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Japanese immigrants

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Japanese immigrants

Japanese diaspora
Total population
About 2,600,000 Brazil 1,500,000United States 1,204,205China 127,282Philippines 120,000Canada 109,740United Kingdom 100,000[1]
 Peru 90,000South Korea 58,169Thailand 47,000Australia 40,968Argentina 34,000France 30,947Hong Kong 21,297[2]
 Micronesia 20,000Mexico 15,650Indonesia 11,263Bolivia 9,500Germany 8,141New Caledonia 8,000Italy 7,556Paraguay 7,000New Zealand 6,888Marshall Islands 6,000India 5,554Japanese people in India
 Palau 5,000Switzerland 4,071Chile 2,600[32]
^ note: The population of naturalized Japanese people and their descendants is unknown. Only the number of the permanent residents with Japanese nationality is shown.

The Japanese diaspora, and its individual members known as nikkei (日系?), are Japanese emigrants from Japan and their descendants that reside in a foreign country. Emigration from Japan first happened and was recorded as early as the 12th century to the Philippines,[3] but did not become a mass phenomenon until the Meiji Era, when Japanese began to go to the Philippines,[4] North America, and beginning in 1897 with 35 emigrants to Mexico;[5] and later to Peru, beginning in 1899 with 790 emigrants.[6] There was also significant emigration to the territories of the Empire of Japan during the colonial period; however, most such emigrants repatriated to Japan after the end of World War II in Asia.[7]

According to the Association of Nikkei and Japanese Abroad, there are about 2.5 million nikkei living in their adopted countries. The largest of these foreign communities are in Brazil, the United States, and the Philippines. Descendants of emigrants from the Meiji Era still hold recognizable communities in those countries, forming separate ethnic groups from Japanese peoples in Japan.[8]


Nikkei is derived from the term nikkeijin (日系人?) in Japanese,[9][10] used to refer to Japanese people who emigrated from Japan and their descendants.[10][11] Emigration refers to permanent settlers, excluding transient Japanese abroad. These groups were historically differentiated by the terms issei (first-generation nikkeijin), nisei (second-generation nikkeijin), sansei (third-generation nikkeijin), and yonsei (fourth-generation nikkeijin). The term Nikkeijin may or may not apply to those Japanese who still hold Japanese citizenship. Usages of the term may depend on perspective. For example, the Japanese government defines them according to (foreign) citizenship and the ability to provide proof of Japanese lineage up to the third generation - legally the fourth generation has no legal standing in Japan that is any different from another "foreigner." On the other hand, in the U.S. or other places where Nikkeijin have developed their own communities and identities, first-generation Japanese immigrants tend to be included; citizenship is less relevant and a commitment to the local community becomes more important.

Discover Nikkei, a project of the Japanese American National Museum, defined nikkei as follows:
We are talking about Nikkei people - Japanese emigrants and their descendants who have created communities throughout the world.

The term nikkei has multiple and diverse meanings depending on situations, places, and environments. Nikkei also include people of mixed racial descent who identify themselves as Nikkei. Native Japanese also use the term nikkei for the emigrants and their descendants who return to Japan. Many of these nikkei live in close communities and retain identities separate from the native Japanese.[12]

The definition was derived from The International Nikkei Research Project, a three-year collaborative project involving more than 100 scholars from 10 countries and 14 participating institutions.[12]

Despite claims to the contrary, the Japanese are not exceptional in all respects; therefore, it can be anticipated that new cultural identities will occur within the Japanese diaspora.[13]

Early history

Overseas Japanese have existed since the 15th century; from the 15th through the early 17th century, Japanese seafarers traveled to China and Southeast Asia, in some cases establishing early Japantowns.[14] This activity ended in the 1640s, when the Tokugawa shogunate imposed maritime restrictions which forbade Japanese from leaving the country, and from returning if they were already abroad. This policy would not be lifted for over two hundred years.

Travel restrictions were eased once Japan opened diplomatic relations with western nations. In 1867, the bakufu began issuing travel documents for overseas travel and emigration.[15]

Before 1885, relatively few people emigrated from Japan, in part because the Meiji government was reluctant to allow emigration, both because it lacked the political power to adequately protect Japanese emigrants, and because it believed that the presence of Japanese as unskilled laborers in foreign countries would hamper its ability to revise the unequal treaties. A notable exception to this trend was a group of 153 contract laborers who immigrated—without official passports—to Hawai'i in 1868.[16] A portion of this group stayed on after the expiration of the initial labor contract, forming the nucleus of the nikkei community in Hawai'i. In 1885, the Meiji government began to turn to officially sponsored emigration programs to alleviate pressure from overpopulation and the effects of the Matsukata deflation in rural areas. For the next decade, the government was closely involved in the selection and pre-departure instruction of emigrants. The Japanese government was keen on keeping Japanese emigrants well-mannered while abroad in order to show the West that Japan was a dignified society, worthy of respect. By the mid-1890s, immigration companies (imin-kaisha 移民会社), not sponsored by the government, began to dominate the process of recruiting emigrants, but government-sanctioned ideology continued to influence emigration patterns.[17]

Asia (except Japan)

To 1945

Japanese emigration to the rest of Asia was noted as early as the 12th century to the Philippines;[18] early Japanese settlements included those in Lingayen Gulf, Manila, the coasts of Ilocos and in the Visayas when the Philippines was under the Srivijaya and Majapahit Empire. In 16th century the Japanese settlement was established in Ayutthaya, Thailand.,[19] and in early 17th century Japanese settlers was first recorded to stay in Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). A larger wave came in the 17th century, when Red seal ships traded in Southeast Asia, and Japanese Catholics fled from the religious persecution imposed by the shoguns, and settled in the Philippines, among other destinations. Many of them also intermarried with the local Filipina women (including those of pure or mixed Spanish and Chinese descent), thus forming the new Japanese-Mestizo community.[20] In the 16th and 17th centuries, thousands of Japanese people traders from Japan also migrated to the Philippines and assimilated into the local population.[21] pp. 52–3

In 1898 the Dutch East Indies colonial government statistics showed 614 Japanese in the Dutch East Indies (166 men, 448 women).[22] During the American colonial era in the Philippines, the number of Japanese laborers working in plantations rose so high that in the 20th century, Davao soon became dubbed as a Ko Nippon Koku ("Little Japan" in Japanese) with a Japanese school, a Shinto shrine and a diplomatic mission from Japan. There is even a popular restaurant called "The Japanese Tunnel", which includes an actual tunnel made by the Japanese in time of the war.[23]

There was also a significant level of emigration to the overseas territories of the Empire of Japan during the Japanese colonial period, including Korea,[24] Taiwan, Manchuria, and Karafuto.[25] Unlike emigrants to the Americas, Japanese going to the colonies occupied a higher rather than lower social niche upon their arrival.[26]

In 1938 about 309,000 Japanese lived in Taiwan.[27] By the end of World War II, there were over 850,000 Japanese in Korea[28] and more than 2 million in China,[29] most of them farmers in Manchukuo (the Japanese had a plan to bring in 5 million Japanese settlers into Manchukuo).[30]

In the census of December 1939, the total population of the South Pacific Mandate was 129,104, of which 77,257 were Japanese. By December 1941, Saipan had a population of more than 30,000 people, including 25,000 Japanese.[31] Over 400,000 people lived on Karafuto (southern Sakhalin) when the Soviet offensive began in early August 1945. Most were of Japanese or Korean descent. When Japan lost the Kuril Islands, 17,000 Japanese were expelled, most from the southern islands.[32]

After 1945

After World War II, most of these overseas Japanese repatriated to Japan. The Allied powers repatriated over 6 million Japanese nationals from colonies and battlefields throughout Asia.[33] Only a few remained overseas, often involuntarily, as in the case of orphans in China or prisoners of war captured by the Red Army and forced to work in Siberia.[34] During the 1950s and 1960s, an estimated 6,000 Japanese accompanied Zainichi Korean spouses repatriating to North Korea, while another 27,000 prisoners-of-war are estimated to have been sent there by the Soviet Union; see Japanese people in North Korea.[34][35]

There is a community of Japanese people in Hong Kong largely made up of expatriate businessmen. There are about 4,018 Japanese people living in India who are mostly expatriate engineers and company executives and they are based mainly in Haldia, Bangalore and Kolkata. Additionally, there are 903 Japanese expatriates in Pakistan based mostly in the cities of Islamabad and Karachi.[36]


People from Japan began migrating to the U.S. and Canada in significant numbers following the political, cultural, and social changes stemming from the 1868 Meiji Restoration. (See Japanese American and Japanese Canadians).

In Canada, small multi-generational communities of Japanese immigrants developed and adapted to life in outside Japan.[37]

In the United States, particularly after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Japanese immigrants were sought by industrialists to replace the Chinese immigrants. In 1907, the "Gentlemen's Agreement" between the governments of Japan and the U.S. ended immigration of Japanese workers (i.e., men), but permitted the immigration of spouses of Japanese immigrants already in the U.S. The Immigration Act of 1924 banned the immigration of all but a token few Japanese, until the Immigration Act of 1965, there was very little further Japanese immigration. That which occurred was mostly in the form of war brides. The majority of Japanese settled in Hawaii where today a third of the state's population are of Japanese descent, and the rest in the West Coast (California, Washington and Oregon), but other significant communities are found in the Northeast and Midwest states.

The Japanese diaspora has been unique in the absence of new emigration flows in the second half of the 20th century.[38]

With the restrictions on entering the United States, the level of Japanese immigration to Latin America began to increase. Japanese immigrants (particularly from the Okinawa Prefecture, including Okinawans) arrived in small numbers during the early 20th century. Japanese Brazilians are the largest ethnic Japanese community outside Japan (numbering about 1.5 million,[39] compared to about 1.2 million in the United States), and São Paulo contains the largest concentration of Japanese outside Japan. The first Japanese immigrants (791 people, mostly farmers) came to Brazil in 1908 on the Kasato Maru from the Japanese port of Kobe, moving to Brazil in search of better living conditions. Many of them ended up as laborers on coffee farms. (see also Shindo Renmei)

The first Japanese Argentine Nisei (second generation), Seicho Arakaki, was born in 1911. Today there are an estimated 32,000 people of Japanese descent in Argentina according to Association of Nikkei and Japanese Abroad.

Japanese Peruvians form another notable ethnic Japanese community and count among their members former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori.

See also Japanese Paraguayan.

There was a small amount of Japanese settlement in the Dominican Republic between 1956 and 1961, in a programme initiated by Dominican Republic leader Rafael Trujillo. Protests over the extreme hardships and broken government promises faced by the initial group of migrants set the stage for the end of state-supported labour emigration in Japan.[40][41]


The Japanese in Britain form the largest Japanese community in Europe with well over 100,000 living all over the United Kingdom (the majority being in London). In recent years, many young Japanese have been migrating from Japan to Britain to engage in cultural production and to become successful artists in London.[42] There are also small numbers of Japanese people in Russia some whose heritage date back to the times when both countries shared the territories of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands; some Japanese communists settled in the Soviet Union, including Mutsuo Hakamada, the brother of former Japanese Communist Party chairman Satomi Hakamada whose daughter Irina Hakamada is a notable Russian political figure.[43] The 2002 Russian census showed 835 people claiming Japanese ethnicity (nationality).[44] There is a sizable Japanese community in Düsseldorf, Germany of nearly 8,000.[45]


Early Japanese immigrants lived in Broome, Western Australia, and were involved in the pearl fishing business.

In recent years, Japanese migration to Australia, largely consisting of younger age females, has been on the rise.[46]

Return migration to Japan

Main article: dekasegi

In the 1980s, with Japan's growing economy facing a shortage of workers willing to do so-called three 'K' jobs (きつい kitsui [difficult], 汚い kitanai [dirty], and 危険 kiken [dangerous]), Japan's Ministry of Labor began to grant visas to ethnic Japanese from South America to come to Japan and work in factories. The vast majority — estimated at roughly 300,000 — were from Brazil, but there is also a large population from Peru and smaller populations from Argentina and other Latin American countries.

In response to the recession as of 2009, the Japanese government has offered ¥300,000 ($3,300) for unemployed Japanese from Latin America to return to their country of origin with the stated goal of alleviating the country's soaring unemployment. Another ¥200,000 ($2,200) is offered for each additional family member to leave.[47] Emigrants who take this offer are not allowed to return to Japan with the same privileged visa with which they entered the country.[48] Arudou Debito, columnist for the Japan Times, an English language newspaper in Japan, denounced the policy as "racist" as it only offered Japanese-blooded foreigners who possessed the special "person of Japanese ancestry" visa the option to receive money in return for repatriation to their home countries.[48] Some commentators also accused it of being exploitative since most nikkei had been offered incentives to immigrate to Japan in 1990, were regularly reported to work 60+ hours per week, and were finally asked to return home when the Japanese became unemployed in large numbers.[48][49] [50]

See also



  • Maidment, Richard A. and Colin Mackerras. (1998). Culture and Society in the Asia-Pacific. London: Routledge. 10-ISBN 0-415-17278-0/13-ISBN 978-0-415-17278-3
  • Sakai, Junko. (2000). Japanese Bankers in the City of London: Language, Culture and Identity in the Japanese Diaspora. London: Routledge. 10-ISBN 0-415-19601-9/13-ISBN 978-0-415-19601-7
  • Fujita, Yuiko (2009) Cultural Migrants from Japan: Youth, Media, and Migration in New York and London. MD: Lexington Books, Rowman & Littlefield, 10-ISBN 0-7391-2891-4/13-ISBN 978-0-7391-2891-6
  • Masterson, Daniel M. and Sayaka Funada-Classen. (2004), The Japanese in Latin America: The Asian American Experience. Urbana, Illinois: OCLC 253466232

External links

  • Japanese American National Museum and affiliated with academic, community programs, and scholars.
  • Future Policy Regarding Cooperation with Overseas Communities of Nikkei
  • APJ, A non-profit organization representing Japanese Citizens living in Peru and their descendants.
  • NikkeiCity, Information of the nikkei in Peru.
  • Nikkei Youth Network, A network of nikkei leaders around the world.
  • Japanese Canadians Photograph Collection – A photo album from the UBC Library Digital Collections depicting the life of Japanese Canadians in British Columbia during World War II

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