Japan’s Hidden Apartheid – Koreans in Japan

When we hear the term apartheid, we think of South Africa and its system of racial segregation enforced by the national government. Apartheid is generally associated with discrimination and tension between white and colored people, so most people regard it as a phenomenon particular to places where there have been the practice of black slavery. However I would like to show you that a similar kind of practice exists in a place where we would least expect it to happen: Japan.

Today there are approximately 1 million Koreans living in Japan. The majority are known as “Zainichi Koreans”, the group that traces its roots back to the Japanese colonial era in the early 20th century. During WWII, more than 2.5 million people were forcefully moved to Japan for conscripted labor. Many left Japan as the Empire surrendered to the allied forces in 1945, but some decided to stay because they, aware of the chaotic situation in Korea, thought they would be better off continuing to live in Japan. Were they right?

Koreans returing home after the Japanese surrender in 1945

More than 60 years have passed since the end of WWII, and you would expect the children of these forced migrant workers to naturally enjoy the standing of Japanese citizenship. I’m afraid that is not the case. If you are of Korean descent, you are entitled to Korean citizenship, not Japanese despite the fact that you were born and raised in Japan. Rather, you are given a standing of permanent ethnic Korean resident: Zainichi. This obviously means no voting right whatsoever and highly reduced chance of employment.

One interesting aspect of Japanese discrimination that distinguishes itself from other types of racial segregation is that there is hardly any difference between Japanese and Korean in terms of physiognomy by which to identify who is who. In other words, there is a loophole for a Zainichi to “pass” for a Japanese. Often times this is achieved by adopting a Japanese name as an alias in order to avoid any possible social disadvantage caused by revealing the real name. Just think of how much pain and agony the individual has to bear in choosing a life without discrimination at the cost of falsehood and self-deception! The following youtube clip gives you a better understanding of what is going on.

It is said in the clip that there is a widespread, dominant perception that views Japan as a homogenous society. I believe this lack of appreciation of difference is at the crux of our discussion on citizenship. In line with this concept Shklar argues that there have been “glaring inconsistencies between their professed principles of citizenship and their deep-seated desire to exclude certain groups permanently from the privileges of membership”(Shklar 15), and that “the value of citizenship was derived primarily from its denial to slaves, to some white men, and to all women”(16).

Of course, to say that the condition Zainichi Koreans face in Japan today is similar to that of Ameircan slaves in the 19th century is to speak of nonsense. It is no way near all the sufferings with which they were put up. However, the sense of double-consciousness, of two unreconciled striving – a Korean and a Japanese, permeates into the minds of Zanichi Koreans just as it did into African Americans, and just in the same way, torments their souls with the unimaginable burden.

It is clear that Zainichi Koreans lack sufficient standing within Japanese society, or have none at all. They are allowed to decide for themselves at one point during their lives whether to naturalize in order to seek formal employment and marriage, but such act can be frawned upon by the group of individuals who have decided to remain Korean. So there really is no clean-cut solution to this problem, at least for now. But that is precisely why I am posting this, so as to get different perspectives on what you think about the issue. I am looking forward to hearing your ideas.

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12 Responses to Japan’s Hidden Apartheid – Koreans in Japan

  1. miswain says:

    One thing that struck me in the video was the uniformity in Japan. The narrator essentially said that Japan was built for the Japanese and nobody else. Because American public opinion doesn’t view Japan as a repressed state that is stuck in the stone age (See: N. Korea, China, Iran, Gaddafi’s Lybia, etc), it was eye opening to find such blatant exclusion from citizenship in a relatively modernized country.

    It seemed that the Koreans’ biggest problem is the lack of a consensus, and understandably so. While some of them want to blend in to make life better for themselves, others would rather fight and be proud of their heritage than take what they consider to be the easy way out. While this viewpoint is more likely to be considered more honorable, there will also be people who are on the same wavelength as Shklar: looking for tangible benefits. If one wants to vote and earn, he should change his identity. It would alienate other native Koreans, but like the video says, a Japanese name means a much better chance at attaining employment in Japan. Koreans in Japan are in a tough situation that sadly requires alienation almost 100% of the time.

