TOKYO -- Japan saw net immigration rise for a sixth straight year to a record high in the year through Oct. 1, adding to a relatively youthful foreign population that is helping the country cope with a chronic labor shortage.
The number of immigrants to Japan minus the number of people leaving the country came to 165,000, government data released Friday shows. Resident foreigners totaled 2.22 million -- an all-time high and 1.76% of the population.
This came even as the overall population shrank for an eighth straight year. The 0.21% decline to 126.44 million was the largest percentage drop registered since Japan began collecting data in 1950. Deaths exceeded births for a 12th consecutive year. The share of people aged 70 or older topped 20% for the first time, while the proportion of 15-to-64-year-olds hit 59.7%, the lowest on record.
In contrast, 85% of foreigners residing in Japan are between the ages of 15 and 64, and more than half -- 1.15 million -- are in their 20s and 30s, considered prime working years.
The data showed foreigners concentrated mostly in urban areas, which have more employers and schools. Tokyo topped the list with 482,000, up 31,000 from a year earlier. Aichi Prefecture, home to the city of Nagoya and such companies as Toyota Motor, ranked second at 214,000. The Tokyo-adjacent prefectures of Kanagawa and Saitama, along with Osaka, rounded out the top five, which accounted for 54% of the total.
Labor ministry data released in January showed the number of foreign workers in Japan rising by 181,000 on the year to a record 1.46 million at the end of October, with 29.7% of these in the manufacturing sector. China and Vietnam were the two top countries of origin, accounting for 389,000 and 316,000, respectively.
The upward trend looks set to accelerate after revised immigration legislation took effect April 1, creating a new visa status for workers in particularly short-handed sectors.
Some businesses have high hopes for the change.
Shipbuilder Japan Marine United has brought on about 500 Vietnamese workers under the existing technical trainee program and on "designated activities" visas for such tasks as welding and applying coatings.
While it has not hired any foreigners via the new program, as the process takes time, a representative said the company intends to "use it effectively to suit our operations." It hopes that the extendable visas will enable it to assign foreign workers to jobs that require highly developed skills.
The nursing care industry has started bringing in foreign technical trainees on a trial basis with an eye toward eventually hiring them through the new program. Elder care company Tsukui took on 11 Vietnamese interns this spring and plans to begin training them at a nursing home in June.
Competitors including Solasto and Sompo Holdings unit Sompo Care are now accepting technical trainees as well. "In 10 years, we could enter an era where foreign workers' abilities are put to use," the head of a major industry player said.