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The Immigrant Population

Gabriele Vogt

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As an immediate consequence of the revision of the Immigration Law of 1990, the Chinese, Brazilian and Peruvian populations in Japan experienced a rapid surge in numbers. In 2007 the Chinese population (2007: 606,889 persons) overtook that of the Koreans (2007: 593,489 persons) to become the numerically largest immigrant population. The third largest group is represented by the Brazilians, followed by the immigrants from the Philippines and Peru.

The Chinese community

Immigrant population by nationality (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

The Chinese community in Japan expanded from 150,339 persons in 1990 to 687,156 in 2010. The expansion has continued to this day. Whereas traditionally strong residence categories such as "exchange student" (2009: 94,355 persons) showed a consistent, if moderate, rise over previous years (2005: 89,374 persons), other categories saw a more rapid rise. This was true of highly skilled jobs in technology (‘engineer’ 2005: 14,786 persons, 2009: 27,166 persons) and in scientific and academic professions (‘cultural exchange’/ international contacts’ 2005: 20,995 persons, 2009: 34,210 persons). A very significant rise was also experienced by the category ‘permanent residence’ (2005: 106,269 persons, 2009: 156,295 persons).

A number of conclusions concerning the composition of the Chinese immigrant population may be drawn from these statistics: Firstly, the Chinese immigrant population in Japan now consists predominantly of "newcomers". The number of descendants of Chinese migrants from the colonial period ("old-comers") recently (2009) amounted to no more than 2,818 persons, and the trend is downwards (2005: 3,170 persons). Secondly, the "newcomer" population is extremely diverse. In recent years the Chinese in particular, after completing their education at Japanese universities, have switched to the Japanese labor market and thus come into one of the residence categories for the highly skilled. Despite their dominance in, for example, the trainee sector, the Chinese in Japan have long since ceased to be represented solely in the low wage sector, but are increasingly active as highly skilled workers, especially as transnational entrepreneurs, facilitating access to the market for large numbers of small and medium-sized Japanese businesses. Thirdly, the Chinese immigrant population has proved to be relatively resistant to the economic crisis of 2008/09; it has suffered no decline in numbers. This gives rise to the inference that stable networks exist within the immigrant population and that there is increased economic activity in the highly skilled sector of the workforce.

The Korean community

The second largest immigrant population in Japan originates from Korea. In 2010, 565,989 Koreans were registered as resident in Japan. Unlike the Chinese immigrant population the Korean population has experienced a steady decline since 1990 (687,940 persons). This is due, in particular, to the decline in the "old-comer" population. The number of Koreans who migrated during the colonial period and of their descendants is falling significantly. Whereas in 2005 447,805 persons came into this category – defined as "special permanent residence" – in 2009 there were only 405,571. The reasons for the decline are twofold: firstly, deaths among the former immigrants, now advanced in years, and secondly, naturalization among the Koreans, now of the third and fourth generation. A moderate increase in other residence categories, such as ‘exchange student’ (2005: 16,309 persons, 2009: 19,807 persons) are not currently sufficient to compensate for this decline.

Immigrants from Brazil and Peru

Relatively well paid jobs in the Japanese automotive and electronic industries on the one hand and a difficult economic situation in Brazil and Peru on the other hand, together with the existence of close networks of recruitment agencies for Brazilians and Peruvians of Japanese descent looking for work in Japan – all these factors led to a rapid rise in Brazilian and Peruvian immigration figures in Japan. Japan’s Brazilian community grew from 56,429 persons in 1990 to 230,552 in 2010. It reached its greatest size to date in the year 2007 with 316,967 persons. The graph for the Peruvian immigrant population runs along similar lines, although at a lower numerical level. The Peruvian community grew from 10,279 persons in 1990 to 54,636 in 2010. It reached its highest level in 2009 with 59,723 persons.

The current numerical decline of both of these immigrant populations can be explained by the drop in the level of production in Japan’s automotive and electronic industries after 2008 and the subsequent redundancies among workers on temporary employment contracts. This sequence of events is very clearly exemplified by the dramatic decline in the Brazilian immigrant population in the category of "long-term resident", which was created to function as a de facto work permit for ethnic Japanese immigrants from Brazil and Peru in particular. This group shrank from 153,185 persons in 2005 to 101,250 in 2009. The Japanese government had reacted to the economic crisis and the following widespread redundancies among the immigrant populations in the automotive and electronic industries with a halfhearted program of linguistic and technical training for the ethnic Japanese population. But it was a different measure that attracted particular attention and criticism both in Japan and internationally: the Japanese government offered ethnic Japanese immigrants money (the equivalent of approx. 3,000,- Euro per worker and approx. 2,000,- Euro per family member) if they decided to return to their country of origin. The program operated between April 2009 and March 2010 and 21,675 people took advantage of it.

Immigrants from the Philippines

Japan’s fourth largest immigrant population originates from the Philippines. Consisting of 210,181 persons (2010), it is only marginally smaller than the Brazilian immigrant population, which has shrunk so rapidly in recent years. The Filipino population, by contrast, is growing: in 1990 it amounted to 49,092 persons. Numbering 84,407 (2009), and 46,027 persons (2009) respectively, the residence categories "permanent residence" and ‘member of a family with Japanese citizenship’ are currently by far the largest groups. Filipino immigration to Japan is predominantly female. Feminist migration literature is fond of drawing a parallel, in the context of their "'welfare-like' image", between the women who, in the category of "entertainer", found work in Japan’s sex industry in the 1970s, the women who migrated in order to participate in the ‘marriage market’ in the 1980s, and today’s immigrants seeking work as carers for the sick and elderly; in this connection attention is often drawn to the subject of the vulnerability of female immigrants.



  1. MOJ 2011a: 103.

  2. MOJ 2011a: 103.

  3. Achenbach 2012; Le Bail 2011; Liu-Farrer 2012.

  4. MOJ 2011a: 102; MOJ 2011b: 20.

  5. MOJ 2011a: 102.

  6. Behaghel and Vogt 2006: 129–130; Tsuda 2003.

  7. MOJ 2011b: 20.

  8. MOJ 2011b: 20.

  9. Rau and Vogt 2009.

  10. Kōno 20.2.2006.

  11. MOJ 2011a: 105.

  12. Roberts 2012: 52–53; Vogt (forthcoming).

  13. MOJ 2011a: 104; MOJ 2011b: 20.

  14. Ballescas 2009: 135.


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Prof. Dr. Gabriele Vogt is professor for Japanese Studies at the Asia-Africa-Institute of the University of Hamburg. Her research focuses on socio-scientific research on Japan and covers not only international migration to Japan but also Japan’s demographic chance and topics of political participation.
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