A technical intern works at a farm in Gunma prefecture. Image: Tanadori Yoshida

Colonial Roots of Racialized ‘Others’ in Japan’s Migration Policy

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Aitsura

Recently, as I was contemplating about the subject matter for my thesis, I came across a the news about the rise in reported cases of labor exploitation, especially under the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP)[1] . Instituted in 1993, the TITP emerged from the lauded successes of employee education schemes run by foreign ‘local’ organizations in the late 1960s. At that time, Japan faced an urgent need to recruit foreign workers due to significant labor shortages.

The bubble economy in the late 1980’s led Japan to accept trainees who are not only directly employed by the Japanese companies, but also those employed by the supervising organizations[2]. Then, TITP was born with the aims of skills and knowledge transfer to ‘developing countries’ and promoting international cooperation, as well as helping people to be ‘agents’ of development in their countries[3]. Through the implementation of the TITP, the Japanese government aimed to mitigate labor shortages without resorting to increasing the influx of ‘migrants’, thereby safeguarding the national Japanese identity.

Such policy approach to migrant ‘other’ evoked memories of my grandfather’s perspective. Thus, to address the issue of migrant othering, we need to unearth where such excluding positions arise from. 

Due to increasing reports of human rights violations ranging from verbal and physical abuse to unsafe working and living conditions, compounded by debt entrapment leading to a surge in trainee suicides, the Japanese government took decisive action in February 2024 and opted to dismantle the TITP in favor of instituting a new system called Ikusei Syuro Seido[4]. The introduction of the new system aims to address the human resource needs of Japanese businesses. However, without fundamental reforms, there remains a risk of recurring violations.

Contextualizing Japanese History within Colonial Matrix of Power

Historically, racialization has often been utilized to rationalize Japan’s colonization or invasion of other East and Southeast Asian nations, under the guise of portraying Japan as a civilized and therefore superior nation. The notion of cultural distinctiveness, rooted in the concept of ‘modernity,’ began to take shape during the Meiji Restoration commencing in 1868. This period of distinctiveness was notably fostered by Japan’s prior isolation during the Edo period, known as sakoku, which limited exposure to Western influences.

However, the end of this 220-year seclusion in 1853, prompted by the forced opening of Japan’s borders due to pressure from the US and European nations seeking new market opportunities, marked the beginning of Japan’s efforts to catch up with the rapidly advancing Western world. During that period, the government aimed to make itself stronger by importing new technologies, cultures, and knowledge from Western countries while strengthening Japanese identity and demonstrating its power[5] through otherization.

In the 20th century, Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War, culminating in 1905, significantly bolstered its global standing, showcasing its formidable military prowess. This triumph instilled a sense of national pride among the Japanese populace, fostering perceptions of their nation as ‘different’ and ‘superior’ on the world stage. Despite this newfound confidence, Japan maintained a complex identity, positioning itself as distinct from other Asian countries both historically and economically, yet still viewing itself as subordinate to Western powers. This self-perception was further reinforced by the introduction of eugenic concepts and scientific racism during the Meiji Restoration, borrowed from Western nations. These ideas were strategically embraced by the Japanese government to substantiate claims of racial superiority[6] among the Japanese people, aligning with its broader agenda.

This racial ideology fueled Japan’s imperialistic ambitions, manifested in the concept of Pan-Asianism, whereby Japan sought to extend its influence over East and Southeast Asian territories, including China, the Philippines, Indonesia, and beyond. Under the guise of the ‘Co-Prosperity Sphere’ ideology, Japan aimed to assert its power against Western dominance, portraying itself as a liberator of Asia. Although it’s important to acknowledge the nuanced realities of Japanese occupation in Southeast Asian countries, a common thread emerges: the belief in Japan’s role as a leader among Pan-Asian nations and that Japan could bring prosperity to these regions by homogenizing people and making societies more like Japan.

