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Historical Development of Migration | Japan |

Japan Japan tentatively opens its doors to international care workers Japan (2012)

Historical Development of Migration

Gabriele Vogt

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Archaeological evidence exists showing that immigration to Japan from what is now Korea and China was already taking place in prehistoric and early historical times.

Japan (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

The first wave of immigration to be documented in written form in Japanese sources can be traced back to the sixth century; subsequently, Buddhism and the Chinese era system were imported into Japan. Spanish and Portuguese missionaries, who first arrived around the middle of the sixteenth century, brought with them not only western ideas but also new kinds of weapons. After an initial period of cooperation with some of the local chieftains it was not long before the newcomers were caught up in violent civil strife and expelled from the country.

Period of seclusion

Thus began, in the seventeenth century, Japan’s period of seclusion, which, under the newly established military rule of the Shoguns, virtually isolated the country from foreign influence for two and a half centuries. Almost the only exception was Dejima, an artificial island in the Bay of Nagasaki, where Dutch and British traders were permitted to land. There was also a flourishing trade with China and south-east Asia, which, operating through the narrow straits of the Ryūkū Kingdom, reached as far as the most southerly of Japan’s main islands, Kyūshū. In this period immigration by non-Japanese – or even the attempt to set foot on Japanese soil – was forbidden on pain of death.

Background Information Japan

Capital: Tokyo
Official language: Japanese
Area (2011): 377,955 km²
Population (2011): 127,799,000*
Population density (2011): nationwide average of 343 inhabitants per km²; in Tokyo 6,016 inhabitants per km²
Population growth (2011): -1.6% (negative growth since 2005)
Foreign-born population (2011): 2,078,480 persons (1.63%)**
Labor force (7/2012): 62,770,000 persons; participation rate: 59.2% (men: 70.8%; women: 48.3%)
Unemployment rate (7/2012): 4.3%
Religions (2007): Shinto (105 million), Buddhist (89 million), Christian (2 million), other (9 million)***

Unless otherwise indicated, the data given relates to the 2012 Statistical Yearbook of the Japanese Interior Ministry (MIAC 2012).
*According to the last nationwide census, held on 1-10-2010, the total population amounted to 128,057,352 (MIAC 2011).
**MOJ 2012a.
***U.S. Department of State 2010. Many Japanese reject exclusive allegiance to one religion; the total number of adherents of the above religions is therefore greater than the total population of Japan.

Period of opening up

The “opening up” of Japan was finally enforced by Matthew C. Perry, a Commodore in the U.S. Navy, who docked at the port of Edo, modern Tokyo. With diplomacy and the threat of military force he not only succeeded in concluding a bilateral trade agreement but also provoked domestic upheavals in Japan that led to the overthrow of the Shogunate system and to the restoration of the imperial system of rule. This new system of rule, the Meiji state (1867–1912), aimed to achieve a large measure of economic openness, in particular towards the USA and the states of Europe. This was designed to be accompanied by technological progress and industrialization and by the modernization of numerous social spheres, including the legal system and the education system. The central pillar of these modernization efforts consisted of the establishment of foreign missions for a young educated elite of the country and the employment of foreign academics and merchants in Japan.


As it continued to modernize, Japan became the destination of migrants from China and Korea. In 1917 the Chinese, who had hitherto been the largest minority in Japan, were overtaken by the Koreans – the result of the colonization of Korea in 1910 and the consequent relative freedom of travel between the two territories. In 1939 the Korean mobilization began and Japanese firms were given the right to engage Koreans as workers in Japan. From 1941 forced labor from the Chinese territories was recruited in a similar manner, approximately 42,000 persons in total. In 1938 the proportion of Koreans on the main Japanese islands already amounted to 1% (approx. 800,000 persons) and by the end of the war it had risen to 2%. At the end of the war 31,000 Chinese forced laborers were also living in Japan as well as 28,000 immigrants from Japan’s then colony of Taiwan. Today, Korean or Chinese immigrants and their descendants who have been resident in Japan since the war are referred in the literature as "old-comers".


Size of the immigrant population (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Despite this immigration, in the first half of the twentieth century Japan was regarded as a country of emigration. Between 1885 and 1942 some 800,000 Japanese emigrated, chiefly for economic reasons. The United States and numerous countries in the Asia Pacific region were among the destination countries of this emigration. After the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1908, which restricted emigration to the USA from Asia, the countries of Latin America, especially Brazil and Peru, gained in popularity among Japanese emigrants. In the space of three decades some 190,000 Japanese emigrated to Brazil; by 1988, after further emigration had taken place and families had been raised, the Japanese community had grown to 1.2 million. Emigration to Manchuria and to the new colonial territories of Korea and Taiwan – at the end of the war there were about a million Japanese settlers living in the colonial territories – served political rather than economic interests, specifically the manifestation of newly created state boundaries through a policy of settlement.


In 1955 the number of foreigners registered as resident in Japan was 641,482 (0.71% of the total population), the majority of them being Koreans who had lost their colonial Japanese citizenship after the end of the war. The 1970s finally saw the beginnings of return migration to Japan from north-east China by second or third generation Japanese, representing a delayed wave of repatriation after the end of Japanese imperialism. At the same time three further streams of emigration to Japan by "newcomers" were getting under way. These comprised, firstly, female migration from Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines (many of these women were categorized as "entertainers" and worked in the sex industry), secondly – reflecting the internationalization of the Japanese economy – business people from the USA and the countries of western Europe, and thirdly, refugees from Indochina. But the "newcomer" migration of the 1970s brought scarcely any increase in the immigrant population. Thus in 1985 they numbered no more than 850,612 (0.7% of the total population). It was not until the following decade that a noticeable rise in Japan’s immigrant population was observed; this was to continue until 2008, albeit in a weaker form.



  1. E.g. in the Nihon Shoki, known as the Chronicles of Japan.

  2. Totman 2005: 38–59.

  3. Totman 2005: 203–235.

  4. Jap.: Sakoku, the “closed country”.

  5. In the territory of Okinawa Prefecture in modern Japan and the northern group of islands known as Amami, part of Kagoshima Prefecture. On this, see also: Kerr 2000.

  6. Totman 2005: 203–235.

  7. Jansen 2000: 274–279.

  8. Meiji being the title given to the reign of Emperor Mutsuhito (1852–1912).

  9. Baum (forthcoming)

  10. Jansen 2000: 317–322.

  11. Jap.: Oyatoi Gaikokujin, hired foreigners. This, however, did not represent migration on a large scale. Thus the number of foreigners living in Japan who had not emigrated from the colonies was about 54,000 in 1930, and was only 39,000 in 1940 (Morris-Suzuki 8-28-2008).

  12. Behaghel and Vogt 2006: 114–115; Morris-Suzuki 8-28-2008; Yamawaki 2000: 38–51.

  13. Behaghel and Vogt 2006: 114–115; Morris-Suzuki 8-28-2008; Yamawaki 2000: 38–51.

  14. Komai (2001: 16) estimates that the flow of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to Japan amounted to no more than 10,000 persons. In Japan they were accorded the status of ‘long-term residents’.


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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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