008J_Muranaka_Tran An

Transnational Migration and Contemporary Japan: Flows and Realities

Panel organizers & Chairs

MURANAKA, Aimi (University Duisburg-Essen)
TRAN AN, Huy (University Duisburg-Essen/AREA)


Ruth Achenbach (Frankfurt University)


Helene Hof (University Zürich)

LI, Bin (FU Berlin)

Eline Delmarcelle (Waseda University, Tokyo)
MURANAKA, Aimi (University Duisburg-Essen)
TRAN AN, Huy (University Duisburg-Essen/AREA)

Panel abstract

The understandings of transnational migration flows and realities in contemporary Japan are relevant to the topic because transnational migration is characterized by multiple flows and realities shaped and experienced by different dynamics and actors, despite the country known as low-to-no immigration.

Despite Japan’s reputation as one of the few Asian countries with low-to-no immigration, the number of migrants in the country has been rapidly increasing within the last decade. The total number of foreigners residing in Japan indeed scores new records year after year, making Japan a de-facto immigration country (Liu-Farrer 2020). Transnational migration in contemporary Japan indeed is characterized by numerous flows and realities shaped and experienced by different factors and actors. The presentations in this panel aim to contribute both theoretically and empirically to the discussion and understandings of transnational migration flows and realities in contemporary Japan from an interdisciplinary perspective. First, it seeks to apprehend and make sense of the ways in which transnational migration flows to and from Japan are constituted, conditioned and facilitated. In particular, the panel explores multi-leveled channels, actors and mechanisms that funnel and structure transnational migration flows. In addition, it explores the impacts that such flows have on not only Japanese society but also places on the other side of the migration spectrum. Second, the panel portrays different migration realities of migrants in Japanese society, which has been witnessing acceleration in number of foreign residency yet staying ethno-centric. By investigating the lived experiences of different groups of migrant and their mobility geographies, the panel sheds light on the ways in which migrants’ practices, identities, belongings and trajectories are constructed and negotiated. Such insights are crucial in providing a bottom-up approach to the understandings of not only the layered institutions and hierarchies that surround migrants’ life in Japan, but also the nuances of contemporary transnational migration. In addition, the panel also aims to address how the Covid-19 pandemic has been affecting migrant groups in Japan, and the ways in which migrants and institutions have been coping with the challenges.

In general, by providing interdisciplinary perspectives that focus on transnational and cross-border mobilities, this panel seeks to not only provide nuanced insights into transnational migration issues in, from and to contemporary Japan, but also contribute to the bigger discussion on transnational migration in Asian region as a whole.

Helene Hof:  The gendered migration trajectories of European labour migrants in Tokyo

This paper examines the under researched case of early career middle-class European migrants in Japan. European migrants – often subsumed under the category of Western (presumably white) migrants – have been portrayed in a number of ways in writings on Japan, including historical accounts on missionaries, writings on modernity and industrialization featuring oyatoi gaikokujin, corporate expatriates in business and management studies and more recently international students at Japanese university campuses. However, there is little recognition to date of college educated Europeans who, similar to migrants from surrounding Asian countries, enter the Japanese work force as new graduates and pursue a worklife in Japan.

This longitudinal qualitative study demonstrates the interwoven geographical and socio-economic mobilities that capture the pathways of a newcomer cohort of middle-class Europeans in contemporary Japan. It draws attention to the case of early-career migrants who enter the country via diverse channels and mechanisms but end up forging a professional career in Tokyo’s domestic and international companies. The study has followed 37 such European migrants in the crucial stage of their transitioning from being recent graduates and dominantly independent migrants in young adulthood to the next life stage of mid-career employment, marriage and family. These migrants’ pathways are diverse and multifaceted and challenge the notion of Europeans as guests or elite migrants in Japan. That said, the mid-to-long-term outcome of their migration trajectories are highly gendered, revealing some more and other less expected patterns.

The paper analyzes the complex dynamics and challenging intersections of several dimensions of these migrants’ maturing as they maneuver life in Japanese society and Tokyo firms: Employment and career development, social relationships and family plans as well as the enduring weight of Otherness, epitomized by migrants’ precarious legal status, are increasingly difficult to align. Yet, they are, to some extent, experienced differently by men and women and, coupled with structural factors specific to the context of globalizing Japan, affect the paths that are open to these Europeans in Japan or elsewhere.

Li, Bin:  Differentiating Between “I’m a Chinese” and “I am a Chinese newcomer in Japan” – A Discussion on Chinese Immigrants’ Ethnic Identity and National Belonging

The identity construction of Chinese immigrants in Japan has been approached from varying views (Nagano, 1994; Guo, 1999; Bali, 2005; Tsuboya, 2008; Liu-Farrer, 2012). Nevertheless, challenges to the concept of “identity” have never stopped, since the concept tends to mean too much when understood in a strong sense or nothing because of its ambiguity (Brubaker and Cooper, 2000). In the field of migrant study, some scholars called for a clear differentiation between “belonging” and “identity” (Pfaff-Czarnecka,2013; Röttger-Rössler,2018; Bedorf, 2018). One of the most remarkable differences in concept is that belonging is inward-oriented, whereas identity is oriented from outside to inside (Pfaff-Czarnecka, 2011). In exploring the ethnic identity and belonging of the Chinese newcomer entrepreneurs in Japan, I found out that they used both “I am a Chinese newcomer in Japan” and “I am a Chinese” in their narratives, depending on the contexts and situations. The ethnic identity was stressed when the Chinese immigrants tended to differentiate themselves from either domestic Chinese or the older generations of Chinese immigrants in Japan (the Chinese immigrants arriving before 1978). In contrast, they tended to stress the national belonging toward the homeland when indicating individual emotional attachments (such as nostalgic memories and attachments to family members). To this point, I argue that the Chinese newcomers’ ethnic identity was based on the “others”, whereas the national belonging started from the subjects as focal points. Moreover, the intertwined relationships between their business practices and achievements, and the home country also created a co-presence feeling, further strengthening the Chinese newcomer entrepreneurs’ national belonging.

