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The Impact of the Recent Economic Crisis on Unemployment Among Immigrants in Japan


This study explores how the contexts of immigrant reception were related to unemployment of immigrants in Japan during the global economic crisis in the 2000s. Little is known concerning what shaped unemployment of immigrants in institutional settings outside of North American and European countries during the financial crisis. This study focuses specifically on unskilled immigrants because this type of migrant worker has been highly vulnerable to economic cycles. We focused on Nikkeijin immigrants from Brazil and Peru and Asian immigrants from China, Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam. We explored how immigrants’ unemployment in Japan was linked to immigration control policies, integration programs for refugees, labor market structures, and conditions of social capital. Empirical findings demonstrate that the trainee program strongly determined whether immigrants could remain in Japan during the unemployment period and that a significant difference in unemployment existed between Brazilian and Peruvian immigrants in Japan. Whereas ties with kin and co-ethnic friends did not help immigrants avoid unemployment, ties with Japanese spouses hindered unemployment among male immigrants, although this was not the case for female immigrants with Japanese spouses. Hence, immigrant unemployment depends considerably on how immigrants have been received in Japan. Conversely, we did not find any evidence of a positive role of the state government in mitigating immigrants’ unemployment in this study. Instead, the existing institutional context of immigrants’ reception in Japan has worsened the socioeconomic conditions of immigrants and strengthened their social marginalization, reflecting the lack of public debate regarding—and the lack of institutional support for—the integration of immigrants into the mainstream society.

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  1. In this study, immigrants are defined as foreign-born who emigrated from their countries of origin to other countries of destination.

  2. An ethnic community is a community in which immigrants of the same ethnic origin are concentrated geographically in a specific place; the community provides various types of assistance, information, and resources for co-ethnic members.

  3. In this study, social capital is defined as the ability of actors to secure benefits by virtue of their membership in social networks or other social structures (Portes 1998).

  4. Because we focus on immigrants who migrated from other countries of origin, we do not observe the situation of “old comers,” descendants of former colonial subjects who consist mainly of Korean and Chinese individuals who have the status of special permanent residency in Japan. This is because most descendants of former colonial subjects are the third or the fourth generation of Korean or Chinese immigrants and because their socioeconomic situation appears to differ greatly from that of newly arrived immigrants addressed in this study.

  5. Another reason for establishing the long-term residence visa is strongly related to granting a status of special permanent residence to Korean residents, descendants of former colonial subjects. To pass the revised immigration law granting preferential treatment to Korean residents, the Ministry of Justice needed to prevent conservative politicians from criticizing this revision severely. As a result of political compromise, Ministry of Justice established a long-term residence status and granted preferential treatment to descendants of Japanese emigrants (Kajita et al. 2005; Surak 2008).

  6. The observation of prejudice and discrimination against Latin American Nikkeijin immigrants in Japan might be inconsistent with other studies regarding Japanese perceptions of foreign countries, which reported that Japanese perceived Latin American countries as more favorable than China and South Korea (Tanabe 2008). However, this result may not necessarily reflect the actual attitude of Japanese toward “immigrants living in Japan” because the study focused on how people perceive foreign countries and because the negative attitudes toward Chinese and Koreans are deeply embedded in the territorial disputes and conflicts between Japan and the two neighboring countries. When comparing the share of intermarried couples across these countries, more Japanese are married to Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos than Brazilians and Peruvians, as shown in the 2010 Japanese census. Hence, the social distance between Japanese and Latin American immigrants appears to be greater than that between Japanese and Chinese and Korean immigrants.

  7. Differences in transnationalism between Brazilians and Peruvians originate partly from their sense of belonging and identities with their countries of origin. Japanese Brazilians in Japan developed their nationalistic sentiments as they prolonged their stay in Japan and experienced discrimination. The strengthened national identity would encourage some Brazilians to maintain their ties with Brazil and the myth of return to their sending country (Tsuda 2003). Conversely, Japanese Peruvians in Japan stressed their Nikkei identity instead of their “Peruvian-ness” to distinguish themselves from other non-Japanese Peruvians; furthermore, Japanese Peruvians are characterized by their lack of national identity partly because of negative stereotypes against Peruvians in Japan as criminals and illegal immigrants who entered Japan with fraudulent documents of Japanese descent and also because the Peruvian government and society discriminated severely against Japanese immigrants in Peru over several decades (Masterson and Classen 2004; Takenaka 2003).

  8. In the past, distinctions were made between trainees and technical interns in this system. In the first year, because trainees were not legally recognized as workers, they were neither covered nor protected by the labor laws. After 1 year and upon passing skill tests, trainees became interns and were legally protected by the labor laws. This system allowed employers to pay trainees less than the minimum wage. The “trainee” category was abolished from this system in 2010, and under the new system, migrants become interns at the beginning of their stay in Japan (Belanger et al. 2011).

