Koreans of Japan

Location: Kinki region, 48%; Kanto region, 20%; Chubo region, 14%
Population: about 700,000
% of population: 0.6%
Religion: various
Language: Japanese, Korean

The Koreans are the major foreign community in Japan, comprising about 85% of Japan’s total resident alien population. The majority — about 75% — were born and brought up in Japan, speak Japanese as their first language and have Japanese names which they use in public life, and are in most cases visually indistinguishable from the majority Japanese population. But within Japan they are seen, and see themselves, as a distinct ethnic and cultural group. Their population is probably about 700,000.

There have been links between Korea and Japan for centuries, and as early as the seventh century over one third of the Japanese nobility apparently claimed Korean or Chinese ancestry, while archaeological evidence supports a Korean presence. There were numerous Japanese incursions into Korea from Japan from the thirteenth century until the late sixteenth century when they were forbidden by the Japanese authorities. In 1904, at the start of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan again invaded Korea, which was forced to enter into an alliance with Japan and become a protectorate of the Meiji state. Violent reaction to these developments on the part of the Koreans resulted in the total annexation of Korea in 1910 and the establishment of military rule. After a decade the military government was replaced by a civilian administration which had to deal with the problems of civil disturbance, chronic unemployment and a rapid population increase. Because many Japanese had been given Korean land to farm, thousands of Koreans — who were now Japanese citizens — were obliged to emigrate to Japan in order to find work which was generally the hardest and most lowly paid. Koreans living in Japan increased from 40,000 in 1920 to 419,000 by 1930 and 2,400,000 by 1945, although after the war repatriation reduced the numbers to 345,000.

In 1952 Koreans in Japan were officially designated as foreigners since Korea was no longer a Japanese territory. Korea had now been divided into the People’s Democratic Republic (North) and the Republic of Korea (South). Although nearly all the Koreans had emigrated from the South, both North and South had claimed their allegiance, and the North succeeded in attracting a good deal of support due to its emphasis on ethnic education and national identity. Koreans in Japan became sharply divided over this issue. In 1959 the Japanese government entered into an agreement with North Korea as a result of which some 100,000 Koreans were repatriated over the following eight years. In 1965 it became possible by law for

1This estimate may now be outdated with recent reports of several hundred thousand migrants — many illegal — entering Japan over the last few years. Most of these workers are from Asian countries such as Bangladesh and the Philippines; many have previously worked in the middle east and gulf countries and the vast majority work in low paying jobs, normally occupied by Koreans and Burakumin.

Koreans residing in Japan to apply for permanent residence status and over half of them applied, many of them in order to be eligible for National Health Insurance benefits and the advantages of free compulsory education.

Despite the fact that the majority of Koreans are born and brought up wholly in Japan, they are mostly classified as “resident aliens” as citizenship is granted on the basis of Japanese parentage, although they may apply for citizenship through naturalization, a lengthy and complicated procedure. Koreans in Japan face many social and economic problems. Although most second- and third-generation students are now completing junior high school the numbers entering higher education are low. The majority of those Koreans in work are employed as labourers, restaurant staff and production-line workers. Few major Japanese companies offer work opportunities to foreign nationals on a permanent basis, and government-related jobs also require Japanese citizenship; as a result many Koreans are engaged in family or community businesses.

The Korean community remains strongly divided over the question of alliance to South and North Korea. Those favouring the South number about 350,000, while some 300,000 claim allegiance to the North. The principal pro-South organization is Mindan (Korean Resident Association in Japan). It has many members or sympathizers but is politically weak, due partly to lack of support from the South Korean government. The main North organization, Ch’ongnyon (General Federation of Koreans in Japan), is more effective and has sponsorship of the North Korean government. It is recognized by North Korea as the sole representative of Koreans in Japan and is used as an informal channel of communication with the Japanese government with whom North Korea does not have diplomatic relations. With financial backing from North Korea Ch’ongnyon maintains its own school system which is attended by almost one quarter of Korean children in Japan. Teaching is in Korean and emphasis is laid on the importance of Korean history and culture. In 1968, after a lengthy campaign, a Korean university in Tokyo was fully accredited.

While the Korean community has received the help and support of a variety of groups in Japan, Koreans still suffer prejudice. Aliens over 16 years of age have to carry alien registration cards at all times and there is compulsory fingerprinting of all aliens, the majority of whom are Korean. There has been much opposition to fingerprinting, which Koreans feel has placed them in the same category as criminals. In this they have been supported by teachers, community workers and some prefecture and local government bodies. Since that time the campaign has continued and in 1983, for example, 29 Koreans were facing jail sentences for their refusal to accept fingerprinting. These and other cases have been brought several times before UN Human Rights bodies.

One group of Koreans who are in a particularly difficult position are the remnants of the 45,000 who were forcibly removed to the island of Sakhalin during the war and who were abandoned in 1946 when half a million Japanese residents were repatriated. Many have since become Soviet or North Korean citizens, but others have elected to remain stateless. In 1956,2,200 Koreans who were married to Japanese citizens were allowed to return to Japan. Since then a persistent campaign has been waged to allow the remaining refugees — by now elderly — to return.