Now Reports

Fukuoka’s Foreigners – Who Are We?

Currently Fukuoka Prefecture is home to 39,000 foreigners and Fukuoka City to 20,400. With its proximity to the continent it is not surprising that 90% of foreign residents are from Asia. But what of the non-Asian migration? How has the influx of migrants from beyond Asia made a difference to Fukuoka? These questions lead to some interesting answers.

100th Issue Special- A Historical Overview
by Chris Flynn, Assistant Professor Kyushu Institute of Information Sciences

Of course it is impossible to find data on every person who has visited or lived in Fukuoka over the years, but the first recorded Western visit was that of Saint Francis Xavier, who stopped in Hakata on his way to Kyoto in 1550. Between 1641 and 1853 not many foreigners were allowed to set foot on Japanese soil, but after American Commander Perry forced Japan to end its isolation, many beat a path here.

Some of the first people to make their way to Fukuoka were missionaries, who established several Christian schools. Eiwa Jo Gakkou (now Fukuoka Jo Gakuin), founded in 1885 by missionaries from the Methodist Episcopal Church, was one of the first. The school was headed by a series of American principals, and one of these, Elizabeth Lee, is credited with introducing the sailor uniform to Japanese schoolgirls. The school also organized a visit to Fukuoka by deafblind author and activist Helen Keller. Another famous person to make his way to Fukuoka in pre-war days was Albert Einstein, who visited on Christmas Eve 1922.

With the start of World War II, thousands of POWs were brought to Fukuoka, and were left with bitter memories. Many worked on building the runway for the Fukuoka airport or in coal mines nearby to make up for the lack of manpower at the time. The end of the war brought the next wave of foreigners, in the form of the occupation forces. US camps included Camp Hakata (Uminonakamichi Koen), Camp Kurume and Camp Kasuga. The Korean conflict prolonged American military presence in Fukuoka, and in 1954 honeymooners Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio visited the armed forces stationed here.

In 1971 the Seinan Gakuin University exchange program commenced, and has brought hundreds of (mostly) Americans to Fukuoka to study, many of whom have stayed on. Augmenting the city’s strategy for internationalization, Fukuoka International School opened its doors the following year. The start of the working holiday program in 1983 also brought a sprinkling of Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders to town, and in 1987 the JET Program became the first large-scale program to recruit English speakers and provide them with a job, a decent wage and accommodation. This was the era of kokusaika, or internationalization, and the bubble economy with the promise of big pay for ordinary English speakers was a draw card for adventure-seekers; some of whom married locals and stayed.

In 1988 the Fukuoka Nihongo Center, the first Japanese language school, opened and accommodated 80 shugakusei (pre-college) students. They joined the 587 ryugakusei – students studying at public schools and universities. This figure is now 1307 and 5082 respectively. In 1989 Fukuoka City held the international expo Yokatopia and about 200 international pavilion attendants from the Asian-Pacific region spent six months working at Momochihama. Fukuoka’s international profile was raised even higher in the past decade with the hosting of major international events such as the 1995 Universiade, the 1997 Asian Development Bank, G8 2000 Finance Ministers Summit, and the 2001 World Swimming Championships.

By now, different-looking gaijin were no longer a novelty, and people pointing in awe became less frequent. It was from this point the number of foreign residents really increased. From 1990 to present the number doubled from 9,900 to 20,400. The establishment of the American, Australian, Canadian, Chinese, Korean consulates, UN HABITAT and various trade offices are testimony to the City’s growing importance overseas. Meanwhile the American Center, French-Japanese Institute of Kyushu, NPO Tiempo Iberoamericano and others have promoted internationalism. Finally, walk-in help centers like Rainbow Plaza and Kokusai Hiroba have been invaluable to foreign residents.

Recently relaxed visa regulations can be credited for the increasing number of foreign residents from an ever-widening array of countries. This includes changes such as self-sponsorship and three-year work visas. Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) can now be found in many schools throughout the prefecture, and more and more gaijin are setting up their business in Fukuoka. Perhaps the recent increase of foreign students and specialized laborers will compensate for Japan’s declining birthrate? The foreigners who have made their way to Fukuoka are now, more than ever, part of the region’s future.

