In The Eyes of A Quasi-Refugee (Part 1)

by Suh Kyungsik

Suh Kyungsik is a known literary figure in Japan, whose several books cover the field of Western Diaspora Arts as well as zainichi-Korean issues. Born in 1951 to Korean parents who had been in Japan since the colonial period, he was educated and has made his entire career in Japan. He teaches at Tokyo Keizai University.

1. Men in The Sun -- Refugee Prototype

2. Korean Diaspora and Zainichi Status

3. Putting It in A Wider Perspective

4. Koreans Have Never Had A State They Can Fully Identify Themselves  with--Discontent with Current Japanese Discourses

5. Zainichi Means Quasi Refugees

Men in The Sun -- Refugee Prototype

I began to think about the refugee problem as a question of my own after I read Men in the Sun, by cerebrated Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani. I came to know of the Japanese publication of Complete Works of Modern Arabic Literature (1978), in which the story is included, via South Korea. There, the book had been translated from Japanese by people like late Paik Nak-chung, a leading ideologue in the South Korean pro-democracy movement, and facilitated a growing awareness that their struggles for democracy had been a part of the international liberation movements for the Third World. So strong was the impact of Palestinian literatures on contemporary South Korean activists. The knowledge was then passed on to me, a Korean descend born and living in Japan. In the summer of 2002, I was finally able to see the film version of Men in The Sun in the Documenta Kassel, Germany, which was one of the benefits of having a German-based Nigerian as their new art director.

In Men in the Sun, I found the prototype of refugees. The story is about Palestinians, who were made to refugees during and after the 1948 war, trying to smuggle into Kuwait for job. Oil rich countries like Kuwait and Iraq were artificially created by borders arbitrary drawn on the field previously undivided, leaving life on the other side of the border in deprivation, void of any economic basis. To escape from poverty, people there were forced to cross the borders, seeking for job and opportunities. These unavoidable flows of people from one side to the other have, in the course of time, become treated as "illegal entries" of "illegal immigrants." The men in the story were being smuggled in the tank of a water truck across the burning desert, to Kuwait by a professional human trafficker, who himself is a Palestinian refugee. At the immigration office, however, while a Kuwaiti official was pending time in idle talk, men in the tank lorry were smothered to death. In the film, this scene is presented rather simply: a sharp contrast between the overly air-conditioned inside of the immigration office and the tank truck left outside in the boiling sun, and the Kuwaiti official cackling over silly jokes on and on for seven minutes. When the driver finally got through the immigration and opened the water tank, the men inside were all dead.
 The story is reminiscent of a more recent incident, in which some thirty-to-forty "illegal immigrants" from China were found dead in a tank lorry that arrived in England via the Euro tunnel from the continent. This is why I see the prototype of refugees in the story; the original incident happened in the aftermath of the 1948 war, the story written in the 1970s, and we are now witnessing similar incidents happening everywhere in a greater scale.

Korean Diaspora and Zainichi Status

The story is particularly compelling to me, because of its connection to the lived experiences of our parents and grand parents, Koreans dislocated during the Japanese colonial rule and ended up living in Japan after the collapse of its empire. My uncle, for instance, returned to Korea with his mother just after Japan's defeat in 1945. He then found that he had been away from home for too long. This, together with the political instability surrounding the peninsula, made him decide to come back Japan. However, he was blocked by the Japanese authorities. Before 1945, the same action would, allowing for various control and restrictions, have been regarded as a regional migration within the empire. But a border was set one day and you were told you can't come back any more. For the Koreans, this means independence, of course. But for those dislocated people, who once returned home during the transitional period and then decided to come back to recourse to their relatives and properties they left in Japan, this meant that they found they could not do o because they were now foreigners.

