Japan-born Koreans live in limbo

Norimitsu Onishi – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
Saturday, April 2, 2005
TOKYO Chung Hyang Gyun’s news conference was a sight seldom seen in Japan, the raw anger written across her face, the fury in her voice and words, the palpable feeling that these last words would somehow redeem the futility of her actions.
“I want to tell people all over the world that they shouldn’t come to Japan to work,” Chung said in perfect Japanese, befitting someone who has lived only in Japan. “Being a worker in Japan is no different from being a robot.”
After a decade-long battle, the Supreme Court ruled recently that Chung, the daughter of a Japanese woman and a South Korean man, who was born in Japan and has lived all her life here, could not take the test to become a supervisor at a public health center because she was a foreigner.
“I have no tears to shed,” said Chung, a 55-year-old nurse. “I can only laugh.”
Chung is what the Japanese call a “Zainichi,” a term that literally means “to stay in Japan,” but that is usually shorthand for Koreans who came here during Japan’s colonial rule, and their descendants. Considered outsiders both in Japan and on the Korean peninsula, they have, over the years, adopted different ways of living in Japan.
Japan has softened its attitudes toward the Zainichi, and many have become citizens and taken Japanese names. Others have taken citizenship, but kept their Korean names. Others, like Chung, have taken neither citizenship nor name. Disagreements exist, even within families.
Reaction to the court’s ruling – that local governments can bar “foreigners” from holding official positions where they exercise “government power” – was split along political lines. Liberals said an aging Japan with a shrinking work force would lose by shutting out people like Chung, who could hardly be considered a “foreigner.” Conservatives said foreigners like Chung should simply become Japanese citizens.
The morning after Chung’s news conference, her boss asked whether she regretted her words, she recalled in an interview. “No way,” was her answer. “I didn’t say enough.”
Chung’s father, Chung Yeon Gyu, a Korean nationalist who opposed Japanese colonial rule, arrived in Japan in the 1920s. According to Toshio Takayanagi, a historian at Hosei University in Tokyo, Chung Yeon Gyu published novels and essays critical of the Japanese government; his writings were often censored and in 1944 he was put on a watch list by a special police unit.
During Japan’s colonial rule, some Koreans went to Japan looking for economic opportunities, while others were taken there as forced laborers. By 1944, nearly two million Koreans lived in Japan, though most were repatriated after Japan’s defeat in World War II, and the number fell to fewer than 600,000 by 1947. In 1952, the Zainichi were made to choose between South or North Korean citizenship, and were recognized as permanent residents of Japan.
Chung’s parents settled in Iwate prefecture in northern Japan. While she was growing up there, Chung remembers, most of her classmates were told by their parents not to associate with her.
“Once when some kids threw dirt on my dress, my father said, ‘Who did that? You should fight against them.’ But my mother said, ‘Don’t blame them. It’s the parents who didn’t teach them.”‘
When she entered junior high school, a teacher ordered her to adopt a Japanese name. Other Zainichi in her class, who used Japanese names and hid their real ethnic backgrounds, faced anguish at graduation ceremonies when certificates were handed out in their Korean names.
Unwanted in Japan, she dreamed of finding acceptance in South Korea, where she went to study after graduating from college in Japan. “But what I faced was terrible discrimination,” she said.
South Korea, then headed by the military ruler, Park Chung Hee, was fiercely suspicious of Zainichi, many of whom were pro-North Korea. (A Zainichi would, in fact, later try to assassinate Park in Seoul, killing his wife instead.) What’s more, Zainichi like Chung, who barely spoke Korean, were not considered Korean at all.
Eventually, Chung became a public health nurse and in 1988 she was hired by the Tokyo Metropolitan government. Given the traditional Japanese respect for civil servants, her daily life became easier. For once, she faced no discrimination and she even considered getting Japanese citizenship.
But everything changed in 1994 when she applied to take a test for a managerial post. After she was told that managers had to be Japanese, she filed the lawsuit that was recently rejected by the Supreme Court.
Recently, civil service positions have been opened to non-Japanese in 11 out of 47 prefectures and most big cities. But only a few municipalities, like Kawasaki City near Tokyo, have opened management-level positions to non-Japanese. The Supreme Court ruling makes it less likely that other municipalities would follow suit.
The easiest route toward the managerial posts is to acquire Japanese citizenship, a choice that more Zainichi have been making. In 2003, there were only 470,000 officially recognized Zainichi, a drop of about 100,000 since 1993. Naturalized Japanese are no longer counted as Zainichi.
One of them is Chung’s older brother, Tei Taikin, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University specializing in Japan-Korean relations and Zainichi issues. He became a naturalized Japanese in 2004, changed his name and urged his sister to make the same choice.
A Zainichi is confined to an uncertain existence, he wrote in Chuo Koron, a conservative monthly. “In order to remove such uncertainty, you need to get your nationality closer to your identity – that is, acquire Japanese nationality and, hopefully, you can live as a Korean-Japanese.” Chung said she had not read her brother’s essays.
“Zainichi who get Japanese nationality do so feeling, ‘What else can I do?”‘ she said. “They do so because they do not want to be discriminated against.”
“For the Japanese government, there is no greater eyesore than the Zainichi who refuse to be naturalized, because the Zainichi are a reminder of unresolved postwar issues,” she said. “Zainichi people’s existence is significant because we are witnesses to history.”

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