We all sense that the number of foreigners living or visiting Fukuoka is increasing. But where are these people from and what are they doing here? Below are a few sets of key statistics.

According to the Ministry of Justice, as of 2006, the total number of foreign residents in Fukuoka Prefecture was 45,758. Chinese and Koreans account for 76% but it should be noted that many of these people were born in Japan.

“Special Permanent Residents” (37%) are first and second generation Koreans and Taiwanese who lived in Japan before and after the war and were given special status by law. It is interesting to note that Entertainment visas in 6th position barely exceed the number of foreigners on International Services visas (comprised mostly of language teachers). Draw your own conclusions.

Mixed Marriages
Back in 1997, Fukuoka Prefecture recorded 616 marriages between Japanese and non-Japanese. In 2001 the number was 779, and in 2005 it had risen to 928. Interestingly, the number of Japanese men marrying non-Japanese women nationally in 2002 was 27,957, far exceeding the 7,922 foreign men with Japanese wives. Japanese men are especially tying up with women from other Asian countries.

Overseas Visitors
Immigration records only track entries by foreigners via Hakata Port and the Fukuoka airport. Since neither receive ships from non-Asian countries, it is no surprise that non-Asians rank so low. In 2005, 59.8% of the total 498,056 visitors were from Korea, followed by 15.7% from Taiwan, 8.6% from China, and 2% from America.

Most foreigners come to Fukuoka for a year or two, and some longer and some shorter. We thought it might be interesting to hear about what Fukuoka was like way back from a few foreigners who came - and stayed.

Bob Arnold

Teacher (former Military)
American, 44 years in Fukuoka

“I remember when it was a dirt road to Shikanoshima, an American double-feature film was just 180 yen, and there were over 30 GI bars in Saitozaki – now it’s a ghost town – so some things have come and some have gone”

Gurbir Singh

Owner & Founder of Nanak Indian Restaurants
Indian, 30 years in Fukuoka

“There were very few foreigners here in 1977. We were pioneers in that respect. We used to have to go to Osaka or further for many things – now Fukuoka has it all. Now those cities are over saturated and Fukuoka has more potential.”

Bill C

Ex-Educator & DJ / ol’ Hippy / now retired
American, 35+ years in Fukuoka

“Arrived here in the Vietnam era, back when “Gaijin da” was cute and not a slur. 2,000 yen (360 yen=USD1.00) was more than enough for serious all-night Nakasu fun (etc.) using midnight-blackmarket taxis. The few; A&W, Mr. Donuts & Dairy Queens hadn’t yet found “the Fuk”.

Jimmy Bartlet

American, 37 years in Fukuoka

“Fukuoka’s much better now – everything’s gotten better! You used to see lots of gaijin “off limits” signs. Nakasu was where all the dance halls, discos and movie theaters were. Oyafuko was nothing!”

Rod Sebaoon

Hair Designer
French, 14 years in Fukuoka

“Unlike my home town Paris, you could get into any nightclubs – with no dress code, food and drinks all night, full dance floors, with no zombie DJ-watching crap, and Tenjin and Daimyo weren’t Kiddylands”.


Hector Omani

Bar Owner
Ghanian, 12 years in Japan

What’s it like being a bar owner in Fukuoka? Opening my own bar in 2000 earned me respect from both foreigners and Japanese and has really improved my lifestyle. I see it as my biggest achievement here. It has also enabled me to experience things like appearing in a weekly program on TVQ. Is life here very different to back home? In Ghana there were no real opportunities, but here if you’re willing to learn the language and work hard, you get your share. It’s the “Japanese way”. There have been challenges along the way and, yes, I’ve experienced some discrimination, but I believe patience moves mountains. What would you change about Fukuoka? Maybe Japan could use some reform because parts of the culture are still closed to foreigners. Overall, nothing really bothers me though. Fukuoka is like heaven to me!

