How Many Foreigners in Japan Actually Commit Crimes?

How Many Foreigners in Japan Actually Commit Crimes?

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Police arresting a suspect
Picture: やんちんぐ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Some online allege that foreigners in Japan commit more crimes than Japanese citizens. But what do the statistics say?

A high-profile lawsuit over racial profiling in Japan has some online peddling the old saw that foreigners in Japan commit more crimes than Japanese citizens. Is this true?

The short answer, based on the statistics, is no. At least, not in any way that matters. Let’s see what the numbers say to understand why harassing foreigners living in Japan won’t make a bit of difference in improving public safety.

A lawsuit over police harassment

This week, three long-term residents of Japan filed a lawsuit against both the central government of Japan and their local prefectural governments. The three, who are all long-term residents or naturalized citizens, say they are routinely stopped multiple times a month by police based solely on the color of their skin. They’re suing for damages, saying the police have violated their human rights under Article 14 of Japan’s Constitution.

NHK News clip of a plaintiff in the case against Aichi Prefecture and the govenrment of Japan

Based on the press conference, it seems like the plaintiffs have a strong case. They cited as evidence a police instruction manual that encourages officers to stop people based on their appearance.

When Kanda University professor Jeffrey Hall wrote about the lawsuit on X (formerly Twitter), his mentions filled up with comments defending the police persecution of the three men.

“Perhaps foreigners should stop committing crimes at a rate far higher than native Japanese?” wrote some guy named Michael who apparently lives in America.

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“Since crimes are many times more common among foreigners than among Japanese, it is natural for them to be profiled,” wrote one user who let X’s algorithm randomly generate their user handle.

This is an old saw that Japan’s right-wing and their supported haul out all of the time to defend the status quo. It’s similar to how Japan’s right asserts that foreigners are bleeding Japan’s public assistance programs die. (Surprise: they’re not.)

But is there any truth to this bold assertion?

Japan’s foreign resident population

First, let’s set some context. How many foreigners are there in Japan? And where do they come from?

According to the latest information (October 2023) from Japan’s Immigration Services Agency, there were 2,939,051 mid- to long-term foreign residents in Japan as of June 2023. There were also 284,807 special permanent residents, for a total of 3,223,858 foreign residents. That’s up 4.8% from the prior year, by the way: Japan’s foreign resident population is growing YoY.

As of 2021, there were a total of 125.7 million people in Japan. That means resident foreigners make up only 2.5% of Japan’s total population.

So, already, we see some problems with the “foreigner crime” argument. How does 2.5% of a country’s population somehow wreak havoc on its peace and tranquility? Good question! Let’s round back to that after we dive into some more facts.

Who are these foreigners? Some in the West assume Westerners make up a substantial portion of Japan’s foreign resident population. In reality, it’s mainly immigrants from other Asian countries. Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Filipino residents make up the majority of foreign residents, with immigration from Vietnam increasing dramatically. Brazil lands at number five, largely due to the country’s long and complicated history with Japan.

Indeed, the US is the only other Western country to land in the top 10, with a mere 62,425 immigrants to Japan a year.

How many foreigners are arrested for crimes in Japan? (Spoiler alert: not many)

So what’s the answer to the question “how many foreigners commit crimes in Japan”?

First, this is the wrong question to ask. Due to underreporting and systemic bias, there’s no way to answer this question objectively. The best we can do is answer a related but very different question: how many foreigners are arrested for crimes in Japan?

I would also add that the real question we want to answer is: would cracking down on crimes by foreigners make Japan safer? I.e., would it reduce crime in Japan in any significant way?

Second, let’s define what we mean by “crime”. For this section, I’m going to break down crimes according to how Japan’s Ministry of Justice tracks them. This means that I’ll focus solely on criminal offenses, or 刑法犯 (keihouhan). These include theft, fraud, violence, misappropriation of funds or goods, trespassing/forced entry, sexual assault, and destruction of property.

You’ll notice this list of crimes does not include immigration violations. Those are categorized as “special crimes” or 特別法犯 (tokubetsu houhan).

I’ll talk about immigration violations separately below. Since criminal offenses involve all crimes against persons, they encompass what we’d commonly regard as threats to “public safety”. So it’s germane to focus on this category when asking if Japan’s foreigners are making Japan a less safe place to live.

Lies, damn lies, etc.

The publication Divership did a really good breakdown of the Ministry of Justice’s numbers based on 2020 (Imperial Era Reiwa 2) data. I’ve also double-checked their numbers against the MOJ’s latest data for 2023 (Reiwa 5). The numbers are generally unchanged. Plus, more recent data will show an even more marked decline given the disruptive effect of the pandemic on immigration. Given that, I’ll use Divership’s numbers below.

