Migrants and Migrant Workers in Japan

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NGO Report Regarding the Rights of Non-Japanese Nationals, Minorities of Foreign Origins, and Refugees in Japan

Prepared for the

76th United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Session

Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan (SMJ)

February 2010

Compiled and published by: Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan (SMJ)

Edited by: Ralph Hosoki (assisted by Nobuyuki Sato and Masataka Okamoto)

Address: Tomisaka Christian Center 2-203, 2-17-41 Koishikawa, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, JAPAN 112-0002 Phone: (+81)(0)3-5802-6033; Fax: (+81)(0)3-5802-6034; E-mail: fmwj@jca.apc.org


Ralph Hosoki 1

Introduction: Migrants, Migrant Workers, Refugees and Japan’s Immigration Policy



(Division of International Human Rights, Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan (SMJ))

This NGO report has been compiled by the Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan (SMJ), and contains chapters prepared by various SMJ member organizations for the reference of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in its consideration of the third to sixth periodic reports submitted by the Japanese government in accordance with Article 9 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD/C/JPN/3-6).
Evolving from the Forum on Asian Immigrant Workers established in 1987, SMJ was established in April 1997 with the aim to promote communication and common action among organizations throughout Japan working to provide assistance and relief and striving to protect, promote, and realize the human rights of migrants, migrant workers, refugees, and their families in Japan. Since then, SMJ has grown into a nationwide network of 87 NGOs, civil society organizations, labor unions, religious organizations, professional associations, and women’s rights organizations, with an individual member base of 337 (2008 figures).
Domestically, SMJ has organized annual conferences and symposia on migrant and migrant worker rights, published books and monthly newsletters that have been widely used and consulted throughout domestic civil society circles, organized empowerment events and activities for migrants and non-Japanese national residents, engaged in annual negotiations with government ministries involved in drafting policies that affect migrants and their families, and networked with politicians and bureaucrats from various political parties and ministries. SMJ also recognizes that concerns surrounding migrant rights are also rooted within a broader international context, and has collaborated with regional and international migrant rights organizations and networks to bring awareness of migrant rights issues in Japan to the fore.
The report’s contributors, while being active members of the migrant rights advocacy community in Japan, are also migrants, academics, researchers, lawyers, civil servants, and lobbyists who are authoritative experts in not only the various social, economic, political, cultural, and legal challenges that ethnic minorities and non-Japanese nationals, residents, and workers face in Japan, but also on the intersections of these complex issues and the interactions between the government, Japanese civil society, and migrants/ethnic minorities themselves. Each chapter addresses specific issues that non-Japanese nationals, ethnic minorities of foreign origins, migrants, and refugees face in Japan, and highlights the current state of affairs, the main challenges and problems, and various NGO policy recommendations.
Please direct any inquiries or requests for additional information to the following contacts.

  1. Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan Secretariat (office):

Address: Tomisaka Christian Center 2-203, 2-17-41 Koishikawa, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, JAPAN 112-0002; Phone: (+81)(0)3-5802-6033; Fax: (+81)(0)3-5802-6034; E-mail: fmwj@jca.apc.org

  1. Report editors:

Ralph Hosoki: ittonen@hotmail.com

Nobuyuki Sato: raik@abox5.so-net.ne.jp

Masataka Okamoto: okamoto@fukuoka-pu.ac.jp

To provide nuanced disambiguation and to avoid the exclusionary overtones of the terms “foreign” and “foreigner,” various (and sometimes overlapping) terms have been used throughout this report.
When referring to government documents or statistics, policy-related pronouns, and direct quotes, terms such as “foreigner” or “foreign resident” are used because they reflect the terminology used in official translations.
However, unless otherwise stated:
Migrants” and “migrant workers” are used to refer to old and newcomer1 residents of non-Japanese nationalities and/or minority ethnic backgrounds, with the latter emphasizing the engagement in remunerative activities – both de facto and de jure – and including short-term or temporary workers of non-Japanese nationalities who are commonly referred to in government documents as “foreign workers.”
The following two terms are used in contexts where one’s nationality is emphasized. “Non-Japanese national” refers to anyone who does not possess Japanese nationality, regardless of the individual’s length of stay in Japan. In contrast, the term “non-Japanese national residents” refers to non-Japanese nationals who have set roots or grounds for basic livelihood in Japan.
Additionally, with regard to non-Japanese national ethnic Koreans in Japan, “Korean residents” refers to both old and newcomer individuals of Korean ethnic background. However, “Resident Koreans” refers specifically to oldcomers and their descendants. Ethnic Koreans with Japanese nationality residing in Japan are referred to as “Korean Japanese.”


