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«Koreans in Japan have been a socially excluded minority group in Japan for much of the last 80 years. Incremental changes over the past couple of ...»

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Korean-Japanese? Shifting Perceptions of Belonging among Koreans in


Jeffry T. Hester

Associate Professor Asian Studies Program

Kansai Gaidai University, Hirakata-shi, Osaka, Japan


Paper prepared for the First World Congress of Korean Studies, Seongnam,

Republic of Korea, 18-20 July 2002

Koreans in Japan have been a socially excluded minority group in

Japan for much of the last 80 years. Incremental changes over the past

couple of decades, including changes in their legal status in Japan, generational changes among Koreans as well as Japanese, and shifts in social attitudes towards things Korean and towards cultural difference within Japanese society more broadly, have brought Koreans into greater integration within Japanese society.

The debate on belonging among Koreans in Japan since the end of the Pacific War has been structured around three alternatives to dealing the contradictions arising from life in diaspora in a society in which their

cultural difference was stigmatized and treated as a target of erasure:

repatriation, maintenance of Korea identity and nationality as "zaiNichi" Japan-resident foreigners, and naturalization. The first, after three to four generations of settlement in Japan, is no longer considered a serious option. Many Koreans continue to opt for the second alternative of maintaining foreign nationality. Those choosing naturalization, however, have increased from the mid-1990s, and now amount to about 10,000 per year.

Through generational processes assimilation and inter-marriage, boundaries between Koreans and Japanese based on exclusive categories marked by nationality, lineage, language and culture have become blurred.

In this paper, following an outline discussion of the shifting contexts in which Koreans have had to negotiate their positions between Japan and Korea, I discuss two manifestations of an emerging discourse on Korean belonging in Japan and the boundaries of "Koreanness." The first is the novel GO, written by Kaneshiro Kazuki, which has also been made into a hit film. The second is a group of books authored by Koreans who discuss in positive terms the option of Koreans in Japan acquiring Japanese nationality. This, I claim, is a new position in the debate among Koreans on belonging. Both of these, I believe, represent a challenge to heretofore dominant conceptualizations of the boundaries of "Koreanness," as well as "Japaneseness" within Japanese society.

Shifting contexts, emerging orientations Since August 1945, when Korea was liberated from Japanese rule, Koreans in Japan have had choices thrust upon them regarding how to position themselves in terms of belonging between Japan and Korea. In referring to "choices," I mean to suggest the shifting context of constraints and possibilities those of Korean background face in positioning themselves in terms of political agency and identity between three states, and as "nonmainstream" within dominant Japanese notions of social belonging. These are choices which those Japanese for whom nationality, place of residence and understanding of heritage are in conjuncture do not have to face.

These choices, of course, arose within the contradictions of colonial rule, and have been constrained by its legacies. Over the years, however, shaped by generational shifts and changes in the legal and social environment, the character of these choices has changed. Put schematically, I believe these choices have developed in three successive stages, roughly corresponding to, though not reducible to, generational changes among Koreans in Japan, and reflecting as well shifts within Japan, in Japan-Korea and inter-Korean relations, and in the postcolonial world more broadly.

The first set of choices thrust upon Koreans in Japan involved the very basic question of where to build their lives. Of the nearly 2.5 million Koreans in Japan at the end of the Pacific War, the great majority repatriated to the peninsula, leaving behind some 600,000, whose descendants form the great majority of the present Korean population in Japan. "Return to the homeland" was also the choice of nearly 93,000 Koreans and a number of their Japanese spouses who made the passage to North Korea during the repatriation movement from 1959 into the 1960s.

These were choices made primarily by first-generation Koreans competent in Korean language and culture practices.

The second set of choices has involved the politics of the state, and the orientation of Japan-resident Koreans toward a divided Korea.

There are a couple of dimensions of this I would like to mention. First, of course, is the question of affiliation with the north or with the south. Before 1965, most Koreans in Japan chose the former. This was been shaped by, first, the socio-economic position of most Koreans in Japan within an exploited low-wage laboring class disposed to sympathize with a politics of the left; and secondly, by the material and moral support coming from the north which helped build, among other things, a full-fledged Korean school system within Japan. The Japan-ROK Normalization treaty of 1965, however, altered this dynamic, as it gave Koreans with ROK nationality greater stability in terms of residence status and access to certain social services. By the early 1970s, the majority of Koreans in Japan had become nationals of the Republic of Korea.

The second dimension of the politics of the state among Koreans in Japan involved the question of Korea-orientation versus Japan-orientation.

An emerging perspective on this issue, particularly among some secondgeneration Koreans, was brought out in relief by the movement organized around the Hitachi employment discrimination case. In 1970, a young Korean high school graduate, Pak Jong-shik, had applied to Hitachi under his Japanese-style name of “Arai,” passed the company recruitment process and received an offer of employment. When the company discovered that Pak was actually of Korean nationality, they withdrew their offer. Pak sued Hitachi in an effort to force the company to overturn its refusal of employment. A network of both Japanese and Koreans supporting Pak's claims grew up around the case, eventually developing into a nationwide network organized against ethnic discrimination. The ethnic organizations representing the two states on the Korean peninsula, however, distanced themselves from Pak’s movement, on the grounds that it was a demand for integration into Japanese society and thereby promoted the assimilation of Koreans.

The Hitachi case set the stage for internal debates that were to follow among Koreans in Japan between a view advocating a civil rights perspective that sought equality of treatment within Japanese society and streams of thought promoting ethnonational consciousness and solidarity that gave priority to the homeland and the Korean nation in the lives of Korean residents in Japan.

An important intervention from the Japanese side that helped to frame this debate was that of an official of the Japanese Immigration Bureau by the name of Sakanaka Hidenori. In 1977, in the pages of a journal issued by the Ministry of Justice, Sakanaka made the case that naturalization was the best route both for Koreans themselves and for Japanese society. He advocated this view in order the resolve what he characterized as the contradiction between Koreans being culturally “quasi-Japanese” (junNihonjin) while being defined legally as “foreigner.” Sakanaka was himself engaged in an internal debate within Japanese political circles about how to treat resident Koreans in the context of state security. He took the position that Koreans' status should be stabilized to the greatest degree possible, and that the choice of naturalization be made easier, to encourage their assimilation and integration within Japanese society. This was against a position that advocated leaving Koreans in an unstable position in order to make more stark the choice between repatriation and naturalization (Sakanaka 1999: 8-9). Korean intellectuals responded to Sakanaka's position only with criticism, equating naturalization with an assimilation policy that encouraged the loss of a Korean identity (ibid.: 12It was in this context that Kim Dong-myong (1979) proposed a “third way” for Koreans in an essay by this title (daisan no michi). The "third way" would be an alternative to both “repatriatism,” that is, living with primary reference to the homeland, and naturalization, which was widely regarded as abandoning the homeland and the Korean community and thereby rejecting Koreanness. Kim advocated, rather, “living as zaiNichi,” that is, working to create a life based in Japan while maintaining foreign nationality and Korean identity (Park 1999: 76-78). As Park points out (ibid.: 77), Kim rejected both Sakanaka’s suggestion of the naturalization option, as well as the position that the fate of Koreans in Japan was integrally bound up with the fate of the homeland, which should in turn be an integral part of the consciousness of Koreans in Japan.

Another series of debates reflecting the tension between homeland- and Japan-orientation arose in the mid-1980s, most prominently between Yang Tae-ho and Kang Sang-jun. Yang emphasized the dangers he saw as inherent in the anti-discrimination and civil rights movements based on the assumption of settlement in Japan. Raising the specter of assimilation (naikokuminka), Kang argued that a stable ethnonational consciousness, referencing the homeland, was essential to maintaining an autonomous Korean subjectivity (shutaisei). He advocated an approach that would position Koreans in Japan within the historical experience of the movement from Korea to Japan (Park 1999: 79), and would thus maintain an element of homeland orientation.

The position of anti-discrimination activist Yang Tae-ho is suggested in the title of his major work, the book “You Can’t Return to Pusan Port” (Pusan-ko ni kaerenai, 1984). Yang accused Kang of placing too much emphasis on the homeland as a constant reference point for Koreans in Japan, arguing that an ethnic consciousness of Koreans should be based on the objective fact of Korean settlement in Japan. The fate of Koreans in Japan, he argued, should not be left in the hands of the political forces in the homeland. Rather, urging that Koreans in Japan maintain a critical stance toward both regimes on the peninsula, Yang advocated a particular, autonomous subjectivity for Koreans resident in Japan (Park 1999: 80-81).

A tension between homeland-orientation and Japan-orientation continues to be a dimension of the internal debate among Koreans in Japan. However, while these debates have been unfolding, there have been significant changes in both the conditions under which Koreans in Japan live their lives and in perspective among many Koreans. Important

legal and social changes include the following:

? The Nationality Law was revised in 1985, with effect from 1986, from a patrilineal reckoning of nationality to one that allowed for bilateral reckoning. Thus, whereas before 1986, a child of a Japanese woman and a non-Japanese national man would not be recognized as a Japanese national, from that year children born of such parentage have been given the option to choose Japanese nationality. Most children of such marriages are registered as, and are considered by the state to be, Japanese nationals.

? Following Japan-ROK negotiations, in 1991, the Japanese government introduced an immigration regime that established full equality among former colonial subjects and their foreign-national descendants with regard to residence status, and that guaranteed permanent residency through the generations, with the creation of the “special permanent residency” (tokubetsu eiju) category, applying to all those had been “divested of Japanese nationality” in 1952.

_ The early 1990s witnessed a rise in rates of naturalization among foreign national Koreans in Japan. Generally hovering between four and six thousand over the two decades from 1970, the number topped 7,000 for the first time in 1992, surpassed 10,000 in 1995, and has been maintained at around 10,000 since. The rate of naturalization doubled during the decade of the 1990s. Since 1952, nearly a quarter of a million Koreans in Japan have taken Japanese nationality. The year 1991 also witnessed the peak population of foreign national Koreans resident in Japan, at just under 700,000. The figure has fallen every year since.

? Rates of "international marriage" among Koreans have risen so that by the mid-1990s, more than 80 per cent of all marriages involving Korean nationals in Japan were to Japanese nationals.

All in all, these changes both reflect and contribute to a blurring of boundaries between Korean and Japanese. Through so-called "international marriages," Koreans and Japanese are forming family bonds.

And they are creating Japanese national children who can trace their ancestral heritage to both the Korean peninsula and Japan (see, e.g., Yamanaka, et al. 1998). In the hierarchy of foreign nationals in Japan (Shipper 2002), Koreans and other former colonial subjects and their descendants to whom the "special permanent residence" category applies, now have the most stable residence status.

Generational and social changes have given rise to a third set of choices for Koreans in Japan, and here I refer not only to foreign national Koreans but to any who may trace their roots to Korea. This third set involves how to orient oneself not to Korea in terms of state politics as much as to "Koreanness," as heritage, and as an aspect of self-identity and public presentation of self. Young residents of Japan who can trace Korean heritage must not only face the question of "how" to be a Korean in Japan, but also the question of what is a "Korean."

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