File image: REUTERS/Nanako Sudo

By Jeremiah Goddard

Japan stands at a unique juncture in its history, confronting a demographic challenge that necessitates the welcoming of approximately 11 million foreign workers by the year 2040 to address the growing labour shortage. Since the peak of its working-age population in 1995, Japan has witnessed a steady decline, prompting the implementation of the Technical Intern Training Programme (TITP) to ease immigration processes for foreign workers. However, this programme has encountered criticism both domestically and globally, primarily focusing on concerns about labour law standards and reported instances of worker abuse. The TITP, while serving as a conduit for employment opportunities, has raised ethical concerns. In inspections undertaken by the Labour Standard Offices, 70% of the worksites were found to have breached labour or occupational safety and health standards. Due to the TITP system prohibiting interns from switching employers, there have been reports of serious abuse such as human trafficking, wage theft, or passport theft. Furthermore, the interns are charged excessive recruitment fees to enter the programme from their home country, most of whom must go into debt to join.

Japan’s cultural inclination toward ethnic homogeneity adds an additional layer of complexity to the immigration discourse. As a culture, it is a source of pride to be a society that has a strong sense of group and national identity. In the 2020 census, Japan ranked the most ethnically homogenous developed country in world, with 97.8% of their population being Japanese. This poses issues for the influx of workers needed in the future. Due to the strong national identity, the foreign workers could face discrimination and cultural exclusivity. This has been noted within the Church in Japan as well. The Catholic Church in Japan recognised this trend and has begun a process of recruiting foreign pastors to reach foreigners in Japan alongside the aging clergy working to reach the Japanese people. This marks a shift in the Catholic Church’s missionary history in Japan.

It is also a unique moment for the Church in Japan. Over the next 15 years, it is expected that more than nine million foreign workers will be coming to Japan. Most of these will come from home countries with low Christian populations, which the Open Doors World Watch List rank in the top 50 countries for the level of Christian persecution. At the end of 2023, Vietnam was the largest supplier of workers, along with China and the Philippines. According to Joshua Project, 97.9% of Japan’s population is considered unreached with the Gospel and has been called a “graveyard for missions”. This is due to cultural, religious, and family challenges. Among the many challenges that cross-cultural missionaries face, is the time it takes to truly acclimate and be functional in ministry, with some estimates being between 7-10 years. However, with an influx in immigrants, so too came an influx in foreign Christians. According to a Gospel Coalition pastor in Japan, he began with a core team of 12 people in one church in 2010 which has now ballooned to a network of 10 churches with 500-600 members each. The pastor of Grace Church Planting Network said, “It feels like God is moving so fast that I alone can’t follow, not by myself.”

The field is opening in both directions – strong believers coming from foreign nations that have persevered through persecution to reach the Japanese people, but also the Japanese Church having the opportunity to reach or disciple people from other nations. All of this culminates to a grand opportunity for the wider Body of Christ. Since most Japanese pastors are beginning to fall in the 70-80 years age group, a new generation of missionaries is needed to reach both the influx of new immigrants and the Japanese people. Despite the challenges, God is moving, and it is an opportune time to think strategically. During what will certainly be a difficult transition for Japan, the Japanese Church has an opportunity to reach out to both the new immigrants as well as their people and the global Church can certainly come alongside them in this season.

Please pray with us for the following

  • For the protection and justice of foreign labourers
  • For the Japanese to have a welcoming heart towards foreign workers
  • For the Japanese Church to share their faith with boldness and rise to the opportunity
  • For the global Church to respond to the need for missionaries and to work strategically with the local Church