With a total of 40 million immigrants—the highest number in the world—and 2.5 times the total population of Japan, the U.S. annually grants naturalized citizenship to approximately 42 times as many people as Japan does.

So, given its steady, apparently inexorable population decline, why isn’t Japan creating naturalized citizens the way the U.S. does, to replace the babies that its people seem so reluctant to make these days?

The comparative naturalized-citizen numbers are about 600,000 (U.S) vs. 14,000 (Japan), down from a U.S. peak of more than 1,000,000 in 2009. The disparity in permanent residence is also sharp: In 2011, an estimated 18.1 million or 5% of 312 million U.S. residents held “green cards”, i.e., had permanent residence status in the U.S., as compared with 943,037, or 1.7% of the 127 million+ residents of Japan.

Non-permanent Japan residents amounted to 1,243,084—about 9 % as compared with 22 million or 7% in the U.S., including America’s estimated illegal immigrants—who are far more numerous than in Japan, which, as an archipelago, does not have America’s border control problems, and students, temporary workers, etc. (Perhaps the higher Japan percentage may be interpreted as an offset against permanent status—including full citizenship—in an economy that still needs to import workers.)

In Japan, non-permanent residents apply for and receive only time-limited residency visas (usually one to three years).  These include “long-term resident” spouses of Japanese (221,923), students (145,909),”work/study trainees” (65,209), scholars and researchers (46,759); and persons whose purpose is work (212,896).

An Immigration Supply, or Demand Shortfall?

To be fair and despite Japan’s international image (in the eyes of its critics) of xenophobic resistance to massive permanent immigration, in contrast to the U.S., Australia and Canada, to be fair, the numbers alone do not suggest whether the resistance is entirely on the part of the Japanese—especially these days, given fears about living anywhere near Fukushima’s crippled hot reactors.

It may be that far fewer people are interested in becoming Japanese citizens than American citizens, if only because learning English is so much easier or more common for much of the world’s aspiring emigrant populations.

Moreover, official multi-culturalism and informality of Canada, Australia and the U.S. can make these countries seem more attractive in terms of adaptation and preservation of cultural identity.

Be that as it may, it seems clear that, at this rate, immigration—whether permanent or temporary—is unlikely to substantially boost either Japan’s nominal or core population anytime soon.

Application numbers may not answer the question of whether the low immigration rate in Japan is supply or demand influenced, since any reputation for being unwelcoming to immigrants could keep the application totals—and therefore the rejection totals—lower, although the rejection rate would be illuminating.

Japanese Xenophobia?

Fortunately, the data exists and seems to contradict the image of rampant—or at least governmental—Japanese xenophobia: According to a December 2011 Japan Times report, “About 99 percent of all applications are approved. In 2010, for example, 13,072 were recognized as naturalized citizens and 234 were rejected. Of those approved, 6,600 were North or South Korean nationals and about 5,000 were Chinese.”

In 2012, the Japanese government  implemented  a points-based immigration system that awards visa preference to skilled professional in one of three specific activities:  advanced academic research, specialized technical work or business management.

Details of what the government is calling the “preferential immigration program” include

1. Permission for multiple activities
2. Grant of the “5 years” period of stay
3. Easing of requirements for permanent residence
4. Preferential processing of entry and residence procedures
5. Permission for the spouse of the highly skilled foreign professional to work
6. Permission for bringing a parent(s) to accompany the highly-skilled foreign professional to Japan under certain conditions
7. Permission for a domestic worker to accompany the highly-skilled professional to Japan under certain conditions.

Whether that seems like a giant-sized immigrant welcome mat or a Japanese version of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty waving ashore huddled, yearning masses, it’s at least a start.

Cultural Resistance to Immigration?

Prima facie, these facts and figures hardly suggest institutionalized Japanese resistance to naturalization; however, what is unclear is, as suggested above, whether perception of broader, more general cultural rice-roots resistance discourages countless others from even considering applying.

Were the workforce population—not to be confused with the citizen population—to be dramatically increased to provide the estimated 20 million additional workers needed to offset declining births in the coming decades, where would they come from?

That the Japan workforce will otherwise shrink is undeniable: That report states, “Based on the Health and Welfare ministry estimation released in January 2012, Japan’s population will keep declining by about one million people every year in the coming decades, which will leave Japan with a population of 87 million in 2060. By that time, more than 40% of the population is expected to be over the age of 65.”

