By: Our Correspondent

In the 17th century and for almost 200 years after, only a handful of foreigners were ever allowed into Japan. Those who made it literally locked away, on a small island in Nagasaki called Dejima and were prisoners of Sakoku, Japan’s isolationist foreign policy.

Obviously, things have changed since the Tokugawa period, but some expatriates living in Japan still feel as though they are treated like prisoners on parole. From being referred to as ‘aliens’ to having to carry registration cards which, up until 1999, included the carrier’s fingerprints, those who moved to Japan on a mid-to-long-term basis have faced daunting prospects.

Now the need for workers may be changing the historic antipathy. From July, the infamous Alien Registration Card will be replaced with a “residence card” similar to those that Japanese nationals carry, except that it will also indicate the carrier’s nationality.

The introduction of the new registration system is a huge step forward. Not only does it allow permanent residents to stay for a maximum of five years instead of three, official records for mixed-race families will list all family members, regardless of nationality. Until now, foreign spouses could not be listed as the head of the family, and would not officially appear in records like family trees.

Compared to other countries, Japan has been slow to let go of its homogenous image and open up to foreigners. This move by the government not only shows how much non-Japanese residents in Japan have increased, it also reveals just how much Japan needs foreigners to contribute to their dwindling population and workforce.

The nation will face huge problems as the number of people in the workforce drops dramatically in the not-too-distant future. If the present fertility rate continues, the population, now 127 million, will fall below 100 million by 2050, to 40 million in a century. At this rate, the nation would be extinct by the end of the 22nd century.

Japan’s total fertility rate, now around 1.3, has been below replacement level for 31 years — since the mid-1970s. The reasons include inadequate government payments for child support, lack of nursery schools, low levels of female employment, long commutes and working hours for employees, cramped living conditions, costly housing, and even falling sperm counts.

These issues have made change inevitable as Japan’s population continues to stagnate. The need for foreign labor is forcing open the door to a closed society, although very slowly. As an example of this reluctance to allow in the gaijin, a plan to allow caregivers from the Philippines and Indonesia has resulted in embarrassment, as Asia Sentinel reported in 2010.

With the world’s fastest-aging population and a need for health workers, the plan attracted about 1,000 participants. Just three passed. The qualifying exam was in two parts, a practical test and a written exam given in Japanese, requiring among other things that the candidates read and understand Kanji, or Japanese characters, something that takes the Japanese themselves years from kindergarten through high school to master. Those who failed had to go back to their own country.

Japan has always been torn over the question of importing more migrant workers into their country. Nearly 200,000 Asians have come into Japan, many of them Chinese, ostensibly to learn technical skills, although the program has been criticized as simply a way for Japanese factories to exploit and abuse cheap labor.

On the one hand the society feels a certain duty to extend a helping hand to Asian countries, and it certainly has a growing need to find more workers willing to perform jobs that Japanese call the "three Ks" – kitsui (difficult), kitani (dirty) and kiken (dangerous). Care giving, and to a lesser extent nursing, fits into the kitani category, since it involves feeding, bathing changing the diapers of elderly Japanese.

Such examinations appear to exist just to keep foreigners out. But foreigners are becoming a vital addition to the workforce – although they’re on the decline too. According to the Ministry of Justice, following the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Japan’s slowing economy, the numbers of registered foreigners dropped 2.6 per cent over 2011.

For instance, even the strong Brazilian community in Southwest Japan is seeing a drop in numbers as Nikkei Japanese – Japanese people living overseas – return to cash in on Brazil’s booming economy which is now the sixth largest in the world. But as actual numbers of foreigners decrease, the number of mixed-race marriages in Japan is increasing. According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, in 2009, almost 35,000 marriages – about 5 percent – included a non-Japanese partner. That’s almost triple the 1985 figure of just over 12,000.

But many of Japan’s aliens take this strange, almost racist, approach to foreigners in their stride. An opinion piece in Japan Today even suggests that being referred to as ‘Gaijin-San’ is almost be a badge of honor for some non-Japanese living in Japan.

“It is good to be a gaijin in Japan. There are some days when I don’t feel like a gaijin… It doesn’t bother me if people don’t like me because I am a gaijin,” one commenter told Japan Today. Despite his optimism, he remains in the minority

(Anna Watanabe blogs under the name Rakugoka for Asian Correspondent, with which Asia Sentinel maintains a copy-sharing agreement.)