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Migrants as Minorities: The Case of Zainichi Koreans in Japan

Updated on September 6, 2020
Madison Pascual Munar profile image

I am a Korean Government Scholar on my MS (KGSP, NIIED), and a Japanese Government Scholar on my PhD (Top Global Scholar, MEXT).

Migrants as Minorities

The United Nations had underscored that migrants and their families should be protected by equal laws and their rights as humans should be upheld by every host country.

In December 19, 1990, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. This convention emphasized the respect of migrant's individual rights and freedom.

This essay will tackle the issues confronting migrants using the case of Zainichi Koreans in Japan as a model of a migrant community. Upon writing this essay, I learned that Zainichi and any other migrants around the world shared common experience of being a minority in a foreign society.

When their rights are violated, when they are marginalized and excluded, migrants will be unable to contribute either economically or socially to the societies they have left behind or those they enter. However, when supported by the right policies and human rights protections, migration can be a force for good for individuals as well as for countries of origin, transit and destination.

— United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, International Migrants Day

Zainichi Korean: A Model of Ethnic Minority

Displaced by war in 1910, a great number of ethnic Koreans found themselves working under the flag of the Land of the Rising Sun. During this period of Japanese colonialism, most Koreans were forced to work as laborers in low wage factories, coal mines, and in hostile working environments. After the war, some returned to Korea while others remained in Japan.

Today, these Koreans who chose to stay and live in Japan are called "Zainichi Koreans”. Zainichi is a Japanese word meaning "staying in Japan", which also denotes a temporary residence. However, these Korean migrants opt to preserve their Korean identity in a country that sees itself as ethnically homogenous.

This is one example that shows the struggles of a certain migrant community to assimilate a foreign culture and to try to overcome discrimination brought by systemic destruction of ethnic identity. In Hangul, the Korean language, they call Zainichi as Jaeil Dongpo or as Jaeil Gyopo.

They are a very interesting model of migrants whose history is well recorded. Their story can give us an idea on how migrants as minorities in their respective societies can eventually break free from the stereotypes and assume equal rights with their native neighbors.

This is a story that is being experienced not only by Zainichi Koreans alone, but also the story being shared by every migrant trying to find a home and a new identity in a foreign land.

Two Zainichi in Japan

Like what is true in their native land, there seems to be a division that separates pro-South Korean and pro-North Korean migrants in Japan. Pro-South Korean Zainichi is under the name "Mindan" (Korean Residents in Japan) while pro-North Korean Zainichi is under the name "Chongryun" (General Federation of Koreans in Japan). This social division is said to be based on differences on ideologies more than the geographical differences.

Apparently, the pro-North Korean Zainichi are not open to the idea of assimilating the Japanese culture. On the other hand, the Mindan group is more open to the idea of integrating with the Japanese culture to somehow curb the discrimination faced by their community.

Like any migrants, Zainichi are not exempted to racial discrimination and social prejudices. These Korean minorities are reported to be deprived of employment opportunities and subject to maltreatment and verbal abuse by the natives. Moreover, the Chongryun group is perceived to be crime offenders and accused of illegal activities. Some Japanese nationalist, even see these North Korean supporters as a threat to Japan security.

Like any migrants, they are also victims of social oppression. If we try to ruminate why these Koreans chose to stay in such a hostile society where inequality runs normal every day, the answer would be the same if we ask this to any other migrants living in a foreign country.

The Struggles of Zainichi

Zainichi are forced to adopt a Japanese sounding name leaving their Korean names behind. But some have acquired two names- one in Korean and the other in Japanese. They say they use either name depending on the situation. They are not allowed to have dual citizenship as Korean-Japanese, it is either Korean or as Japanese.

In the early 1990s, the Japanese eased the process for the application of Japanese citizenship. In 2000, almost 240,000 Koreans have acquired Japanese citizenship. But not all Koreans who are eligible to obtain a Japanese citizenship have done so. Some are still clinging to their identity as ethnic Korean, proud of their race and heritage.

As alien citizens they are also required to have their ten fingers registered for fingerprints- an act deemed discriminatory. They are not allowed to exercise their rights to vote during election because they are foreign residents and not citizens. These are some of the reported cases of discrimination faced by Korean migrants.

These migrants being vulnerable to social discrimination are mostly coming from economically challenged families. The opportunities they have seen in a foreign land give them a sense of hope, that somehow they can also experience a better life than what they have back home. This is true both to the Zainichi Koreans living in Japan and migrants finding their luck in a foreign land miles away from their families and friends.

Kwon Hyi-ro or Kin Kiro

Kwon Hyi-ro or Kin Kiro in Japanese is a Korean who exposed the discrimination of Zainichi in Japan. Armed with dynamite and a gun, Kwon Hyi-ro made an instant media coverage in a hotel hostage crisis. He demanded profusely a public apology from two Japanese policemen who made discriminatory remarks about him. After this incident Kwon Hyi-ro was lauded by the Korean government by exposing discrimination against Zainichi in Japan. He is now considered as a hero who fought against discrimination.

