Organized Panel Session
The Heisei Era officially began on January 8, 1989. Before the end of that same year, the Japanese Diet passed the revision to the Immigration Reform and Refugee Recognition Act. That revision formalized and expanded the two visa categories that are most associated with Japanese immigration policy today: the “long term residency” visa, through which many South American-Japanese “Nikkeijin” have immigrated to Japan, and the trainee and technical internship visa, through which unskilled workers from East and Southeast Asia have come to Japan.
Those new visa categories were both attempts to address the same problem: firms in late Showa Japan were facing severe labor shortages, particularly of unskilled labor, but the Japanese government had no appetite for admission of foreign unskilled laborers. Thus, the state found a way to adopt policies with other formal purposes (reuniting co-ethnics, in the case of the “long term residency” visa, and international development, in the case of the trainee and technical internship program), which also happened to admit unskilled laborers.
In this paper, I argue that the implementation of these new visa categories had a surprising impact on elite thought about the relationship between ethnicity and citizenship in Heisei Japan. Because Nikkeijin were widely viewed as having trouble integrating into Japanese society, many Japanese elites—even conservative elites—came to question the blood-based roots of Japanese national identity. I support this argument with evidence drawn from the rhetoric of politicians, bureaucrats, and other elite discourse on foreign residents in Japan.