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Immigration and Illegal Foreigners in Japan Research Paper


As the world becomes increasingly globalized, the issue of immigration has risen to prominence in many developed nations. Movement of labour across regions of the world out of economic considerations has increased significantly in the last 2 decades (Castles and Davidson 12). Countries have been affected in different ways by this movement of labour and respective governments have taken up different approaches on the issue.

Unlike the US and other European countries that have accepted a huge influx of migrant workers from their neighbours, Japan has been a fairy-closed country to foreign workers. Japan did not have notable immigration in the post-World War II era since the labour demands of the country were successfully met by internal migration from poorer regions in the country.

However, the economic boom of the mid 1980s necessitated the use of foreign workers and this marked the first wave of immigrants in Japan. The immigrant was followed by an increase in the presence of illegal immigrants in the country. This paper will set out to discuss immigration in Japan with focus being given to the issue of illegal foreigners in Japan.

Immigration in Japan

Japan considers itself a homogenous society and immigration is not as common as in other first world countries. The Japanese government has strongly pursued an immigration policy that does not allow low-skilled and unskilled foreign labour on the grounds that this group of workers would disrupt the homogeneous society currently in existence in Japan.

Yamanaka explains that Japan has adopted a policy that protects against the possibility of a mass influx of unskilled immigrant workers who would impede the national integrity and drain the nation of its national resources (189). The country therefore enjoys low numbers of immigrants with the foreign population making up less than 1.6% of the overall population (Vogt 9).

Every nation exerts control over foreign nationals in its territories and Japan does this through strict control at its borders as well as during their stay (Brettell and Hollifield 32). The strict control is exercised based on the law in force that restricts the presence of foreigners in Japan.

Chung highlights that the official stance by Japan towards immigrants suggests that non-Japanese do not have the capacity to become Japanese and they should therefore be excluded (3). This is in line with the commonly held perception that “Japan is not a country of immigrants”.

The immigration policy adopted highlights the importance of social integration for Japan’s society. The foreign population in Japan makes up a mere 1.6% of the population as a result of the government policy on immigration.

Need for Immigrants

In spite of the close-door policy adopted Japan, the country still lets in a significant number of immigrants who come into the country as; labourers, students, and refugees. The last two decades have been responsible for the increase of immigrants in Japan. In response to the labour shortages experienced by the country, the government made some steps towards increasing immigration in the 1990s.

The state-sponsored recruitment of Nikkei workers (who are foreigners of Japanese decent; most of whom are Brazilian and Peruvian) has led to a phenomenal growth of this group of immigrants. To further assist with the shortage of semi-skilled labourers, the government allowed companies to obtain low-end job workers through a trainee program in 1993.

The trainees were admitted to fill low-wage jobs and their length of stay was usually limited to 1 year. After this period, the trainee who had successfully passed the training program could stay as technical interns for a period of 2 years (Abella 1142).

Japan has an economic need for immigrants labour due to the rapid aging of the population and the shrinking of the Japanese populace due to the country’s extremely low fertility rate. The internal labour shortages in Japan have created a huge demand for foreign workers. Shipper confirms that the labour shortages in Japan are already having “a large impact on the farming and fishing industries as well as small manufacturers (506).

These labour intensive industries have been unable to obtain local workers in the needed quantity. Government restrictions on unskilled immigrants have meant that the low-skill industries do not benefit from the legitimate immigrants who are mostly skilled. As such, the large influx of foreign workers in Japan has still failed to effectively satisfy the labour demands of the country.

Illegal Immigrants

In addition to the registered foreigners, there are a sizable number of illegal immigrants in Japan. While Japan has a very low rate of migrant workers, there has been an increase in the number of illegal foreign workers since the 1980s when an economic boom in Japan created a huge demand for migrant workers due to the serious labour shortages faced by the country.