 In 1947 Japan legislated the Alien Registration Law, which blocked the return of those who once left the country, even though this was implemented before the Korean states - ROK in the south and DPRK in the north - came to exist and despite the official assertion that their status as Japanese nationals would be preserved until it signs a peace treaty, which they did in San Francisco in 1951. If you still have to come back, then you come back as a "refugee." You must live in hiding from the authorities. My father gave harbor to my uncle and the whole family collaborated to hide him. That was the life of my early days. I do not know how may of them are there, but this is an important factor when we think about "who are zainichi," Koreans living in Japan. We have gone through something very similar to what is depicted in Men in the Sun.

So, while largely agreeing with Paik Nak-chung and other ROK liberals' position that their struggles are a part of the whole Third World liberation movement, I have also had this feeling of being a descendant of refugees, or so to speak "refugee conscious." We may call this as diaspora; among ethnic Koreans, 5-6 millions are living outside the Korean peninsula, to say nothing of those millions with divided families as a result of the North-South split. It seems to me that Koreans as a people are living the time of refugees, representing in a kind of "nation of refugees," which may be a contradictio in adiecto though. There are various factors leading to the emergence of these refugees, but the Japanese are totally unaware of their country's involvement in their creation.

It was only in the mid 1980s, when Japan signed on the International Refugee Convention, that the country implemented appropriate legislations for immigration control and recognitions of the refugee status. With this, zainichi Koreans were finally promoted to be in line with "refugees" in the international standard; prior to that, they were below "refugees." This further convinces me that I am talking about myself when I talk about "refugees." Nonetheless, when I look at the actual plight of refugees, who are unable to secure even minimum requirements of life, such as food and medicine, I feel less certain about identifying myself with them. Moreover, I have a South Korean passport -- a result of the North-South division of my home -- that allows me to travel abroad. This may further disqualify my claim as a refugee. So why should I make such a claim?

I first mentioned in my book about the idea of "quasi-refugees" in the course of a discussion over the responsibility of the citizens for crimes committed by their country over other peoples, such as colonial dominations and wars of aggression. In the discussion, people whose Japanese nationality seems impeccable replied to my remark on the "responsibility as a Japanese citizen" that such a statement reveals the nationalistic mentality of the person who made it. I found this quite absurd. In any case, there was a question over how Japanese citizens today understand their responsibility for the nation's colonialism and wars of aggression in the past, as put forward by Tetsuya Takahashi in his argument on "postwar responsibilities." At that time, I thought my position in the question should be, since I am not a Japanese national, not on the side of "take" but on the side of "ask about" the responsibility of the Japanese. Put it in reverse, I had to think about my responsibility for various problems caused by the South Korean state, such as its entry to the Vietnam War along the side of the United States and did harm to Vietnamese people.

A "Quasi-refugee" implies a "quasi-state." That is, South Korean citizens have undeniable responsibility for their government's policy making and presidential elections, at least in a formalistic sense, although it is by no means simple as it relates to the whole issue of the process of expanding democracy. Hannah Arendt in her "Collective Responsibility" provided me a theoretical format to deal with the problem. As a zainichi Korean, I have no right to vote for the president and parliament members of the ROK. Therefore, my position is no less a "refugee" viewed from the Korean side than from the Japanese side. All the same, my relation to the ROK is not the same as the one I have with, say, the Pinochet regime in Chili, a distant, largely irrelevant (to me) country. It's complicated, but I don't think I can say ROK as irrelevant, because I still have my rights protected as a citizen of ROK. But, this is also connected to the issue of the recent Japan-North Korea top-level meeting and various problems coming with it, especially the whole issue of North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals. Is it a valid argument that the abduction of foreign nationals is a state crime and therefore is something for which its citizens are to be blamed. Then, what about the blame for the colonial rule imposed on the Koreans as a whole, including those in diaspora? And there is the question of between whom, I mean, what can really be resolved in the deals between states and between leaders? So, what relations, after all, those Koreans in diaspora have with this issue? Are they free from any responsibility or relevance?

