Foreign Residents

Japan Table of Contents

If Japanese society is reluctant to readmit returnees, it is even less willing to accept as full members of society those people who are not ethnic Japanese. In 1991 there were 1.2 million foreign residents in Japan, less than 1 percent of Japan's population (if illegal aliens were counted, the number of foreigners might be several times higher than the quoted figure). Of this number, 693,100 (about 57 percent) were Koreans and 171,100 (some 14 percent) were Chinese. Many of these people were descendants of those brought to Japan during Japan's occupation of Taiwan (1895- 1945) and Korea (1905-45) to work at unskilled jobs, such as coal mining. Because Japanese citizenship was based on the nationality of the parent rather than on the place of birth, subsequent generations were not automatically Japanese and had to be naturalized to claim citizenship, despite being born and educated in Japan and speaking only Japanese, as was the case with most Koreans in Japan. Until the late 1980s, people applying for citizenship were expected to use only the Japanese renderings of their names and, even as citizens, continued to face discrimination in education, employment, and marriage. Thus, few chose naturalization, and they faced legal restrictions as foreigners, as well as extreme social prejudice.

All non-Japanese are required by law to register with the government and carry alien registration cards. From the early 1980s, a civil disobedience movement encouraged refusal of the fingerprinting that accompanied registration every five years. Those people who opposed fingerprinting argued that it was discriminatory because the only Japanese who were fingerprinted were criminals. The courts upheld fingerprinting, but the law was changed so that fingerprinting was done once rather than with each renewal of the registration. Some Koreans, often with the support of either South Korea or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), attempted to educate their children in the Korean language, history, and culture and to instill pride in their Korean heritage. Most Koreans in Japan, however, have never been to the Korean Peninsula and do not speak Korean. Many are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and discrimination in a society that emphasizes Japan's homogeneity and cultural uniqueness. Other Asians, too, whether students or permanent residents, face prejudice and a strong "we-they" distinction. Europeans and North Americans might be treated with greater hospitality but nonetheless find it difficult to become full members of Japanese society. Public awareness of the place of foreigners (gaijin) in Japanese society was heightened in the late 1980s in debates over the acceptance of Vietnamese and Chinese refugees and the importing of Filipino brides for rural farmers.

More about the Population of Japan.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress