Japanese Local Governments Facing the Reality of Immigration

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sun Sep 16 12:52:51 UTC 2007

Japan Focus
Japanese Local Governments Facing the Reality of Immigration

Atsuko Abe


This paper presents the results of a survey conducted on Japanese
municipal governments regarding their attitudes and policies towards
foreign residents. While assimilation and exclusion were historically
the only approaches the Japanese authorities took in handling
immigrants (mostly Korean former colonials), the reality of
ever-increasing immigration heralds the task of integration. [1] A
national government is generally the ultimate decision-maker when it
comes to immigration policy, including matters of integration. Yet
most pressure to perform better is framed in terms of immigration
control. The Japanese government, following European examples,
perceives control and integration as the two pillars of its
immigration policy, but the latter task needs more local involvement
than the former. Therefore it is meaningful to focus on local-level
immigration policy, which inevitably focuses more attention on
immigrant integration.

When a substantial number of foreigners begin to live within the same
local boundary, municipal governments are expected to address any
problems. They must turn to higher-level administrators for policy
guidelines and budget provision, but decisions at the national level
may or may not suit particular localities. Public opinion is created
from people's local experiences, which local administration must
respond to. It is also local administration that immigrants most
frequently encounter as a state agent of their host country. In Japan
the idea of democracy is also tested at the local level in the debate
concerning the voting rights of 'foreigners'. Taking all the above
into account, the purpose of the survey was to gauge how municipal
governments (shi-cho-son, that is, cities, towns and villages)
perceive immigrants under their jurisdiction.

A teacher teaches a student from Brazil how to say "cheek" in Japanese
in a special classroom established for foreign children.
Komatsu City, Ishikawa Prefecture, 2005.

Providing information in the foreign residents' own language is a
first step to responding to their needs. It is hardly sufficient as an
administrative service in itself, but at least it can be argued that
if foreign residents can access the most basic information on
education, housing, health care, etc. in their own language, they can
convey to local administrators their particular needs. Therefore, two
of the six questions in the survey were about non-Japanese language

Another focus of the survey was to gauge the extent to which foreign
residents are perceived as 'citizens'. Although foreign residents by
definition do not hold the nationality of the host country, they
already have partial citizenship (Marshall and Bottomore, 1993;
Soysal, 1994.) Especially, those with regular visa status sometimes
claim the rights to be heard as residents as well as taxpayers. [2]
Civic activities are also not limited to legal citizens (nationals):
foreign residents sometimes participate or even take initiatives in
civic activities, such as supporting non-Japanese speaking children's
education, helping victims of domestic violence, providing voluntary
translation services for hospital patients, etc. In this regard, the
definition of citizenship is not tied to that of nationality.

Survey of municipal governments

The survey was conducted in February and March 2006. A questionnaire
was dispatched to 2049 municipalities and there were 1413 valid
responses. [3] The questionnaire consisted of 6 questions. The first
question asked whether there was a designated section handling issues
relating to foreign residents. There were 295 affirmative answers. The
names varied among municipalities, but popular keywords emerged; 104
of them included the term kokusai (international), within which
kokusai koryu (international exchange) was used in 57 cases. Another
popular term was shimin (citizens), used in 64 cases. Also 18 offices
had jinken (human rights) in their names, suggesting that immigrant
issues are also human rights issues. It was also interesting to see
from their titles that 10 offices were also set up to handle gender
issues. Some answered that different sections took responsibility for
foreign residents depending on specific needs (health care, education,
pension, etc.). Some small-scale municipalities with small numbers of
foreign residents provided services through the section that handles
alien registration (such as cho-min ka, Town-People Division or ju-min
ka, Residents Division).

The second question asked how the administrative offices distribute
information to foreign residents and in what language. Respondents
were given multiple choices. In terms of language, 1038 municipalities
use Japanese, 650 use English, 385 use Chinese, 281 use Portuguese,
239 use Korean, 166 use Spanish, 73 use Filipino, and 34
municipalities use Thai; in terms of how the information is delivered,
348 municipalities produce and distribute guidebooks for general
information on the locality; 253 provide a general information
website; 772 produce and distribute leaflets on garbage collection;
453 hand out whatever information they provide at the time of alien
registration; and 541 municipalities leave information materials at
the counter to be taken freely.