  9. In 2011, the immigration bureau published a guideline for the technical interns program that stated that it is desirable for placement agencies to find interns new employment when interns are dismissed or firms go bankrupt. However, given the restriction of jobs engaged in by interns, it is very difficult for placement agencies to find a new job during a recession. In addition, interns are not allowed to seek a new job by themselves. In many cases, they must thus return to their country of origin (Kamibayashi 2013, 2015).

  10. Among Pakistanis in Japan, a quarter were self-employed, and more than 80 % were married with Japanese wives, according to the 2000 Japanese census.

  11. In this paper, for instance, the professional jobs that immigrants hold include jobs in the information technology, engineering jobs in industrial production, and marketing and sales promotion in different countries, whereas typical skilled and unskilled jobs are assumed to be manual jobs at production sites. Please note that the occupational classification of the Japanese census does not distinguish between skilled and unskilled jobs.

  12. According to a 2009 survey of immigrants in Shizuoka Prefecture, more than half of Brazilian and Peruvian workers were employed as agency workers even during the economic crisis, whereas 35 % of Filipinos and less than 10 % of Chinese, South Koreans, Indonesians, and Vietnamese were employed as agency workers.

  13. The results of the 2009 survey for immigrants in Shizuoka showed that only 3 % of Chinese workers were self-employed, after excluding descendants of former colonial subjects.

  14. Several Japanese local governments with a substantial concentration of immigrants have organized and conducted surveys of these immigrants. However, migrants’ response rates have generally been much lower than those of Japanese nationals, largely because many immigrants in Japan cannot afford to take the time to respond given their lower earnings and intense work schedules (Takenoshita et al. 2014).

  15. Nevertheless, we should be cautious of the fact that some who lost a job may quit seeking new employment and exit from the labor market. Accordingly, by using a logistic regression model, we also examined the effects of independent variables used in the current study of unemployment on joblessness, including the unemployed and those who were out of the labor force. Finally, we did not find any substantial differences in the results between unemployment and joblessness.

  16. Respondents aged 65 or older were also excluded from the data set because whether they are unemployed or out of the labor force when losing a job differs greatly between old and young workers.

  17. The status of refugee was created as a variable based on the information on the status of residence among respondents. Unfortunately, there was no status of residence that directly represents a refugee in Japan. Refugees have been granted long-term residence status, and a number of refugees have shifted to a permanent residence status. Because most Vietnamese in Japan consist of refugees and trainees or interns, it is reasonable to assume that Vietnamese in Japan with a status of long-term or permanent residence would be refugees.

  18. According to the statistics on foreign registration records, when the population in each group in 2007 was set to 100, the number of Brazilian immigrants who remained in Japan declined to 84 in 2009, whereas the figure for Peruvian immigrants was 96.

  19. A similar finding was also shown in another work (Takenoshita 2013).

  20. When excluding the length of years in Japan from model 4, it was observed that immigrants who spoke Japanese well were less likely to become unemployed because better Japanese speakers tended to live in Japan for many years.

  21. Several studies have suggested that the greater vulnerability of immigrants to economic cycles originated from the overrepresentation of immigrants in sectors highly sensitive to economic fluctuations, such as the construction, finance, and automobile manufacturing industries (OECD 2010). This study was unable to estimate the difference in unemployment across industrial sectors because of a lack of information on job characteristics before unemployment. Another study using the 2009 survey data for immigrants in Shizuoka suggested that Brazilian immigrants who were employed in the automobile or electronic appliances manufacturing industries were more likely to become unemployed than those employed in other industries because these industries were highly export-oriented and demand for the products in these industries shrank rapidly during the financial crisis (Takenoshita 2014).

  22. Another reason for this result may be related to the fact that the two indicators of social capital used in this study did not directly measure the existence of ties with kin and co-ethnic friends.

  23. After adding the interaction term between gender and having a Japanese spouse, the difference in unemployment between South Koreans and Vietnamese became significant. We suppose that the existence of male immigrants married with native Japanese may depress the unemployment difference between these two groups.


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We thank two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. We are grateful to Shizuoka Prefectural Government for allowing us to use the survey data for immigrants in Shizuoka Prefecture. This study has been funded by Japan Society for Promotion of Science (Grant ID: 24530619, 15K03822).

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Correspondence to Hirohisa Takenoshita.

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Takenoshita, H. The Impact of the Recent Economic Crisis on Unemployment Among Immigrants in Japan. Int. Migration & Integration 18, 563–585 (2017).

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  • Unemployment
  • Immigrants in Japan
  • The global financial crisis
  • Institutional arrangements