Putting It in A Wider Perspective

My first encounter with refugees who were not Korean was when I was a first year student at collage. He was one of those students from South Vietnam who formed the Beheito (Vietnam Peace Party) in Japan. Because of their pace activities, their government invalidated their passports, effectively turning them into undocumented foreign residents in Japan. And for that reason, they were criminalized in Japan as well. I got to know him because of his girlfriend, who was a zainichi Korean, and he later moved to Canada. While opposing to the ongoing war, he and other Beheito members were also pursuing the creation of a new state desirable for them. Independence from the persisting colonial rule and the peaceful reunification of the North and the South were also in their agenda.

I found this very fascinating, because it defies a prevailing conceptual framework here. When you are in Japan, the time axis of history is rather simple and linear; there's the period of nationalism in the nineteenth century, then came the nation state, followed by the era of globalization, and things come and go as if you are turning over pages. The fact is, however, history is not such a tidy thing. While in some places people are tackling the problems of the modern society, people in other places are faced with the challenges to overcome the pre-modern problems. And the two spheres are permeating with each other.

For the Koreans, the modern history starts with the Japanese invasion and colonization in the late nineteenth century, followed by the North-South division and confrontation, and the cold-war hostilities. In the process, the Korean diaspora happened and zainichi Koreans have been left with a "quasi-refugee" status, as a direct result of Japan's colonial rule. How to solve these problems in a comprehensive way is the challenge we are faced with in the modern area, and still pending there as a big agenda. At that time, it was believed that the main agenda for modernization was to create a vision of the nation to overcome these problems. I still believe that the only way to achieve this is to create somehow democratic regimes in both North and South to carry out a peaceful reunification of the peninsula, making Korea as one, and crate a "state," which should not be like ones in the nineteenth century, but rather a sort of national community led by the supreme decision-making body represented by all Koreans including those in deaspora.

Certainly, this still is a plan presupposing the state, but I do not think we can get rid of it. Actually, we tend to think about solutions in a dichotomous framework; either to choose the existing states in the Korean peninsula or to remain with a minority status, an alternative of two things which in fact belong to different categories. I'm looking for another way to think about this. There must be a certain type of a state in the Korean peninsula that is favorable to Koreans living in Japan. In fact, what kind of a  state would eventually emerge in Korea  should deeply affect our living condition here in Japan. Unfortunately, there is no readily-available format on which we can discuss these two things together applying the same scale. Instead, the argument almost always goes to the dichotomy of "a state or a region." I do not think this is a valid alternative.

Koreans Have Never Had A State They Can Fully Identify Themselves with --Discontent with Current Japanese Discusrse 

But when we look at discourses in Japan, for instance, iNagao Nishikawa's argument for the need to deconstruct the self-evidence of "single-race nation,"  there is no alternative visions to the existing society. I'm not saying that the absence of such visions makes their thoughts useless, but it is hard to find a vision for the future in Japanese discourses, especially in the 90s. Put this in the context of feminism, Japanese feminist Chizuko Ueno says, there is no need to feel pressured to answer to men's criticism that feminism offers no alternative. Being a zainichi Korean, I know very well that there is a pattern in which minority's claims are often shut up by putting responsibility on them to show an "alternative." So I basically agree with the point she is trying to make, but still don't think that you can throw up your own efforts to think about an alternative to overcome present problems.

In this sense, the question of "nation" does not seem to have been overcome at all. You can point out that "nation states" are imagined, but how many times you may repeat them and make yourself content with that, the very fact of nation states will not be shaken a bit, but rather fortified. It may end up prompting rightwing people even to say, "Okey, we don't care what the historical facts are, we are going to make a new story," as did those who are involved in the project to promote new school textbooks based on their particular world view. This is a tendency spreading all over the world in the context of globalization. The United States, in particular, seems to be in the process of creating a strong "American national narrative."

