreign workers." Dec. 25.

Oguma, Eiji. 2002. A Genealogy of ‘Japanese’ Self-Images. Translated by David Askew. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Oishi, Nana. 2012. "The Limits of Immigration Policies: The Challenges of Highly Skilled Migration in Japan."  American Behavioral Scientist 56 (8): 1080-100. doi: 10.1177/0002764212441787.

Pak, Katherine Tegtmeyer. 1998. "Outsiders Moving in: Identity and Institutions in Japanese Responses to International Migration." PhD diss., University of Chicago (available at

Prime Minister of Japan and his Cabinet. 2014. "Keizai Zaisei Shimon Kaigi oyobi Keizai Zaisei Shimon Kaigi/Sangyō Kyōsōryoku Kaigi Gōdō Kaigi (Joint meeting of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy and the Industrial Competiveness Council)." April 4.

Rauer, Valentin. 2011. "Migration and Integration Policies in Germany - Turkish Migrants’ Associations and their Impact on Policy Reform." in Migration and Integration—Japan in Comparative Perspective, edited by Gabriele Vogt and Glenda S. Roberts, 124-44. Munich: Iudicum.

Rich, Motoko. 2018. "Bucking a Global Trend, Japan Seeks More Immigrants. Ambivalently."  The New York Times, Dec. 7.

Roberts, Glenda S. 2017. "An Immigration Policy by Any Other Name: Semantics of Immigration to Japan."  Social Science Japan Journal 21 (1): 89-102. doi: 10.1093/ssjj/jyx033.

Sassen, Saskia. 1994. "Economic Internationalization: The New Migration in Japan and the United States."  Social Justice 21 (2), Summer. 62-81. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2435.1993.tb00719.x.

Sato, Shigeki. 2009. "Kokumin Kokka to Imin Tōgō Ōbei Senshin Shokoku ni okeru Aratana ‘Nēshon Birudingu’ Mosaku (Nation-State and Immigrant Integration: A Move toward Nation-State Reconfiguration in Western Developed Countries) "  Shakaigaku Hyōron (Japanese Sociological Review) 60 (3): 348-63.

Sellek, Yoko. 1996. "Female Foreign Migrant Workers in Japan: working for the Yen."  Japan Forum 8 (2): 159-75. doi: 10.1080/09555809608721567.

———1997. "Nikkeijin: The Phenomena of Return Migration." in Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity, edited by Michael Weiner, 178-210. London: Routledge.

Shipper, Apichai W. 2005. "Criminals or Victims? The Politics of Illegal Foreigners in Japan."  Journal of Japanese Studies 31 (2): 299-327. doi: 10.1353/jjs.2005.0060.

Suzuki, Eriko. 2017. "Gaikokujin Senbetsu Seisaku no Tenkai: Shinkō Suru Senbetsuteki Haijo (The Development of Policies to Select Foreigners: The Evolution of Selection Exclusion)." in Imin Ukeire no Kokusai Shakaigaku: Senbetsu Mekanizumu no Hikaku Bunseki (International Sociology of Immigration Acceptance: Comparative Analysis of Selection Mechanisms), edited by Akihiro Koido, 310-36. Nagoya: University of Nagoya Press.

Takenaka, Ayumi. 2014. "The Rise and Fall of Diasporic Bonds in Japanese-Peruvian “Return” Migration."  International Migration 52 (6): 100-12. doi:

Tian, Yunchen. 2018. "Workers by any other name: comparing co-ethnics and ‘interns’ as labour migrants to Japan."  Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies: 1-19. doi: 10.1080/1369183X.2018.1466696.

Time. 2009. "‘And Don’t Come Back’ (April 23)." April 23. (

Tsuda, Takeyuki. 1998. "The Stigma of Ethnic Difference: The Structure of Prejudice and ‘Discrimination’ toward Japan’s New Immigrant Minority."  The Journal of Japanese Studies 24 (2), Summer. 317-59. doi: 10.2307/133237.

UNESCO. 2019. "Migrant/Migration."   
United Nations. 2019. "International Migration 2019 (Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs)."

United Nations Population Division. 2019. "World Population Prospects 2017." March 13.

US State Department. 2019. "Trafficking in Persons Report June 2019: J to M."

Vogt, Gabriele. 2013. "When the Leading Goose Gets Lost: Japan’s Demographic Change and the Non-Reform of its Migration Policy."  Asian Studies: Journal of Critical Perspectives on Asia 49 (2): 14-44.

———2007. "Closed Doors, Open Doors, Doors Wide Shut? Migration Politics in Japan."  Japan actuell, May. 3-30

———2017. "Multiculturalism and trust in Japan: educational policies and schooling practices."  Japan Forum 29 (1): 77-99. doi: 10.1080/09555803.2016.1227354.

Vogt, Gabriele, and Glenda S. Roberts. 2011. "Introduction: Migration and Integration—Japan in Comparative Perspective." in Migration and Integration—Japan in Comparative Perspective, edited by Gabriele Vogt and Glenda S. Roberts, 9-16. Munich: Iudicum.

Yamamoto, Ryoko. 2004. "Alien Attack? The Construction of Foreign Criminality in Contemporary Japan."  Japanstudien (German Institute for Japanese Studies) (16): 27-57 (available at

Yamanaka, Keiko. 2000. "‘I Will Go Home, but When?’: Labor Migration and Circular Diaspora Formation by Japanese Brazilians in Japan." in Japan and Global Migration: Foreign Workers and the Advent of a Multicultural Society, edited by Mike Douglass and Glenda Susan Roberts, 123-52. London and New York: Routledge.

