"Nikkeijin" semantics

The legal status of aliens of "Japanese descent"

By William Wetherall

First posted 10 March 2006
Last updated 15 September 2010

"Nikkeijin" semantics Nikkei and Nikkeijin | Issei, nisei, sansei | War-displaced and orphaned | Racialization and mistranslation
Government usage of "Nikkeijin" Ministry of Justice | Ministry of Foreign Affairs | Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare
Latin Americans in Japan

"Nikkeijin" semantics



Nikkei and Nikkeijin

"Nikkeijin" means a "person" (人 jin) who is "connected with Japan" (日系 Nikkei) -- usually, but not necessarily, by lineal descent. Since "Nikkei" figures in a number of other expressions with related meanings, we will look first at "Nikkei" and then at "Nikkeijin".

Nikkei (日系) is most commonly an adjective, sometimes followed by "no" (の), denoting an affiliation or connection with Japan, or ancestry or descent from someone who is or was Japanese.

A Japanese business entity operating outside Japan is most commonly referred to as a "Japanese (Japan-related) enterprise (corporation, company)" (日系企業 Nikkei kigyō), but may also be called a "Japanese (Japan-related) company" (日系会社 Nikkei kaisha). "Japanese (Japan-related) institution (organ)" (日系機関 Nikkei kikan) usually designates some sort of non-business organization.

Japanese emigrants and immigrants are "migrants related (usually ancestrally) to Japan" (日系移民).

Specific nationalities of aliens of Japanese ancestry are denoted by the formula "Nikkei + nationality" -- for example, "Japanese Canadian" (日系カナダ人 Nikkei Kanadajin), "Japanese Chinese" (日系中国人 Nikkei Chūgokujin); and "Japanese Iranian" (日系イラン人 Nikkei Iranjin).

Designations for groups of people consisting of Japanese immigrants, their Japanese and non-Japanese descendants, and others who may be regarded as members, include, "Nikkei society" (日系社会 Nikkei shakai) and "Nikkei community" (日系コミュニティー Nikkei komyunitii).

"Nikkei" individuals and groups may be involved in "Nikkei commerce" (日系商業 Nikkei shōgyō) or "Nikkei business" (日系ビジネス Nikkei bijinesu) and celebrate "Nikkei culture" (日系文化 Nikkei bunka).

"Nikkei" is also used as an abbreviation for "Nikkeijin" (日系人) or "Nikkei no hitobito" (日系の人々)

Nikkeijin (日系人) literally means a person or persons connected with or related to Japan, usually by ancestry.

Originally and most broadly, "Nikkeijin" refers to a person or persons of Japanese ancestry living outside Japan.

Today, technically and most narrowly, "Nikkeijin" refers to an alien or aliens of Japanese ancestry living anywhere.

Nikkei no hitobito (日系の人々) is a softer, woollier, touchy-feelier, talkier variation of "Nikkeijin".


Issei, nisei, sansei

The terms issei, nisei, sansei -- but also yonsei, gosei, and beyond -- are familiar to anyone who can count in Japanese. They are also familiar to many non-Japanese who count their generation of descent from a "first generation" (一世 issei) ancestor who left Japan for another country.

issei (一世), nisei (二世), and sansei (三世) mean the first, second, third generation in any succession. The problem, however, is where the succession begins.

Predecessor as "first" generation

Successions like Senior, Junior, the 3rd, the 4th are familiar in English. Sequences like Richard I, Richard II, and Richard III are familiar in dynastic history, where the numbers indicate the first, second, and third kings to use the same name.

Japanese, too, reckons successions and sequences from the first predecessor or the first in a series.

When counting generations of Nikkeijin, a Japanese migrant -- emigrant or immigrant -- is called a "first generation [person] of Japanese ancestry" (日系一世 Nikkei issei). A child of an "issei" is the "second generation [person] of Japanese ancestry" (日系二世 Nikkei nisei), and a child of a "nisei" -- meaning a grandchild of an "issei" -- is a "third generation [person] or Japanese ancestry" (日系三世 Nikkei sansei).

Predecessor as "null" generation

However, nisei and sansei are the first and second descendants of issei -- if one begins the series with zero. This is also a common way to keep track of generational descent.