Although I do not think it's right to put the issue into the framework of "constructivism" versus "essentialism, "there seems to be a growing need for people who advocate constructivism to create alternatives to the current situation by themselves. . This notion of the state as something constructed by human being is by no means novel, but has been there since the nineteenth century. Marx was a typical advocator. From the class point of view, the state is not natural or essential, but strictly manmade. From the onset of the emergence of nation states in the modern era, there have been people who noted that the state is constructed, and fought to put forward their view. So I find it rather surprising that there are people who make a big deal about this idea as if they found something very new. In contrast, Koreans in modern times have never had a period in which they could see their personal existence and "the state" as perfectly in sync. Before the Japanese rule, Korea was under the Yi (Choson) dynasty (1392-1910). It was a feudal state, and moreover a vassal kingdom of the Chinese empire. Given this, I suppose the sense of belonging to the sate of the Yi people should have been very different from the one we would have in the Japanese society today.

Here's an interesting observation by Cho Kyung-dal. In regard to "loyalty" and "filial piety" in Confucianism, there is no discrepancy between the two virtues in Japan, because all Japanese are, in theory, the children of the emperor. The feeling of oneness of loyalty and filial piety was particularly acute, I suppose, toward the last phase of Japan's fifteen-year war (1931-45), when it went for a total warfare. In Korea, Cho says, "loyalty" and "filial piety" did not come together, and often contradict, so that Confucianist intellectuals were caught up in a dilemma; either to live for one's parents and family, or to live for the state and the king. According to him, people actually gave greater credit to those who gave up their career in the government and go home to take up the duty of the family head. Whether the story is true or not, it seems that the sense of belonging of individual Koreans to their pre-modern state was considerably different from what people today would generally imagine.

After 1910, Korea was made to a part of the Japanese empire. The fundamental contradiction here was that Japan, whose nationhood was based on blood, was trying to convince Koreans that they also were the members of the same state. To this aim, Japanese tried unsuccessfully to cover up the contradiction with ideological fantasies, such as that the Koreans and the Japanese used to be siblings in the earliest time, that Korea used to be superior to Japan, and so on. In the end, Japanese expansionism failed to reconcile its own blood-based national ideology emerged in the process of its modern nation building on one hand, and the reality of racial inequality in the multi-ethnic state entailed from its imperialistic expansion on the other. The frictions weighed heavily on the Koreans and the Taiwanese.

The best example for this would be the question of military conscription. Whereas the military service was a basic duty for adult males under the old Meiji Constitution (1889-1945), conscription was introduced for Koreans only in 1944, only one year before Japan's defeat. The Japanese authority was unable to draft Korean men for more than thirty years from their incorporation into the empire in 1910. The fundamental reason for this was, as Setsuko Tomita points out, slow process of assimilation; with only around twenty percent of the population had any school education, infiltration of Japanese language and civil education was limited. So it was questionable if you can make use of soldiers who do not understand what you say very much and very dubious in their faith with Japanese imperial ideology. As such, a commander of Japanese troops in Korea (occupying force) suggested to the generals in Tokyo that it's a good idea to introduce military conscription to the peninsula, but perhaps only fifty years later. That is, only the next generation, or further down, of those Koreans currently at school could make decent soldiers. There was another problem; the main battlegrounds for the Japanese military in the period before the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941 was the Chinese continent, which has certain ethnic Korean population. So this poses yet another question as to whether Koreans would fight against other Koreans. For these reasons, Japan dared not to go for drafting Koreans until it became hard-pressed. The irony was, however, Koreans themselves waged a campaign to urge the Japanese army for their conscription. One of the reasons was the discrimination against Koreans by the mainstream, that is, ethnic Japanese, who said Koreans were less worthy because they cannot fulfill even the basic national duty such as military services. And the discrimination continued for more than thirty years, resulting a campaign among Koreans to push for the equal treatment. Some of these activists were arrested and tortured under the Public Security Maintenance Law, ironically enough.

