Nigerians and other West African migrants began coming to Japan in the mid-1980s as migrant workers. More recently, a common route into Japan for Nigerian migrants is to first go to Europe as false asylum seekers and establish legal residency permission there. Once this is done it is easier to acquire a tourist visa for Japan, after which the prospective migrant can enter the country and then overstay illegally. Legal migrants often enter via student visas, which allow them to work for a limited number of hours each week.
There are a number of organisations for Nigerian immigrants in Japan. The Nigerian Union in Japan, the oldest one, was founded in 1990, and restarted twice, most recently in 2010. The Imo State Union, founded in 2002, replaced it to become the largest and most active, and has formally applied for non-profit status under Japanese law.
Some Nigerian migrants during the 1980s found work in factories. Later, after the end of the Japanese asset price bubble reduced opportunities for such work, they shfited into the night-life industry in Tokyo's entertainment districts such as Kabukichō or Roppongi, a line of employment with a high level of public visibility. Many of the bars in these areas were previously owned by Chinese or Koreans, but during a police crackdown in 2002, closed down; Nigerians took advantage of the resulting business vacuum to open their own bars, and hired their fellow countrymen as workers. Typically, Nigerians can be seen on the street as touts and bouncers for bars. Many of the migrants working in this industry are in training for or have completed qualifications for professional positions such as engineering in institutions in their home countries or in Japan, but were unable to find any other kind of work in Japan suited to their level of education.
Nigerians have a very poor public image in Japan, with public reports of their activities often focused on crime and scams in bar districts to the exclusion of other aspects of the community. Some Nigerian bar and club owners have been known to spike alcoholic drinks and rob their customers, but though some reports of such incidents are borne out by investigation, others turn out to have no more factual backing than the customer waking up with a bad hangover. Many claim to be African American in an effort to avoid stereotypes and harassment.
川田薫 [Kawada Kaoru] (December 2008), "ナイジェリア人移住者の生活と資本形成に関する日米比較——関東と米国テキサス州の移住者の事例から [USA-Japan comparison of life and capital formation among Nigerian migrants: based on migrants in Kanto and Texas]", 『日本で暮らす外国人』[Foreigners living in Japan], Intriguing Asia 117, Bensey Publishing, pp. 172–179, ISBN978-4-585-10414-8, OCLC294935624
川田薫 [Kawada Kaoru] (2006), 在日ナイジェリア人のコミュニティの共同性の構築─イモ州同郷人団体がつなぐイボ民族の生活世界 [Structure of cooperation among Nigerians in Japan: Imo State migrant organisations and Ibo people's lives], 『生活学論叢』11: 127–138
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