At first glance there is little sign that Nishi-Kasai is different to any other Tokyo suburb. It’s a neat, if unremarkable, commuter town. Like similar areas, it grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s with an influx of migrant workers from the countryside.

But more recently, Nishi-Kasai has seen a different kind of immigration. Over 1,000 Indians have come to live here and in the surrounding area and brought a bit of home with them. Now there are Indian stores, authentic Indian restaurants and Indian schools, even Indian TV, courtesy of the Internet.

“If you look at Nishi-Kasai from an Indian perspective it has changed a lot in the last few years,” says local resident and software IT worker Manish Prabhune. “It feels like India now.” No wonder Nishi-Kasai is now known as “Indiatown.”

Could Nishi-Kasai be a template for future Japan? The birthrate in Japan is at an all-time low, far below the rate needed to maintain the population. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research has predicted that Japan could lose 20 million people by 2050. If that isn’t bad enough, Japan also has one of the most rapidly graying populations in the world. Four out of 10 Japanese could be over the age of 60 by the middle of this century, and there may not be enough people of working age to support them. Many people argue that mass immigration is the only way to defuse a ticking demographic time-bomb.

But communities like Nishi-Kasai are still a rarity. Unlike in most other developed nations, the number of foreign residents in Japan is extremely low — just over 2 million people or 1.56 percent of the population. By way of comparison, in the U.S., foreign-born residents make up almost 12 percent of the population, and in the U.K. around 8 percent.

Immigration has generally been a seen as a last resort in the face of chronic labor shortages. In the early 1990s, Japan began issuing visas to South Americans of Japanese ancestry to meet a shortage of manual labors. Brazilians, many of who work in automobile plants in central Japan, are now Japan’s third largest ethnic minority after Koreans and Chinese.

In 2000, visa rules were changed to help attract skilled workers to come to Japan. The number of “engineer” visas increased 10 times between 1995 and 2005, many given to workers from India’s booming IT sector. The Indian population in Japan has more than doubled since 2000. “The time it took to get visas was reduced from 6 months to a few days,” says Manish Prabhune. “If a customer tells me tomorrow that they want two engineers from India, I can fly them out in a week.”

But business leaders say that the foreign skilled workers currently in Japan meet just a fraction of Japanese industry’s needs. Keidanren (The Japan Business Federation) is calling for a radical overhaul of Japan’s immigration policy. Last year, a policy statement advocated the creation of a “multicultural” society through a raft of measures to draw foreign in workers. It also criticized current government policy for “lacking direction” and called for an independent government body to coordinate a proactive immigration policy.

Inoue Hiroshi, a specialist in foreign labor issues at Keidanren argues that the future of Japanese industry lies in high-tech manufacture and innovation. “Foreign workers can be a stimulus to Japanese business and society. They can bring new ideas to Japan.”

Another proponent of increased immigration is Sakanaka Hidenori, a recently retired bureaucrat with 30 years experience in the Ministry of Justice. Shortly before retiring as the head of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, Sakanaka published “Immigration Battle Diary,” an account of his career and a hard look at the future of Japan.

He pictures the impending population crisis as a “massive revolution” to match the 19th century Meiji Restoration, when Japan abruptly opened to the West.

And he predicts a stark choice between a “small Japan” of shrinking population and economic decline, and a “big Japan” of growth, immigration and multiculturalism.

So far both the public and the authorities in Japan have been wary of immigration. Perhaps that has something to do with the mixed success of immigration experiments to date. According to Keidanren’s Inoue, a lack of foresight is to blame for problems with South American immigrants.

“Japan didn’t think carefully enough when it changed the immigration rules in the 1990s,” he says. Brazilians and Peruvians of Japanese descent were welcomed on the assumption that they would only stay for a few years then return home. The government did little to provide adequate long-term education, housing and social insurance. Nevertheless, many “temporary” immigrants still live here.

One of the most pressing problems is the education of their children. There is no law making it compulsory for Brazilian and Peruvian children to attend school, little special tuition for those who don’t understand Japanese, and many children have simply stopped attending classes. Some have joined gangs and become involved in crime.

Nishi-Kasai’s Indian immigrants can also tell of difficulties settling in Japan. One fundamental issue is language, as many IT workers have limited Japanese skills. While perhaps not an obstacle in their working life, it can cause problems outside the office.

“The doctors here are not that fluent in English,” says Suhas Sambhus, an IT specialist. Another problem is housing. High deposits and nonreturnable “key-money” costs are daunting for new arrivals. Many landlords are also reluctant to lease to foreigners. Consequently, most of Nishi-Kasai’s Indian population lives in large, government-owned apartment complexes.

But perhaps most fundamental of all is the issue of social acceptance. Manish Prabhune puts it bluntly: “There are only two nationalities in Japan: Japanese and foreigner.” Long-term residents of various nationalities struggle to find a place in Japan. Relatively few of Nishi-Kasai’s community choose to stay long-term.

Of course, Japan may attempt to plug the labor-force gap without increasing immigration. One option would be to invite retirees back to work. Another would be to encourage more women into the workplace. But if that is not enough, as many argue it won’t be, immigration is probably the only practical choice, with all the fundamental social change it entails.

Former Tokyo Immigration Bureau chief Sakanaka argues that Japan urgently needs a proactive policy. He suspects that Japan will eventually plump for a middle way somewhere between making up the population shortfall completely with foreigners, and the current, almost completely closed-door policy.

But if the decision is left too long, he worries that a smaller, aged Japan might find itself unable to attract the workers it needs. “Japan needs to decide its policy while it is still economically strong and attractive to immigrants,” he warns.

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