Divership points out that, in Reiwa 2, police arrested 182,582 people on criminal offenses. Of these, 9,529 were foreigners. That number includes 5,634 legal residents. The remainder were either visitors or people without legal residence or visitor status.

Number of crimes committed by foreigners in Japan up until Reiwa 2 (2020)

As Divership notes, no matter how you slice it, this means only 0.3% of foreigners in Japan are arrested for criminal offenses. It also means that only 5% of all arrests for criminal offenses in Japan are committed by foreigners.

Or, put another way, people of foreign nationality commit only 5 out of every 100 criminal offenses resulting in arrest in Japan.

Around 0.15% to 0.2% of Japanese citizens are arrested for a crime. This is the “damn lie” – the useless grain of truth – that the right uses to accuse foreigners of committing “more crimes” than citizens. But the tiny numbers tell a different story. What would increase public safety more – focusing on the 5 out of 100 crimes committed by foreigners? Or on the 95 out of 100 committed by citizens?

Additionally, as I mentioned above, these numbers likely don’t reflect Japan’s real crime rate, which is likely obscured by the following factors:

  • Crimes such as sexual assault – particularly groping – go underreported in Japan. One group estimated up to 80% of public groping assaults may go unreported.
  • The arrest rate for foreigners may itself be a distortion caused effect by increased police attention on crimes involving foreigners. In other words, the very scrutiny the plaintiffs are suing over in their case could itself be skewing these numbers.

At any rate, the statistics are clear. If your goal is to reduce crime in Japan, targeting foreigners isn’t a wise use of money and resources.

What crimes do foreigners commit?

So in what way are foreigners in Japan crimin’? The answer is pretty boring: the same way that Japanese citizens are crimin’.

Here’s a graph of crimes committed by foreigners in Japan in 2020:

61.1% of the crime committed by foreigners is theft. Only 11.3% is violence or body injury. 6.6% is fraud, which reflects how criminal organizations in Japan use both foreigners and the youth to do their dirty work.

If we compare this to the overall statistics, which include both citizens and foreigners, we don’t see much of a difference:

The major difference is less direct theft and more violence: 24.1% of all overall crimes are either violence or bodily harm. Embezzlement, at 6.9%, also plays a larger role in the overall statistics. Fraud comes in at 4.6%, a couple of percentage points lower than the foreign population.

What about “other crimes”?

Like I said, these numbers don’t include immigration offenses, which are called out separately as “special crimes” by the MOJ. Looking at the 2022 data, we can see that police arrested a total of 6,114 people in this category.

The vast majority of these arrests – 3,970 – are for immigration violations, such as overstaying a visa or entering the country illegally. The remainder are for drug use (829), violation of the nightlife act (122), and prostitution (a mere 14 arrests).

Note that this isn’t the total of immigration violations – it’s just the number who were apprehended by the police. According to Japan’s ISA, in 2022, 72,910 people overstayed their visas. The majority of these were people who arrived on short-term visitor visas. My assumption is that these people were either dealt with by ISA, eventually left the country, or remain at large (somehow – it ain’t easy to remain in Japan without legal registration).

A chart detailing how many people in Japan overstayed their visas. Short-term visitors dominate the statistics at 66.1%.
A chart detailing how many people in Japan overstayed their visas. Short-term visitors dominate the statistics at 66.1%.

Who really loves Japan?

Proponents of the “foreigners are criminals” bromide will likely argue that immigration violations are also crimes and should be included in the overall totals. I don’t see what purpose that would serve. Overstaying your visa is a nonviolent crime. Plus, the majority of offenders here are temporary visitors, not residents. Increasing or decreasing legal resident immigration wouldn’t move these numbers much.

Another comment I saw went on a conspiracy theory about how the three plaintiffs are funded by an “anti-Japanese” organization. These three men “hate Japan” and are trying to “take it down”.

That’s nonsense. Consider the man from Pakistan who’s a naturalized Japanese citizen. He could go back to Pakistan if he so chose. Hell, he’d likely face less discrimination. But he decides to remain in Japan and make things better – not just for himself, but for all immigrants. He’s choosing to remain here despite the harassment he’s faced.

If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

By reciting the myth that foreigners are running wild in Japan, proponents want to paint a picture of a country drowning in immigrant crime. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are likely many ways to make Japan safer. But none of them involve racially profiling its long-term foreign residents.

Sources

令和5年版 犯罪白書. Japan Ministry of Justice

外国人の犯罪率は本当に高いのか?国別、在留資格別に徹底検証!Divership

令和5年6月末現在における在留外国人数について. Japan Immigration Services Agency

3 foreign-born residents sue over racial profiling by Japan police. Kyodo News English

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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