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Tokyo’s tipping point: is the impenetrable city finally opening up?

Visitors to the Roppongi Hills commercial complex take selfies and pictures of the Tokyo skyline.

By other reckonings, however, Tokyo remains slightly out of step with its global cousins. Women remain rare in senior business and government positions, restaurants still fill with carcinogenic cigarette smoke and an alarming number of Tokyo citizens die from overwork.

The city has embraced international consumer culture, “but Tokyo isn’t diverse, at least not in the way London or New York are,” says Christopher Harding, senior lecturer in Asian history at Edinburgh University and author of Japan Story: In Search of a Nation. “All over Tokyo you have film, TV, music, shopping, gaming and so on that feels ‘opened up’ and cosmopolitan, while underneath, attempts to open up in terms of diversifying the population and shifting the attitudes of local Japanese – about who belongs and who doesn’t – haven’t really got anywhere.”

From the Middle Ages, Tokyo was a place that absorbed outsiders, and most Tokyoites come from somewhere else
This year, however, may be Tokyo’s great tipping point, with genuine transformation into a more open city taking on an air of inevitability, both for demographic and business reasons.

In Shinjuku, the Tokyo ward where Kabukicho is located, you could see this wave of change first-hand in January on Coming-of-Age Day, when people who turned 20 in the previous 12 months celebrate reaching adulthood. Around 45% of new adults were of foreign origin, and non-Japanese now make up just over 10% of the ward’s total population, according to the ward office. By contrast, foreign nationals make up just under 2% of Japan’s total population, according to a 2018 survey by the internal affairs and communications ministry.
Mario Kart-style go-kart racers on the street in Tokyo. Photograph: Hendrik Nolle/Alamy
The changing face of the “typical” Tokyoite will continue. Last year, Shinzo Abe’s conservative government relaxed immigration laws to open the country’s doors to up to 345,000 workers over the next five years

The decision was less a sea change in traditional resistance to immigration and more of an ad hoc response to the tightest labour shortage in decades, as the number of Japanese people of working age continues to shrink.

While immigrant workers are being dispatched to the regions to work in creaking industries such as agriculture and fisheries, Tokyo’s service sector is also snapping them up. The city now has 551,683 foreign residents, or 3.98% of the population, compared with 2.44% in 2000.