Chinese people became the largest group of foreign nationals living in Okinawa Prefecture in 2018, surpassing American residents — excluding personnel on U.S. military bases and their dependents — for the first time since a new calculation method was employed in 2012.
As of the end of December last year, 18,025 foreign nationals were living in the prefecture, up 13.7 percent from the previous year. Of these, 2,600 people were Chinese, followed by 2,530 Americans and 2,153 Filipinos, according to Nansei Shoto Industrial Advancement Center (NIAC), a think tank for the development of the Nansei region.
In 2012, a new residence management system that omits non-Japanese staying in Japan for three months or less was introduced. The trend reflects an increase in the number of Chinese people with work visas employed as interpreters, hotel staff and language teachers as tourism to Okinawa catches on.
Nepalese people were the fourth-largest group of foreign residents in Okinawa, at 2,139, and Vietnamese ranked fifth at 2,047, NIAC said.
The NIAC report, released Aug. 5, is based on the Justice Ministry’s statistics on foreign residents in Japan and uses tallies taken at the end of each year.
Chinese resident numbers began increasing in 2015. The opening of a passenger terminal for cruise ships in April 2014 in the Wakasa area in the port of Naha has attracted more travelers from China and Taiwan, fueling demand for workers who can attend to them.
Chinese residents in Okinawa have maintained a double-digit growth rate since 2016. The rate in 2018 was 10.2 percent year on year, while for Americans it was 0.2 percent.
U.S. nationals were the largest group of foreign residents in the prefecture from 2012 to 2017, with their annual numbers hovering between 2,100 and 2,500. Military personnel and their dependents, as well as civilian workers on the U.S. bases, are exempt from the residence management system, as set out by the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement.
American resident numbers are likely to be higher in areas where U.S. military bases are concentrated. In Okinawa Prefecture, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, Americans made up 14 percent of all foreign residents in 2018, the highest ratio across all prefectures. This was followed by Aomori Prefecture, which is home to U.S. Misawa Air Base, at 6.7 percent. Nagasaki, where the U.S. Sasebo naval base is located, had the fourth-highest ratio at 4.6 percent.
Okinawa’s overall growth in foreign residents, 13.7 percent, was the sixth-highest in Japan and continued a streak of annual growth above 10 percent since 2014.
Vietnamese nationals saw the biggest increase in 2018, at 61.2 percent, due mainly to a surge in the number of technical trainees.
The number of Nepalese residents, mainly students, had been ballooning in the prefecture through the end of 2015. From 2016, however, when illegal employment became an issue, their numbers remained almost unchanged, but in 2018 the numbers rose 13.7 percent.
The Filipino population started growing in the 1980s as they started working at restaurants on U.S. bases, among other places. Many of the Filipino residents in 2018 were permanent residents, according to NIAC, a status granted to foreigners who have lived in Japan for 10 or more years and satisfy other requirements.