While only 206 municipalities stated clearly that they did not have
any foreign language service, a further 631 stated that they used only
Japanese to provide information to foreign residents. 401 said that
they provided information on garbage collection in languages other
than Japanese and 176 declared that they had some kind of multilingual
service for information other than garbage collection.

Although the question specified the provision of garbage collection
information as the most likely task that municipal governments may
address using multiple languages, some cities indicated that this was
not the case. In Osaka prefecture, for example, 12 cities answered
that they provided multi-lingual services in areas other than garbage
collection, and 3 among them specified health care and public
education as the areas where information was distributed in foreign
languages. Garbage collection is based on locally specific rules, thus
municipal governments cannot rely on higher-level administrators,
whereas health care and education are under the jurisdiction of the
prefecture. Consequentially, it is not always certain whether such
information on health care and education is prepared by municipal
governments. For example, municipal administrations distribute foreign
language boshi-techo (a medical record book for pregnant women and
their babies) prepared by the prefecture.

The third question asked whether they offer regular consultation
services for foreign residents and, if they do, in what language or
languages. 236 municipalities provide such services; 146
municipalities provide them in Japanese, 147 in English, 93 in
Chinese, 78 in Portuguese, 58 in Spanish, 33 in Korean, 18 in Filipino
and 11 in Thai.

The fourth question asked whether there was an advisory organization
that communicated the opinions of foreign residents to the municipal
administration. 43 municipalities gave positive answers in addition to
50 municipalities that acknowledged a 'voluntary civic organization'
with which the administration has regular contact. Furthermore, 14
municipalities planned to set up a system by which the voices of
foreign residents could be heard. The rest gave negative answers; but
nine of them said their administrative offices had other types of
contact with foreign residents.

The fifth question was about wider civic activities by foreign
residents. It asked whether the administration had a list of civic
groups, including NPOs, and whether there was any group, or groups, in
which foreign residents actively participated. 345 municipalities
confirmed that they had such a list, and 121 municipalities were aware
of groups in which foreign residents played active roles. Among the
multiple choices indicating area of activity, education was most
popular (33 municipalities), whereas cultural exchange (expressed
variously, but characterized by frequent inclusion of the word
'exchange', koryu) was named in the 'other' category as activities
carried out by foreign residents (31 municipalities).

The last 'question' was an invitation to write freely regarding the
municipality's foreign residents. There were 455 comments, which
varied from those expressing serious concern about a shortage of
resources to those which stated that no problems existed. A popular
concern was over language and communication, although this may have
reflected a bias arising from earlier questions on language.
Municipalities in the Hokuriku and Tokai regions which either recently
experienced a large-scale earthquake or have long been aware of the
inevitable occurrence of earthquakes, indicated their need for a
communication system by which non-Japanese residents can access
information in times of emergency.

General Observations – Diversity of Tasks

The survey confirmed that the attitudes of municipalities vary widely
across Japan. A large majority of the municipalities, especially
smaller towns and villages in rural areas, have no, or very few,
foreign residents, thus there is no issue of 'immigrant integration';
but there are also rural municipalities that are seriously concerned
with the very small minority of foreign residents. Typical problems
occur in the case of foreign women, who tend to be isolated in rural
areas. Married to Japanese husbands, they often become solely
responsible for home maintenance, children's education and care-giving
for the husband's parents - all on top of facing language and cultural
barriers (Satake and Da-anoy, 2006). Although concerned about such
problems, those municipal governments still find it difficult to
tackle them, mainly due to a lack of human resources and budget. On
the other hand, municipalities with a relatively large proportion of
foreign residents have been active in handling the problems associated
with them. Even among such municipalities, however, tasks vary.
Foreign residents themselves are not of just one kind. They may be
newcomers and have difficulty in getting very basic information for
living, or they may have been in Japan for generations, and thus
without any language or cultural adjustment problems. While many
newcomers work in small-scale industries and suffer from lack of
health insurance coverage, an increasing number of white-collar
foreign business people live in big cities. In some municipalities,
the majority of foreign residents are students.