The labour shortages during this period of economic boom led to a rise in the immigrant labour force. Most of these workers came in through legal channels. McCargo documents that most of the immigrants were from Korea while the second largest group of foreigners came from China (72). The Ministry of Justice estimates that there are 200,000 to 300,000 illegal immigrant workers in Japan.

This figure is mainly made up of individuals who immigrated to Japan legally but continue to stay after their visa has expired. The other portion of illegal immigrants is mostly from East Asian countries and they enter Japan with forged passports or are smuggled in by gangs that continue to make a lot of money through human smuggling.

Illegal foreign residents in Japan may have the effect of encouraging further illegal immigration in a number of ways. They can encourage and assist other illegal immigrants to enter the country and acquire illegal jobs.

They also help newcomers establish themselves by providing shelter and providing them with important information on government operations in order to reduce their risk of being apprehended by the government (Yoshida 4). The presence of a sizable number of illegal immigrants therefore increases the probability that their numbers will become even greater in future.

Small Japanese businesses have in some ways encouraged illegal immigration into the country. Shipper notes that small companies typically provide employment for illegal workers who would otherwise not have a source of livelihood (521). Some small companies favour illegal workers since they can be paid at rates that are below the minimum wage. In addition to this, the illegal workers are not given any bonuses of health insurance that results in cost cutting for the company.

Small and medium-sized enterprises are also more likely to employ illegal immigrant workers since they do not have the resources to compete with the larger enterprises in attracting the legal workforce (Abella 1141).

Since Japanese employers are not under legal obligation to verify the eligibility of their employees, many of them abstain from checking the papers of their foreign staff. By doing this, they cannot be prosecuted for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants since they can always claim that they were ignorant of this fact.

Reasons for Illegal Immigrants

The increase in illegal immigrants in Japan is blamed on the Japanese 1990 Immigration Control Law that enforces Japan’s unwelcoming attitude towards unskilled foreign workers. In order to decrease the social costs of immigration, Japan has adopted a policy that does not allow unskilled foreign labour and employers are prohibited by law from hiring such workers (Yamanaka 190).

Foreigners without special skills are not granted work permits in Japan in spite of the huge demand for non-skilled labour in the country. While most Japanese people dislike illegal immigrants, this group plays an important role in society.

Most illegal immigrant workers engage in menial jobs such as construction work and housekeeping. The Japanese themselves do not want these jobs and that makes it easy for foreign workers to acquire them.

The huge wage differential between Japan and her neighbours has encouraged illegal immigration into Japan (Gibney and Hansen 348). Neighbouring East Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines do not enjoy the high income per capita that Japan has. In addition to this, these countries have significantly high rates of unemployment. Individuals therefore move to Japan with the hope of finding work since Japan offers many employment opportunities.

High demand for foreign workers in some industries in Japan also increases the rate of illegal immigration. For example, the demand for foreign women workers in the entertainment industry is very high. However, the restrictive visa policies in place make it hard for many women from Asian countries such as Thailand and the Philippines to migrate to Japan. The lack of legal means may cause some people to enter into the country illegally.

Unlike other developed countries, Japan does not have an immigration quota for foreigners who desire to be given permanent residency in the country. There is no system in place to ensure that a sustainable number of immigrants are allowed into the country. This has led to the use of illegal workers by some industries.

The declining population has led to players in some industries to call on the government to begin accepting immigrants and adopt an open door policy in order to guarantee future labour supply. Until this is done, the illegal immigrants will continue to find work in Japanese businesses.

Addressing the Immigration Problem

The government is very concerned about illegal immigrants in Japan. The large number of illegal immigrants especially from China is worrying for the Japanese who fear that this might be the beginning of a long-term trend. A number of measures have therefore been taken by the government to deal with the problem.

The government through the Ministry of Justice engages in annual campaigns aimed at mitigating immigration in Japan. This annual campaign takes a month during which haphazard raids are conducted on business establishments suspected of hiring illegal foreigners.

