“Diversity in Japan does not look like it used to. The representation of historically produced migrant groups in Japanese society, such as the multiple generations of Zainichi Koreans, is increasingly being replaced by transnational connections within East Asia.
Chris Burgess recently argued that it would be unwise to prematurely celebrate a new era of multiculturalism in Japan, and he is right. But while recognising that multiculturalism as a policy orientation is unlikely to happen, Japan is still seeing increasing levels of diversity, particularly in its large metropolises.
Burgess notes that there was a dip in the number of non-Japanese residents in 2009. But this decline was triggered by emigration rather than a decline in the number of new immigrants. After the financial crisis of 2008 Brazilians of Japanese ancestry (Nikkei) and Zainichi were severely affected by layoffs in Japanese construction and manufacturing. A program was even introduced in early 2009 that paid Nikkei workers US$4,000 to return to Latin America, so long as they did not come back to Japan. From 2008 to 2010, there was a 30,000 person drop in Nikkei numbers alongside a drop of 20,000 in Koreans. These two patterns of emigration signify a shift in the ethnic make-up of Japan’s minorities rather than decreasing diversity in general.
Since then the number of non-Japanese residents in Japan has exceeded pre-2009 figures, with 2.3 million foreigners registered as of June 2016. There has been sustained, if not rapid, growth in new groups and ethnicities over the past 10 years. Since 2006, migrants from China have become the largest non-Japanese minority. And Vietnamese and Nepalese migrants are the fastest growing groups of the last five years, with Vietnamese numbers increasing four-fold.
Non-Japanese citizens make up 1.8 per cent of the total population in Japan, with the number of naturalisations averaging a little over 1,000 a year. These figures pale in comparison to countries such as Australia, where 27 per cent of the population were born overseas. Nonetheless, movements of newcomers are reshaping communities on a local scale, particularly in the greater Tokyo area.
For example, roughly 10 per cent of Toshima in northwest Tokyo were born overseas, matching similar figures in the United Kingdom. These mostly Chinese, Vietnamese and Nepalese newcomers are less interested in ‘multiculturalism’. They spend a significant amount of time travelling back and forth between Japan and their home countries, switching between visas based on their anticipated movements. Some use tourist visas for short trips despite having a stake in businesses and properties in Japan. Many Chinese migrants see permanent residency as desirable not because they plan to live in Japan indefinitely but because it allows for greater freedom of movement.
Immigration figures are notoriously tricky and political. Who counts as an immigrant, as opposed to a temporary labourer, student or tourist, is a legal game that does not always match the activities of people on the ground. Changes in policy, as well as changes in the way immigration numbers are counted, have wrought havoc on our understanding of what has happened over the past 10 years in Japan.
This is further complicated by Japan’s recent boom in tourism. Over 20 million visitors crossed Japan’s borders in August 2016 alone. These figures are largely fuelled by growth in the number of tourists from the Chinese mainland, as well as South Koreans, Taiwanese and those from Hong Kong. Although these figures are mostly made up of short-term visitors, they also include a growing number of people who move back and forth as part of a transnational lifestyle. To these sojourners visas do not signify intent to stay or go, but are simply a tool to move across borders.
So what might all this mobility mean for how we envision multiculturalism in Japan?
As Burgess argues, Japan is unlikely to become multicultural any time soon. But we should not confuse multiculturalism as a political ideology with a decline in everyday diversity in Japan. Multiculturalism is a political orientation that few countries have officially embraced. From a street-level perspective, diversity in Japan is increasing but it is unlikely to trigger a multicultural turn in Japanese policy or identity. Rather, uneaseabout embracing multiculturalism is precisely the result of the increasing visibility of non-Japanese people in everyday Japanese life.”
By: Jamie Coates, Sophia University. Is a research fellow at the White Rose East Asia Centre at the University of Sheffield and visiting fellow at Sophia University.