Tabunka-kyosei, literally 'multicultural co-existence', repeatedly
appeared in the free comments section of the survey. The term's
meaning is better understood as 'multicultural community building',
although it comes under criticism for its vagueness despite frequent
usage. [4] Somu-sho (the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs,
Post and Telecommunications) released a report in March 2006 entitled
'Tabunka kyosei suisin puroguramu no teigen' (Proposal to Pursue a
Program for Multicutural Co-existence). This report is supposed to be
the cornerstone of immigrant integration policy at the national level.
It seems that multiculturalism has been officially adopted as part of
immigrant integration policy; but it is hard to deny that Japanese
society imposes strong pressure to assimilate on any member within its
territory, including foreign residents. For example, one comment in
the survey said 'Foreign residents have their own networks along
nationality lines, and some of them do not feel it necessary to
assimilate into Japanese society. On the other hand, Japanese society
is still trapped in a Western-at-top hierarchy, with racial bias
remaining. As a result, it seems very difficult to achieve complete

As mentioned above, pressure to assimilate is particularly strong for
foreign wives, especially for those who comprise a major group within
a small minority of foreigners in rural areas such as Tohoku and
Shikoku. Another comment in the survey also revealed such pressure, as
the respondent expressed his/her sympathy towards 'brides-from-abroad'
since they were pressured to 'Do in Rome as the Romans do'. Because
the size of administrative bodies, reflected in budgets and resources,
tends to be smaller in such areas, local administration faces
difficulties in supporting them. Also noteworthy is the fact that the
comments in the survey often referred to a lack of language problems
with the foreign residents as those foreign wives had Japanese family.
As far as the administration was concerned, any official information
could be communicated to foreign individuals via family members.

Gaikoku-jin shuju toshi kaigi (Convention for Cities and Towns with
Concentrations of Foreign Residents), established in 2001, is
comprised of cities and towns that have a considerable proportion and
number of newly-arrived foreign residents (particularly Brazilians).
Member cities are spread over six prefectures, two of which, Aichi and
Shizuoka, are among the 10 biggest prefectures in terms of foreign
population. While these cities focus on their mainly newcomer
Brazilian and Peruvian populations [5], there are other cities with a
large number of foreign residents of more diverse backgrounds. For
example, in Tokyo's Shinjuku-ward, the largest group, Koreans, make up
40.3%, and the second largest group, Chinese, 32.9%. In Yokohama-city
and Kawasaki-city, both in Kanagawa prefecture, there are 71,000 and
29,000 registered foreigners respectively. Kanagawa is the prefecture
with the fourth biggest foreign population, but no cities in Kanagawa
participate in the Gaikoku-jin shuju toshi kaigi. Kanagawa also has a
large number of so-called old-comers: 14.8% of the foreign residents
in Kanagawa have a special permanent resident visa (Homu-sho, 2006).
It seems that the Gaikoku-jin shuju toshi kaigi's focus on Latin
American immigrants does not match the situation in Kanagawa or Tokyo
even though those areas also have many new-comers.

With this diversity of immigrants and of areas in which they live,
each municipality faces a wide range of tasks. On the one hand, some
localities with a relatively large number and proportion of foreign
residents have launched various programs to support their specific
needs. It was reported that the Somu-sho is to subsidize
municipalities with programs for foreign residents (Asahi Shinbun, 8
March 2007). The recipient municipalities are those that have
experienced a sudden increase in number of foreign residents. Mayors
and city officials of Gaikoku-jin shuju toshi kaigi have been claiming
that they had reached the limit of their capacity to handle the
problems their foreign residents face. These cities, instead of
turning to their respective prefectures, have requested help from the
national government. On the other hand, there are localities where the
number and proportion of foreign residents are not high, yet which
anticipate a considerable increase. Since their concentration of
foreign residents is relatively low, it is more difficult for such
municipalities to provide services efficiently and effectively.

Since most of the municipal governments feel a responsibility to
respond to the needs of foreign residents in parity with those of
Japanese residents, it is possible to conclude that foreign residents
are considered 'citizens' in the eyes of municipal governments. Some
municipal governments specifically state that foreign residents are
not guests but full-members of the community as much as Japanese
residents. However, the vast majority of the municipalities do not
have any organized channel to hear the voices of foreign residents,
which in turn keeps them 'invisible' to the administration as well as
to the legislature at the local level. Civic activities by foreign
residents are not acknowledged as much as are those by Japanese
residents. Consequently, the actions of governments do not measure up
to their claims that foreign residents are full 'citizens' of the


[1] In the Japanese context, assimilation means pressure from the
state and the society on individuals to act according to pre-defined
standards in terms of language, mannerisms and behavior. Extreme
examples can be found in the colonial period when the state forced
Japanese names and language to Korean and Taiwanees colonial subjects.
Exclusion means legal and social handicaps that burden individuals,
such as discrimination based on nationality, ethnicity, race, etc. For
example, lack of legislation to tackle racism and xenophobia allows
widespread discriminatory customs. Integration involves partial, if
not full, membership of individuals.