Eline Delmarcelle:   Renouncing the Past, Becoming “one of them”: Naturalized Japanese citizens’ negotiation of the single-citizenship system

Among the increasing number of foreigners migrating and settling in Japan, is a small but growing group of immigrants who choose to take Japanese citizenship. Although the official requirements to be eligible for citizenship in Japan are similar to other developed countries (5 years of residency, no criminal record, to be of legal age…), Japan remains one of the nations that requires dual citizens to renounce one of their citizenships within two years of naturalizing. In this presentation, I aim to use the issue of the single citizenship obligation in Japan to introduce questions about what it means to become Japanese not only legally, but also in terms of identity. This research is based on in-depth interviews with 13 residents who went through the Japanese naturalisation procedure, and shows that applicants find different ways of negotiating and balancing legal requirements, securing livelihood, and making sense of their shifting identity.

On the legal level, many renounce their former citizenships due to the insistence of the Ministry of Justice, but others assess risks and finally choose to keep them. On an emotional level, some regret the single citizenship obligation, and feel they have to renounce a part of their identity along with citizenship in order to become Japanese legally and to be accepted as such. On the contrary, others are proud of the commitment they made to the Japanese nation, and minimize their link to their country of birth. Ultimately, the angle of the single-citizenship obligation highlights the belief that one is either fully Japanese – on the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and legal levels, or is not at all. This point of view puts naturalized citizens in a peculiar position, as non-ethnic others who own Japanese citizenship. As we will see, the negotiation of this status begins even before applying for naturalization.

MURANAKA, Aimi:  Sourcing foreign skilled labour via cross-border training: Study of Japanese temporary staffing firms’ recruitment and training of Vietnamese IT skilled workers

This paper explores how the Japanese private sector, temporary staffing firms (TSFs) in particular, has shaped the cross-border labour market for skilled foreign workers by developing their own educational divisions and programs in Japan and Vietnam. The foreign labour intake is expanding in various Japanese industries due to the dropping working population. To respond to this labour need, the Japanese government instituted a law to facilitate the entry of foreign workers in various labour-intensive sectors in 2018. However, the government maintains the reluctant attitude toward the introduction of an official migration policy, and the country is now regarded as a de-facto immigration country (Liu-Farrer 2020). The Japanese private sector exercises a pivotal role in facilitating the supply of foreign skilled workforce, and the Japanese TSFs have been establishing their skilled labour supply through their own cross-border training. The literature of the international migration industry is limited to studies of the private broker’s presence in student migration, transition from education to work and preparation for the departure to a hosting society. However, this article fills the gap in the literature by investigating different stages of the migration from recruitment of foreign skilled workers to their eventual participation in the labour market. This study applies Grounded Theory and seeks to build a theory from collected data. The ethnographic multi-sited fieldwork was conducted from 2016 to 2017 in Japan and in Vietnam, and semi-structured interviews were undertaken with staffs of Japanese TSFs, staffs of Japanese firms employing Vietnamese workers and Vietnamese IT engineering workers. The findings of the study are summarized as follow: firstly, a consulting firm in Vietnam, run by a Japanese TSF, secures its labour supply by recruiting Vietnamese skilled candidates and providing them language training. Secondly, the Japanese TSF also runs cross-border training, and this has been used to formulate “ideal” migrant workers for Japanese employers. Thirdly, the career of the Vietnamese skilled workers coming to Japan via this cross-border labour scheme heavily relies on the Japanese TSFs, and this dependence on the Japanese firms limit the Vietnamese migrants’ future career. The paper contributes to the strand of the international migration industry literature by highlighting the process of each transition phases in cross-border labour migration between two countries.

TRAN AN, Huy: Japanese do not like Vietnamese men – negotiating sexualities among male Vietnamese migrants in Japan

Transnational movements of people have been one of the most prominent forces in shaping contemporary sexualities. However, unlike migrants’ economic and labour practices which have attracted a wide spectrum of academic interests, the sexual dimension of migration is still not receiving adequate attention in mainstream sociological migration research (Carrillo 2017). Even though the feminization of migration within Asia in recent decades has drawn more attention to the female migrants’ sexualities, such aspect in Asian migrant men’s lived experiences are either taken for granted or understudied. Taking a closer look at the intersection of sexualities and transnational mobilities, this paper captures and conceptualizes the ways in which Vietnamese men negotiate their sexualities in terms of sexual behaviors, identities and desirabilities throughout transnational migration between Vietnam and Japan. Engaging with the concept of “sexual field” (Green 2008), the paper shows that Vietnamese men are not considered as desirable within a Japanese sexual, in which they are often made aware of the disadvantages of the Vietnamese passport. On the other hand, these men are considered as more sexually desirable within a Vietnamese materialistic society, where migrants men are often associated with having good pecuniary power. It then examines the different strategies that male Vietnamese migrants utilize to negotiate their sexualities, and argues that such negotiations are transnational and curtailed by a combination of social class, ethnicity, capitals and the tangle of geographical, social and sexual mobility. Such consideration enlarges the meanings of not only migration as a whole, but also of migrants’ identity as Vietnamese and what such identity entail in transnational contexts.