Therefore, imperialism was fueled and justified by the national ideology and racial superiority of the Japanese. Even after imperialism, the idea of Japanese superiority remained as ‘Nihonjinron’ (the Theories of Japanese) that upholds the idea of racial purity and homogeneity. This was also encouraged by the Japanese notion of a ‘family state’ where every Japanese was associated by blood with other Japanese people, and all members were associated by blood to the emperor[7].

This way of racialization has been (re)produced based on the equation of race, culture, and ethnicity, emphasizing Japanese uniqueness and its cultural distinctiveness[8], meaning people cannot be Japanese without the ‘Japanese race’ and they cannot acquire culture without Japanese blood. The complex combination of race and cultural spheres (re) produces ‘pure’ Japanese and ‘second-class’ Japanese. Therefore, the process of racialization is based on a dominant discourse of racial purity according to bloodline and ‘common’ culture, such as languages.

Critically, the self-image of Japan as a homogeneous nation has justified restrictive migration policies and vice versa. Hierarchical relations between Japanese nationals and migrants were emulated by many organizations in a way that held exclusionary structures[9]. A current migrant category called ‘trainee’ can be one of the examples that may have a hand in the reproduction of a homogeneous self-image.

Invention of ‘Trainees’: Document versus Reality

Technical Intern Training Program was initiated as part of an international cooperation scheme through which employees of Japanese businesses in Asia can learn skills in Japan or take training in Japanese corporations in 1993 in response to labor demands. On the pamphlet issued by Japan International Training Cooperation Organization (JITCO) (2021)[10], the aims and objectives of the program are as follows:

….to transfer the skills, technologies, and knowledge (hereinafter referred to as ‘skills and knowledge’) which were developed by technical intern trainees while in Japan to developing countries and regions, as well as to promote international cooperation by contributing to human resource development, which plays a central role in the economic development of the applicable developing countries and region.” (pp. 12).

In this document, Japan positions itself as a nation that has more knowledge and skills than ‘developing’ countries with presumptions that skills in Japan are transferable, and contribute to economic growth in other countries, referring to people who are willing to come to Japan for ‘knowledge acquisition’ as ‘trainees.’ This also based on the idea of economic growth and development pursued by Japanese interventions in knowledge and technology and industrialization[11].

Seeing development as a historically established narrative, the term ‘development’ constructs a narrative that fabricates the notion of ‘developing countries’, functioning as an “empty plus” signifier in a way that suggests expert interventions and technical advancements will inevitably yield societal benefits. Implicit within this construct is the delineation of a clear divide dictated by Western standards of modernity. Such concept facilitates the hierarchical production of knowledge, enabling Japan to assert the superiority of its knowledge and technology over that of ‘developing’ nations, positioning itself as a ‘developed’ country.

Here, othering happens by classifying people through binaries[12], ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries, which are informed by historically established narratives and levels of modernity set by Western standards[13]. In these ways, Japan labels former colonies as ‘developing’ countries and considers those participating in TITP not as knowledge holders but rather as ‘objects of knowledge’ (pp. 533)[14] as the word ‘trainee’ itself implies.

Figure 1: The number of trainees by nationality. Source: Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (2023).

In the name of ‘development’, through the TITP, Japan reinforces its distinction from ‘the rest’ of Southeast and East Asian. In 2022, the number of technical intern trainees reached 324,940 in total with a larger percentage from countries Japan once colonized or invaded[15] (see Figure 1). The colonization started when Japan colonized Taiwan in 1895, Karafuto (current Russia) in 1905, Korea in 1910, and Manchuria (current China) in 1931 as well as occupied Northern French Indochina (current Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) in 1940, Hong Kong in 1941, and Dutch East Indies, the Philippine in 1942[16]. Through colonization or invasion, the colonial difference took root in Asia, which makes the distinction of Japanese from ‘the rest’, which seems to remain till now.

