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Japanese citizens living abroad
Written by Maciamo on 4th July 2005 (edited on 24th September 2005)

This article was written based on the data of the Japan Statistics Bureau of Japanese Living Abroad by Country, compared with those of the Registered Foreigners in Japan by Nationality.

Japan & Western countries

In 2002, the number of Westerners living in Japan was as follow (note that the data of Russia is not included in "Europe" in this article):

  • 60,000 North Americans (USA + Canada)

    • 49,000 Europeans
    • 14,000 Australians and New Zealanders
    • Total : 123,000 Westerners in Japan

    The number of Japanese living in Western countries was :

    • 359,000 in North America (including 127,000 permanent residents, i.e. 35% of the total)
    • 154,000 in Europe (including 32,000 permanent residents, i.e. 25%)
    • 57,000 in Australia and New Zealand (incl. 24,000 permanent residents, i.e. 42%)
    • Total : 570,000 Japanese in Western countries

    The number of Japanese living in Western countries was therefore disproportionately high compared to the number of Westerners living in Japan. In other words, there were 6x as many Japanese living in the USA and Canada than Canadians and US citizens living in Japan; 3x as many Japanese living in Europe than Europeans in Japan; 4x as many Japanese living in Australia or New Zealand than the contrary.

    What is more, Japan's population (127 million) is only about 40% that of North America (325 million), or 25% that of Europe (510 million). To put it differently, Europe being 4x more populous, the proportional migration balance would only be kept if there were 4x more Europeans in Japan than the reverse. Considering this balance adjusted to the country's population, there are 12x more Japanese in Europe than the reverse and 15x more Japanese in the US than the reverse. Only the balance between Australia and Japan comes closer (with proportionally 1.5x more Australians in Japan) due to to Australia small population of 18 million.

    All in all, there are about 850 million Westerners (in the above-mentioned countries) and 125 million Japanese (without counting the foreigners in Japan), so 6.8x more Westerners. Yet, there are 4.6x more Japanese living in the West than the opposite. As a result, there are proportionally 31.3x more Japanese living in the West than Westerners in Japan.

    The migration balance is reversed for non-Western countries, as we will now see.

    Japan & Non-Western countries

    In 2002, there were 1,371,000 Asians living in Japan, but only 193,000 Japanese living in Asia. Looking at direct neighbours, there were 625,000 Koreans and 424,000 Chinese living in Japan, but only 18,000 Japanese in Korea (35x less !) and 64,000 Japanese in China (6.5x less). It is most surprising that only 24 Japanese were permanent residents in Korea and less than 1000 in China.

    The relation with Africa is more balanced, although inter-migration is virtually inexistent - only 9,000 Africans live in Japan, and 6,000 Japanese live in Africa.

    It is highly probable that most of the Japanese living in Asia are there for business or studies, considering that at least 90% of them are not there on permanent visas with working visa, student visa or else. The proportion of Japanese expats with permanent residency in Asian countries is remarkably low : 0.1% in South Korea, 1.5% in China, 3.9% in Taiwan, 5% in Singapore, 6% in Malaysia, 9% in India and 10% in Indonesia.

    On the other hand, it is obvious that the vast majority of people from developping countries living in Japan are there for economic reasons - even the Nikkei (people of Japanese descent) returnees from South America.

    The exception might be the Koreans, most of whom were actually born and raised in Japan, as a result of their parents or grandparents being brought to Japan during WWII. The number of Koreans in Japan was actually higher in 1980 than in 2005. In comparison, there were now 10x more Chinese or 20x more Filipinos in Japan in 2005 that in 1980.

    In 1980, 90% of the Asians (including Middle Easterners and South Asians) living in Japan were Koreans. In 2003 they only make up 40% of the total.

    Where do Japanese permanent expartriates decide to live ?

    It is particularily interesting to compare the number of permanent residents around the world for the following reasons.

    It is not easy to obtain a permanent visa in most countries, especially without being married. Having one shows some kind of determination of the person to stay in the country. The number of permanent residents also doesn't take into account diplomats (who only get a diplomatic visa for the length of their mission), and students or business people who only stay in the country for a few months or years. Permanent residents are people whose new home is really the country where they live, usually because they like it better than their birth country.

    Out of 874,000 Japanese living abroad, 286,000 are permanent expatriates.

    South America is a bit special, as we could suppose that the 95,000 Japanese living there are mostly elderly people who went there after WWII for economic reasons. It is easy to guess that from the statistics. First of all, 95% of them are permanent residents. But more importantly, their number has been steadily decreasing since 1975, when they were 184,000.

    There are only 490 permanent Japanese residents in Africa. Too small a number to even consider...

    So we are left with 195,000 permanent residents in North America, Europe, Asia and Oceania. This is where it gets interesting, because only 8,660 of them have chosen to live in Asia, not just the world's largest and most populous continent, but also the one Japan belongs to. Not less surprisingly, the highest number of permanent expats in Asia is to be found in the Philippines (1,576 people); probably some retired Japanese, or some men having married into a Filipino family.

    Almost all the other permanent expats live in Western countries, apart from about 5,000 people in Mexico, Central America & Caribbean, and tiny paradise islands of Oceania.

    181,000 Japanese people residing permanently the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and NZ; that's 93% of the permanent Japanese residents in the whole world, if we ommit the elderly economic migrants of South America.

    What motivates most Japanese expatriates to live in Western countries ?

    One doesn't move to a foreign country, where people speak a different language, think and work differently, just on a whim. Usually such a migration happens for economic reasons, but it's hard to believe in Japan's case. It is doubtful that Western countries have in average better job opportunities or cheaper housing than Japan. Unemployment is relatively low in Japan and salaries particularily high, especially in Tokyo. Both land and houses can be quite cheap in the Japanese countryside, or most cities outside the Tokyo area. It would certainly be easier for a Tokyoite to move to another city or further into the suburbs if they wanted a bigger home. In any case, Tokyoites are only a fraction of the Japanese population.

    Better social security may be a factor to move to Western Europe (free health care and generous unemployment benefits), but certainly not in the USA. Yet, the USA remains the favourite country of emigration of the Japanese.

    Could it then be for cultural or societal reasons that they choose to migrate ? A number of Japanese who have lived in Western countries say that life in Japan can be especially stressful because of rigid and demanding social conventions and an overly conservative system (Japan has been ruled by conservative parties almost continuously since the end of the US occupation). Rather than a desire to live in a particular country, those Japanese emigrants may just have an urge to leave Japan, and seek a better quality of life somewhere else. And it seems that hundreds of thousands of Japanese found it, given the high percentage of permanent Japanese residents in Western countries.

    It also makes sense that more Japanese should be attracted to English-speaking countries, as for most of them English is the only foreign language they have had the opportunity to study at school. Indeed, out of 181,000 Japanese living on a permanent basis in Western countries, 158,000 (87% of them) have chosen English-speaking countries. Even among non-permanent residents, 301,000 live in the English-speaking world, against 82,000 in European countries outside the UK and Ireland. That is still 79% of the total. We could thus say that Japanese emigrants are predominantly attracted to English-speaking countries in the Western world. France and Switerland also have proportionally high number of Japanese residents.

    Nikkei Japanese : second- and third-generation emigrants

    Japanese emigration to North America, South America and Oceania commenced soon after the beginning of the Meiji Era in 1868. In 1885, the Japanese government started offering land and loans for those who accepted to settle abroad as part of an official project to cut down unemployment and food shortages. As a result, 780,000 Japanese moved overseas before World War II. In the aftermath of the war, another 260,000 Japanese citizens looked for a new home abroad.

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