  2. John Lee says:

    While it is shocking to see a modern nation like Japan (the third most wealthy in the world, in fact), exclude ethnic minorities from citizenship, it is certainly not alone in espousing such practices. Most ethnically homogeneous societies, developed or not, possess relatively cold attitudes towards immigrants. Germany, for instance, the second wealthiest country in the Western world, has particularly restrictive immigration laws, and the mindset that “Germany is for the Germans” generally pervades society. Even ethnically homogeneous South Korea (whose people are discriminated against in Japan, as you point out), has appallingly restrictive immigration laws, and there too ethnic South Koreans enjoy a host of benefits that immigrants are not privy to, including access to good jobs and affordable health care. In the end, whether a country has relaxed immigration attitudes depends more on its ethnic homogeneity than its wealth or development index.

  3. vanessabarton says:

    This is definately an interesting topic in the sense that although I would not have considered Japan to be a discriminatory society, mostly because I do not think of Japan daily or even monthly for that matter, but that these same struggles go on today here in the US and in recent history. We have been discussing citizenship in discussion and the role of illegal immigrants in society and how they fit into Shklar’s spectrum. In another course I had the opportunity to read this poem (https://ctools.umich.edu/access/content/group/922d0a57-ec41-4e08-b4bb-0558a2318d18/Gonzales.pdf) about the movement to educate Mexican immigrants in California and Southern States on how to be American. People went door to door to change their culture into our culture. Not much of the melting pot of cultures we describe ourselves as. I hope the link works and you can read the article if not google, “I am Joaquin” by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales.

  4. jlpach says:

    I think the video presented an interesting idea about citizenship that relates to Shklar. Even though Shklar writes in terms of American citizenship, I think her ideas can be applied to the situation of citizenship in Japan. In order to be an accepted citizen of Japanese society, you have to have access to voting and earning; yet, the Koreans are excluded from these rights because they are racially discriminated against. Shklar describes American citizenship as “American exceptionalism” meaning that individuals within the boundaries of citizenship have the “common desire to exclude and reject large groups of human beings from citizenship” (28). Japan is taking their citizenship to the highest degree of “exceptionalism.”Japan wants to remain an ethnically homogenous nation; and in order to do so they are discriminating against the Korean residents and excluding them from being accepted citizens of their society. By preventing their rights to vote and earn (by being employed), the Japanese are “distancing the citizen from his inferiors” leading to the Koreans becoming “less than a citizen” (Shklar 27). The Koreans lose their sense of social standing because the Japanese are trying to maintain an “ethnically pure” society. The Koreans’ loss of social standing is evident by the fact they are resorting to alternative identities. The Koreans have to compensate for the lack of social standing by changing their true identity in order to be considered accepted citizens. I believe that this idea of citizenship in the Japanese culture is entirely wrong, especially now in the modern world. Shklar’s statement about American citizenship, “they defined their standing as citizens very negatively, by distinguishing themselves from their inferiors” (15), can be equally applied to how the Japanese treat citizenship. The outcome of this treatment in society is very negative.

  5. mkay2209 says:

    In class we have defined citizenship, not by those who have it, but by those who have been denied citizenship. So to define Japanese citizenship, one can look at the Koreans who live in Japan. I think they are between a rock and a hard spot because they can either become naturalized, which to some Koreans means to be an ethnic traitor, or they can live there and hide their real identity. I agree with miswain that Koreans in Japan will have alienation all of the time. Either their Korean peers will alienate them for choosing to become Japanese, or the Japanese will discriminate because they are Korean. So what does a Korean that lives in Japan do?

    I think the change needs to start with the Japanese. They are the ones discriminating against Koreans through employment and housing, so for Koreans to feel at home in Japan, the Japanese need to stop alienating them. It’s not the Koreans fault that they were forced to move to Japan in the first place, so the Japanese government should right their original wrong and now help the Koreans living in their country.