Trainees are not referred to as ‘unskilled’ workers in official documents since Japanese migration policy refuses to accept ‘unskilled’ workers. Yet, the ‘unskillness’ is implicitly attached to ‘trainees’ in a way that most of them are young and are assigned to industries Japanese considered ‘low-skilled’. To compensate for the lack of young workers, most trainees are in their 20s, 42.2% are 20-24 and 25% are 25-29 years old. Also, most of the companies that accept trainees are small, and about 67% of them have less than 20 Japanese workers[17].

Furthermore, the program acknowledges neither the unpopularity of the applicable job sector in Japanese society nor the labor shortages in this sector. Through TITP, many workers from abroad work in diverse sectors including 146 jobs in 82 sectors with a contract of a maximum of 5 years[18]. Most jobs are so-called ‘low-skilled’ jobs, those that Japanese people do not consider ‘good’ jobs or colonized subjects worked during the war period, such as construction (21%), food processing (20%), and mechanics (25%) (see Figure 2). TITP itself is structured to encourage the temporary labor flow into the job sectors that the Japanese do not want to engage with and consider as ‘low-skilled’ or ‘undesirable’, securing employment for Japanese nationals by setting a maximum number of trainees the company can employ.

Moreover, their temporariness functions to limit workers’ rights (see Table 1 for detail) and to expand the state’s power[19], implying they are not considered as ‘citizens’ but ‘disposable laborer’s to compensate for labor shortages. Formally, the ‘trainee’ refers to the individuals who participate in TITP in the official documents. Yet, in the implementation process, the ‘trainee’ becomes the one who works in certain sectors that Japanese consider ‘unskilled’.

During the colonial period, workers in ‘the rest’ of Asian countries were forced to produce goods at cheaper cost for Japan in manufacturing or physically demanding industries[20]. This seems to remain, constructing ‘Southeast’ and ‘the rest’ of East Asia as an Other who can deal with lower cost and harsh living and working conditions to some extent. 

Table 1: Differences in access to resources between Japanese workers and trainees. Source: JITCO (2021).

Exploring trainees: Encountering Japaneseness

Migration policy categorizing certain groups of people influences a domestic perception towards them.

The economic status of mother nations coupled with the tendency for trainees to send remittances home, which is rare for Japanese nationals, categorizes them as dekasegi trainees.

 “…. If trainees go back to Vietnam, they will be asked to go back to Japan for work to earn money by their wife or family, like dekasegi after getting married and having a child. Because they can earn much more money here (Japan)….” (a 56-years-old Japanese woman)

Here, her understanding of a ‘trainee’ is not a person who comes to Japan to acquire skills, as indicated in the aims of the program, but rather the one who comes to Japan to earn more money. The idea of ‘trainees’ as those who desire to earn money is related to dekasegi[21] (temporary migrant workers) linked to a person in the lower classes to avoid poverty, which justifies the racialized job market where people from ‘developing’ countries work in ‘low-skilled’ sectors and are considered to be ‘unskilled’ while those coming from Japan work in white-collar sectors. Such attitude of Japanese towards ‘trainees’, in some cases, is manifested as oppression where ‘trainees’ cannot resist their bosses as well as where some ‘trainees’ have no choice but to stay since the right to transfer to another workplace is not distributed to the trainees in principle. The restrictive migration policy allows companies to dominate the power over employees to some extent.

At the same time, the economic power relations are also internalized in a way that many trainees I interviewed aspired to work in Japan for a ‘better’ life and salary, which may be influenced by how the world system works that is impacted by colonial history. However, it is important to note that their motivation towards migration is different from person to person as the participants and previous research showed[22].

The command of the Japanese language also plays a huge role in the othering process.

“No, I cannot speak Japanese fluently, without an accent … When I make mistakes, I’m always scolded by seniors with bad words such as baka (idiot), boke nasu (foolish man), or shine (go to hell). Maybe they don’t think I can understand, but I know the meanings, I searched….” (a 26-year-old Vietnamese male)

That kind of bullying (being told bad words) is also reported by other participants, especially if they do not perform well or cannot speak Japanese. Previous literature[23] revealed that command of Japanese plays the most influential role in measuring ‘Japaneseness’, and obvious ‘foreign’ appearances legitimize unfamiliarity with Japanese culture and language.

