Foreigners in Japan

Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, 1983

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan
Tokyo: Kodansha, 1983 (9 volumes)
Volume 2, pages 313-314

See also KEOJ review and KEOJ outtakes.


1. National differences
2. Historical roles
3. Legal status
4. Adjustment problems
5. Ethnic discrimination

References to titles of other articles in the encyclopedia are shown in boldface.

According to census, alien registration, and immigration statistics, about 1 percent of the population of Japan consists of foreign nationals. About two-thirds of theses foreigners are permanent or non-permanent residents. Most of the rest are tourists and other transients, United States military and United Nationals personnel and their dependents, and undocumented aliens. In addition, ethnic minority Japanese nationals constitute about 3 percent of the population (see Minorities).

The percentage of resident foreigners in the general population was very small until the end of World War II, when nearly a million people of Koran and Chinese ancestry living in Japan were deprived of their Japanese nationality as a result of Japan's divestment of such former colonies as Korea and Taiwan. Many of those people chose to remain in Japan, and so the percentage of resident foreigners rose to and has remained at about 0.6 percent of the total population of Japan.

Official population statistics on Japan include only resident foreigners, namely, foreigners who are required to register in accordance with the Alien Registration Law. Diplomats and foreign government officials and their dependents, United States military and United Nations personnel and their dependents, are exempt from registration requirement. The total population in the 1980 census was almost 117 million, of which 650,000 (0.56 percent of the total population) were resident foreigners, including temporary residents. According to alien registration statistics, however, there were 782,910 foreigners (0.67 percent of the total population) resident in Japan.

National Differences

By nationality, Koreans accounted for 85 percent (550,200) of the foreigners in the 1980 census, compared with 6 percent (35,000) Chinese, 3 percent (17,900) Americans, and 4 percent (25,000) foreigners of other nationalities. Alien registration statistics for the same year included 664,536 Koreans (21 percent more than the census population of this nationality), 52,896 Chinese (37 percent more), 22,401 Americans (25 percent more), and 43,077 foreigners of other nationalities (72 percent more). These statistics indicate that the Korean population is both the largest and most stable foreign group in Japan.

While the sex ratio of the total population of Japan in 1980 was 49 percent male to 51 percent female, the male/female ratios for foreigners were 51/49 for Koreans, 52/48 for Chinese, 54/46 for Americans, and 54/46 for other foreigners.

About 76 percent of the total population of Japan lives in urban areas, according to the 1980 census, compared with 92 percent for Koreans, 97 percent for Chinese, 91 percent for Americans, and 990 percent for other foreigners. Koreans are mostly employed in factory work, labor, and the service industries, while Chinese are mostly merchants or traders, and Americans and other foreigners are mostly teachers, business office managers, students, or missionaries. Indochinese immigrants, including refugees, are mainly employed in service industries.

Historical roles

The population of early Japan can be thought of as a confederation of ethnic groups, some of which had been in Japan longer than others, but all of which were ultimately of foreign origin. As many as one-third of the aristocracy of the early part of the Heian period (794-1185) traced their ethnic ancestries to China or Korea. Except for a notable increase of Korean immigration at the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th century, Korean and Chinese immigration remained minimal until the beginning of the 20th century. Foreigners of European ancestry did not appear in Japan until the middle of the 16th century and then were greatly restricted from the early part of the 17th century to the middle of the 19th century. The number of non-Asian residents in Japan increased rapidly in the Meiji period (1968-1912) and again in the post-World War II period, beginning in 1945.

In modern Japanese society, resident foreigners have fallen into four main categories: teachers, particularly Western Europeans and North Americans, of foreign technologies and languages; students, particularly Asians, of Western European, North American, and Japanese technologies; traders, diplomats and translators of the economic, political, and cultural institutions of Japan and other countries; and unskilled workers.