Putting yet another spin, and I think this is the bottomline for Japan's hesitation to introduce conscription in Korea, people like Yun Dong-ju, a Korean poet who died in the Japanese prison in Fukuoka, saw the potential opportunities in the conscription for Koreans to turn the table in the impending defeat of Japan's war. Something similar to this can be found in Lenin's essay on the question of conscription for Norway. Lenin was still on exile when he heard of the introduction of conscription for the Norwegians. Jesus, this must be a big chance for communists, he thought. Prior to that, the military was only for professional soldiers, or certain ranks of aristocracy, who monopolized weapons and military training. Conscription is an institution for the capitalist to oppress working classes and Lenin perceived the possibility of turning this around.

From the beginning of its colonial rule, the Japanese army in Korea confiscated all weapons from the Korean population, including even woodsmen's hunting guns. So in the early stage of anti-Japanese rebellions (1907), woodsmen joined in Korean guerillas in mountainous regions. For these woodsmen, it all started as an armed struggle to defend their own livelihood, and then evolved into participation in broader struggles, taking place in North East China and elsewhere. Their leader Hong Bom-do, who led these Korean woodsmen, eventually fled to the USSR and died in the Central Asia. The point I am trying to make here is that the military draft is a double-edged sword and there were people, in both the ruling and ruled side, who were well aware of this potential..

So, the Japanese were in dilemma; while they were trying to incorporate the Koreans into their nation, they remained skeptical about it all the time. For the Koreans, even if they were told that they were Japanese nationals, there was of course no real sense of belonging to the state which imposed colonial rule on them, and treated them as inferior. Of course, there was no voting right in the Korean peninsula.

After the liberation upon the defeat of Japan in 1945, Koreans were left  stateless until 1948, when the Peninsula split up, and has remained divided eversince. So we have never had a single state with which we could perfectly identify ourselves. That is especially true to people like me, who was born outside the community from which my ancestors came. Seen from our tenuous sense of belonging to a state, it is just bizarre for someone to assert that the state is a natural and essential existence.

People like me are living in this modern era without any real feeling of belonging to a state. In Japan, even people who oppose to the essentialist national view would take it for granted, perhaps based on their collective experiences, that in the modern era the state and people are as one. Starting from here, they take great pains to academically and theoretically refute this assumption, believing as if they are making great achievements. It’s a long way off from questioning more immediate issues such as how, in the process of modernization, the unification drive break down the identities of various people in Japan, in what process and in what way these people could move on to the next stage of society, and how they would formulate this in terms of their relation to the state. But if you point out this, you will likely be branded as nationalist because you are making, in their view, such an essentialist argument on the state. This is a prejudice repeating and reproducing by itself, which I found very frustrating.

Kunio Uemura informs us in his "Reading Marx" that Marxists, who pointed out at the very start of modern nation states that the state is constructed, had a vision that the creation of a state will necessarily accompany the formation of its working class, which would eventually take over the state power to abolish it. In other words, the formation of a state goes back to back with the formation of the working class. If so, the concept of the Japanese working class emerged, as did the concept of Japanese people, through school education, a standard language, gymnastic instructions, the mass media and various social protocols. So, the process through which the people are molded into the Japanese citizens and the process into Japanese workers were coalesced. This is especially true when the whole working class institutions, such as health insurance, welfare and labor laws, were gradually implemented by the state. As predicted by Marx and Lenin at an early stage, the working class has began to identify their personal interests with the state economy -- currency fluctuations, performances of stocks they invested, and so on and so forth - and this has stepped up in the last few decades. So, the universality as an attribute of workers has become a kind of nested with the particularity of citizens. And, it seems, the more you try to acquire universality as a worker, the more you get particularity as a citizen.

This relation is quite important. The Japanese Communist Party has a nationality clause. This is strange in view of original Marxism, which says the working class has no homeland. The clause seems to have adopted in the historical process of the 50s, when the party was separating Korean members, who occupied leading positions of the party immediately after the war. So far, the JCP apparently does not review over this, because there is no need for the party to talk about its responsibility to the nation, as far as it aspires to transform the Japanese society. Two years ago, however, the party began to expose its inherent nationalistic trait, with slogans such as "The Japanese Communist Party is revitalizing itself as a party of our citizens," or "We are at the forefront of defending citizens' interests." Perhaps this followed the same pattern as shown by former communist states in Eastern Europe in the post 1989 period.

