Fewer Foreigners In Japan For First Time In Half-Century

The number of foreigners who officially call the Land of the Rising Sun home has fallen for the first time in nearly half a century, according to a report released by the Justice Ministry this week. In another blow to the country’s graying population and impending labor shortage, the number of registered foreign residents fell 31,000 to 2.186 million as of the end of the 2009, compared to the previous period. The last annual decline occurred in 1961.

The drop perhaps shouldn’t come as a shock in light of the financial crisis that sent Tokyo-based bankers packing and left swathes of corporate apartments in the posh and expatriate-friendly Roppongi neighborhood empty. But smaller urban areas saw the biggest declines, reflecting the reality of factory towns shedding thousands of jobs as the financial crisis turned into a full-blown economic maelstrom. Aichi prefecture, home to industrial heavyweights like Toyota Motor Corp. and Central Japan Railway Company, took the biggest hit, the number of foreigners dropping 13,600, or 6%, from the previous year to 215,000. Though it’s tough to pinpoint the exact reasons for foreigners quitting Japan, the ministry said fewer employment opportunities in manufacturing businesses certainly may have contributed.

Beyond economic factors, is Japan simply a tough haul for non-locals? Those that have stayed on now comprise just 1.71% of the overall Japanese population. That’s a relatively tiny slice, meaning that for some, it’s hard not to feel like an outsider looking in. While Japan has been quick to adapt some foreign customs, like eating hamburgers and playing baseball, into its cultural fabric, it’s been less successful at integrating residents from overseas, who often struggle to overcome language and culture barriers.

In an effort to combat its shrinking population, Japan eased its tough stance against migrant workers and allowed second- and third-generation people of Japanese origin to come to Japan as permanent workers. Many of the Japanese descendants based in South American countries like Brazil and Peru, where many Japanese nationals relocated to in the early 1900s in search of work, flocked to the country, but still, integration has been challenging.

There’s one group that’s bucked the trend: the Chinese, one of the few minority groups to grow its ranks in 2009. Overtaking the number of Korean residents, Chinese nationals became the largest minority group living in Japan in 2005. The group grew 25,140 over the last year and currently makes up nearly a third of the foreign population. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the number of Brazilian nationals, the third-largest minority group, saw the biggest fall, from 312,500 to 267,500.

If there are fewer legal foreign residents here, does that mean a drift into illegal immigration? Not according to estimates from the ministry. The number of illegal aliens, which has fallen by over 50% since 2005, continued to drop across the board last year, to 91,778 from 113,072 at the end of 2008, according to a March report released by the Justice Ministry.