  6. tremble53 says:

    This is a very interesting case of what we have been looking at in class recently. There are ethnic groups denied rights in many other countries despite the progress some have made. In the case of the Korean’s in Japan I think it is interesting that it is a population that has been in Japan for a long time. The major case of this discrimination in our country is obviously with Latin American’s that come in daily and move here. The fact that the Korean’s have been apart of the population for years and are still denied these rights is shocking. Shklar would point to their lack of voting as a key feature to say that they are not in fact a part of the Japanese citizenship even though they have been living their for a long time.
    Another case that is interesting in this debate is the situation in Belgium. There are two major groups, the Flemish and the Walloons who live in three distinct regions of Belgium. They do not like each other too much and run their sections of the country very differently. An interesting question here is in the national government is anyone being excluded?

  7. Kelsie Breit says:

    My Uncle lived in Japan for a year for work, and he explained the Japanese culture differently than how this blog and the video explains. As a middle aged, well educated, white male he described his treatment similar to that of “royalty”. Everything he might have needed was catered to instantly. I find it terribly sad that a situation at all similar to that of the slavery era, or even the early post slavery era, in the United States is STILL happening to this day in such an up-to-date country.

    The idea of citizenship here is tricky. Legally are the Japanese Koreans even considered citizens? In terms of Shklar they very clearly do not fit her criteria of having citizenship, except for the aspect of earning, which they must be able to do. If they couldn’t work and earn at all, there’s no way they could live in such an expensive country; the cost of living is too high.

    Being Americans we are more open to different cultures; hence the theory of “the melting pot”, from the early years of America. Other countries are clearly not so open to diversity, like Japan, so letting another culture into the mix will make their culture less pure (so they see it), and not solely Japanese.

    I guess if Japan isn’t going to change to accept the Koreans, the Koreans should leave Japan and find happiness and a new life somewhere else. If the government won’t allow equality and stop discriminatory actions, the Koreans really have no power over their lives in Japan. I know that is easier said than done, what’s the cost of happiness now-a-days?

    But, hey, maybe a revolution is necessary to achieve their desired standing?

  8. erikamir says:

    I found this blog post to be very interesting. I think it is absolutely crazy that in some areas of the world, people are being denied basic citizenship rights. In reading this article I thought about how Asian Americans were discriminated against in the U.S. When you mentioned there where hardly any differences between physical traits, it made me think what could the problem possibly be. In the U.S., the American people had certain stereotypes associated with Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. Maybe possibly, this is what is going on in Japan. It doesn’t make it right, but history does serve purpose on a person’s thinking.

  9. kmuth0307 says:

    I think this post is great and highly relative. The connection made between this social struggle in Japan and the one that immigrants face here is closely tied. I found a particular similarity to the African decent. In the same way that the Japanese “dragged” the Korean men out of the field to work in crude conditions in Japan, similarly the black slaves were forcibly brought to this country. The difference lies in the Koreans ability to go back to Korea, or anywhere in the world for that matter, whereas black slaves did not have that option.

    It is also interesting that this phenomenon occurred in the first place and proves how “out of the loop” our country can be at times, in regards to other nation’s sufferings. When Japan surrendered to the Allied forces, the Allied Forces made a compromise and stated their demands. Perhaps if the Allied Forces had been aware of this social issue, they could have done something to help the Koreans by working it into the compromise? However, when I think back to the prejudice that occurred in our own country toward the Japanese during WWII, I doubt our country would have been willing to put a foot forward for the Koreans. It is sad how history repeats itself.

    In regards to the argument Shklar makes, I think this affirms her stance on earning and voting. As in the original post, I agree that the Japanese are keeping others out to raise the importance of their own citizenship. However, I feel that in contemporary America, while certain minority groups are left out of full citizenship, it is formally offered to anyone who has the necessary tools and finance. In this struggle in Japan it seems as though the Koreans, regardless of whether they’re natural born or have a large amount of money and knowledge, there is no way to become a Japanese citizen because it is simply not offered. This would be a key distinction between our current American immigrants, and those in Japan.

