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Japan Immigration

One in ten Tokyoites in their 20s are now foreigners

Japan's population keeps shrinking, boosting the need for workers

About 42,000 foreigners live in Tokyo's Shinjuku area. (Photo by Wataru Ito)

TOKYO -- Among 20-somethings living in Japan's capital, one out of 10 are foreign-born, reflecting the rapidly shifting profile of the country's working population.

Throughout Japan, foreigners in their 20s numbered 748,000 at the beginning of the year, or 5.8% of the total, the government reported Wednesday. The figures exclude foreign nationals that are here for short stays, and typically include those with residency credentials staying for over three months.

In all, the country's population of non-Japanese residents grew 7.5% to a record 2,497,000 people. Many of them live in Tokyo, with the largest portion -- around 42,000 -- housed in the city's Shinjuku ward.

At 3 p.m. on weekdays, Shinjuku's government offices are jam-packed with people filling out moving notices and other forms. Over half of those waiting in line are young people of non-Japanese descent, and a mixture of English, Chinese and other languages fills the air. More than 40% of 20-year-olds living in Shinjuku are foreigners.

While Shinjuku's native-born residents in their 20s shrank 7% over five years, the number of foreigners in the ward soared by 48%. One convenience store near JR Shinjuku Station has hired a 31-year-old Chinese woman. "The store wouldn't run if I'm away from my shift," she said.

"Retail and other sectors suffering from a worker shortage compensate with foreign labor," explained Tomoya Suzuki of NLI Research Institute. Seven-Eleven Japan, the convenience store chain of Seven & I Holdings, has about 35,000 foreign nationals on its payroll, equivalent to 7% of the total head count.

The growth of foreigners is uniform across all Japanese prefectures except for Nagasaki. Yubari, a city in Hokkaido, experienced the largest percentage influx of non-Japanese residents. A ski resort operator there is hiring more foreign employees to help international tourists.

The municipality with the largest concentration of foreigners can also be found in Hokkaido. The village of Shimukappu hosts Club Med Tomamu Hokkaido, which operator Hoshino Resorts opened last year. Since the ski resort is popular with visitors from the U.S. and Europe, many of the ski instructors and other staff are foreign-born as well.

Japan's labor ministry estimates that there were about 1.28 million foreign workers in the country at the end of October. Chinese accounted for 30% of the total, though there has been a sharp rise in Vietnamese and Nepalese laborers.

In Oizumi, a town in Gunma Prefecture, 18% of the residents were born overseas. Previously, over 80% of the newcomers hailed from South America, but lately Nepalese and other Asians are growing in number.

Oizumi says that factories in the area are severely hurting for workers, and that the needs of the foreign residents appear to align with those of businesses.

Over the years, the Japanese government has taken pains to attract international talent with high-level skill sets in finance and other areas. Recently, however, officials have also been quietly opening the door to unskilled labor. New work permits slated to be established next April will become available to foreign workers in five labor-starved sectors, including construction, agriculture and nurse care. The goal is to take in over 500,000 by 2025.

Some in Japan are concerned that the surge of nonnatives could present problems on the public-safety front. "It is imperative to not isolate them, help them learn Japanese and integrate them into society," said a government official.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Wednesday that discussions between relevant cabinet members concerning the necessary legal framework for expanding the intake of foreign workers will take place this month at the soonest.

"The government as a whole will deliberate on areas such as the recipient industries and Japanese education," Suga said.  

Aikawa, a Kanagawa Prefecture town that is home to 2,500 foreigners, has established special Japanese courses at the elementary and middle-school levels to support children who are not fluent in the language.

Meanwhile, Japan's population as a whole has shrunk for the ninth year in a row. As of Jan. 1, there were 125,209,603 inhabitants -- 374,055 less than a year earlier and the largest decline since relevant data started being kept in 1968. The working-age population between 15 and 64 years of age fell below 60% for the first time ever.

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