TOKYO -- Japan's influx of overseas workers is spreading to rural communities across the country, with foreign nationals accounting for at least 10% of the population in 10 municipalities last year, up from just four in 2013, government data shows.
Topping the list with a 22.7% share was the village of Shimukappu in central Hokkaido, home to the Tomamu ski resort. Tomamu's popularity with overseas tourists has fueled demand for foreign workers at hotels and other facilities. The 10 municipalities nationwide included two other Hokkaido towns, both near the capital city of Sapporo.
Just five years earlier, Hokkaido had no towns over the 10% mark. While Shimukappu still hosted the highest percentage of foreign residents in Hokkaido, the figure then stood at less than 5%.
Areas with manufacturing bases are experiencing similar shifts in their population. The share of non-Japanese residents in the Gunma Prefecture town of Oizumi, where companies such as Subaru and Ajinomoto have production facilities, reached 18.1% last year.
These and other outlying municipalities are reaping the benefits of Japan's moves to loosen restrictions on foreign workers, offsetting the aging populations as well as the migration to cities that have decimated much of rural Japan. Some towns have even bucked the trend of population decline and recorded growth thanks to a rise in foreign residents.
The list of towns with large non-Japanese populations has shifted over the years, reflecting the changing nature of the work that foreigners do in Japan. It had included many municipalities such as Tokyo's Minato Ward with high concentrations of executives at financial institutions and big multinational companies, but rural towns now make up a larger share.
And while immigrants once came primarily from neighboring countries such as China and South Korea, the government has noted a sharp increase in emigration from Vietnam and Nepal.
Whether the rise in migration is just a blip or becomes sustainable remains to be seen. Tourism and manufacturing are economically sensitive sectors, and a downturn could dampen hiring. Though the infusion of fresh blood has helped revitalize some towns, others are grappling with friction between new and longtime residents.