Diverging Patterns for Incorporating Immigrants in Korea and Japan

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Memo #56

Erin Aeran Chung – echung [at] jhu.edu

In the mid 2000s, Korea and Japan unveiled unprecedented proposals for immigrant incorporation. This included the Basic Act on the Treatment of Foreigners in Korea and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ plan for Multicultural Coexistence Promotion in Local Communities in Japan. These plans acknowledged for the first time the need to manage foreigners settled within each country. But they also represented contrasting frameworks for their incorporation. In Korea, there was centralized rights-based legislation that targeted specific immigrant groups and in Japan, there were decentralized guidelines that prioritized community-based partnerships.

How do we explain divergent policies for incorporating immigrants in Korea and Japan? Both countries share immigration and citizenship policies based on ethno-cultural homogeneity, overlapping immigrant populations from neighbouring Asian countries, and dilemmas for accommodating social diversity while adhering to liberal democratic principles. The divergent approaches are not products of deliberate decision-making to manage the permanent settlement of immigrants. Rather, the approaches are reflective of grassroots movements that drew on existing strategies previously applied to incorporate historically marginalized groups in each society prior to the establishment of official incorporation programs.

Although Korea and Japan confront rapidly declining working age populations, both countries kept their borders closed to unskilled workers and met labour demands through de facto guest worker programs and preferential policies for co-ethnic immigrants from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s. Because there was no directive from national governments, local communities and civil society actors used the tools available to them to confront the challenges faced by both new immigrants and the communities in which they lived. Migrant workers in Korea made significant inroads in gaining rights largely because of the strong tradition of labour and civil society activism in Korea’s democratization movement. In Japan, grassroots movements led by generations of Korean residents set the foundation for decentralized, community-based strategies for incorporating new immigrants from the late 1980s.

In Korea and Japan, the processes of immigrant incorporation – in the forms of advocacy, support, and political mobilization as well as the establishment of services, institutions, and local programs for foreign residents – preceded either country’s state-level acknowledgment that immigrants needed to be incorporated within their borders.

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