Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies
Online ISSN : 2436-8997
Print ISSN : 1347-149X
Becoming ‘Illegal’: The Institutional Mechanisms of Migrants’ Illegalization in Japan
Jotaro KatoGracia Liu-Farrer
Author information

2022 Volume 44 Pages 183-199


Migrants without legal resident statuses were a major source of foreign labor in Japan throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s. After Japanese government launched campaigns against ‘illegal aliens’ in 2004, their number was drastically reduced. However, ‘illegal aliens’ have increased again since 2015 despite the government control. Moreover, although the number of such ‘illegal’ migrants in Japan is relatively small, almost all of them enter the country legally. This study focuses on this phenomenon of migrant ‘illegalization’ by investigating the institutional mechanisms that have produced and perpetuated unauthorized migrants in Japan. Drawing on data from the authors’ fieldwork in the early 2000s and again in the late 2010s, the paper points out that illegalization of migrants in Japan first results from the government’s lack of political will to address the needs for labor immigration. Second, migrants’ illegal status is produced and perpetuated by the changing political priorities of the people making and in charge of the law. It is often said that the economic system needs unauthorized migrants while the political system does not. However, in Japan, we argue that the political system not only needs unauthorized migrants but also creates it. The unauthorized migrants are useful as ‘unimported’ immigrant labor and as political scapegoats.

Content from these authors
© 2022 Waseda University, Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies
Previous article