Legal status

Legal restrictions confine foreigners in Japan to certain activities. The economic bureaucracy may prove to be a difficult obstacle for foreign entrepreneurs. Bank loans may be difficult for foreigners to obtain. Certain public services are restricted to Japanese nationals, although some forms of national health insurance are available to resident foreigners who are employed in participating organizations or who apply at local administrative offices. The national pension system is open to all resident foreigners, while government housing loans are available to foreigners with permanent resident visas. Foreigners cannot take national civil service jobs, although some local positions are open to qualified foreigners; the practice of medicine is open to any foreigners who passes the Japanese licensing examinations, but the legal practice is restricted to resident former colonials and their descendants. Foreigners do, however, have access to the courts, abut they cannot vote in political elections, and some forms of political action may jeopardize the foreigner's status of residence and result in deportation.

Adjustment problems

Most Korean and Chinese residents of Japan and many other foreigners who were born and raised in Japan are native speakers of Japanese and are at home in Japanese society. However, those coming to Japan as adolescents or adults generally face problems of adjustment to life in Japan, depending on personal flexibility, maturity, and ability or willingness to learn the language. The latter may be one of the primary obstacles to adaptation to life in Japan. Non-Asian foreigners tend to be engaged in activities conducted in English or another European language, which do not require the study of Japanese. In recognition of various difficulties faced by such foreigners, English-language subcultures in some of Japan's larger cities offer schooling, social clubs, and even telephone counseling for the troubled or suicidal. There are also several nationwide English-language daily newspapers and occasional English radio and television broadcasts in some cities, which are of great help to those who have not mastered the Japanese language.

Ethnic discrimination

Aside from legal restrictions and the discrimination that results from them, foreigners whose racial and cultural attributes are close to or indistinguishable from those of ethnic majority Japanese are usually able to pass as majority nationals. Foreigners of ethnic majority Japanese ancestry, Koreans, and Chinese are most likely to pass as ethnic majority nationals.

There are pejorative terms in the Japanese language to designate ethnic minorities in Japan, regardless of their nationality, whether Japanese or foreign. Most of these are avoided in mainstream mass media, although they are widely used in peripheral media and in private conversations. The word gaijin ("outsider") is not necessarily regarded as as disparaging term by the many ethnic majority Japanese who use it, often in reference to Japanese minorities as well as foreigners; many people so labeled, however, find the term exclusionary and thus offensive. See also Koreans in Japan; Foreigners, attitudes toward.


The first draft of this article was written around the time my daughter was born in late 1978, when her nationality became the object of a law suit against the Japanese government. The heavily cut and revised final manuscript, dated 22 April 1981, contains 1975 census figures. I provided the 1980 figures when they became available sometime in 1982.

Obviously I was then still under the spell of my graduate school "education" and the writing I had done with De Vos in the mid 1970s about foreigners and minorities in Japan. Hence the misleading remark -- "In addition, ethnic minority Japanese nationals constitute about 3 percent of the population" -- in the first paragraph, which of course reflected the figures cited in the Minorities article by Hiroshi Wagatsuma.

It is also clear that, at the time, I laboring to draw and maintain a clear distinction between "nationality" as a strictly legal status, devoid of ethnicity, and "ethnicity" as a mental state or social attribution having nothing to do with legal status. The closing remarks about "ethnic discrimination" were intended merely to suggest what sort of problems some foreigners might face on account of attributes having nothing to do with their foreign nationality. I did not have a mandate, or the space, to say more.

A quarter-century later, today, the nationality breakdown is very different. There are about twice as many foreigners in Japan, now, and Americans are far from being the third largest category. Other features, though, remain about the same. Asian foreigners are more likely to learn Japanese, to study in Japanese colleges, to get jobs in Japanese companies. There are now many language "subcultures" in Japan -- in the form of shops and newspapers serving speakers of Chinese, Korean, Portuguese and other languages -- though English still dominates "foreign language" education, information, and entertainment.

There is possibly less overt "gaijin" labeling today than in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but the word continues to be viewed with mixed feelings by people with racial and other traits that may elicit the word, without regard to nationality.

5 February 2006