Hence people speak of "first generation American born of Polish parents (Japanese descent, Russian immigrant parents, Mexican illegal-alien parents, parents from India, a Sicilian father and a mother from Abruzzi). Or of "first generation American-born boy of Chinese descent". Or one may say "I'm fifth generation American, my family has lived in Texas since before the Civil War."

Legally defined generational counts

So how one counts generations depends on when the clock begins. And there any number of possible starting points.

Some Japanese laws, concerning the treaty-based status of certain categories of Koreans in Japan, set the clock for "issei" at 1966, by way of providing for the status of those born after this date.

However, this population of "issei" includes many individuals who would be called "nisei" or "sansei" if counted from the "issei" parents or grandparents who migrated to the prefectures from Korea before 1910, or from Chosen between 1910 and 1945.

See Permanent Residents of Japan: "General" and "Special" permanent residency for more information about treaty-based alien residents of Japan.


War-displaced and orphaned



Racialization and mistranslation of "Nikkeijin"

Nikkeijin (日系人) means (1) literally "person connected with [related to] Japan", (2) originally and most broadly "person of Japanese ancestry" living outside Japan, (3) technically and most narrowly "alien of Japanese ancestry" living anywhere. It is sometimes shortened to "Nikkei" (日系), sometimes expressed as "Nikkei no hitobito" (日系の人々), and often mistranslated in English as "overseas Japanese" or as "ethnic Japanese".

"Nikkeijin" is widely used today, in mass media and academia, in Japanese and other languages. Since it originated as a label for Japanese emigrants and their foreign-born offspring, it is most conventionally used in the broader sense of (2). However, while not itself a legal term, in discussions of legal status, it is increasing being used more technically in the narrow sense of (3) to mean only aliens who can legally trace their lineal descent to a family register in Japan.

See Nikkei, Nikkeijin, issei, nisei, sansei in the Minorities section of the Glossaries feature of this website for further details

At the same time, "Nikkeijin" and "Nikkei" are commonly racialized because "Japanese" is commonly associated with race or ethnicity. However, when these terms are used in reference to legal status from the point of view of Japanese law, they have no racioethnic connotations, since legally "Japanese" is a purely civil status.

Notwithstanding its semantic range in Japanese, "Nikkeijin" tends to be mistranslated in two ways.

Mistranslation as "overseas Japanese"

"Nikkeijin" is sometimes rendered "overseas Japanese" in English. However, this is not an accurate translation of the term as used by either the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), which compiles statistics on both "countrymen residing overseas" and "overseas Nikkeijin" (see below), or by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), which deals with aliens in Japan, including alien descendants of Japanese (see below).

Mistranslation as "ethnic Japanese"

"Nikkeijin" is often (and increasingly) racialized as "ethnic Japanese" in English. However, MOFA's and MOJ's "blood line" and "biological child" metaphors concern family lineage, not ethnicity. Legally, "Japanese descent" is based on ancestry going back to someone who is or was Japanese, i.e., a person who is or was a member of a family register affiliated with Japan, regardless of the persons putative race or ethnicity.

Note that a so-called "White Russian" (meaning a non-Communist Russian) refugee who became Japanese through naturalization, or the child of stateless parents (such as two White Russian parents) who became Japanese at time of birth through right-of-soil (place-of-birth) rules in Japan's Nationality Law, could have migrated to Brazil, say, as Japanese. And their Brazil-born children and grandchildren would have qualified for Long Term resident status.

Note that the several children at the Elizabeth Saunders home who Sawada Miki groomed for migration to Brazil when they grew up, would also qualify as Japanese emigrants for purposes of the long-term residence permit. For they were Japanese, period. Their putative "race" or "races" -- black, white, yellow, brown, red, green -- and whether the "yellow" component was "Japanese" or "Korean" or "Nisei" or whatever -- would not in any manner have affected the qualification of their Brazil-born children or grandchildern -- because "race" (much less "ethnicity") is of no legal concern in Japanese law.

Scholars who racialize the terms "Japanese" and "Nikkiejin" in one breath, then in the next breath claim that Japanese laws and policies are "xenophobic" and "racist", might consider the effects of their own racialization on the freedom of individuals be fully and only Japanese simply because they are nationals of Japan.


Government usage of "Nikkeijin"

"Nikkeijin" is used in two ways by the Japanese government, one in a broader (less legal) sense, the other in a narrower (more legal) sense. Some Ministry of Foreign Affairs surveys of Japanese abroad include estimates of "Nikkeijin" as a separate category which in principle means aliens of Japanese ancestry but may include some Japanese. The Ministry of Justice, however, uses the term to refer only to aliens of Japanese ancestry.