Migrants, Migrant Workers, Refugees and Japan’s Immigration Policy

(Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan (SMJ))

Masataka OKAMOTO

(Vice Secretary-General, Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan (SMJ))


As of the end of 2008, the number of registered non-Japanese national residents in Japan totaled 2,217,000 (1.7% of Japan’s total population) – a 30% (531,000) increase from 1,686,444 in 2000, right before the Japanese government’s previous CERD review in March 2001 (see table below). There are also an additional 110,000 “overstayers” and other undocumented residents.

In tandem with this trend, 121,000 non-Japanese national residents acquired Japanese nationality between 2001 and 2008 (76,500 Korean residents and 35,500 Chinese residents; the total number of Korean and Chinese resident naturalizations between 1952 and 2008 were 320,000 and 88,000, respectively). Additionally, between 1985 and 2006, the percentage of marriages between Japanese and non-Japanese nationals increased from 0.93% to 6.1%, and with the birth of 225,000 children born between parents through international marriages in the 10 years between 1999 and 2008, there has been a rapid increase in ethnic minorities with Japanese nationality.
According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s May 2008 estimates, there were 925,000 (2006 figure) migrant workers working in Japan. Since the 1980s, the number of migrant workers has increased, and with the 1990 revision to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, it became possible for non-Japanese nationals of Japanese descent from South America and the families of returnees from China2 to migrate to Japan. However, despite these realities, the government has pushed through with its stance of not recruiting “low-skilled” migrant workers, and has not attempted to implement policies to protect the rights of migrants and migrant workers.
Registered Non-Japanese National Residents in Japan (end of 2008 figures)


































Increase in the Number of Refugees, Migrant Workers, and Their Families

  1. Indochinese Refugees and Convention Refugees

Due to shifts in political regimes and civil war within Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, an exodus of two million Indochinese refugees flowed into the neighboring countries. Initially, the Japanese government took a stance of only allowing the temporary entry of refugees and not settlement. However, this was criticized by the G7 countries among others, so in 1978, the government announced that it would allow the settlement of Indochinese refugees. Despite this concession, the designated number of refugees allowed to settle was small (the designated number was 500 refugees in 1979, and this was subsequently expanded to 10,000) while refugee recognition was strict, and many refugees eventually moved on to the U.S. and Canada, thinking that no matter how hard they tried, ethnic and racial discrimination would foreclose their success in Japan. Due to such reasons, as of the end of 2005, Japan had only accepted 11,319 Indochinese refugees for settlement (of which 76% were Vietnamese).
Additionally, in adherence to its obligations stemming from the ratification of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Japanese government implemented the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act in 1982. However, the government has been passive in its recognition of Convention refugees, and between 1982 and the end of 2008, only 508 of the 7,297 individuals who applied for refugee status have been recognized as refugees (see table below).
Numbers of Refugee Status Recognition Applicants and Recognized Persons in Japan (2001–2008)



















Recognized Persons









These Indochinese refugees and Convention refugees have encountered various forms of ethnic and racial discrimination within Japanese society, and their children have had to cope with identity conflicts and crises (i.e. cultural and linguistic gaps between parents who can only speak their native tongues and children who can only speak Japanese). However, ethnic and racial discrimination against refugees rarely surface because given their status as refugees, it is difficult for them to raise a unified critical voice against Japanese society.

  1. Migrant Workers and Their Families

As stated in paragraph 17 of its report3 to the Committee, the Japanese government maintains its stance that “the acceptance of foreign workers in professional and technical fields should be more actively promoted,” and that “with respect to the matter of accepting workers for so-called unskilled labor,” there are some “concerns.” This stance remains unchanged, even in the Basic Policy on Employment that the Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare established in February 2008.
However, in tandem with the upturn of the Japanese economy in the late 1980s, labor “inflow pressures” surged from neighboring countries, while “recruitment pressures” for migrant workers strengthened as small and medium sized domestic companies – many of which were labeled as 3D (Dirty, Dangerous, and Demanding) companies – were having difficulty securing Japanese workers. As a result, the number of migrant workers entering Japan increased. Various structural changes within Japanese society – increasing wage disparities between Japan and neighboring Asian countries, an aging domestic society, the decline in the population of youth, shifts in work values, etc. – paints the backdrop for these changes. However, because the government strictly held on to its aforementioned stance, many migrant workers could not secure working visas, and by entering Japan on short-term visas (e.g. tourist visas) to work, many continued to reside in Japan even after their visas expired and became “illegal foreign workers” and “overstay foreigners.” Some of these individuals have come to live and settle in Japan and many have married and have children who attend Japanese elementary and secondary schools.
In response to these circumstances, in 1989, the Japanese government revised the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act4 and implemented the following measures:

  1. The establishment of new regulations to punish employers who hire non-Japanese nationals that do not possess residence statuses that permit work (up to 3 years of imprisonment and up to 2 million yen in fines; approximately $20,000 USD) in aim to strengthen measures to prevent the entry of unauthorized workers;

  1. The provision of permission for entry to non-Japanese nationals of Japanese descent (as well as their descendants and those individuals who have previously renounced their Japanese nationality) by issuing “long-term resident” residence statuses that have no restrictions on type of work – skilled or unskilled – so that they can be utilized as labor; and

  1. The establishment of the “industrial trainee and technical intern system” that mixes training with employment, so that trainees and technical interns can be utilized as labor. It is important to note that as trainees are not workers and are therefore not protected under the Labor Standards Law, many cases have been reported where they have been forced into de facto slave labor.

As a result of these policy changes, between 1990 and 2008, the number or “Nikkeijin” (i.e. non-Japanese nationals of Japanese descent) – mostly from Brazil and Peru – increased from 71,000 to 370,000, and individuals with “training” and “designated activities” residence statuses, including “trainees” and “technical interns,” increased from 3,000 to 121,000. These individuals became the de facto “unskilled foreign workers” in Japan. During the same period, the total number of migrant workers increased from 260,000 to 900,000, and came to compose 1.4% of Japan’s total working population of 66,500,000.

With regard to “overstay foreigners,” the number peaked in 1993 at 296,000, and since then has declined to 113,000 by 2009. The following measures underlie this trend:

  1. With the 1998 revision to the Immigration Control Act, the Japanese government newly established the “illegal (over)stay crime,” which made staying in Japan upon illegal entry/landing and/or overstaying, a crime that is subject to punishment. Furthermore, for those deported, the landing denial period (for re-entry) was extended from one year to five years (effective as of February 2002).

  1. In its 2004 “Action Plan for the Realization of a Society Resistant to Crime” the government set a goal to halve the number of “illegal foreigners” within 5 years. Additionally, in order to reach this goal, the government revised the Immigration Control Act by (1) steeply increasing fines for “illegal entry” (from 300,000 yen to 3,000,000 yen, or $3,000 USD to $30,000 USD); (2) extending the landing denial period for individuals with a history of deportation to 10 years; (3) establishing the “Departure Order System” where the landing denial period for qualifying individuals5 would be shortened to one year; and 4) establishing the “Residence Status Revocation System.”6

  1. Under the name of terrorism prevention, in 2008, the government revised the Immigration Control Act and established obligatory measures for non-Japanese nationals entering Japan to provide biometric personally-identifying information (i.e. fingerprints and face images). Additional measures were also made for the deportation of non-Japanese national terrorists and the establishment of obligations for captains of in-bound aircraft and maritime vessels to report passenger and crewmember registries to immigration inspectors in advance.

Furthermore, to supplement these measures, a “foreigner crime” campaign that utilizes select (and convenient) data to “prove” the “increase in heinous crimes by foreigners” has been carried out by the National Police Agency.

Through the combination of these government measures to tighten control over non-Japanese national residents and the campaigns carried out by the National Police Agency, a push has been made for schemes attempting to encourage ordinary Japanese citizens into assuming “monitoring roles” to weed out “illegal” non-Japanese national residents from local communities. In contrast, nowhere can measures and attempts to “prevent racial discrimination” be glimpsed from these extant policies.
Various Problems and Challenges that Migrants and Migrant Workers Face

In Japan, there is a substantial number of people who hold discriminatory sentiments and feelings of superiority towards other Asian people. In the 19th century, when most countries in the Asia region were colonized by Western powers, Japan, following the semantical scheme of “leaving Asia and entering the West” after the Meiji Restoration, joined the ranks of Western countries. Through the colonization of Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula, and entry into the League of Nations as a member state, a sense of superiority for having developed into a military superpower that invaded China and Southeast Asia emerged. After World War II, another sense of superiority – one premised on the “industriousness” of the Japanese people that catapulted Japan into an economic superpower – formed the foundation for a mentality that viewed “the weak, poor, and backward Asia” as an object of scorn.

