This is the second in a four-part series on Korea's policy for immigrants as the country grapples with an aging and diminishing population. The series, funded by the Korea Press Foundation, features articles, photographs and short documentary films as well as digital interactive content.
TOKYO, Japan ― In a tale of two developed nations with rich but homogeneous cultures, Korea and Japan have long grappled with the complexities of immigration policies to tackle the demographic crises caused by low birthrates and aging populations.
Japan, recognized as the world's most aged nation and known for its selective approach to immigration, is showing signs of embarking on a journey toward a more inclusive immigration policy by relaxing long-term visa regulations and embracing ethnic diversity in response to labor shortages and the urgent need for demographic rejuvenation.
Although the Japanese government avoids the term "immigration policy," the increasing presence of people of different ethnic backgrounds is noticeable and foreign residents are increasingly becoming an important part of Japanese society. This transformation by Japan has the potential to offer insights for other countries, including Korea, facing similar demographic shifts.
Establishing an inclusive immigration policy was not a priority for Japan ― the government's official stance was that it was "not considering coming up with a so-called immigration policy," as said by then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in October of 2018, while granting permanent residency status only to "highly-skilled foreigners" and tackling the shortage of workers in labor-intensive industries by recruiting temporary, unskilled foreign workers.
Some explain that the conservative immigration stance was largely due to Japan ― being culturally homogeneous and exclusionary as an island ― traditionally remaining closed to outsiders. Some claim that many Japanese lawmakers from the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) oppose having more immigrants due to a backlash from their supporters.
But many record-breaking figures in all societal indicators show Japan is rapidly aging and has no other option but to invite more immigrants. The latest data from the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications shows 29.1 percent of the 124.4 million population, as of Sept. 15, is aged 65 or older ― a record high and reportedly the highest proportion in the world.
Japanese people are also having fewer babies than ever before.
In 2022, the total fertility rate, meaning the number of babies a woman gives birth to during her life, stood at 1.26. Deaths already outpaced births about a decade ago, so the population of the country has been showing a steady decline for the 14th consecutive year.
One analysis projects that Japan's population will fall by almost a third by 2070, or to 86.9 million, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. It also estimates that those aged 65 and over will account for 40 percent of the population by the same year.
New normal living with ethnic diversity
Even though the government does not openly accept immigration while passively accepting a foreign labor force, Japanese people are already facing a new reality of living together with immigrants in their day-to-day lives.
The number of registered foreign nationals living in Japan hit a record high of over 3.2 million in June, according to the Immigration Services Agency (ISA) under the Ministry of Justice, accounting for about 2.6 percent of the entire population as of Sept. 15.
The number of permanent residents is also growing. As of June, there are 1.6 million permanent residents, up 2.34 percent from the previous year, according to the ISA. Compared to Korea, which only has 176,107 permanent residents (F-5 visa holders), or 0.34 percent of the total population as of 2022, the number is significant. Foreign nationals, mainly Chinese and ethnic Koreans, continue to become naturalized Japanese citizens ― some 8,000 people every year on average over the last few years.
Unlike 10 years ago, it is now common to see people of non-Japanese ethnicity working in convenience stores and restaurants in Tokyo. Some apartment complexes are known for having high concentrations of residents of particular ethnicities, and there are international grocery stores that sell imported food ingredients that appeal to people from different parts of the world.
"Japanese people are well aware that the population is shrinking and companies are hiring whoever is available in Japan. So many overseas students are easily finding jobs here," Lee Hyun-uk, a professor at Shinshu University, said.
Shibazono Danchi, a public housing complex near Tokyo, is a good example reflecting the country's changing demographics.
Currently more than 50 percent of approximately 5,000 residents are foreign nationals. Many people from all over the world live there, but the housing complex, originally designed as a Tokyo commuter town, has turned into a Chinese community over the last few years as most of the foreign residents are from mainland China, many of whom are IT workers commuting to and from Tokyo.
"When I moved here in 2017, there were still several small shops run by Japanese people like restaurants and grocery stores. All of them have been now replaced by Chinese owners," Takashi Oshima, a resident of the complex and a member of the housing complex's neighborhood association, told The Korea Times.
Initially, in addition to its easy access to Tokyo, Shibazono Danchi became popular among foreign nationals as the the semi-state-run housing company, called the Urban Renaissance Agency (UR), did not ask for strict guarantees for residential rental properties, a prevalent and tricky reality for foreign nationals seeking a place to live in Japan. But as more and more Chinese nationals began to live there, a community started to form which attracted even more Chinese people.
