Interviewed by Manabe Hiroki
It is common nowadays to see foreigners working in offices and shops in Japan. Nonetheless, administrations have refused to use the word “immigrants.” Every time an issue arises over immigration facilities or the Technical Intern Training Program, it reveals the obstacles foreigners encounter in being accepted in Japan. Korekawa Yu, an up-and-coming immigration expert, says, however, that Japan is on its way to becoming an immigrant nation.
The Asahi Shimbun: Are foreigners who come to work in Japan “immigrants”?
Korekawa Yu: The United Nations defines immigrants as “people who live in a foreign country for one year or more,” while the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines immigrants as “foreigners with a resident status that can be renewed indefinitely.” By either definition, Japan is nation with immigrants. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan received about 540,000 foreigners annually, including approximately 170,000 technical trainees, about 60,000 highly skilled workers, and about 120,000 students. Going forward, more and more industries are expected to employ Specified Skilled Workers (ii), who are eligible to become permanent residents.
Asahi: Recently, concerns have been raised over the disappearance of technical trainees from their workplaces and the death of a Sri Lankan woman detained at an immigration facility. Japan’s immigration policy lags behind that of other countries, it would seem.
Korekawa: We should never allow recurrence of those kinds of incidents, and the importance of protecting human rights is indisputable. However, accidents and incidents could happen even if Japan had the perfect immigration policy because foreigners are in the weaker position and there is an imbalance of power.
People think that many foreign workers are entering Japan through the back door, namely, by taking advantage of Technical Intern Training Program or coming to Japan as students and finding part-time jobs, rather than by acquiring a proper visa status for work. It is true that some foreign workers enter Japan under the distorted system, and because of that, become victims of human rights abuses. But we shouldn’t lose sight of another important fact.
Asahi: What fact are you speaking of?
Korekawa: The fact that these foreign workers chose Japan as their destination. If we see foreign workers only as “poor souls who were tricked into working in Japan,” it is impossible to explain why an increasing number of foreigners choose to become permanent residents here. Seeing things from their viewpoint and abandoning the notion that they are only victims of discrimination and poverty will help us see the energy and dynamism of these people who choose to cross borders despite great risk.
Asahi: Are there still many foreigners who hope to come to Japan, despite the fact Japan continues to have a sluggish economy?
Korekawa: Various studies have shown that people in Asia long to come to Japan to work. Many technical trainees earned only 20,000 to 30,000 yen per month back home. They chose Japan as their destination after making a realistic comparison of Japan and other countries.
Today, Asia is the region with the most robust population mobility, and about 400,000 people from that region come to Japan every year. Japan is the most popular destination for Asian workers, second only to oil-producing countries. Based on my study conducted in the countries from which the workers originate, highly educated people with college diplomas tend to choose Japan over South Korea, for example.
Asahi: Is the number of foreigners who permanently reside in Japan increasing?
Korekawa: Until the 1990s, it was difficult to obtain permanent residency in Japan, and most permanent residents were spouses of Japanese nationals or South Americans of Japanese ancestry. More recently, however, the number of foreigners settling in Japan is rising, with over 30,000 becoming permanent residents every year. Today, more than 800,000 are permanent residents, which is slightly less than 30% of the foreign population in Japan. While foreigners who become involved in accidents and incidents make the news, those who work at the same jobs as Japanese and have adapted to Japanese society aren’t on our radar.
Asahi: What makes Japan attractive to them?
Korekawa: What’s working to Japan’s advantage is a Japanese employment practice that could be described as a “membership track.” Many major Japanese corporations hire new graduates en masse, meaning that foreign students graduating from a Japanese university have an equal footing with their Japanese counterparts. In many countries, companies require credentials and job experience from job applicants; Japan’s system is particularly attractive to the younger generation.
Japanese media often criticize that many foreign students come to Japan to earn money from part-time jobs. According to my survey of Japanese language schools, however, about 25% of foreign students have college-educated parents, and about a half of these students hope to enter a Japanese university. Many foreign students are striving for the same goal as Japanese students.
Asahi: Those with a college diploma may be able to do well in society, but how about foreigners who have little academic training and are engaged in unskilled jobs?
Korekawa: Japan is different from Europe and the United States, where many illegal residents are also unskilled manual laborers. In Japan, the category of people closest to unskilled laborers by international standards are the technical intern trainees. They are receiving very low wages, and that is a problem. But studies have found that the rate of wage increase for technical trainees during their training period is not significantly different from that of Japanese workers. If these foreign workers stay in Japan longer, this will work to their advantage.
Asahi: Are you saying that from the standpoint of employment, foreign workers — in other words, immigrants — are blending into Japanese society?
Korekawa: Yes. My analysis shows that they are slowly being integrated into the society. Permanent residents make up the largest category of foreigners living in Japan, and they earn wages close to those of their Japanese counterparts. The ratio of professionals among foreign workers is the same as the ratio of professionals among Japanese workers. Foreigners are leading lives just like ours.
In 2015, some 5.8% of pre-elementary-school children were of an “immigrant background,” which means that they either were a foreign national, had acquired Japanese citizenship, or had a parent who was a foreign national. One study estimates that one out of ten children in this age group will have such a background in 2030. In other words, the next generation will have two to three students with foreign roots in their class.
Asahi: Foreigners seem to form their own communities based on nationality or culture. Do you still think they are integrating into Japanese society?
Korekawa: Japanese don’t necessarily know their Japanese neighbors. I think it would be wrong to expect only immigrants to integrate into the local community. Discrimination and division must not be allowed in the public domain, such as social class, employment, education, and marriage. But most cultural aspects of a person are a private matter and should be handled accordingly, for Japanese and foreigners alike.
In the United States, immigrants maintain their native culture and form communities. At the same time, they all share the same values at school and in the workplace, and they identify themselves as members of the same society. I think it best to decide and adhere to core rules relevant to everyone and not to insist on cultural integration.
Asahi: Some people think the population decline in many countries will lead to competition for immigrants.
Korekawa: Even if that is the case, I don’t think the number of people coming to Japan to work will decline for the foreseeable future. According to an IMF long-term simulation study on migration pressures, Japan will continue to see a large influx of immigrants until about 2050. This is partly because immigrants from countries experiencing economic growth tend to choose Japan as their destination.
Asahi: Do you think accepting immigrants will alleviate the issues presented by population decline and population aging in Japan?
Korekawa: At risk of being misunderstood, I would say that immigrants will save Japan. Immigrants cannot compensate for all of Japan’s population decline, but they can help delay the shrinkage of our society and economy. In the meantime, we may be able to find a new vision. It is true that many problems still need to be solved. But the worst choice for Japan would be to stop accepting immigrants. We should try to find solutions to the problems together with our immigrants.
As an Asian nation, Japan is in the fortunate position of being able to tap into the dynamism of the growing economies in the region and the vitality of their youth. Japan has the opportunity to become a hub for Asia’s young generation. Passing up that opportunity would be a major loss.
Asahi: Is Japan going to become an “immigrant nation?”
Korekawa: I believe that the idea that Japan is highly homogeneous and exclusive is based only on superficial impressions. Japan was a maritime nation initially, and a variety of people in Asia came to its shores. I believe Japan is capable of being more open to different types of people, and it will move toward becoming an immigrant nation. Younger Japanese, whose world includes friends and acquaintances with foreign roots, will have new perspectives on immigration, and their views will gradually spread throughout society.
Korekawa Yu was born in 1978 in Aomori Prefecture. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology and heads the Department of International Research and Cooperation at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. Korekawa is a member of the OECD’s Expert Group on Migration.