In March 2003, the Ministry of Justice announced the “Third Basic Plan for Immigration Control,” but even in this, there is no change in the government’s basic stance regarding the national interest-based recruitment of and increased control over non-Japanese nationals in Japan.
Furthermore, due to the global recession that swept throughout the world after fall of 2008, there has been a sudden increase in the number of unemployed. Many of those who lost their jobs were “contingent workers” – or temporary employees with one-year employment contracts and dispatched workers who worked for small manufacturing contractors. Already, by 2008, one in three (non-executive-level) employees was a contingent worker. The fact that they only earned roughly the same amount as what one would receive on livelihood assistance made it impossible for them to engage in savings, and their livelihoods took a nosedive once they lost their jobs. Many migrant workers worked as “contingent workers” even before the economic crisis, and given the government’s restrictions on the eligibility of non-Japanese nationals for social insurance and livelihood assistance, their lives were hit especially hard by unemployment.

Race and Nationality-based Entrance Refusals at

Private and Quasi-Public Establishments

(Chair, NGO Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association (FRANCA))


Despite the recommendation to the Japanese government by the CERD in 2001 (CERD/C/304/Add.114, C.10) stating, “it is necessary to adopt specific legislation to outlaw racial discrimination, in particular legislation in conformity with the provisions of articles 4 and 5 of the Convention,” eight years later the Japanese Civil or Criminal Code still has no law specifically outlawing Racial Discrimination (hereinafter RD).

Repercussions of the Absence of an Anti-RD Law

Sign up at a public bathhouse in Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan; 1998-2001 (from the below-mentioned Otaru Onsens Case)

Standardized signs around Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 2008 to present day

Sign up at a women's boutique on Aoyama Douri (Street), Minato-ku, Tokyo; 2005 to present day

Standardized signs around Hamanasu Douri, Monbetsu, Hokkaido; saying in Russian, “Store Only For Japanese”; 1999 to present day

A lack of an Anti-RD law enables clear and present discriminatory practices in Japan, including refusals at businesses and establishments open to the general public. Many places, including stores, restaurants, hotels, family public bathhouses, bars, discos, an eyeglass outlet, a ballet school, an internet café, a billiards hall, a women's boutique, and a newspaper subscription service, have signs out front explicitly saying “Japanese Only,” or using a milder exclusionary equivalent clarifying that people who are not Japanese nationals, do not look “Japanese,” or do not speak Japanese, are barred from entry and service.7 For example:

Although pressure from mostly civil society groups has resulted in some of the exclusionary signs being removed, many are still extant. More recently, in the case of hotels: Local government agencies8 and internet booking companies9 are even promoting establishments that explicitly “refuse foreign customers,” or expressly deny bookings to people who “cannot speak Japanese” etc. – even though this practice is unlawful under the Hotel Management Law (ryokan gyouhou) in the Civil Code governing public accommodations.
Regarding redress for RD, in March 2001 the Japanese government replied to the CERD report (CERD A/56/18 (2001)) that the “Japanese judicial system is […] functioning sufficiently at present” (Paragraph 20.2), therefore a formalized Anti-RD law is unnecessary. However, judicial precedent does not support this claim. The Otaru Onsens Case10, where several non-Japanese customers (including Japanese nationals who “looked foreign”) were refused entry to public bathhouses displaying “Japanese Only” signs, demonstrated that both the current legal situation in Japan was powerless to outlaw this practice, and that Japanese authorities were unable or unwilling to mediate effectively to stop this form of RD. The Otaru City Government was taken to court under the ICERD in 2001, but the case was summarily denied review by the Japanese Supreme Court (April 7, 2005) for “lacking any Constitutional issues,” refusing to consider the validity of the ICERD. Sapporo District and High Court decisions (November 11, 2002 and September 16, 2004, respectively) also ruled that RD was not the illegal activity in question in this case, therefore the ICERD is immaterial. They also ruled that forcing the Otaru City Government to pass any local ordinance against RD would be a “violation of the separation of powers.” A separate civil lawsuit11 in Daito City, Osaka, where an African-American was denied entry in 2004 to an eyeglass store explicitly because the manager “dislikes black people,” found the Osaka District Court ruling against the African-American plaintiff (January 30, 2006). Court cases take years, cost victims money, do not result in criminal penalties enforceable by police agencies, may result in civil court rulings that expressly ignore the ICERD, and otherwise absolve the government of any responsibility of systematically eliminating RD on a national level.
Although some local governments have taken measures to deal with discrimination in housing and rentals, legislation connected with RD has resulted in failure. The first local government (Tottori Prefecture, 2005) to pass a local ordinance that explicitly criminalized and punished behavior tantamount to RD, found itself in the rare situation of repealing the ordinance in 200612, due to a public and media panic that too much power was being consolidated in human rights enforcement organs. A similar bill guaranteeing human rights (the jinken yougo houan), first proposed at the national level in 2002, was shelved in 2003 and again in 2006 due in part to alarmist counterarguments and publications13 that giving human rights to non-Japanese would enable them to abuse their power over Japanese people.

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