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Migration Policy | Japan |

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

Migration Policy

Gabriele Vogt

/ 3 Minuten zu lesen

The channels of labor migration to Japan outlined above – the programs for ethnic Japanese, for international trainees and for care workers – are all, without exception, state-initiated channels, and yet they run counter to the fundamental principles of Japan’s immigration policy.

These principles rest on two pillars: firstly, immigration should only be available to highly skilled individuals, and secondly, immigration should always be on a purely temporary basis. None of the three cases outlined above normally involve highly skilled immigrants and in two of the three cases – the ethnic Japanese and the care workers – the option exists to acquire a long-term or permanent residence permit on the basis of blood relationships or professional qualification.

Other groups for whom these fundamental principles do not apply include members of families with Japanese citizenship (2010: 196,248 persons) and other immigrants with permanent residence permits (2010: 565,089 persons plus 20,251 family members) and, in particular, the descendants of Korean and Chinese migrants from the colonial period (2010: 399,106 persons). These groups alone amount to more than half the immigrant population of Japan; if we include the ethnic Japanese, the trainees and the dwindling number of care workers, then two thirds of Japan’s immigrant population fail to meet the criteria of the country’s immigration policy – and we should note that this failure is not only condoned by the institutions of the state but in most cases is a direct result of the political initiatives of these institutions. Japan is thus an extreme case of the divergence between policy output (official guidelines) and policy outcome (actual result) in migration policy.

Reforms not yet in sight

The Business Federation Nippon Keidanren, which is normally highly influential, has for the last ten years been calling for a revised immigration policy, one which targets the serious gaps in the labor market, not only in the care sector but also in shipbuilding and agriculture. In addition, business leaders are also hoping for a revitalization of the employment situation through diversification. Neither the major political parties nor the public in general view immigration as a key concern. Only since the publication of the United Nations report on replacement migration in the industrial countries has it been picked up as part of the debate on the aging and shrinkage of the population. In this context, however, immigration is understood as a sign of a national crisis – stagnation of population and economic growth – from which the nation seems unable to escape by its own efforts. Consequently the discourse regarding immigration – together with the almost routine discourse on the criminality of foreigners – is extremely negative in tone.

Even allowing for many minor reform initiatives in recent years, Japan’s political leadership lacks a genuine vision of how to reshape its immigration policy.



  1. Vogt 2007; Vogt (forthcoming).

  2. MOJ 2011b: 21.

  3. Their exact number is not known, as some ethnic Japanese have already changed their residence status. Currently (2010) 194,602 persons are listed as holding the status of "long-term residents". In 2006 it was 268,836 persons. The numerical decline in this residence category is paralleled by the reduction in the Brazilian and Peruvian immigrant population in Japan following the economic crisis (MOJ 2011b: 21).

  4. The total number registered on the various traineeship programmes currently (2010) amounts to 49,166 persons. In 2008 the number of trainees registered was 62,520 (MOJ 2011b: 28).

  5. Cornelius and Tsuda 2004: 14.

  6. Nippon Keidanren 2003.

  7. UNPD 2000.

  8. Iguchi 2001.

  9. Yamamoto 2004.

  10. Roberts 2012.

  11. Vogt 2011a; Vogt and Achenbach 2012.


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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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