Kwon Hyi-ro is a Zainichi who came from a poor family. During his childhood days, he was said to be constantly discriminated by his classmates, and as a result this young Zainichi was forced to do petty crimes like theft to burglary which brought him behind bars. Like any migrants who flew away from their home, Kwon Hyi-ro symbolizes the war that is being fought by every migrant in a foreign land. From social prejudices and the cold treatment of neighbors, these negative experiences are lumped as emotional burden and worst this can trigger deviant responses from these troubled minds.

Migrants are a clear representation of exploited, oppressed, and discriminated minorities. Generally, they are socially marginalized, they make-up the sum of the low-income families and often denied of employment. Some migrants are exploited, forced to work overtime without the necessary compensation. Needless to say, these migrants are voiceless and thus powerless. Their rights are often neglected and they are victims of injustice.

In the Zainichi Korean case, the Japanese government had heard their small voices. Somehow, Zainichi are now recognized as special foreign residents in Japan. What I do not know is how far the word special will go, in terms of acquiring privileges and opportunities in the Japanese society. These small improvements in Zainichi's status in a monocentric society should also be taken as a sign of improving relationships between the two countries torn by war.

The migrant's effort to integrate in a foreign society is a very long and uncertain process. Nonetheless, their hardships are not futile.

Current Status of Zainichi

At present, there are more or less 800,000 Zainichi living in Japan. They are still fighting to gain more respect in the Japanese society as well as proving themselves to break all the stereotypes for being a Zainichi.

Today, Zainichi are still in the battle to fight for their rights. Korean-run schools in Japan are not supported by the Japanese government. Not only that the Japanese Government lacks support, the Japanese Ministry of Education does not officially recognize Korean schools in Japan as legitimate schools. Tax exemptions given to Japanese schools are not enjoyed by Korean-run schools. Graduates of Chongryun-run schools are prohibited to take the university entrance examination until today.

Discrimination of graduates from Korean schools in employment opportunities is still rampant. Zainichi senior citizens are deprived to access Japan pension system and health insurance system. These gaps that separate Zainichi Koreans and the Japanese citizens can still be bridged if, and only if, the relationship between The Republic of Korea and the Japanese government is in good faith. In particular, a reconciliation process should be envisioned to unite the gap and heal the wounds of the past.

We have to be open and be more understanding of the similarities and differences of each country's culture. We should break the notion of “ethnocentrism”, that a certain culture is dominant and more powerful than the other. If we learn to humble ourselves, then reconciliation is easier to achieve.

Uprooting Animosity, Cultivating Prosperity

Korean and Japanese societies are known for their very strong nationalistic pride, and deep sentiments towards their respective countries. This pride is hampering the possible reconciliation between the two countries. Animosities between the two countries are still lingering on both sides.

Korean youths are still being grappled by the dark history their ancestors endured during the Japanese colonization. As the aphorism goes- "past is past". The Korean youth should eliminate animosities against past Japanese atrocities. The two countries should be courageous enough to swallow their pride and share palms. Shaking hands as a gesture of that elusive genuine reconciliation is the start of prosperity for both parties. This reconciliation can open new opportunities and advantages to uplift the economic standing of Zainichi in the Japanese society.

Some of you would ask- how to achieve a genuine reconciliation? The first step towards genuine reconciliation is delivering an open dialogue concerning the past. This open dialogue will enumerate the mistakes of the past and this will be followed by a bargaining agreement on how to resolve these issues. The effort to make a unified history account between Japan and Korea in one textbook can only be realized if the two parties will start to address the past in an open dialogue having the youths as one of its main participants.

I stressed on youth's participation because they will be the ones who will continue this discussion and it is in their hands to end the issues once and for all, and bring forth a more unified Japan-Korea relationship. The youths of today will play a significant role in this reconciliation process.

If I had not done any research about the relationship between Japan and Korea, I would have never thought that these two countries are still hunted by war memories. The Japanese are watching Korean movies and dramas and even patronizing Korean songs. There are lots of Japanese learning Korean language and Koreans learning Japanese as well.

This cultural exchange that is happening in our midst right now is a positive sign of cultural exposition. From here, both parties will somehow in one way or another get a glimpse of the culture they once thought bizarre. Upon experiencing each other's culture and understanding all the complexities that makes their respective ethnicity, then this will be a key to open the door for reconciliation.

There will be no instant change that will be observed as a product of this open dialogue and culture exposition activities. But this will be a good start to establish a positive vision towards the attainment of a genuine reconciliation and friendship. And if we dream harder, I guess better things are yet to come.


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