Chinese Students in Japan: the new skilled labour fitting within Japanese society


What do we understand by skilled/unskilled labour?

What factors contributed to the study abroad boom in Japan?

Why do Chinese students settle in Japan?

Do Chinese skilled expatriates integrate within Japanese society? If so, do they do it in the same way as other ethnic groups?


Nowadays lots of foreign students choose Japan as a destination to carry on an exchange or a training program as part of their undergraduate or graduate studies. However, this has not been as easy as it may seem now.

The picture has changed a bit since 1990, when the Japanese immigration law was reviewed and modified in order to make things a little bit easier for those wanting to come to Japan. The revision of its Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law implied three major changes affecting unskilled labour. Firstly, the employment of unskilled foreigners would be considered a criminal offence by law. Secondly, long-term residence visa for Japanese ancestry –Nikkeijin- would be granted in order to enter and reside in the country with few restrictions. Lastly, a new visa category was created for the so-called industrial trainees. On the one hand, these three major changes permitted the creation of the New Industrial Trainee System –Sangyō Kenshūsei Seido– which allowed foreign trainees to receive on-the-job training for two years in companies with less than fifty employees. However, this implied that trainees were not defined by law as workers. Thus, being paid less than the market wages and not being protected by the Labour Standard Law (Kawakami 2006).

Moreover, in 1993, the Technical Practical Trainee System –Ginō Jisshūsei Seido– was enhanced. This meant that upon completion of the first year of training, trainees would engage in job performance for their second year but now under the protection of the Labour Standard Law. After this significant improvement, the Technical Practical Training was extended in 1997 for two years allowing trainees to work for a total of three years. As a consequence of all these changes fomented by the Japanese government, Japan’s foreign population grew rapidly each year since then surpassing the two million in 2005. However, these changes also meant a clear contradiction with the first point of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law regarding the employment of unskilled foreign individuals. Now, what is it understood as unskilled foreign individuals? Foreigners who have not studied at university and graduated are usually considered as unskilled labour since they have not been specialized in any particular field. Thus, they are usually seen as cheap labour.

On the other hand, the Japanese government also wanted to foment the arrival of skilled labour to the country –foreigners who would or have pursued undergraduate and/or graduate studies mainly–. In order to do so, the government implemented a new set of initiatives that would make it easier for foreign students to apply to study in Japan and perhaps stay

Why do Chinese students choose Japan? What factors were or are still involved in their choosing?

A case study of this last policy and its development can be seen in the case of Chinese students migrating to Japan. “Since the mid 1980s, Japan has witnessed a boom in students coming from China”. (Le Bail 72) For most of these students a student visa is the first step for entering Japan. Nowadays, the main group of Chinese residents are permanent residents –eijūsha–, most of whom are likely former students. Moreover, many former Chinese students hold nowadays working visas, spouse-of-Japanese visas, or have become naturalized Japanese.

Despite prejudices against foreigners in Japan, and particularly against Chinese, the fact that many Chinese residents arrived as students demonstrates that most of them enjoy professional mobility and integration into the Japanese labour market. These two facts seem to also help in the process of integration within Japanese society.

It is a fact though, that two thirds of the highly qualified foreign workers in OECD countries first entered their host countries as students (OECD 2001; Nedelcu 2004). Thus, it is only logical that Chinese entrants in Japan have chosen this via as well.

The first wave of Chinese students in Japan was after largely simultaneous political measures in both countries were taken. In China, the laws regulating the emigration of Chinese nationals became more relaxed. The inflection point was in 1984 when the Chinese government also liberalized the exit of the self-financed students. This meant the starting of the “study abroad boom”. On the other hand, the Japanese wanted to incentivize the foreign student population to choose Japan in order to carry on with their studies. Following this goal, in 1984, the Prime Minister proposed to accept 100,000 foreign students by 2000. This was part of a bigger scheme called “internationalization” –kokusaika–. When this initiative started, Japan hosted about 10,000 foreign students. Finally, in 2002, the goal was achieved and in 2007, there were about 130,000 foreign students studying in Japan –undergraduate and graduate, junior college students and college of technology students–.


Data from Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO).

It can be said then that it worked beautifully for both countries, one willing to send abroad its nationals and the other to welcome them. Japan is still nowadays a top destination for Chinese students along with the United States and Australia. Analyzing the data at a close range, one can even see that Chinese students in Japan represent a quarter of all Chinese population within the country.


Data provided by the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO)

The flux of Chinese students coming to Japan has not stopped throughout these last years either, and we can see that China is still the top country sending its students to Japan. Thus, it seems only logical that many of these students decide later on to stay in Japan.

There are usually two methods for Chinese residents to get a working visa in Japan: the first method is changing from a student status to a worker status which is the most common process; the other is obtaining a working visa in China which is usually achieved through university recruiting campaigns or company transfers.

Do skilled expatriates integrate within Japanese society?

Like Le Bail states, “a few indicators of integration are often used to analyze the migrants’ side of the equation: mixed marriages, education achievement of the second generation, and civic involvement”. (80) When we think of integration we tend to focus on the problems of integrating into the host country and we tend to think of immigrants coming from a lower social class struggling in the host country with discrimination and unskilled labour. However, I would like to focus on the skilled expatriates. In most cases these expatriates do not tend to see themselves as just Chinese expatriates but they feel part of a larger international community of expatriates. Chinese expatriates see themselves as “cosmopolitan citizens of the world”. (Le Bail 81 – 82) In her case study, Le Bail talks about Chinese people emphasizing the fact that they could leave Japan at any minute and move somewhere else, not necessarily back to China. They are very conscious of their mobility and thought of themselves in terms of being part of an international community rather than a Chinese community. They also considered themselves as successful in “their migration project, whether in terms of their achievements in Japanese society or on their role as a bridge between Japan and China”. (82) There is still a lot of prejudice against Chinese expatriates in Japan and they tend to be link by Japanese population to crime and illegal immigration due to the biased image that mass media portrays. Thus, it is very important that these skilled expatriates with the means to do so can help in changing this image through social recognition and civic participation. These two seem to be linked since “social recognition may offer an incentive for more civic participation, while civic participation may be a means to gain social recognition”. (Le Bail, 82 – 83)

If we focus on the civic participation, we will see that these Chinese expatriates participate in local events and political meetings or activities. However, it seems that their involvement in ethnic groups and associations is very low. This is probably related to the already commented fact that they do not perceive themselves as an ethnic group but as part of an international one.


Since the 80s, Japan has suffered of a “study-abroad boom”, especially due to the large numbers of Chinese students who came to Japan after the new flexibility indulged by both, Chinese and Japanese governments. This provided many of them with the opportunity of entering Japan on a first hand, and later to change their status from student to a working visa allowing them to stay and work in the country as skilled labour. In general, these students do not encounter many barriers nowadays in order to remain in Japan since they belong to this skilled labour force. Nevertheless, even though they can “easily” work in Japan, they still have to fight against the derogatory popular opinion and the biased image the national Japanese media portrays of them making it even harder for them to get social recognition.

By Marta Plaza Balagué


Le Bail, Hélène; Vogt, Gabriele; et al. Migration and Integration – Japan in Comparative Perspective. Edited by Gabriele Vogt and Glenda S. Roberts. IUDICIUM Verlag GmbH, 2011.

Sheftall, G. G.; Lee, Soo Im; et al. Japan’s Demographic Revival. Rethinking Migration, Identity and Sociocultural Norms. Edited by Stephen Robert Nagy, World Scientific Publishing Co, 2016.

Yamawaki, Keizo; Douglass, Mike; et al. Japan and Global Migration. Foreign Workers and the Advent of a Multicultural Society. Edited by Mike Douglass & Glenda S. Roberts. Routledge, 2000.

Duff, Andrew; Kuczmarska, Aleksandra & Lin, Ming-Yee. “Chinese Immigrants – The Solution to Japan’s Demography Crisis?”. Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies, Temple University, Japan Campus, August 2008. Accessed on December 15 2016.

Kodama, Takashi. “Japan’s Immigration Problem. Looking at Immigration through the Experiences of Other Countries”. Japan’s Economy. Daiwa Institute of Research. 29 May 2015. Accessed on December 15 2016.

Other sources:


~ por diasporaasiaoriental en diciembre 21, 2016.


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