Yamawaki, Keizo. 2000. "Foreign Workers in Japan: A Historical Perspective." in Japan and Global Migration: Foreign Workers and the Advent of a Multicultural Society, edited by Mike Douglass and Glenda Susan Roberts, 38-51. London and New York: Routledge.


[1.]   This is a shortened version of ‘Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act’, the official English name for Shutsunyūkoku Kanri oyobi Nanmin Nintei Hō. I put ‘immigration’ in inverted commas since the Japanese uses the term shutsunyū (exit and entry) not imin (immigration or migrant). In Japan, the ‘i’ word imin is studiously avoided in favour of euphemisms like ‘entrant’ or ‘worker’. This was also evident during the revision deliberations which were framed in terms of ‘expanding acceptance of foreigners/foreign workers’ (gaikokujin [rōdōsha] ukeire kakudai).

2.  The projections are well known: the UN (2019) estimates Japan’s population will be at just under 103 million by 2060 (down almost 20%) with 36% over 65; the IMF sees a possibility of GDP dropping 25% over the next 40 years (Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 9, 2018)

3.  For more on the perception among policy makers that the return migration scheme was a failure due to lack of integration/assimilation see Takenaka (2014).

4.  For example, the TITP has consistently figured in the U.S. Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report; while noting some improvements, the 2018 report still notes the failure to criminally prosecute traffickers, the existence of forced labour, and sex trafficking of absconders (US State Department 2019). Further problems, including low wages, strict instruction, long working hours, and violence were highlighted during deliberations on the 2018 revisions (Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov, 24, 2018). 759 technical trainees were abused and 9,052 absconded from their workplace in 2018, likely due to the harsh working conditions (Yomiuri Shimbun, March 30, 2019).

5.  Tellingly, the public shift towards accepting more migrants does not seem to have spread to those in power; a questionnaire of Liberal Democratic House of Councillors Members before the recent upper house election found 22% of MPs against ‘at present’ and 50% answering that Japan should not ever accept migrants (Shukan Asahi, July 19, 2019).

6.  Japan has been trying actively to secure highly-skilled foreign professional in recent years, with a point-based system introduced in 2012 followed by a new 1-year fast-track for getting PR in 2017 (Japan Times, Jan. 4, 2018). However, takers have been fewer than expected; many writers have identified language and cultural obstacles, together with the influence of nihonjinron ideology, as reasons for Japan’s lack of attraction (Morita 2017; Oishi 2012). Moreover, the fact that Japan is not an attractive destination for many is undoubtedly linked to the lack of support infrastructure for migrants in general, something which is discussed later in the paper. These points support the author’s assertion that Japan is a ‘no-immigration’ country rather than simply a ‘no-low skill immigration’ country.

7.  There were 771,568 general permanent residents as of the end of 2018, an increase of 3% (22,377) over the previous year (Ministry of Justice 2019a). In the same period, 9,074 people were given permission to naturalise (Ministry of Justice 2019d). Chung (2010, : 45) notes that Japan’s naturalisation rate is one of the lowest in the world.   

8.  The Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (2018) gives a figure of 1.28 million foreign workers as of October 2017, up 18% from the previous year and an increase of some 600,000 over the past five years. However, Hennings and Mintz (2018) question these figures, arguing that the actual number of employees is larger (around 1.5m) but has remained relatively stable. Part of the reason for the higher figure is that Special Permanent Residents (‘oldcomers’) are not counted by the MHLW since it considers them to be ‘relatively assimilated’ and therefore not ‘genuine foreigners.’

9.  A new residency programme extending the Long-Term preferential visa system to 4th generation descendants of Japanese began in July 2018. However, strict language and age requirements, a five-year limit, the need for financial guarantors, and a ban on family reunion has seen very few takers (Japan News, August 12, 2019).

10.  For a detailed explanation of how kokusaika (internationalisation) serves as a discourse of displacement, see Burgess (2004).

11. In a 2017 survey by the Ministry of Justice, the first asking foreign residents about discrimination, almost 40% said they had been refused housing because of their nationality (Japan Times, March 31, 2017).

12.  60% of rural areas have no Japanese language schools or classes (Yomiuri Shimbun, March 3, 2019)

13.  Almost 60% of Japanese language teachers are volunteers, many elderly (Agency for Cultural Affairs 2016).

14.  Currently there are three paths to becoming a Japanese language teacher (nihongo kyōshi) resulting in differences in training, experience, and quality; the government is ‘looking at’ unifying these (Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 11, 2018).

15.  Since 2007 the Agency for Cultural Affairs has been developing materials for ‘foreigners living in Japan’ (seikatsusha toshite no gaikokujin), including a 2010 5-set handbook; however, a standard curriculum is still under-development (Agency for Cultural Affairs 2017).

16.  Japan came 29th in terms of attractiveness in the 2018 IMD World Talent Ranking (2019), just above Estonia.

17. This of course depends on your definition of ‘migrant’. A broad definition, such as the UN one which defines an immigrant as moving to a country other than their country of residence for a minimum time period, is too wide-ranging and all-inclusive to be very useful. A narrower definition, such as “any person who lives…in a country where they were not born, and has acquired significant social ties to the country” (UNESCO 2019), is far more useful in capturing the crucial distinction between guest or contract workers and integrated settlers.

About the Author

Chris Burgess is a Professor at Tsuda University, Tokyo, where he teaches Japanese and Australian studies. His research focuses on migration, globalisation, and multiculturalism in contemporary Japan. Follow his blog at

Email the author

Back to top