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BOOK REVIEW | 'Help (Not) Wanted: Immigration Politics in Japan' by Michael Strausz

The author provides insightful analysis regarding Japan's approach to immigration, refugees, and foreign workers, which he describes as "restrictive."



Book cover.

According to the most recent statistics from the Ministry of Justice gathered in June 2022 and announced in mid-October that year, there are 2,961,969 foreign residents in Japan. This represents an increase of 7.3%, or 201,334 people, compared to the previous year of 2021 and is the highest ever. With the lowering of COVID-related restrictions to enter the country, it is likely that the immigration number is far higher now, well over the 3 million mark.

With regard to so-called foreign or migrant workers, the official number, provided by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare in late January 2023, is 1,822,725. That is an increase of 5.5%, or 95,504 workers. These numbers are based on data coming from the 298,790 companies currently employing foreigners. 

While companies have been legally required to submit these numbers since 2007, it is likely, given the above discrepancies in the numbers between foreign residents and workers, that not all companies are doing so. (Of course, other explanations would include that some of the foreign residents are students, self-employed, or retired, etc.)

While 3 million sounds like a lot, percentage-wise it works out to approximately 2.39% of the overall population. Japan's population is 125,467,000 at the time of this writing. Internationally speaking, the percentage of immigrants in Japan is extremely low. But it is by far not the lowest. It is, however, the lowest among the G-7 countries.

Help (Not) Wanted, by Michael Strausz. Book cover.

Tackling the Issue in a Book

This is essentially the issue that Michael Strausz, an associate professor of political science at Texas Christian University, looks at in his book, Help (Not) Wanted: Immigration Politics in Japan (SUNY Press, 2019). Why has Japan's immigration policy, he asks, remained "so restrictive" despite the economic (need for cheap labor and people to pay taxes), demographic (declining population), and international political forces (rise in conflict and refugees, etc.) that are necessitating Japan to admit more foreigners? 

To answer this, Strausz spent close to two years doing fieldwork in Japan and discovered that the following two answers. First, he argues that Japan's labor-intensive companies have been unable to defeat those opposing immigration within the country, especially those in conservative parties and the Ministry of Justice. Second, he points out, that "there is not an influential strain of elite thought [in postwar Japan] that suggests that foreign nationals have a legitimate claim to residency and citizenship in Japan" (pp. 26-27).

Japanese immigration points at Narita International airport (©Sankei)

Changes in the Immigration Environment

Recently, however, there have been movements that should give the author hope. First, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)'s Ogata Sadako Research Institute for Peace and Development, held a symposium in February 2022 in which its then-president, the highly influential public intellectual and former Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Shinichi Kitaoka, discussed the shortage of foreign workers. He introduced JICA estimates that Japan would need four times as many foreign workers, or 6.74 million, by 2040. The online symposium was attended by 500 people, suggesting that interest is very high.

Three weeks after that symposium Russia invaded Ukraine, and Japan rather proactively has accepted more than 2000 Ukrainian evacuees. While still few, it is an impressive number for a country far removed from the immediate conflict.

There is a third data point as well. On February 17, 2023, the Justice Ministry announced new pathways for immigration. These target high-income earners and graduates. The Justice Ministry says these should "simplify" the process and attract "top-level" talent to Japan. 

The new pathways, which will be implemented in April following a public comment process, are called J-Skip (Japan System for Special Highly Skilled Professionals) and J-Find (Japan System for Future Creation Individual Visa).

Foreign workers are on the job in some of the work places fewerJapanese want.

Debating Immigration

These movements suggest that the debate on immigration, although not called as much by most politicians and officials, is moving forward. While some who come here are truly just working temporarily in Japan either on assignment (expats) or as a way to earn money (migrant workers), there are others who intend to stay for a long time or forever. How they can be accommodated is the subject of increasing debate.

Strausz describes two types of discussions when it comes to national identity. The first is "assimilation optimists" and the second is "assimilation pessimists" (p. 27). 


According to him, neither group "believe[s] that significant numbers of foreign nations have a legitimate claim to residency and membership" in the country (Ibid). If true, then it will be a long road ahead for all involved.

Strausz's Reasoning

To understand this background more, Strausz's book, divided into seven chapters and a preface, includes a number of helpful figures and tables. The chapters are:

  1. Foreign Laborers, Not Immigrants
  2. Help Wanted: Immigration Restriction in a World of Labor Shortages, Aging Populations, and Refugee Crises
  3. Minority Rights and Minority Invisibility: Oldcomer Koreans in Japan
  4. The Crow is White: Foreign Labor and the Japanese State
  5. Asylum as Exception
  6. Is Another Japan Possible? Public Opinion and Immigration Reformists
  7. Japanese Immigration in the Age of Trump

This book will help those residing in Japan and planning to live or work here. Moreover, it will be of great interest to those seeking to know where Japan is going and where it has been in its relations with "foreigners" and policies dealing with them.

About the Book:

Title: Help (Not) Wanted: Immigration Politics in Japan

Author: Michael Strausz 

Publisher: SUNY Press (2019)

ISBN Paperback : 9781438475523, 214 pages, January 2020, $32.95

ISBN Hardcover : 9781438475516, 214 pages, August 2019, $95.00

For more information, visit the author's website.


Reviewed by: Robert D Eldridge


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