The campaigns enlist the help of the general public who are encouraged to report any illegal foreign workers Shipper observes that these campaigns are very effective in deterring illegal foreign workers from establishing any permanent community within Japan (522).

The joint operation between the Ministry of Health, Labour, and welfare and the National Police Agency has also been effective in cracking down on illegal foreign workers by gathering information on these workers and taking up steps to arrest them.

The “Action Plan for the Revitalization of a Society Resistant to Crime” formulated by the Japanese authorities in 2003 have also been very effective in reducing illegal immigration to the country. Chung reveals that the government has intensified police checks in areas that are known to harbour illegal immigrants with random checks on foreigners and on the spot check of immigration documents being commonplace (44).

Through these radical actions, the number of illegal foreigners has been reduced by over 50% between 2002 and 2008. The penalties imposed on illegal immigrants are also harsh which serves as deterrence. For example, the government raised the ban on re-entry into Japan for apprehended illegal immigrants from one-year to five years (Chung 44).

A significant portion of illegal immigrant are ‘overstayers’ who refuse to leave Japan in spite of their visa expiring. To tackle this problem, the government regularly deports persons whose visas have expired and employ more stringent visa application procedures (Gibney and Hansen 348).

The tight procedures include screening for applicants who are deemed likely to overstay their visas. These potential overstayers are then denied entry into the country in the first place.


The Japanese continue to be critical of the presence of unskilled foreign workers in their society, seeing them as a threat to social order; however, they might have to face the fact that Japan will in future need more of this immigrant for her economy to remain sustainable.

Immigrants in Japan are therefore becoming more of an economic necessity and it can be projected that the size of this foreign population will continue to rise in Japan in the near future.

While unskilled workers are the ones who are currently in short supply in Japan, research indicates that Japan will face significant shortages in skilled workers in the areas of nursing, agriculture, and manufacturing in the next 15 years and these will severely hamper Japan’s economic growth and competitiveness (Abella 1143).

Deregulation is required to facilitate immigrant workers entry into the country in order to promote economic growth and development.


This paper set out to address the question of immigration and illegal immigrants in Japan. It began by noting that while Japan is not a country of immigration, negative demographic trends have forced Japan to import large numbers of immigrants over the past 3 decades. The paper has highlighted the various incidents that have led to an increase in foreigners in Japan most notably of which was the economic boom in the 1980s.

It has highlighted that most of the illegal immigrants in Japan come from the neighbouring Asian countries and their reason for their illegal stay in Japan is overwhelmingly economic in nature. This influx of immigrant workers was necessary to sustain the economic output of the country.

The paper has noted that the stringent policies adopted by the government are to blame for the rise in illegal immigrant. However, government control has been able to significantly reduce the number of illegal immigrants in the country.

Works Cited

Abella, Manolo. “Perspective the United States’ and Japan’s Immigration Dilemmas in Comparative.” American Behavioral Scientist 56.8. (2012): 1139-1156. Web.

Brettell, Caroline and Hollifield, James. Migration Theory. Talking across Disciplines. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Castles, Stephen and Davidson Alastair. Citizenship and Migration. Globalization and the politics of belonging. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

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

Gibney, Matthew and Hansen Randall. Immigration and Asylum: From 1900 to the Present. NY: ABC-CLIO, 2005. Print.

McCargo, Duncan. Contemporary Japan. Boston: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000. Print.

Shipper, Apichai. “Contesting Foreigners’ Rights in Contemporary Japan.” North Carolina Journal of International Law and Commercial Regulation 36.1 (2011): 502-554. Web.

Vogt, Gabriele. Closed Doors, Open Doors, Doors Wide Shut? Migration Politics in Japan. Tokyo: Japan Aktuell, 2007.

Yamanaka, Keiko. “Japan as a Country of Immigration: Two Decades after an Influx of Immigrant Workers.” East Asia Ethnological Reports 77.3 (2008): 187–196. Web.

Yoshida, Chisato. Illegal Immigration and Economic Welfare. NY: Springer, 2000. Print.

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