What Happens When Japan Stops Looking ‘Japanese’?

For centuries, the country has maintained a strong sense of national identity by limiting outside influences. But increased migration has caused some to question what it truly means to be “Japanese.”

Migrant workers march together on the streets of Tokyo holding banners and umbrellas.
Migrant workers in Japan gather in Tokyo to join the annual demonstration March-in-March, calling for all foreign workers to demand equality and an end to poor labor practices in Japan. (Richard Atrero de Guzman / NurPhoto / Getty)

Updated at 9:30 a.m. ET on April 22, 2020.

The Kurdish 21-year-old arrived in Japan when he was 8. He learned Japanese, played baseball with classmates, and eventually fell in love with a Vietnamese girl at school. The pair sat together when I visited his parents’ apartment outside Tokyo, speaking Japanese in hushed tones, their pinky toes just barely touching. Dinner was Kurdish-style yogurt and lamb, with chopsticks next to each plate. The couple had been together six years, and her father had recently given them permission to marry.

But this young man—who jokingly asked to be referred to as Johnny Depp, fearful of a legal backlash if he used his real name—cannot marry his girlfriend anytime soon. He and his family fled Turkey to avoid retribution over their support for Kurdish independence and because Johnny faced mandatory military service. They eventually made it to Japan to ask for refugee status, but the country’s notoriously restrictive immigration officials have already rejected his application four times.

Johnny may look like a foreigner, but he feels like a local—so he is persisting, taking the authorities to court to try to win the legal right to stay here and, in the process, set a precedent for his two younger siblings and the next generation of refugees.

Japan’s approach to immigrants is a manifestation of its unique sense of national identity, derived from centuries of aggressively limiting outside influences. Being Japanese goes beyond the language, which is difficult to speak and far more difficult to write. It’s about talking softly in public and private; abiding by confusing rules about garbage disposal; eating fish with chopsticks out of bento boxes. Many Japanese describe their way of life as so unique that foreigners are ill-equipped to adopt it.

But the approximately 2.3 million migrants living in Japan—a 37 percent increase from 2000 to 2017—are now testing whether Japan can continue to be Japan if everyone doesn’t necessarily look “Japanese.” Johnny, for example, sees himself and his family as Japanese, even if he doesn’t have the paperwork to prove it. “We no longer yell and talk loudly inside shops and restaurants, things like that,” he told me. “We learned to adopt the general code of conduct in Japan.”

In 1981, Japan signed the United Nations’ refugee convention, which called for the protection of people facing persecution. In practice, however, it does not live up to this responsibility, even as ever greater numbers of desperate foreigners fly into Tokyo’s airports seeking refugee status. More than 10,000 people applied for refugee status last year; just 42 were approved. Contrast that with the United States, where, even under the hard-line anti-immigration stance of President Donald Trump, in the 2019 fiscal year nearly a third of 67,067 applicants won asylum and a path to citizenship. In Canada, most applicants win their cases.

Japan also participates in the UN’s refugee-resettlement program, in which some of the millions of people in refugee camps around the world are allowed to move to a new country. Thousands of people were resettled this way in Britain, Canada, France, Germany, and the U.S. last year. Japan took in just 22.

The system is unforgiving. Many asylum seekers are held in detention centers while their cases are being processed, particularly if they are believed to have used fraudulent documents to escape to Japan. (Johnny’s father did two stints in detention.) Applicants can legally work while they wait for their paperwork to be reviewed, but not for the first eight months after their arrival. And if they are rejected and appeal, like Johnny has, they are either detained or put on “provisional release,” which comes with restrictions on employment, health-insurance coverage, and travel within the country.

In recent years, this tough approach to immigration has been confronted with an emerging reality: Japan’s population is aging and its birth rate is among the lowest in the world. The labor force is depleted, and businesses are desperate for new workers to jump-start a stalled economy. So officials are starting to recognize that they can’t afford to live without immigrants. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced last year that about 350,000 unskilled laborers will be granted guest visas over the next five years to backfill small and medium-size enterprises in industries such as agriculture, nursing, and construction. The migrants cannot bring relatives with them, and are dissuaded from settling down, but this nevertheless marks a significant shift.

I found a hint of what this influx of foreign workers might mean in Odaka, a town devastated when the nearby Fukushima nuclear-power plant melted down after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Huge numbers of people have left—just two students remain on the local high-school team that practices kendo, a traditional Japanese martial art. But the town’s population decline is being offset by Africans, Middle Easterners, and South Asians here to do cleanup work related to the 2011 disaster.

In a country with little experience with large-scale immigration, this dynamic has led to concerns. Sachie Matsumoto, a lifelong resident of this area whose son is one of the two students still learning kendo, told me she’s worried—not just about the threat of foreign influence on Japanese traditions, but about the foreigners themselves. “I’m afraid of them,” she said bluntly. “I can’t communicate with them.” Though no crime has been reported, she believes security threats are inevitable, and has installed cameras outside her home, where foreign laborers frequently cycle by. Her concerns, and those of others here, are amplified by television images of people moving, seemingly out of control, across borders in Europe and the southern United States.