However, for zainich Koreans like me, there is a distance from the state in the first place. The state has for me always been an institution we construct, and it is rather embarrassing to hear someone preaching on constructivism. Of course, we have, among both zainich Koreans and those at home, our own advocators of extremely essentialist or blood-based racial/national views as well. However, this seems to me an indication of their current deprivation, which compels them into yarning for these things. Missing this point, it is very superficial to take their claims as an evidence of the Korean inclination toward nationalism, something people in advanced countries like Japan have already freed themselves from.

Zainichi Means Quasi-Refugees

We must be very sensitive when we define the conceptual boundary of refugees. For instance, when Mari Oka concluded her book with a statement that "I want to be a refugee," she was criticized for her arrogance to connect herself, a privileged, full member of the national community, with refugees. I can see the point, but still believe that it is a valid expression of a desire to break one's own sense of belonging to a nation, which is in a certain sense an invisible prison of mind. Although I feel somewhat uneasy about such statement as "refugees are unfettered and free," or "nomadic," it is important for everyone to be aware how much he/she is a captive in the invisible prison of the nation system.

So, I should not say too casually that I myself is a refugee in the face of the helplessness of refugees, totally dependent on the UN and other international supporters. However, the antonym of a refugee is a member of the state. Rights of citizens come with it. Human rights, the right to live, all defined by one's relation with the state, which is an agreement of modern times. Refugees are those who were thrown outside of this agreement. This is a very important way of seeing it. Taking this view, it would be rather misguiding to say "refugee" means only those living in camps.

Think about Boris Mikhailov, a Russian photographer who started his career as a photo journalist in the USSR regime, under which expression was strictly restricted by regulations on your shooting position, certain themes, nudities, etc. After the collapse of communism, he started taking artistic photos. Then his photos became increasingly dirty, or less beautiful. Of course, he meant that. One of the major changes after the collapse of the USSR is that now you can get color films -Fuji and Conica -- easily. "Tawdry, gaudy colors on Fuji and Conica are perfect for projecting the present time," he said smiling.

His main objects are homeless people, or bums in Uklaine. The homeless by definition represents the existence put outside the network of social security. The homeless are more or less ignored everywhere, but in Uklaine, there is absolutely no concerns paid to them, nor any support groups to offer help. Stripped of any social protection, they are literary naked human beings. So Mikhailov deliberately shoots them in naked. Before his camera eye, ordinary citizens walk past these totally disserted creatures, sometimes kicking them, beating them, just for fun. Then their bones crack, a familiar sound he hears every day. And he shows everyone in naked, even if they still possess clothes, to represent them as people stripped of and expelled from the agreement that the state will protect its citizens. These people are in a sense refugees created by the collapse of the former USSR. They are unable even to take refugees to other countries, or to get together to migrate into a better place to live. Thus they can be called as refugees. Even so, I cannot say without much reflection that these people and I are in the same category. No, but I can at least ay that Boris Mikhailov's work can profoundly move zainichi Koreans like me, because of our experiences of total expulsion form the state, or constant fear for expulsion.

It is the readers to decide how these things and what I am going to talk can be weighed against with each other. Zainichi Koreans were not allowed to join the national health insurance system up until the late 60s. For more than 20 years since the end of the colonial rule in 1945, we were left uncovered. The state deprived us of our citizenship and denied our civil rights, basic human rights, and right to exist. It puts me in horror to imagine what would have happened if my parents or myself had fallen ill in those days, before I finished the primary school. My family had a business and was fairly well off, but basically zainichi Koreans were in average worse off than Japanese. Considering this, their exclusion from the social security net was outrageous by today's standard. But at that time, no one bothered to question about it. No one, including the Socialist Party, Communist Party, and all other leftists in Japan. They thought there is nothing strange about having foreigners left uncovered by the national health insurance.