Perhaps the current composition of resident foreigners may provide a clue as to where these permanent immigrants might come from.

According to the CIA Handbook website, the two largest sources of foreign citizens in Japan are 0.53 million North and South Koreans and 0.67 million Chinese followed by smaller numbers of Filipinos and Brazilians.

Other nationalities include Americans, Canadians, Australians, British, Indonesians, Thais, South Africans, Nigerians, Iranians, Russians, Turks, Indians and the EU.

A cynic might argue that a cultural barrier to immigration may make governmental barriers unnecessary to deter applications; but if whatever barriers of either kind were eased and broader, as well as increased immigration become policy, it is worth speculating upon whether the ethnic and cultural mix of immigrants might change, e.g., to include larger proportions of non-Asian immigrants as permanent workers.

So, More Asian, or  More Western Immigrants?

The same cynic might also offer the following speculation about the likely composition of an expanded permanent or naturalized immigrant population: If Asian genetics and culture prevail, there may be a preference for as well as even more Chinese and Korean immigrants—given the genetic and cultural affinities among these groups and the Japanese. This is has been the consensus in the small, informal sample of Japanese I’ve asked.

On the other hand, and despite the rich and comparable cultural legacies of China and Korea, the enduring fascination with and envy of certain racial and cultural aspects of the West, e.g., the so-called “gaijin conpurekkusu”—”foreigner complex” (where “foreigner” is tantamount to a blue-eyed, tall, fair-skinned, blond Westerner), the immigration doors may swing open wider for young well-educated, highly-skilled unemployed Americans, Irish, Australians, Russians, etc.

It’s pure (yet reasonable) speculation on my part, but I suspect the persistent admiration, envy and emulation of Western features (e.g., popular blue contact lenses, eyelid surgery, bleach-blond/carrot-top hair styles called “chapatsu” or “tea-colored, brownish hair”) has something to do with the immediate  impression of foreigners in post-war Japan.

Most were GIs, in snappy uniforms, spit-shined boots, young, strong, fit—dashing, civil and a visible symbol of U.S. post-surrender magnanimity, e.g., in allowing the Japanese to retain their emperor, helping rebuild Japan’s infrastructure and industrial might, providing a U.S. security umbrella and overseeing the creation of a democratic constitution.

But that’s history—even if not yet entirely ancient. By comparison, the modern Western tourist is merely human, at best—and not always such an exemplary specimen, what with more than occasional bad manners, bellies like bottoms (and vice versa), loud Hawaiian shirts and voices, rattling scuffed backpacks and scruffy appearance, etc.

(Media portrayals tend to stress both ends of the positive-negative foreigner spectrum, ranging from godly Calvin Klein billboard models to buffoonish game show guests.)

On top of the self-inflicted damage to Westerner images, the vernacular for “foreigner”—”gaijin”, literally translated as “outside person”, still has pejorative connotations, much as “Ausländer” can in German. (Connotations that are understandable, if not forgivable, in an island culture with a long prior history of “sakoku”—self-imposed national isolation.)

In any case, wherever they are likely to come from, in the estimation of the Japanese I’ve spoken to, it appears that the needed expansion of the Japanese workforce through immigration is favored and seen as the likeliest.

For example, in a chance conversation with me at the Nagasaki History and Culture Museum, former managing director for Hanshin Electric Railway and hobbyist historian Ryohei “Rick” Taniguchi said he was confident that increased immigration is likely to emerge as the primary solution to the workforce shortfall.

(Robots, in the estimation of my contacts,  being the runner-up preferred or likely source of labor and talent. Babies—cloned or not—seem not to be in the running or crawling; at least not for now, given  uncompelling government and social incentives and the more compelling disincentives, e.g., financial costs, uncertain job markets and liberation of Japanese women from traditional mothering and family roles.)

Whatever the primary source(s) of man(or machine)power the Japanese eventually turn to in order to meet their workforce needs, there is one thing that those workers will have in common.

They will all help preserve the economic pride and power that the “Made in Japan” label embodies, even if not all of them will bear that stamp themselves.


Note: This is another in a series of articles by Michael Moffa, written while “on the road” in Japan and Taiwan in 2014.

Parallel analyses of the likelihood of robots, increased birth rates or cloning playing a significant role in reversing population decline are to follow in this series.

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