If you walk around the complex, notes on the walls, such as instructions on how to recycle garbage, are written both in Japanese and Chinese. You can easily encounter young Chinese mothers pushing their babies in strollers and talking to each other in Mandarin. Children running around the compound can be heard speaking in both Mandarin and Japanese.
Oshima, who is also a journalist for Asahi Shimbun, one of the largest Japanese daily newspapers, published a Japanese book in 2019 titled, "I am living in Shibazono Danchi: What happens when half of residents are foreigners?" The book analyzes how the complex has been changed by the influx of non-Japanese people.
When he joined the complex's self-run neighborhood association in 2017 and became an administrator of the group, which helps residents with general issues related to living in the complex, only one or two people in the group were of foreign origin, but that number is now five out of eight members. He added that many Japanese members of the group and the neighbors he knew had since retired or died of old age.
"The (demographic) change is accelerating. The Japanese (resident) population is getting older and the number of Japanese is going down," Oshima said, adding that he already attended two funerals this year of Japanese friends who lived in the complex.
He heard from his Japanese neighbors that before he moved in, there was tension between Japanese residents who had been living there for a long time and foreign newcomers over cultural differences, such as how to recycle garbage.
For example, in Japan, there is no culture of children hanging out together after 9 p.m. while there is a culture in China of spending time together with neighbors and family members in a park or common public area at night, he wrote in his book. "For some, who live close to the complex square, the sounds the kids make can be very noisy and they make complaints." However, the complex's rules don't restrict anyone from spending time in the common outside areas after 9 p.m.
As more people get to know the garbage disposal rules, there are less illegal dumping issues, he says, as well as other points of possible conflict. But he says many Japanese residents have "mixed feelings" about the reality of living together with people of other nationalities. Sometimes they cannot understand why some foreign residents do not follow existing rules or why people hold cultural events, and feel isolated or left out as they lose their former way of life.
"It is not something designed or intended. It just became like that," Oshima said.
To continue to live there, however, locals had to adapt and changes are already happening.
"If this community does not have the foreign residents, this housing complex cannot sustain itself … Maybe a lot of the issues we are facing could happen to the other communities in Japan or Japanese society as a whole."
He wrote in his book that the housing complex shows what is happening throughout the world now and will be happening in other places in Japan in the near future.
Introduction of Immigration Services Agency in 2019
In fact, Japan has experience with living with so-called outsiders thanks to accepting millions of ethnic Koreans and Chinese since the colonization of Korea from the early 1900s, even though it took years to give them permanent residency status.
They became a good source of workers for the country, but it was not enough.
Amid rising calls from businesses for more workers, the Japanese government has been incrementally easing regulations to attract more laborers from overseas.
As more Japanese people shunned so-called "3K jobs" ― kitanai (dirty), kiken (dangerous) and kitsui (tough) ― the country introduced an internship program in the 1980s so that unskilled workers could help fill the labor shortage. That program later became the model for Korea to introduce the industrial trainee system in 1993.
A total of 531,248 workers mainly from Southeast Asian countries are staying in Japan under a technical intern training program (358,159) and specified skilled worker visa program (173,809) as of June.
A new law was passed in 1990 allowing descendants of Japanese nationals, such as those living in Brazil, or any ethnic Japanese and their spouses to receive visas.
With more people of foreign origin ending up living in Japan, the country has faced various issues, while there were no proactive immigration policies in place.
Korea is currently discussing ways to set up a single agency handling all immigration policies. Japan, in contrast, launched the ISA in 2019 to oversee all immigration-related matters.
"The salary might not be as good as before because the yen is cheap now. But for those who want to choose Japan to work, it is safe and has an interesting cultural appeal, like animation," Maruyama Hideharu, deputy commissioner of the ISA, told The Korea Times when asked about the reasons why foreign workers are moving to Japan.
Since the ISA was launched, it has become more efficient to oversee the visa process and help the lives of foreign residents through a single government agency, he added.
"In June last year, Japan came up with the 'Roadmap for the Realization of a Society of Harmonious Coexistence with Foreign Nationals' so that the society can become safe, diverse and protect human rights," the deputy commissioner said.
The roadmap aims to provide Japanese language lectures online and offline and work training to immigrants. It also aims to provide foreign residents with more counseling services to help them adjust to Japanese society.
Easing visa rules, providing support
The Japanese government announced in October that it will modify the technical internship program so that trainees can change workplaces with more flexibility after working at one company for a year if they can pass some skill tests and the lowest level of a Japanese language proficency exam. Until now, the program has not allowed trainees to move to other workplaces, resulting in many workers complaining about human rights violations.