[2] It has been suggested that 'more rights' for regular migrants
correlates to further marginalization of irregular migrants by Petrice
Flowers and other participants at the ISA Workshop, 'Emerging Trends
in Asian Migration', February 27, 2007, Chicago. The survey asked
municipalities how they deal with their 'residents', and so implicitly
excluded irregular migrants. Issues of irregular migrants and
municipal governments are left to further study.

[3] Due to the large number of mergers, the total number of
municipalities has been further decreased and will be 1804 by the end
of March 2007.

[4] The translation as 'multicultural community building' was
recommended by Keizo Yamawaki at the Symposium: Issues Surrounding
Foreign Residents in Japan: International Experiences in Migrant
Integration and Challenges Facing Japan, held on March 9, 2007, at U
Thant International Conference Hall 3rd floor, UN House, Tokyo. For
criticism of overuse of the term, see Oshu oyobi Hokubei Kakkoku ni
okeru gaikokujin no zairyu kanri no jitsujo ni kansuru chosa hokokusho
(Reports on Immigration Control in Europe and North America), February
2006, p. 3, footnote 1.

[5] Although still the majority of its foreign residents are
Brazilians, the mayor of Toyota-city pointed out that there are
increasing varieties of nationalities among the foreign residents
within the city, and suggested the necessity to respond to such
demographic transformation. At the Symposium: Issues Surrounding
Foreign Residents in Japan: International Experiences in Migrant
Integration and Challenges Facing Japan, held on March 9, 2007 at U
Thant International Conference Hall 3rd floor, UN House, Tokyo.


Homu-sho (Ministry of Justice), Zairyu gaikoku-jin tokei, 2006.

Marshall, T. H., and Bottomore, Tom, Citizenship and Social Class
(Japanese translation). Kyoto: Horitsubunka-sha, 1993.

Satake Masaaki and Da-anoy, Mary Angeline, Philippine-Nippon Kokusai
kekkon: iju to tabunka kyosei. Tokyo: Mekon, 2006.

Soysal, Yasemin, Limits of Citizenship: Migrants and Postnational
Membership in Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Atsuko Abe, Ph.D (Cantab.) is an associate professor of International
Relations at J. F. Oberlin University, Tokyo. Her research interests
include comparison between Japanese and European practices of
immigration policies, citizenship policies, and the impact of
migration on the nation-state system.   Posted on Japan Focus on
September 15, 2007.

Appendix: Survey Results

Question 1: Is there a section that handles issues related to foreign residents?

Number of Affirmative Answers: 295

Typical names of the section: kokusai-koryu (international exchange) 57

Question 2: How does the administration distribute information to
foreign residents?

Language Service

 (including Indonesian, Vietnamese, Russian, French and German)



How does the administration provide such information?

Produces and distributes guidebooks for general information in the locality

Provides general information on website

Produces and distributes leaflets on garbage collection

Hands out whatever information they provide at the time of alien registration

Leaves information materials at the counter to be taken freely


Question 3: Does the administration offer a regular consultation
service for foreign residents?

Number of Affirmative Answers: 236





Question 4: Is there an organization that communicates with municipal
administration in order to funnel opinions of foreign residents?

Number of Affirmative Answers: 99

Type of Organization among Affirmative Answers
 With Official Advisory Status
 All Members Are Foreigners

Half Foreign, Half Japanese Members


Voluntary Organization

Considering Set-up of an Organization


Negative Answer Yet Specifying a System for Collective Communication

Some cities have more than one organization with which the municipal
administration communicates; therefore the total number of these
organizations is greater than what the affirmative answers might

Question 5: Is there a list of civic groups including NPOs within the

Number of Affirmative Answers: 345

In the list, is there a group in which foreign residents play active roles?

Number of Affirmative Answers: 121


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