Toward a Cheese-in Japanese Immigration Policy

Cheese tastes great in a wide variety of foods. But did you know it also works with immigration policies? Well, it does, thanks to that modern Japanese preparation known as “cheese-in” (チーズイン). You might think it is something complicated, but far from it. Simply take a favorite food—or immigration standard—and stuff it with cheese. Voilà!

Of course, I’m not talking about stuffing immigrants with cheese, no, no. Rather, the immigrants are the cheese. Still not clear? Consider the Japanese dish known as hambaagu, a round, personal-size meatloaf covered in demiglace sauce. It’s very tasty, and despite its foreign origins, it is very Japanese. You find it absolutely everywhere in Japan, especially in so-called “family” restaurants.

You can order a standard hambaagu, but these days it’s all the rage to order it cheese-in. From the outside, it looks like a regular hambaagu. But slice into it with a knife and you are greeted with a rich, melty, lactose-tolerant sauce oozing out from the gaping wound. It’s a little bit creepy and extremely delicious!

How does this apply to immigration? There is this crazy idea going around that foreigners who make the move to Japan can never, ever fit in. Those who move here are often perplexed at the cultural differences and demanding expectations, and natives are just as baffled as to why these newcomers can’t get with the program. Some of these foreign residents start feeling like they aren’t wanted, or that they are substandard and superfluous in the eyes of citizens.

Policies communicated by the Japanese government and private institutions perpetuate this fallacy, even when it comes to daily essentials like setting up a bank account or writing your name on a form. Immigration policies are no exception. One that has garnered much controversy is Japan’s Technical Intern Training Program. Purportedly set up as a way to transmit skills to developing countries, this class of visas has been linked to abusive practices by less-than-reputable businesses seeking cheap, disposable labor. The Japanese government is currently crafting updates to the system that would provide more protections for these foreign workers. But Japan needs to go further. And that’s where the cheese comes in.

When your cheese-in hambaagu arrives piping hot from the kitchen, it looks just like those boring dairy-free versions. “Another day, another hambaagu,” you ponder mirthlessly. But then the cheese appears like something out of a Sigourney Weaver flick and your eyes light up. This is something new, something special. But I should warn you now that the day will come when grape-jelly-in hambaagu will be on everybody’s lips and the cheese-in version will be just another routine selection on the menu.

This is what Japan needs for its foreign residents, to have them be just another everyday menu item placed right alongside the non-cheese citizenry. What makes Japan unique is not the DNA of its residents but rather its cultural and communal distinctives. These can all be imparted and learned; Japan already does this for its children. It will work for foreigners as well. Sure, it will take time, and the cheese that foreigners bring will be new and strange. But ultimately, it’s not about the cheese. These new residents will become ordinary hambaagu options, and the choice between cheese and no-cheese will be one of those things that keeps life from getting dull.

How will this happen? Japan’s public and private institutions must ensure that the rules applied to foreign workers and immigrants will allow them to fit in to the greatest extent possible. Japan is a land of expectations, and those expectations must include a path for the complete normalization of life for those who are granted residency and even citizenship. There will always be a handful of benefits that are inaccessible to those with entry-level visas. But even with these limitations, every person who has gained access to the Japanese community and desires to be a valuable part of this nation’s future should be guaranteed the same level of security and prospects that citizens take for granted.

The Japanese are masters at blending foreign tastes into domestic food staples. As the foreign-born population grows over the next few decades, the country may struggle with the best way to augment its home-grown recipes. Fortunately, cheese works well pretty much everywhere.

[Image Credits: syk/]

Tim Odagiri

Tim Odagiri is an author, software developer, and the host of Japan Everyday. He has published more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles covering technology, current events, and now life in Japan. Find his latest books at


  • Good one, excellent win-win analogy for Japan, and immigrants. In fact, years ago many Japanese did not like and still do not even now fully appreciate cheese varieties, tastes, opportunities. Now cheese is accepted, but years ago in the 1960-70s, I understand cheese was stinky or did not “sit” with the Japanese stomach. Today also, the various varieties of excellent French or other import cheeses are not fully known or appreciated, except in elite wine and cheese or other circles, and this is definitely more broad win-win opportunity for “taste”, “pleasure”, “business”, “profit”. Not to mention, let those immigrants in to help… Thank you very much for sharing Japan Everyday!

  • Evidence shows cultural and communal distinctives are deeply ingrained traits that cannot be easily imparted or learned on a large scale. Wouldn’t be surprised if genetics play a significant role in shaping these characteristics. Western Europe has struggled to successfully integrate various cultural groups despite investing significant resources and effort. Notably, Scandinavian countries have recently faced challenges in addressing the integration of enclaves within their societies. Many individuals within these enclaves resist learning the local language and demand accommodations, effectively creating pockets of isolation and division within the larger community.

    • I understand that those who arrive in Japan as adults (as I did) might not be able to fully acclimate to every aspect of Japanese culture, language, or societal norms. However, the American melting pot experiment has shown that successive generations can easily become immersed in every way into the core culture to the point where nobody doubts they are 100% American. Although I have lived in Japan only a few years, I have seen no evidence that my genetics would limit me in any way from fitting into to every aspect of the culture and society if I put in the effort. Sure, the shirt sleeves are a bit too short for me. But as the foreign-born population grows, even that minor inconvenience will be resolved. But as for language complexities and the Japanese worldview, these are things that any human (and even more so, their children) can adapt to. Any perceived barriers to integration and assimilation are due to policy or stubbornness, not genetics.

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