Ministry of Justice and "Nikkeijin"

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) uses "Nikkeijin" to mean aliens of Japanese descent. "Japanese" are those who possess Japanese nationality, and "aliens" are those who don't (including foreign nationals and stateless persons).

Note MOJ does not use "Nikkeijin" as a legal term, but merely to help explain the scope of the expressions that are used in immigration control laws and forms related to status of residence. The explanatory material on MOJ's web site includes several such references, including the following (retrieved 14 October 2007, translation mine).

Examples possible Long Term Residents



Residence in this country based on a marital relationship, parent-child relationship, et cetera with a Japanese, Permanent Resident, et cetera

(Examples) Spouse of Japanese, Nikkei nisei, sansei

In the above example, "Nikkei nisei" and "Nikkei sansei" are the familiar understandings of what on the forms are called "biological child of Japanese national" and "Biological child of biological child of Japanese national" -- where "Japanese national" is the translation of "Nihonjin" (Japanese).

Japan's Immigration Bureau has forms related to various actions, including an "Application for Certificate of Eligibility" (在留資格認定証明書交付申請書) to receive a particular status of residence. It also has forms for changing and renewing one's status of residence.

Applicants have to complete at least the fist page, which is a general page. Then, depending on the status they wish or already have, they may fill out a second page which addresses particulars related to the status.

Applicants who seek to certify their eligibility as "Spouse of Child of Japanese National", "Spouse of Child of Permanent Resident", and "Long Term Resident" complete the same second page, as these are all "Unrestricted-activity statuses" other other than "Permanent Resident" (which involves a very different application).

Since all of these unrestricted non-permanent statuses are based on a relationship with a Japanese national or with a permanent or special permanent resident, the applicant must first check the "Personal relationship status" which applies, from the followsing list.

身分又は地位   Personal relationship or status

日本人の配偶者   Spouse of Japanese national

日本人の実子   Biological child of Japanese national

日本人の特別養子   Child adopted by Japanese nationals in accordance with the provisions of Article 817-2 of the Civil Code (Law No. 89 of 1896)

永住者又は特別永住者の配偶者   Spouse of Permanent Resident or Special Permanent Resident

永住者又は特別永住者の実子   Biological child of Permanent Resident or Special Permanent Resident

日本人の実子の実子   Biological child of biological child of Japanese national

日本人の実子又は「定住者」の配偶者   Spouse of biological child of Japanese national or "Long Term Resident"

日本人・永住者・特別永住者・日本人の配偶者・永住者の配偶者又は「定住者」の未成年で未婚の実子   Biological child who is a minor of Japanese, "Permanent Resident", "Special Permanent Resident", Spouse of Japanese national, Spouse of Permanent Resident or "Long Term Resident"

日本人・永住者・特別永住者又は「定住者」の6歳未満の養子   Adopted child who is under 6 years old of Japanese, "Permanent Resident", "Special Permanent Resident" or "Long Term Resident"

その他   Others

Some forms include information intended to clarify the terms in the form. The notes for "Long Term Resident" on one such form read as follows.

Persons eligible for designated period of stay
in consideration of special circumstances
参考 Reference

「定住者」・・・ 法務大臣が特別な理由を考慮し一定の在留期間を指定して居住を認める者


一 インドシナ難民とその家族

二 日本人の実子の実子(いわゆる日系3世

三 日本人の実子又は定住者の在留資格をもって在留する者の配偶者

四 日本人,永住者,特別永住者,日本人の配偶者,永住者の配偶者又は定住者の在留資格をもって在留する者の未成年で未婚の実子

五 日本人,永住者,特別永住者又は定住者の在留資格をもって在留する者の6歳未満の養子

「Long Term Resident」. . . Those who are authorized to reside in Japan with designation of period of stay by the Minister of Justice in consideration of special circumstances.