Kim Jisook

Korean, 12 years in Japan

 What’s it like working in radio? I started at Love FM in 2000 and noticed through listeners that the Japanese attitude towards Korea is changing. First there was the Yon-sama boom with housewives, and more recently K-Pop has become all the rage with students. Making a program is a creative process, so there are differences of opinion at times. Japanese people like to avoid conflict, but I believe it’s an inevitable part of producing quality. How do you feel about Fukuoka? When Korean friends ask me to take them sight-seeing it’s sometimes hard to show things uniquely Fukuoka. Lately more and more national department stores are opening; I hope Fukuoka won’t lose its own flavor! Any advice for newcomers? Many people give out advice on what Japanese people are like but for me it’s important to experience Japan yourself and then make up your own mind.


Neil Witkin

American, 3.5 years in Japan

What’s it like teaching English here? I was on the JET Program for three years as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), and living in a small community and getting to know my classes was a fantastic opportunity. I think it’s really important to motivate students, so I’m always trying to make lessons engaging and fun. Now I’m teaching at an English conversation school with children and adults, so I’m learning a lot about how to work with different age groups. Any challenges? Well, I’m not a big fan of kancho! But I really enjoy teaching, and I think that it’s important that young learners leave class with a positive outlook on English and studying. How do you like Fukuoka? I think there’s a lot of great stuff going on in the art and music scenes. I think Fukuoka is a place with many great opportunities for foreigners.

Kanthi Abeysundara

Sri Lankan
10 years in Japan

Describe working in Japan. People here are very polite and punctual, all of my colleagues arrive to work early, every day! They’re also extremely disciplined. Everyone does so much overtime there doesn’t seem to be a balance between job and family life. Sometimes I think the Japanese are addicted to work! Any differences to back home? Here you rarely find women in executive posts while in Sri Lanka it doesn’t matter if you’re female – as long as you’re qualified for the position. Do you have any advice for newcomers? Obviously learning Japanese is very important, especially the spoken language – I’m still struggling with kanji after 10 years! And I think you should try to adjust to the Japanese system because foreigners can’t change the way things are done here. Complaining doesn’t help either so just try to adapt and enjoy your job!

Eduardo Jarque
Mexican, 3 years in Japan

Describe life as a student here. Kyushu University has a high academic reputation and great professors. I enjoy studying here. My research, academic activities and the Foreign Students’ Association (KUFSA) keep me really busy, but I manage to set some time free on weekends for traveling around Kyushu or going out to Tenjin. I also used to do some part-time work in translation. Why Fukuoka? It has the best University in Kyushu, it is a centric city in Japan with a very good standard of living; and the closest port to Korea and China. It is a perfect combination of a big metropolis and a quiet city. Any advice for foreign students? I think foreign students should get to know the local culture and society as much as possible, so I recommend getting involved in the Fukuoka community through places like Rainbow Plaza, where you can interact with Japanese people. Studying the language is crucial as well.

Put the good nature of your foreign friends to the test with a few of these ticklers. Use at your own risk and be prepared to run!

1. Say “haro” to one without any intent of having a conversation

2. Remark “your head is so small!”

3. When foreigners tells you they’re able to use chopsticks, give them a fork anyway

4. Ask a gaijin if he can eat natto and make him prove it!

5. Ask “when are you going home?” during your first conversation.

6. Prefer to stand for a 30 min. train ride because the only available seat is next to a gaijin

7. Date one for a year then suddenly marry your parents’ friends’ child

8. Leave the onsen bath when one hops in

9. After hearing she’s from Germany, ask her what part of the States she’s from

10. Call your male English teacher “rice king”

Photo credits: James Heneghan, Fukuoka Convention Bureau, Fukuoka City Wes Injerd, B. Hill

Almost as soon as we started putting together this feature we realized that eight pages were not enough to do justice to this topic. We also found that very little data on foreigners in Fukuoka exist. So we hope this will inspire others to finish the job with a more in-depth report. As a first step we propose a survey be made of as many foreign residents as possible. We’ve set up a internet site to collect such data. Your privacy will be protected and we promise to share the resulting statistics in an upcoming report. Please take a few minutes now and help us compile an accurate profile of Fukuoka’s foreigners!

Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn100  Apr. 2007)  


Fukuoka City
Published: Apr 1, 2007 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017