    In general I’d like to comment on the original post and its ability to capture the eye. I was really impressed with the use of video and images. 🙂

  10. emmasag says:

    This blog post covers very interesting subject matter, on an issue that I am only vaguely aware. I have heard of the inequality that exists in Japan, between Japanese citizens and minorities. However, this video led me to do a little bit more research on Apartheid in Japan, and I must say that this is undoubtedly an issue that deserves to be brought to greater international attention. More specifically, the international community should pressure Japan to implement legislation protecting the most basic rights for all minority groups in Japan– in this case Koreans.
    I stumbled upon a website while looking into this topic further, that focuses on education, which i feel ties in well with Shklar as well as this issue at hand. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20070724zg.html
    The Japan Times did a piece on education in Japan, and it describes how various Korean families in Japan choose to send their children to ‘Korean schools’ over Japanese schools to preserve their cultural identity. In terms of Shklar, it would seem that this decision could present a challenge to the constructs of citizenship in Japan. Japan’s discriminatory system, that forces Korean residents to adopt Japanese names so that they can live better lives, with access to jobs, is clearly ridiculous. Thus, Koreans using education to contest Japanese constructs to ‘citizenship’ to me is quite interesting. It would seem that certain Koreans have decided to uproot Japanese discriminatory polices, by educating future Korean residents in spite of this system, proving that Koreans have not wholly submitted to Japanese oppression, even if citizenship is guaranteed. Thus, it appears there is indeed a whole in Shklar’s theories of citizenship, that being cultural and even personal integrity, in this case illustrated by Korean schools in Japan.

  11. lauramc93 says:

    This was a really interesting blog post. I had no idea that discrimination like this was happening in Japan. The treatment of the koreans is ridiculous in my opinion. If they are born there and live there, citizenship should be given. to go along with Shklar, these Zainichi Koreans, though they are allowed to apply for citizenship, do not have the standing that is afforded to Japanese citizens. This post reminded me of Douglass as well, not to say that anything cold possibly be as bad as being a slave. The way he was treated while he was a slave, especially when his master took the money that he had earned, but sometimes gave him a little bit back, just proved to Douglass that the money should have been his. The Koreans are treated poorly by the Japanese, but given a little bit, like the ability to renounce their Korean citizenship for Japanese, so they don’t notice how truly unfairly they are treated.

  12. goblue9123 says:

    Like others, I also think that this topic speaks very well to our current discussion of citizenship. In particular, I thought one of the most interesting lines from the video you included was when the narrator said “Japan is a country that is made for the Japanese to live in.” If you aren’t Japanese, there is a sense that it will inevitably be a handicap to you.” I think that this idea speaks directly to Shklar’s emphasis on the importance of standing to citizenship status. Throughout universal history, race has played an incredibly significant role in an individual’s standing within their society. Although it is shameful to admit, the human race is inherently narcissistic—every person, race, gender, and identity is biased towards themselves. Regardless of how we ultimately choose to behave on our thoughts, we all naturally presume our own composition to be the most supreme.

    Race is made even more significant to standing, and thus citizenship, when it not only stands for a specific culture, but also a specific national identity. This would be the case in countries, like Japan, where a cultural majority persists. There is power in numbers or, as Freud has theorized, a fantastical element conceived specifically out of the group mind. When a group of people all affirm one another’s’ superiority, the walls around them only become taller—it becomes harder to get in or be accepted to the “club.” As a result, we find ourselves in situations where citizenship status is about more than just one’s willingness or ability to participate within the state—like voting and earning. It is also a judgment of one’s standing within the specific context of that country’s cultural nationalism—whether they conceivable fit in that group as determined by the dominant racial majority.

    Going off of this idea, I think that it is arguable that, like Japan was specifically made for the Japanese, America might have been specifically made for the white man. After all, it was the white man who intently voyaged to this continent, dominated the indigenous people, and fought to secure this land. Further, only he ultimately founded the legal infrastructure of our nation—the constitution. As a result, within America we have seen historical evidence of how not being white is a significant handicap to standing—and thus citizenship. Although we have made long strides since the colonial and slave eras, even now race continues to have a vast impact on standing. Minority status in this country still bears with it notable hardships on almost every dimension—on average lower socio-economic status, higher unemployment, and less access to health care (those are just a few examples). Where race is highly significant to an individuals’ standing within their nation, it is also, by association, then hugely important to citizenship status.

    Standing is not just determined by one’s reference to one’s gender, socioeconomic status, or race—it is the consequence of how those factors fit into the identity of a nation—one that is often heavily permeated by the majority of one dominant race. Citizenship is thus heavily constrained by one’s standing, particularly that which is determined by their racial identity.

    Lauren Gilezan

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