Yet fear won’t end the shift. More people are migrating around the globe than at any other time in human history, crossing oceans and borders to get to countries such as Japan. And so efforts are being made to acclimate the newcomers. In an orientation packet distributed to applicants for refugee status at the nonprofit Japan Association for Refugees, advisories are in multiple languages, including Kurdish and English: “Japanese society traditionally prefers conformity and social harmony to independence and individual expression.” Conformity, according to the orientation brochure, means: “1) Be punctual. 2) Separate garbage according to type. 3) Don’t be too loud!”

The foreign-born population of Kawaguchi, where Johnny and his family live, is rising every month and is now at about 35,000 people, or 6 percent of the city’s population—one of the highest such proportions in Japan. Mayor Nobuo Okunoki has heard the complaints about the Kurds throwing out their trash on the wrong days and hanging out with their countrymen in large, loud groups. But Okunoki said they eventually adapt to the Japanese way of life.* Besides, he told me, his city relies on foreign labor for its manufacturing plants and medical providers. And on top of all that, he sees a humanitarian obligation too, so he authorizes $6 million annually for health care for foreign-born residents.

Efforts are also being made to help the Japanese adapt to the foreigners. Above the library in Kawaguchi, the Multicultural Coexistence Subsection offers brochures that translate phrases from Japanese into various languages, including Kurdish. “We see foreigners so often these days,” one cartoon character explains. “If you want to be friends with the foreigners you should understand them with care, and teach them the rules of lifestyle and manners, and be kind to them.” Various immigrants are pictured with quotes, like this one from a Kurd: “I like Japanese people’s caring heart.”

That caring heart is not, however, government policy. Johnny was accepted to the university of his choice, but was later rejected because he needs written clearance from an immigration officer to leave his prefecture, and school officials were concerned about how that would affect his attendance. He had hoped to land a career as a translator; now he’s in school to become a mechanic. Still, unless he becomes what the Japan Association for Refugees said would be the first Kurd from Turkey to ever be granted refugee status here, he won’t be able to work as a mechanic, even after he graduates.

His girlfriend, who is a permanent legal resident, is patient. “I have seen him struggle for so long that it feels almost foolish and presumptuous to have any dreams of my own,” she told me. “When we first started dating, I just thought he was cute and funny. But when I started to learn more about his family’s predicament, and how protective of his family he is, how much he has on his shoulders, I was even more smitten.”

Johnny’s family wouldn’t say what they do to make ends meet. But many Kurds work in construction—that’s what his uncle, who also declined to be identified, does. He’s the only legally employed member of the family, because he withdrew his application for refugee status and married a Japanese woman, which made him eligible for permanent residency.

Johnny’s uncle is furious about how Japan treats such migrants. “It doesn’t matter that you’ve lived here for two decades, no matter that you have a squeaky clean record, no matter that you had no parking tickets, no matter that you cause absolutely no trouble—they will not treat you as human,” he told me. He pointed to a recent saga reported on in the Japanese media involving a sick Kurdish asylum seeker, detained in a jail. The man’s wife called an ambulance, but when emergency workers responded, they were turned away by immigration authorities.

Foreigners I spoke with, though, recounted little overt hostility against them by average people. In fact, anecdotes abound about older Japanese people teaching the language to their new neighbors. That’s what makes a diverse Japanese future seem more plausible than the government might acknowledge.

Htut Zaw Min, the first ever Rohingya from Myanmar recognized with refugee status in Japan, said he has never experienced bigotry in his two decades in the country. He owns a small scrapyard outside Tokyo, where the door is constantly swinging open with buyers and sellers making deals and small talk. A family of sparrows flies in and out all day, too. At night, with the birds inside, Zaw Min closes the door and goes home. Stains covering the floor in one corner of his office indicate that they make themselves comfortable when he’s away.

Zaw Min nodded as I pointed out the all-too-obvious parallel of a refugee offering refuge to birds. He said the people in his adopted country believe birds are lucky, and now so does he. Driven out of Myanmar in the 1990s because of his activities as a pro-democracy activist, and unable to return because, as a Rohingya Muslim, he is part of a persecuted minority, he has brought family members over to Japan and now employs not just Rohingya but Nepalese and Japanese workers, too.

“Wherever I go, I get a lot of respect, a lot of love, a lot of regards from every corner of life,” he said, “but I just have this problem with the Japanese government … government policy on asylum, on refugees.”

Zaw Min dismisses the idea that adapting to Japanese life is especially difficult. He said that other than speaking with his wife and five children in the Rohingya language, he is completely Japanese. He quickly learned to say konichiwa and bow instead of shaking hands when greeting someone. Shoes are removed at the doorstep to his office, and slippers, followed by green tea, are offered to his guests.

Sure, his son doesn’t eat the food at junior high school, bringing his own halal lunch instead. But that’s not a problem at all, Zaw Min said. The boy, he proudly noted, is the president of his class.

* This article previously misspelled the name of the mayor of Kawaguchi. He is Nobuo Okunoki, not Nobuo Okuno.

This story was supported in part by the Abe Fellowship for Journalists, a reporting grant from the Social Science Research Council and the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership.