Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Around one million Koreans are permanent residents or citizens of Japan. Mainly distributed in the major industrial and economic centres of the country, the largest number of Koreans live in Osaka, followed by Tokyo and Hyogo prefectures. Like their counterparts in North and South Korea, most Koreans in Japan speak Korean, although younger Koreans who are second or third generation increasingly speak only Japanese.
The term ‘Zainichi’ Koreans (from the Japanese word meaning ‘staying in Japan’) is sometimes used to describe those who are permanent residents of Japan but who have not acquired Japanese citizenship. ‘ Some consider them to be the country’s largest minority, since Burakumin and Ryūkyūans are generally deemed to be indigenous and therefore not minorities. However, the Government of Japan does not officially consider Koreans or any other group as minorities except for the Ainu people. They consider Koreans the largest group of foreign residents.
The political division of Korea between a communist North Korea and now democratic South Korea is mirrored to some degree in the ideological divide between the two main Korean minority organizations in Japan: Mindan, or Korean Residents Union in Japan, is pro-South while Chongryon, or General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, is a pro-North organization. The distinction between these two minority organizations is more ideological than geographical, however, as Koreans associated with the pro-North or pro-South organization are not necessarily linked by birth to North or South Korea respectively.
Both organizations operate private schools in Japan, though the pro-North Chongryon has been more active in this area and is perceived as the more aggressive in maintaining the Korean culture and language and resisting assimilation. Most Korean-language schools are operated by Chongryon rather than Mindan. The majority of Koreans are today thought to be affiliated or sympathize with Mindan (although there are no official statistics on this), which is linked to the positive economic and political transformations in South Korea, and interest among younger Koreans in integrating into Japanese society more easily.
The worst forms of intolerance and denigration against Koreans have lessened, with an accompanying increase in the number of Zainichi Koreans seeking and obtaining citizenship. Nevertheless, Zainichi Koreans still face a large number of obstacles in their exercise of civil and political rights because of their status in Japanese society as permanent residents rather than citizens.
The presence of such a large number of Koreans in Japan is intrinsically linked to the close – and uncomfortable – relationship between Korea and Japan in the first half of the last century. Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, and initially made colonization attempts that led to large numbers of farmers losing their land and becoming a convenient pool of cheap labour. Many were brought to Japan in the 1930s and 1940s as Japan needed to replace its own nationals who were largely engaged in the war effort.
While Koreans had been citizens during the occupation period, they would eventually lose Japanese citizenship after World War II. Though more than a million Koreans were to return to Korea, the difficult economic situation there and the looming confrontation between South and North Korea, among other factors, meant that around 620,000 Koreans remained in Japan. The adoption of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1952 brought the end of their right to Japanese citizenship, since they would have had to abandon Korean citizenship in order to be naturalized as Japanese citizens. Most Koreans were not willing to make the necessary break at the time. As ‘foreigners’ – even though many were born in Japan – they were excluded from a number of employment categories, could not vote, and suffered from negative attitudes within Japanese society which tended to denigrate its Korean minority and culture.
The situation of the Korean minority in Japan is thus unique: initially ‘unwilling’ citizens of a colonial power, often brought into the country as cheap labour for dangerous or menial jobs, they would eventually lose their citizenship unless they abandoned all legal connection to their home country.
The second half of the 20th century would see Koreans at the receiving end of unfavourable or discriminatory treatment linked either to their position as non-citizens or because of long-standing prejudice. They were for most of this period not allowed to register their Korean family names which they might have lost previously through the Japanese government forcing the adoption of Japanese-sounding names during the colonial and war periods. Until the 1990s, those who wished to acquire Japanese citizenship had to surmount burdensome or even demeaning requirements, such as having to fingerprint all ten fingers.
Because of the prevailing attitude of government authorities who view Japan as a monocultural and monolinguistic society, members of the Korean minority who wished to maintain their language and culture have for decades taken away their children from state schools and educated them in private schools using Korean as the medium of instruction. Not all of these schools have been recognized and they have received no funding from the Japanese government. In 2003, the Department of Education allowed graduates of Mindan-run Korean schools, but not of Chongryon schools, to sit the university entrance exams.
