On the rise: Foreign Workers in Japan

On the rise: Foreign Workers in Japan

Have you ever wondered how foreigners who are working in Japan got here and what they are doing now? Did you know that only 10% of all the foreigners living in Japan are here on a working visa?
Let’s find out more about the foreign workers in Japan by looking at the data on foreign workers published by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare in 2018!

How many foreigners are working in Japan?

In 2017 there were 1.278.670 foreigners working in Japan. This equals roughly 1% of the Japanese population or 10% of the population living in Tokyo. Not bad for a country that has a history of closing itself off and still where newcomers face significant language and cultural hurdles. It is downright impressive when you consider that the number of employed foreigners went up by 18% percent compared to the 1.083.769 foreign employees in 2016.

Reasons for this increase are two-fold.
First, more foreigners are entering the Japanese job market. Especially, foreigners working in highly skilled positions and the number of exchange students are on the rise. Also, more permanent residents than ever are taking up work.
Secondly, the Japanese government states that this trend is facilitated by an improvement of the general employment situation.

Considering that in total 2.471.458 foreigners are residing in Japan, the above number means that only around half of all foreign residents are actually working. This makes you wonder what the other half does (being retired, or a housewife, working freelance or receiving income from abroad …) but let’s take a closer look at those foreigners with jobs in Japan.

Where are they from?

372.263 Chinese employees make up the biggest group of the foreign workforce at almost 30%. They are followed by Vietnamese, whose numbers have skyrocketed in recent years and Filipinos.
In total, more than 60% of the foreigners working in Japan come from East and South-East Asia.

nationality of foreign workforce

Brazil, once the goal for many Japanese emigrants, now also features prominently with almost 120.000 Brazilians currently living in Japan. Other South American and African nationals are too small in numbers to feature in the data on their own and are summarized under “others”.

The data provided by the ministry groups most western countries together in one category called “G7/8 plus Australia, New Zealand,” including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia. Even when counting everyone from these countries, they still only add up to 5.8% of all foreigners residing in Japan. Among these western nationals, North Americans are by far the most numerous.

What about their age?

Most foreigners who are coming to live in Japan are in their 20s. It makes sense if you consider that whether as students, interns or on a working holiday visa, a broad variety of options are available for the younger generations.
These programs and visas are made available to foster exchange of people and knowledge. Nevertheless, they are intended to be a limited time experience for participants. So many leave again after their stay is over.

Even those who find work here and stay long-term may eventually leave for personal reasons. Two years (urban legend) is supposedly the turning point for most. If you stay longer, chances are you have found a new home here in Japan.

What visa type?

Nationality and age are nice to know, but how do they manage to live in Japan? Looking at the visa status there are 3 main routes foreigners can take to work in Japan.

Visa types

Eternal foreigner

One in three working foreigners is living in Japan under the status of 身分みぶんもとづく在留資格ざいりゅうしかく which means they are permanent residents, or someone’s wife or child. Actually, over 50% of all foreigners in Japan are living here under this status.

Learning youngster

The second largest group is 資格外活動しかくがいかつどう. This category includes all people who do not have a working visa but can work under certain condition. If you wonder who that might be – 87% are exchange students! That means that 20.3% of the foreign workforce in Japan are students working part-time. Almost as many workers are coming to Japan as 技能実習ぎのうじっしゅう. These are technical interns, working full-time for training purposes and who are employed at Japanese companies for a maximum of 2 years.

Working adult

Are you thinking about working full-time in Japan? Then you are aiming for the remaining 20.7%. If you come to Japan on a working visa you will be joining the ranks of these 238.412 individuals.

Where do foreigners work?

Foreign workers are where the work is. With Tokyo offering the most available jobs in the country, that’s where you will find them. 27.8% of companies employing foreigners are there. Accordingly, one in three foreigners finds work in the capital. The number rises to almost 50% if you include the surrounding prefectures Saitama, Kanagawa, and Chiba.

Employment location

With some distance, other hot spots are Aichi prefecture (Nagoya), home to 10% of all foreign workers and Osaka with 6.6%. In all other prefectures, the number of working foreigners is small, with less than 20.000 in each region.

In which industries are foreigners working?

In total 194.595 companies hire foreigners in Japan. The number of companies employing foreigners is increasing every year.

The industries hiring the most foreigners are:

  1. Manufacturing (30.2%)
  2. Service Industry (14.8%)
  3. Wholesale/Retail (13.0%)
  4. Hotels and Restaurants (12.3%)

Employment by Industry

There is also a constant need for skilled people in Education and in Telecommunications. For instance proficiency in English is in demand to staff the many English language schools in Japan. Since no professional background is required, the work as English teacher is a popular choice, especially for North Americans and Europeans.

In Manufacturing, Service, and Education the number of employees in percent outranks the percentage of hiring companies in this industry. This means that these industries often hire multiple foreigners. On the other hand, in Construction, Wholesale and “Others,” many of the companies hire rather few, sometimes only 1-2 foreigners.

While the demand is large, most jobs in Manufacturing, the Service Industry, and Construction are not available for people here on a working visa. Jobs that are considered to be “unskilled labor” can only be done by foreigners working part-time or those living here on a family visa or as permanent residents. That restriction is why most manufacturing jobs are filled by people from South America and Asia who have family ties in Japan.

Similar to the case of “westerners” being aggregated into one category earlier, 16.1% of all foreign employees are summarized in the category “other”. Here you will find all the “salary-men” and “OL (office ladies)” and most other jobs outside of service, wholesale, and production. In short, for most planning to get a regular working visa, this data is not detailed enough.

Small company? Big company?

57.7% of places that hire foreigners are small companies with less than 30 employees. With increasing company size, you will find less and less places looking to hire. While it is true that many foreigners find work in smaller companies, this data does not mean that you will have a hard time finding a job at a big company, if that is what you want.

Remember that the BIG companies simply can offer that much more positions. Companies with more than 500 employees make up only 4.1% of places that are hiring, but they employ 20.5% of the foreign workforce.
On the opposite side, one in three foreigners chooses to work for small companies with less than 30 employees.

Company size

Growing opportunities

This was a lot of data. It is clear, that Japan is increasing opportunities for foreigners to find work in the country. Many people wanting to live in Japan are making use of these developments.
Especially now, with the 2020 Summer Olympics being around the corner, Japan promotes not only tourism in the country, but is also creating new opportunities to allow foreigners to work here.

One of these initiatives includes a visa, launched in summer of 2018, that allows 4th generation Japanese foreigners, to work in Japan. With more and more foreign employees in all fields and the changing Japanese working culture, it will be interesting to see how Japan will develop over the next few years.

I hope that by looking at what foreigners in Japan are doing, you will get a better idea of what your options are and how to make the most of your stay.

Foreigners in Tokyo

To recap:

  • ■ More and more foreigners are working in Japan.
  • ■ Despite the rising numbers of foreigners, full-time employment is still comparatively uncommon.
  • ■ The best chances to come and experience Japan are in your 20s as student or intern.
  • ■ You are most likely to find a job are in Tokyo, but it is also the most competitive region.
  • ■ Remember to research in advance which jobs are available to you with your skills and Japanese language ability.

What do you want to do in Japan? How do you think the employment situation for foreigners in Japan will change in the future?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

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After traveling around for a while, I found my home in Tokyo. Now working in Shinjuku and discovering something new about Japan every day.