A tourist in front of Tokyo's Imperial Palace, November 2016.
Toru Hanai / Reuters

As the only advanced industrial democracy that has closed its borders to unskilled migrant labor since the end of World War II, Japan has long been viewed as hostile to immigration. Although the number of foreign nationals in Japan has grown at a rapid pace in recent years—from 850,000 in 1985 to almost 2.6 million in 2017—foreign residents still make up less than two percent of the total population, compared with between eight and 25 percent in western European countries. And only one-fifth of Japan’s foreign workers hold visas explicitly intended for labor immigration, which is restricted to the highly skilled.

Japan’s aging population, however, is creating a demand for foreign labor. Japan’s population peaked at 127.8 million in 2004 and has fallen by over 1.5 million since then, and its working-age population has dropped by over ten million since 1997. Nationwide, the ratio of job openings to applicants now stands at around 1.6, the

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  • YUNCHEN TIAN is a Ph.D Candidate in Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, where ERIN AERAN CHUNG is Charles D. Miller Associate Professor of East Asian Politics, Director of the East Asian Studies Program, and Co-Director of the Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship (RIC) Program.
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