The following in details:

1 Indochina refugees and their families

2 Biological child of biological child of Japanese national (NIKKEI SANSEI)

3 Spouse of biological child of Japanese national or "Long Term Resident"

4 Biological child who is a minor of Japanese, "Permanent Resident", "Special Permanent Resident", Spouse of Japanese national, Spouse of Permanent Resident or "Long Term Resident"

5 Adopted child who is under 6 years old of Japanese, "Permanent Resident", "Special Permanent Resident" or "Long Term Resident"

In other words, the "long term resident" status is accorded not only to second and third generation alien descendants of Japanese, but to all manner of others who have no biological relationship with Japan.

"Nikkeijin" items in 2006 revision of
1990 MOJ Long Term Resident notice

1 定住者告示の改正




1. Revisions of Long Term Resident Notice

(1)[The revisions] stipulated that the following persons who would enter our country with a status of residence of "Long Term Resident" must be of good conduct.

 ・Biological minor and unmarried child of Nikkeijin
 ・Spouse of Nikkeijin
 ・Biological minor and unmarried child of spouse of Nikkeijin

(2)Among Nikkeijin, regarding aliens who would enter the country with a status of resdience of "Long Term Resident" as a countrymen left in China and relatives of such, in view of the fact that it is necessarily to continually accelerate their smooth return to the country, [the revisions] did not impose the "good conduct" condition, and developed provisions for that purpose.

Legally, "Nikkeijin" has no racioethnic significance, since the "blood line" that makes one a "person related to Japan" is a matter of lineal descent from an ancestor who, regardless of his or her race or ethnicity, had been a member of a Japanese register and therefore a national of Japan.

See long term residents for further details on this status of residence for qualified aliens.

Those who enter Japan for purposes other than short-term stays must obtain permission from the Miniter of Justice to acquire a "status of residence" (在留資格 zairyū shikaku) as (1) a spouse, child, or adoptee of a Japanese, (2) a spouse of a Permanent Resident, or (3) a so-called "Teijusha" (定住者) . . .

To be continued.

"Nikkeijin" is also often racialized in English reports as "ethnic Japanese". However, there is no foundation in Japanese law for regarding aliens of Japanese ancestry in racioethnic terms.

While there may be some intent on the part of lawmakers and bureaucrats to racialize Nikkeijin, as when describing them as "those who have the blood line of a Japanese", "blood line" is a matter of family lineage, not race or ethnicity.

Neither race nor ethnicity operate in the application of laws that explicity or implicity mitigate rules for aliens applying for a status of residence or for naturalization. The applicants "relatedness" to Japan is not based on race or ethnicity, but a documentable trail back to a family register in Japan.


Ministry of Foreign Affairs and "Nikkeijin"

One of the missions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), as a government agency representing Japan, is to serve the interests of overseas nationals. As a state, however, Japan has no cause counting people in other countries who who happen to be former Japanese, or descendants of Japanese or former Japanese.

At the same time, Japanese emigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- to Hawaii before and after it became part of the United States, to the United States and Canada, and to Mexico, Brazil, Peru and other Latin American states in particular -- occasioned a number of diplomatic conflicts. Japan resolved these conflicts by agreeing to restrict emigration, and by adopting provisions in its Nationality Law to permit renunciation of its nationality and minimize dual nationality among foreign-born offspring of emigrants.

Japanese emigration created numerous small and large Japanese communities and settlements in other Asian and Pacific countries and territories, especially those that became part of Japan (Taiwan, Karafuto, Chosen), or were administered by Japan (South Pacific Mandate Islands), or were heavily influenced if not entirely controlled by Japan (Manchuria), but also the Republic of China after Japan's partial invasion and occupation, the The Philippine Islands and then The Philippines before and during the Pacific War, and a number of other Southeast Asian countries.

Japan's loss of its Asia-Pacific empire after World War II resulted in the repatriation of most but not all interior Japanese subjects to the prefectures. Many remained because they had no choice.

War-displaced Japanese children adopted by local people, particularly in Manchuria and other parts of what are now the People's Republic of China, became subjects of bilateral negotiations. A number of policies and laws now address these "legacy" or "residual" issues by accommodating the resettlement of such people and their non-Japanese families to Japan.

Nationals residing overseas

For many years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has published an annual statistics report called 海外在留邦人数調査統計 (Kaigai zairyū Hōjin sū chōsa tōkei) -- meaning "Statistics on survey of number of countrymen residing overseas". This is dubbed into English on the cover (the only English in the report) as "Annual Report of Statistics on Japanese Nationals Overseas".