However, since the appearances of people from Southeast Asian countries do not give a salient difference in terms of hair, eyes, and skin color compared to those from other parts of the world, their unfamiliarity with the Japanese language is not tolerated and becomes a source of dehumanization even though language proficiency is not a necessary part of the application process. The intersection of Westernized racial hierarchies with Japanese ingrained racial structures operates to classify migrants according to their nationality and language proficiency. Japanese racial ideology puts ‘trainees’ who do not have Japanese blood and cannot speak Japanese ‘perfectly’ without an accent as ‘non-Japanese.’

? Foreign workers in Japan rally against discrimination and denial of basic rights on 10 Mar 2008. Image: Catherine Makino/ IPS

Conclusion: Coloniality and Rearticulation of Japaneseness

As illustrated above, migration is a historically continuous process accelerated by migration policy that maintains colonial history, reproducing the racialization of migrants. ‘Trainees’ in Japan are individuals who go through the colonial landscape of the nation and are subject to racialized and gendered state power. The coloniality of labor is articulated in how their nationality justifies which sectors they get into and how they are treated. Racialization justifies how the dominant race subordinates racialized individuals, letting the Japanese become ‘Japanese’ in relation to them. This article implies that migration policy explicitly racializes certain groups of people, which often reinforces colonial power hierarchy even if it came from good intentions like international cooperation.

Migration policies such as TITP could be a re-articulation of imperialism and a recurrence of the colonial matrix of power that resonates differentiation which constitutes hierarchies through racialization in the labor market. In such a society, coloniality is articulated in the erasure of humanity, which justifies domination via the dehumanization of ‘others’ manifested labor exploitation.

Japanese migration policy rooted in a long seclusion history continues to racialize migrants, keeping racial order within Japanese society. It is equally important to acknowledge that some ‘trainees’ are actively resisting such a power structure in their ways, and they have multiple selves as my research participants imply. By inventing ‘trainee’, the difference that already existed was homogenized and erased, looking at them as a single unity. Yet, trainees’ experiences are different from each other, and they are not just ‘trainees’. In sum, a national project is operated in relation to migrant management and the presence of a ‘trainee’ reconstructs Japaneseness, reproducing historically established power hierarchies


Cited works

[1] For example, see Chaigne, T. (2022). ‘Unbearable hours, threats of being fired: The abuse of migrant interns in Japan,’; Matsumuro, H. (2022). ‘Vietnamese trainee speaks out on broken rib, injuries from assaults by Japanese colleagues,’; Sim, W. (2022). ‘Vietnamese man punched, beaten, kicked and insulted as an intern in Japan,’; Yoshikawa, T. (2022). ‘Vietnamese trainee endured 2 years of physical abuse’, The Asahi Shinbun: .

[2] Yoshida, M. (2021). ‘The indebted and silent worker: Paternalistic labor management in foreign labor policy in Japan,’ Critical Sociology, 47(1): pp. 73–89.

[3] Japan International Training Cooperation Organization. (2023). What is the technical intern training program?

[4] The name of the new program is tentative, and there has yet to be an English name. 

[5] Armstrong, B. (1989). ‘Racialization and nationalist ideology: The Japanese case,’ International Sociology, 4(3), pp. 329–343.  

[6] See Armstrong, B. (1989) and Suzuki, K. (2003). The state and racialization: The case of Korean in Japan. The University of California, San Diego, The Centre for Comparative Immigration Studies, Working Paper No. 69: https://ccis.ucsd.edu/_files/wp69.pdf

[7] See Armstrong, B. (1989); Robertson, J. (1998). “It takes a village: Internationalization and nostalgia in postwar Japan,” in Vlastos, S. Mirror of modernity: invented traditions of modern japan, Berkeley: University of California Press (Twentieth-century Japan, 9), pp. 110-129.; Suzuki, K. (2003).