Originally, trainees were able to stay in Japan only for a short term. But in 2019, the government introduced the specified skilled worker visa program, which enables a foreign national to stay in Japan indefinitely if certain requirements are met. There are two types of visas based on experience in 14 sectors, and the No.2 visa allows foreign workers to stay as long as they want as long as they are employed in the same sector as stated in their visas, and even bring family members to Japan ― a historic change aimed at enticing foreign nationals to stay longer.
Unskilled workers can receive trainee visas as interns first and change to a No. 1 specified skilled worker visa after working for three years. An upgrade from the No. 1 to No. 2 visas requires five years of experience in the same field. As a result, it is not easy to obtain the No. 2 visa and there were only 11 people who obtained that permit as of March. And out of the 14 sectors for the No. 1 visa, carergivers at nursing homes saw the biggest increase.
"I like working in Japan, because workers can get a stable income and I like the culture here," Kim Anh, a Vietnamese worker who received a technical internship visa as a seamstress, said. "I want to get the specified skilled worker visa for nursing caregivers and bring my child here to live in a better environment."
Japan is also taking a separate approach to securing highly-skilled workers, or so-called white collar workers. It has been offering a preferential fast-track program for highly-skilled foreign professionals since 2012, allowing them to easily obtain permanent residency status possibly within one year. As of March 2022, the number of permanent residents who got permanent residency as a highly-skilled profession was 12,605, according to the ISA.
As of 2022, 18,315 professionals are living in Japan after receiving highly-skilled professional visas, up 14.6 percent, and can change their status to permanent residents after receiving certain points. The points are awarded based on several criteria, such as age, education level, work experience and profession. For example, if a highly-skilled professional visa holder has over 80 points and can maintain that score for one year, he or she can obtain permanent resident status. The number of people who are receiving the fast-track visa is steadily growing.
Apart from revising the visa system, the Japanese government aims to foster 600 experts by next year to help foreign residents, especially unskilled workers, facing problems by offering counseling and comprehensive support.
Human rights issues
In April, a government-organized group of experts decided to abolish the technical internship program and come up with a new visa system, because that program was criticized for violating human rights due to bad working conditions such as long hours of work, low wages and abuses by employers.
Jiho Yoshimizu, representative director of Japan Vietnam Tomoiki Association, a nonprofit organization helping Vietnamese people working in Japan, says those interns were put in vulnerable positions due to their status as interns and the program itself was fraught with problems.
"People who received the internship visas were classified as trainees instead of workers. But they were actual laborers, which created conflicts between workers and their employers (about working conditions and wages)," Yoshimizu told The Korea Times.
In 2019 alone, more than 10,000 interns disappeared and are presumed to have been staying in the country as illegal aliens, she said. This is believed to have been the result of abuse by employers or colleagues, or because of lower wages compared to Japanese workers. Also, the foreign laborers were not allowed to change workplaces for several years because they were trainees, Yoshimizu added. Some even killed themselves, she said.
She pointed out that with help from the government or the Japanese public, many troubled foreign workers, who are not good at speaking the language, can be saved. She also urged government officials to monitor and help foreign laborers deal with problems, while offering Japanese language lectures and helping them find new jobs.
"A nonprofit group is too small to help all of them. The government should take a lead in helping them by setting up a body," Yoshimizu said.
Experts say that the Japanese government needs to realize that the country has already begun accepting immigration as a desperate measure to fill the shortage of workers, and come up with an inclusive long-term immigration policy.
"Asian economies, where many of the foreign workers in Japan come from, have developed rapidly, and, at the same time, have started to face aging and shrinking populations," Jun Saito, a senior research fellow at the Japan Center for Economic Research, wrote in a report, adding that it depends on Japan whether it can become an attractive destination for foreign workers.
"Like Germany, Japan should admit that it is an immigration country as it cannot survive without foreigners and there are already a lot of foreigners living in Japan," professor Noriko Tsukada at Nihon University, an expert in migration and professional caregiver, told The Korea Times.
"Regarding caregivers, in particular, not only Asian countries, but also countries from all over the world, are competing to invite more of them. So Japan will just become a transit country and lose talent if Japan fails to create a good working environment and show them a step-by-step career vision."
Citing a famous quote, "We asked for workers. We got people instead," she also highlighted that Japan also needs to change the mindset from education that "foreigners should return to their home country" and expand the social welfare system to be inclusive of them.