The introduction to the 2005 edition (on 2004 figures) states (page 1):

The subjects of these statistics, because they are those who possess the nationality of Japan, do not include "Nikkeijin" who do not possess the nationality of Japan.

The above phrasing is syntactically ambiguous. The object of the report is Hōjin (邦人) -- who are nationals of Japan -- and not Nikkeijin (日系人).

Writers of the report have marked "Nikkeijin" in quotes, without here defining the term, by way of remarking that Nikkeijin figures are given in the appendix, and warning that the figures are for reference only, since "accurately delimiting the scope of Nikkeijin is difficult".

The report relegates "Nikkeijin" to the appendix because, as stated above, MOFA is officially concerned mainly with Japanese nationals. It is not, however, unusual for a country with a history of emigration to take an interest in the alien or alienated descendants of its nationals.

Since the Meiji period, Japanese laws have always made it easier for alien offspring and adoptees of Japanese to settle in Japan and obtain Japanese nationality. Countries like the United Kingdom, and even the United States, also make it easier for aliens related to their citizens, and even alien family members of settled or immigrant alien residents, to immigrate and acquire nationality.

Overseas Nikkeijin

A single bar graph at the very end of the report shows estimates of the number of "overseas Nikkeijin" (海外日系人) in Brazil (1,400,000), United States of America (1,000,000), Peru (80,000), Canada (68,000), Argentina (32,000), Australia (20,000), Mexico (17,000), and Bolivia (10,000).

The second of two footnotes states that the total number of Nikkeijin is estimated at about 2.6 million. The first footnote qualifies the meaning of Nikkeijin like this (page 184).

[So-called ] Nikkeijin in the above graph include both permanent residents [of these countries] who possess the nationality of Japan and those who do not possess the nationality of Japan but have the blood line [lineage] of a Japanese (日本人の血統をひく Nihonjin no kettō o hiku) (naturalized issei, nisei, sansei, et cetera (帰化一世、二世、三世等)); the figures are estimated values based on various statistics and surveys of [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] offices abroad.

The next two pages of the introduction are dedicated to definition of terms. Here are are the most important (page 2).

Totals   Number of those who possess the nationality of Japan (sum of long term stayers and permanent residents).

Long term stayers (長期滞在者 chōki taizaisha)

(1) Countrymen (邦人 hōjin) who are stayers of three or more months but are not permanent residents.

[ Rest of item (1), and items (2) and (3), have been omitted. ]

Permanent residents (永住者 eijūsha)   (holders of the nationality of Japan)

(1) Permanent residents means in principle those whose right to permanently reside has been recognized by the country of residence.

(2) Even though [one] is a child of a Japanese, those who do not possess the nationality of Japan are not included.

(3) Those who have acquired another [foreign] nationality by their own volition, since they have automatically lost the nationality of Japan by reason of acquiring the nationality of a foreign country even though they have not submitted a notice of loss of [Japanese] nationality, are not included in these [figures].

(4) Even though [one] is [of] multiple nationality those who possess the nationality of Japan are included.


Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and "Nikkeijin"




Latin Americans

For two glorious years in 1996 and 1997, the combined Brazilian and Peruvian populations exceeded the Chinese population. Both Latin Americans populations slowly grew after the war, and jumped a bit when Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972. Their most significant growth, however, after from mid 1990, as a result of revcisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law recommended by the Cabinet on 28 March 1989, passed by the Diet on 8 December, and promulgated on 15 December (Heisei 1-12-15, Law No. 79).

The revisions, which came into effect from 1 June 1990, provided special visas for descendants of Japanese emigrants who, with the sponsorship of a relative in Japan, were permitted to work and essentially settle.

These individuals are commonly referred to as "Nikkeijin", meaning "people related to Japan" by virtue of family register ancestry. The term is often racialized in English reports as "ethnic Japanese", but neither race or ethnicity operate in the laws that accord them special treatment. Their "relatedness" to Japan is one of paper only -- a documentable trail back to a family register in Japan.

To be sure, some immigration policy people and law makers argued that such people would be more easily assimilated into Japan on account of their being at least partly of Japanese descent, and therefore to some degree members of the "Nihon minzoku" (Japanese race). However, putative raciality or ethnicity has not been an issue in determining who is permitted to come, since Latin American "nikkeijin" of all varieties, including family members who are not nikkejin, have been allowed to come under the special visa provisions.

To be continued.