It has been claimed that Japan is not a country of immigration. Where is Japan’s distinctiveness evident, and what features does it share with other countries? This article examines the unique points of Japan and investigates problems of residence and citizenship. This article argues that Japan’s historical legacy and international human rights have had an impact on Japan’s migration and law, takes into consideration the need for new policies and examines some thorny issues. Globalisation and an ageing population are generating a debate on implementing a more liberal admission policy for highly skilled workers, students and nurses/care workers. Thorny issues comprise ethnic discrimination underscored by a colonial legacy and the still existing cold war in East Asia. Drawing a comparison with selected developed countries, this article indicates several challenges for Japan’s migration and law. Markedly, Japan is the only developed industrialised democracy that does not have an anti-discrimination law.