[8] Baber, Z. (2023). ‘Class and “Race”. . . the two antinomic poles of a permanent dialectic: Racialization, racism and resistance in Japan,’ Current Sociology, 00(0); Suzuki, K. (2002); Yamamoto, K. (2015). The myth of ‘Nihonjinron’, homogeneity of Japan and its influence on the society. University of Leeds, CERS Working Paper.

[9] Shin, H. (2010). ‘Colonial legacy of ethno-racial inequality in Japan,’ Theory and Society, 39(3/4), pp. 327–342. DOI: 10.1 007/s 11186-010-91 07-3.

[10] Japan International Training Cooperation Organization. (July 2021). JITCO integrated brochure.

[11] Durán, C. (2019). ‘The paradigms of development and their evolution: From the economic to the multidisciplinary approach,’ Retos. 9(17), pp. 7-23.

[12] Strand, M. (2022). ‘Coloniality and othering in DFID’s development partnership with South Africa’ South African Journal of International Affairs, 29(3), pp. 65-386.

[13] Kothari, U. (2006). ‘An agenda for thinking about ‘race’ in development,’ Progress in Development Studies, 6(1): pp. 9-23. 

[14] Cook-Lundgren, E. (2023). ‘Theorizing the persistence of local–foreign inequality in international development organizations through the analytic of coloniality,’ Gender, Work & Organization 30(2), pp. 529–546.

[15] Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. (2023). About technical intern training program. Japan: https://www.moj.go.jp/isa/content/930005177.pdf.

[16] Kublin, H. (1959). ‘The evolution of Japanese colonialism,’ Comparative Studies in Society and History2(1), pp. 67–84; Taylor, K.E. (2013). ‘Japan: colonization and settlement,’ in The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration, Ness, I. (ed.).

[17] Organization for Technical Intern Training. (2022). Summary of FY2021 statistics of the organization for technical intern training:

[18] Yoshida, M. (2021). ‘The indebted and silent worker: Paternalistic labor management in foreign labor policy in Japan,’ Critical Sociology, 47(1): pp. 73–89.

[19] Collins, F.L. and Bayliss, T. (2020). ‘The good migrant: Everyday nationalism and temporary migration management on New Zealand daily farms,’ Political Geography, 80.

[20] Shin, H (2010).

[21] Dekasegi is a Japanese word that refers to temporary migrant workers who come to Japan for money. Originally, the word came from the idea of Japanese farmers immigrating from rural areas to the warmer cities temporarily for seasonal work (Tsuda, 1998). Yet, these days, it is usually used for Japanese Brazilians who come to Japan intending to work temporarily. implying a negative image of migration caused by poverty (Hosoe, 2003, Tsuda, 1998).

See more details: Hosoe, Y. (2003). ‘Japanese Brazilians seen at first hand: Ethnographic studies of a new minority in Japan,’ Social Science Japan Journal, 6(2), pp. 255–260; Tsuda, T. (1998). ‘The stigma of ethnic difference: The structure of prejudice and “discrimination” toward Japan’s new immigrant minority,’ Journal of Japanese Studies, 24(2), pp. 317–359.

[22] See for example, Hagen-Zanker, J., Hennessey, G., and Mazzilli, C. (2023). ‘Subjective and intangible factors in migration decision making: A review of side-lined literature,’ Migration Studies, 11(2), pp. 349-359.

[23] Iwata, M., and Nemoto, K. (2017). ‘Co-constituting migrant strangers and foreigners: The case of Japan,’ Current Sociology.

Moet Toyoda

Moet works for an international human rights organization and is currently based in Japan. She hold a MA in development studies with a specialization in governance of migration and diversity at International Institute of Social Studies, Netherlands.

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