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  • Writer's pictureTim Odagiri

How Many Foreign Residents Live in Japan?

Welcoming residents to Japan

When you wander around Japan, be it the countryside or in urban areas, you notice right away that there are a lot of Japanese people here. But every once in a while, you will see a foreign face. Sometimes when I come home after a bit of shopping, I will say to my wife, “I saw another foreigner today.” They seem quite rare. But according to official numbers from Japan’s Statistics Bureau, there are a lot more immigrants and foreign residents than you might expect.


As of October 2022, there are approximately 2.75 million foreign residents (在留外国人) in Japan, accounting for around 2.2% of the total Japanese population. That means that when I wander through the thousands of people milling around Yokohama Station and notice two or three foreigners, I am showing how bad I am at math. In reality, one out of every fifty people I meet, on average, is a foreigner. If you throw tourists into the mix—which should be possible now that Coronavirus management is not so strict—such encounters should be even more common.


Not only are there a surprising number of foreigners living in Japan, their presence has been growing at a time of overall decline in the broader Japanese population. The following table shows that, while immigration retreated a bit during the pandemic, the growth of this subgroup has been consistent and significant. (Each year’s numbers are based on October estimates.)

Year

Total Population

Foreign Residents

Foreign Percentage

2016

127,042,000

1,971,000

1.55%

2017

126,919,000

2,174,000

1.71%

2018

126,749,000

2,400,000

1.89%

2019

126,555,000

2,669,000

2.11%

2020

126,146,000

2,747,000

2.18%

2021

125,339,000

2,490,000

1.99%

2022

125,072,000

2,747,000

2.20%

While some individual residents will stay in Japan for only a few years, as a whole, this group represents a stable and expanding community. When I look at numbers like this, one my first thoughts is, “With this many foreigners in Japan, maybe Netflix will now finally stop hiding all of its English subtitles.”


This is short-sighted on my part, since immigrants from English-speaking nations represent only a fraction of the foreign community. Most visa holders arrive from Asian countries, and a full quarter of all foreign residents are Chinese citizens. Here are the main nationalities represented from each continent (December 2021 numbers).


  • Asia (84.0% of immigrants)

    • China: 716,606 (30.9% of Asians, 26.0% of immigrants)

    • Vietnam: 432,934 (18.7% of Asians, 15.7% of immigrants)

    • South Korea: 409,855 (17.7% of Asians, 14.8% of immigrants)

    • Philippines: 276,615 (11.9% of Asians, 10.0% of immigrants)

  • South America (9.7% of immigrants)

    • Brazil: 204,879 (76.3% of South Americans, 7.4% of immigrants)

    • Peru: 48,291 (18.0% of South Americans, 1.8% of immigrants)

  • Europe (2.6% of immigrants)

    • England: 16,163 (22.7% of Europeans, 0.6% of immigrants)

    • France: 11,319 (15.9% of Europeans, 0.4% of immigrants)

  • North America (2.5% of immigrants)

    • United States: 54,162 (77.8% of North Americans, 2.0% of immigrants)

    • Canada: 9,848 (14.1% of North Americans, 0.4% of immigrants)

  • Africa (0.7% of immigrants)

    • Nigeria: 3,347 (18.1% of Africans, 0.1% of immigrants)

    • Ghana: 2,543 (13.8% of Africans, 0.1% of immigrants)

  • Oceania (0.5% of immigrants)

    • Australia: 8,960 (70.0% of Oceanians, 0.3% of immigrants)

    • New Zealand: 3,160 (25.0% of Oceanians, 0.1% of immigrants)


These numbers make sense, given Japan’s proximity to Asia, although I thought the Oceanian numbers would have been higher. Here are top twenty feeders in terms of foreign residency.

#

Country

Residents in Japan

1

China

716,606

2

Vietnam

432,934

3

South Korea

409,855

4

Philippines

276,615

5

Brazil

204,879

6

Nepal

97,109

7

Indonesia

59,820

8

America

54,162

9

Taiwan

51,191

10

Thailand

50,324

11

Peru

48,291

12

Myanmar

37,246

13

India

36,058

14

Sri Lanka

28,986

15

Korea

26,312

16

Pakistan

19,120

17

Bangladesh

17,538

18

England

16,163

19

Cambodia

14,736

20

Mongolia

12,425

Eight of the top ten sources for immigrants to Japan are in Asia. You do see a lot of Nepalese restaurants in Japan, but I didn’t realize that the Nepali community outnumbered Indians by nearly three to one!


And then there’s the double-Korea issue. South Korean (韓国) immigrants take third place, but there’s also that line for “Korea” (朝鮮) at Number 15. It took a bit of digging, but I discovered that the 26,000+ members of that second Korean line are known as “Koreans in Japan” (在日韓国人), Koreans who came to Japan before the end of World War II, or their descendants. (This is a separate designation from the quarter-million residents who hold “Special Permanent Resident” privileges, a group whose members straddle the South Korean, Korean, and Taiwan categories from the list above.) The circumstances of their arrival in Japan are, well, complicated, too complicated for an article on demographics. But one thing is for certain from the Statistics Bureau’s perspective: None of them are (officially) North Korean.


In fact, if you scan through the country-of-origin statistics for foreign residents, North Korea (北朝鮮) doesn’t appear at all, even though an article I found from several years ago said that there were at least 180 expats from North Korea residing legally in Japan. Apparently, they are slotted in with the “Koreans of Japan,” or in the more mysterious group of “No Country of Origin” (無国籍), a classification with just over 500 individuals.


Japan’s 2.75 million foreign residents are, by definition, distinct from the native citizenry, but 2% of anything is bound to have an impact. As Japan’s population continues to shrink, the proportion of foreign residents—and new Japanese citizens of foreign ancestry—will expand even more. One study out of Europe estimated that by 2040, foreign visa-holding residents will comprise 3.8% of Japan’s total population. Therefore, it is important to understand the dynamics of these foreign communities, and of how Japan’s citizens and immigrants can best engage with each other for their mutual benefit.


[Image Credits: Toby Oxborrow]

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