Changing attitudes in Japan towards minorities which came with the 1980s civil rights movement, as well as the normalization of relations between South Korea and Japan, led to further developments which would be more favourable to the Korean minority. In 1991 Zainichi Koreans were granted the status of ‘Special Permanent Residents’ which recognized their unique position within Japanese society. Legislation and regulations were amended to reflect this new status, including allowing them to work in previously inaccessible employment categories, such as teaching in public schools (although still only at the lowest levels). While private Korean schools were finally given a form of official recognition at this time, this was still limited and still did not entitle access to universities.
From this period a number of trends have affected the size of the Korean minority and their status in Japan. On the one hand, there have been an increasing number of ‘new’ Koreans arriving from South Korea in order to work or study in Japan. In addition, the number of Koreans who were Special Permanent Residents diminished overall since the mid-1990s as many of them obtained Japanese citizenship.
The absence of comprehensive legislation prohibiting discrimination, especially by private parties, means that the Korean minority is still vulnerable in Japanese society. They have traditionally been victims of intolerance and prejudice in the land which for many has been the only home they know, and the history of abuse against them has led some Koreans to hide their identity.
One of the continuing contentious issues for Koreans in Japan is education. The Japanese government in 2003 made graduates from most international schools and foreign schools – as well as Japanese schools – eligible for the university entrance examination. This has not been extended to most Korean schools (with the exception of a small number of Mindan-run schools), meaning that Korean students from these schools remain seriously disadvantaged. There also exists other forms of continuing discrimination against Korean schools, with donations to foreign schools being tax-exempt, but not those to Korean schools. Since most Korean schools are thus still not recognized as regular schools, children attending these schools will also risk discrimination in employment. The government of Japan also excludes Korean schools from the high school tuition-waiver programme, which was introduced by the government in April 2010, although the programme covered foreign schools authorized as miscellaneous schools. Many local governments have cancelled financial support for Korean schools as well.
Although some municipal governments have in recent years provided some level of support and provided subsidies to Korean schools, this still remains low and sparse. Despite comments and criticisms from international bodies, there has been no movement from educational authorities in recent years to establish state schools teaching in Korean – a prospect which remains unlikely in light of the pervasive view of Japan being ethnically homogenous.
Some members of the Korean minority continue to face the difficulty of being unable to access the pension system and the health insurance scheme in Japan. As a result of legislative changes in 1982 and 2004, some foreign residents – and in particular Koreans – are still unable to access the two schemes because at the time the Japanese government did not provide remedial measures for those falling between gaps in the law – mainly elderly Korean residents of a certain age group or disabled residents who do not have Japanese citizenship. The government has not even conducted research on the number and the situation facing Zainichi Koreans living without pensions.
Another persistent issue facing Koreans in Japan is hate speech, a phenomenon which critics have accused the Japanese government of failing to meaningfully combat. Since the 2000s there has been an apparent rise in xenophobic sentiment towards the country’s ethnic minorities, including the Korean population. These attitudes can be partly attributed to increasing anxiety within the country about its future position in the region relative to South Korea and China, and are also linked to Japan’s imperial and colonial past, as there continues to be friction between nationalists and Koreans demanding apologies or compensation for atrocities committed by Japanese occupying forces.
Racist groups have held numerous rallies and anti-Korean demonstrations, particularly in Tokyo and Osaka, where they have used loudspeakers to blast hate speech and sought to intimidate. One positive note, however, occurred in July 2014 when the Osaka High Court upheld a groundbreaking October 2013 ruling that found Zaitokukai (‘Citizens against the Special Privileges of the Zainichi’), an organization opposed to the granting of certain rights to foreign residents in Japan, guilty of racial discrimination for shouting abuse and slogans in front of a Korean school and ordered it to pay 12 million yen – an amount equivalent to more than US$120,000 – to the school.
Updated April 2018.
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