For zainichi, questions of identityOSAKA
Choe Chun-ho, 25, is a third-generation ethnic Korean living in Japan. Park Shin-cha, 23, is also a third-generation ethnic Korean in Japan. But they have two different nationalities: Mr. Park is a South Korean citizen, while Mr. Choe is a citizen of Joseon, a country that does not exist.
With their same ethnic roots, it’s not surprising that the two would become close friends, but it’s something their grandparents’ generation would have never dreamed could happen.
Mr. Choe and Mr. Park are members of the zainichi, an abbreviation of the Japanese words meaning “Koreans living in Japan.” Their grandparents were part of the nearly 2 million Koreans who moved to Japan by 1944, one year before Korea was liberated from Japan’s colonial rule.
Many Koreans, mostly from Jeju island and Gyeongsang province in what is now in South Korea, came to Japan either as migrant laborers before the war, or involuntary conscripts in the Japanese Army during World War II. After Japan was defeated, most Koreans went home, but others stayed.
The zainichi now number about 650,000, the vast majority being second or third generation. Even though they were born in Japan, have lived there all their lives and speak fluent Japanese, the government doesn’t consider zainichi citizens, only legal aliens.
In terms of citizenship, the zainichi have three choices: Kankoku-seki, or South Korean; naturalization to be a Japanese citizen; Chosen-seki, or Joseon, a nation that no longer exists. It refers to the Korean dynasty that ended with Japan’s colonization of Korea in 1910. (Japan doesn’t officially recognize North Korea, so that nationality isn’t available.)
Mr. Choe is in the last category, even though his alien registration lists as his hometown a place in South Gyeongsang province in South Korea where his grandparents were from but Mr. Choe has never visited. He describes himself as “neither Japanese nor Korean.”
Born Haruhiro Sai, he decided to change his name when he was 21, after a close Japanese friend casually asked him, “So, who are you going to vote for in this coming election?”
He answered, “I can’t vote, because I’m a foreigner. I’m a zainichi.” His friend was surprised, having no idea that Mr. Choe wasn’t Japanese.
His reaction alarmed Mr. Choe and made him rethink his heritage, so he changed his name, based on the same Chinese characters but using Korean pronunciation. Then he wrote a letter to his friends and acquaintances, titled “About my name.” “The pronunciation now differs from my old name, but the person has not changed a bit, so relax,” he wrote.
“I wanted to let my friends know that I’m actually different from them,” he says. “I wanted them to know and to admit the difference. After all, zainichi are a product of history that Japan has created, something that has to be remembered.”
He says he cannot blame the zainichi for deciding to become Japanese citizens, because many ethnic Koreans still experience a great deal of discrimination, although not as much as their predecessors did.
Effects of discrimination
Foreigners often feel shut out by Japanese society, but the first ethnic Korean immigrants felt the full scorn of the Japanese, who looked down on the members of their former colony.
Even if they speak fluent Japanese and have grown up in Japan, many zainichi have a hard time finding good-paying jobs in Japan, as many employers want only Japanese workers. According to statistics from a pro-South Korean zainichi group called Mindan, about 460,000 zainichi are unemployed, with 170,000 working as sales clerks or mechanics.
It’s a problem that needs more attention, Mr. Choe says.
“Young Japanese people of today do not care about discrimination, not because they think it’s something wrong but simply because they don’t know about it,” he says. “They tend to simply think everyone living in Japan is Japanese, which pains us.”
As foreigners, zainichi are not allowed to vote, but there’s currently a movement to get them the right to vote. A group of Japanese lawyers as well as zainichi groups are working to secure suffrage for zainichi, but so far efforts have been fruitless.
Conditions have improved, however, especially after Japan signed the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1991 agreement between the Japanese and South Korean governments about the zainichi status. From 1993, the Japanese government stopped requiring zainichi to have fingerprints on their alien registration card. Some elementary schools have started to accept ethnic Koreans as teachers.
But those who choose to be Chosen-seki have a special set of hardships. Traveling abroad is more difficult because Joseon nationals do not have a government that can issue them a passport. They instead get what is called “Permission to Re-entry” by Japanese government, which is valid for five years.
To visit South Korea, however, they have to get a special document called “temporary passport,” valid only for one-time travel that does not exceed one week. After a Joseon national gets the “temporary passport” once, it’s hard for them to get it again, Mr. Choe says.
He was lucky to be in Seoul for the World Cup in 2002 to cheer South Korea. He wasn’t able to receive the temporary passport until he showed he had the tickets for the game.
“I doubt if I can go back again to Seoul because of the passport issue, no matter how much I want to,” he says.
As a linguistics major at the prestigious Kyoto University graduate school, Mr. Choe wants to pursue further studies abroad, but it won’t be easy for him.
Another hardship Joseon nationals encounter is the anti-North Korean sentiment in Japan, which intensified after North Korean leader Kim Jong-il admitted in 2002 that his country kidnapped Japanese citizens in the 1970s.
Although Joseon nationals’ representative group, called General Association of Koreans Living in Japan (known as Jochongryeon in Korea) has close ties with North Korea, Joseon nationals are not necessarily pro-North Korean, yet many Japanese and South Koreans believe they are.
Isolated from Japanese
Standing on a busy street in Shinjuku, downtown Tokyo, Chung Kyong-sim, 23, looks like any other fashionable young Japanese woman, but she lives a life quite isolated from other Japanese as a member of the Jochongryeon and a Joseon national.
All her life, she has attended schools run by the association, where she wore Korean traditional clothes as a uniform. The uniform, called chima jeogori, a white top and black skirt that’s shorter than the authentic traditional style, sets the Joseon nationals apart from other ethnic Koreans, and has been the target of Japanese who are looking to express their anger against North Korea.
After North Korea admitted to the abduction of Japanese citizens, a school uniform was found ripped up on the street and Ms. Chung’s school received phone calls of bomb threats.
She speaks fluent Korean with a North Korean accent because of the education she got in the schools, whose programs are all run in Korean. At school, Ms. Chung called the former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung “the Great Leader” and saluted at his portrait next to that of his son Kim Jong-il. Basic courses at her school included Kim Il Sung’s childhood stories and “The History of Joseon’s Revolution.”
The Japanese government doesn’t recognize the school, which holds classes only in Korean, as a regular one. Instead, it is put in the same category with vocational institutions such as beauty schools, whose graduates can’t enter universities.
Graduates from Ms. Chung’s school must go through a separate screening process if they wish to go to a national university. At other ethnic Korean schools, graduates need only to submit documents proving that they have received a high school level of education.
Now in a university run by the Jochongryeon, Ms. Chung majors in political science and law with the hope of pursuing women’s studies at a graduate school.
Why does the association endure such discrimination for its pro-North Korean stance? Ms. Chung explains that for the zainichi suffering from poverty and discrimination, the North Korean regime was their only supporter, providing funds since 1957. “The story about Kim’s support is now a legend in our group,” she says.
After the Korean War, the South Korean military regimes paid little attention to the zainichi community, while North Korea spared a part of its national budget to help the zainichi, Ms. Chung says. After the 1965 treaty between South Korea and Japan, the chasm between the zainichi and South Korea deepened even more.
The other main ethnic Korean group in Japan, which is pro-South Korea, is called Mindan, or People of Republic of Korea in Japan. For decades, Mindan and Jochongryeon have been enemies, like a miniature North Korea and South Korea, which often led to physical attacks, until the 1970s.
Yet just like the two Koreas, the relationship between the two groups has changed quite a bit since their founding. The pro-North Korean courses at her former school have been dropped or are about to be abolished, and the portraits of the North Korean leaders are gone, Ms. Chung says.
“My friends and I all want to visit South Korea and love [South] Korean TV dramas,” Ms. Chung says. “I’d be so happy if this interview can change the stereotype of [South] Koreans toward Korean-Japanese with Joseon nationality.”
Then she adds, “Will the group still be as it is in 10 years? I doubt it.”
Friendly ties among members of Mindan and Jochongryeon, especially in the younger generations, are common. Mr. Choe and Park Shin-cha in Osaka and Ms. Chung in Tokyo call each other friends and have only good things to say about each other.
The Korea NGO Center, based in Osaka, promotes friendship between the two groups. The center’s annual event, One Korea Festival, has been around for years and will celebrate its 20th anniversary this October.
“We used English words, One Korea Festival, on purpose, neither Japanese nor Korean,” says Kwak Jin-woong, the director of the center, “because we wanted to express ourselves as something that overcomes nationalities, be it South Korean, North Korean, or Japanese.”
Ethnic identity issues
Many young ethnic Koreans struggle with the issue of identity, especially as more descendants cannot speak Korean, like Mr. Choe, and do not claim either Korea as their homeland.
“Ethnic identity and national identity are something completely different,” Mr. Park says. “But people tend to ignore the difference and simplify everything, which can be a pain for people like us.”
Mr. Park says the Japanese government is pressuring more zainichi to become Japanese citizens under a law that applies to those who are born after 1985 with at least one Japanese parent. “Until the person reaches his 20s, he has dual citizenship. After that, if he wants to remain zainichi, he has to take the trouble to register himself as an alien, an announcement that he gives up Japanese citizenship. If he does nothing, however, he automatically becomes a Japanese citizen,” Mr. Park says.
Mr. Choe says he and his contemporaries have a mission. “The first generation made a foundation, the second generation tried to keep Korean traditions like giving Korean names to their children. The third generation, like me, bears a responsibility to recover the tradition culturally and historically,” he said.
He is well aware that he can easily change his nationality to either South Korean or Japanese, which would end most of his difficulties as a Chosen-seki. But that is the last thing he wants to do.
“When we brought up the issue to the Japanese government, they just casually say, ‘If it’s that much hassle, then why don’t you simply change to a Japanese nationality and be a citizen?’ But I don’t want that, because it’s just making an unhappy compromise with reality without fixing any real problems,” Mr. Choe says.
“We’ve been living in Japan for decades peacefully and will do so in the future. What I want is the change of attitude of Japanese people, which, in the end, would be good for Japanese society, I believe,” he says.
Mr. Park changed his nationality to South Korean last year, but he did it mainly to alleviate certain inconveniences.
“I just first wanted the freedom to do things that I want to, like traveling for one thing,” he says. “I wanted to see a bigger world.”
Mr. Choe and Ms. Chung envy Mr. Park because he can travel to Korea freely. He’s already been to Seoul and now is planning to come back in November.
“I hope I can go to South Korea soon, but only when I can go exactly as I am, without having to change anything,” Ms. Chung says. “There are so many things I want to do in my grandmother’s home country.”
Mr. Choe has never considered himself pro-North Korean, but he had an eye-opening experience when he met South Korean students in England during a trip after he entered college.
At first, he was glad to meet them, but Mr. Choe only barely managed to communicate with them in his pidgin Korean. Then one of the South Koreans told Mr. Choe in English, after learning his Joseon nationality, “So, you’re a North Korean.”
After he returned home, the first thing Mr. Choe bought was a Korean study aid.
“What’s so wrong about the ‘Joseon’ nationality?” he asks. “What’s so wrong about using the word ‘Joseon?’ South Korea itself has ‘Chosun’ (Joseon) Ilbo and Chosun University.
“Having a Joseon nationality does not mean that I am pro-North Korean,” he adds. “I don’t want to go to North Korea. I just cannot accept a divided country as my homeland, that’s all. I therefore consider Joseon, the state before colonization and division, as my native country. If I choose the South Korean nationality, then it would be acknowledging my divided homeland.”
by Chun Su-jin