 As for the exclusion from the national pension system, the Tokyo District Court rejected the appeal made by zainichi Koreans, on the ground that it is not in violation of the Constitution that the pension system is meant for only Japanese nationals, as stipulated in the National Pension Law. The law was later amended in favor of us, as Japan signed up to the International Refugee Convention and was obliged to open its national pension system to non-nationals who were staying the country beyond a certain period of time. At this point, finally, zainichi Koreans were recognized to be partially eligible for the "refugee" status and treated in line with the international standard.

Before that, we were largely excluded from state protections. Even social relief was effectively beyond our reach because non-nationals could be deported if they were on the breadline line, had a certain criminal record, or history of mental illness. We were not eligible for council houses, qualifiable as lawyers, nor teachers at national universities. I have been calling this an apartheit, but the Japanese society is still largely unaware of this. Thus, for me, the misery of Ukhlainean homeless is not other people's business, nor things in history. There is no guarantee that Japan will not, in the near future, go into a big social turbulence as happened in the former USSR.

Although the proposed official bailout for failed Chogin (Choson Bank), Japan-based zainichi Korean bank which is suspected to have been secretly transmitting a huge amount of money to North Korea, has been scandalized, it should be remembered that we have been effectively excluded from any loans by Japanese banks, an evident, historical fact. From this standpoint, it is not surprising to see people expelled from the state protection -- we once were like them, and could become so again tomorrow, I feel that with considerable reality.

Sebastio Salgado's EXODUS photo exhibition, which I saw in Paris before shown in Tokyo, focuses on people who became refugees due to civil wars, mostly in Africa such as in Uganda. It Uganda, these people lived a fairly stable life, if not an affluent one, before the outbreak of the civil war. This was also true to former Yugoslavia. A similar thing could happen in Japan, as did happen in the past. I have been stressing on this possibility at every opportunity, but few people can see it with any sense of reality. To realize how immediate a problem it is to the Japanese society, one should parallel zainichi Koreans with people in EXODUS.

 Talking about current situation, zainichi Koreans whose national identity is "Chosen" (Korea: in the current Japanese usage, this word also indicates North Korea as opposed to Kankoku, which means South Korea) are those who filled in the nationality column in the registration form with that word when they were force to register themselves as foreigners 1947, just after the liberation of the Korean peninsula. At that point, the DPRK did not exist yet, so what they meant by "Chosen" was nothing more than their ethnic identity, a claim that they are from the peninsula, and they belong to the Korean people. Without normal relation with the North Korea, the Japanese government has treated the "Chosen" identity as mere a "sign," not a proper nationality. So, they have been living in Japan as stateless people carrying the sign of Chosen, which is a sort of refugees. And now, in the impending process of Japan-North Korea normalization efforts, these stateless people are pressed to acquire a proper national identity. Surely, this will mean a dividing line between those who are naturalized and those who aren’t. Although it is to be seen how their proportion will be - could be 9 to 1, or 6 to 4.

That would be a repeat of what happened in the past; Japan created refugees, in its relation to the DPRK, through a legitimate process - legitimate unless you deny the notion that the membership of a state is the prerequisite for its protection of his/her basic rights And now the DRPI is to do the same. That's what is going to happen. Acquisition of a nationality alone will not be a real solution, because that would drag you into the confinement to the national framework. If you do not concede, we will not guarantee your human rights -- this alternative, extremely simple and blatant, has been exercised in Japan, and is about to be imposed once again.

A parallel incident to this took place two years ago in Japan, when a bill to give local suffrage to permanent foreign residents had a good chance to be passed. To the aim of blocking this, Liberal Democratic Party and some conservatives discussed on the possibility of granting Japanese nationality on request to those permanent foreign residents who are from its former-colonies. Some people found this perplexing, because this was proposed by the extreme rightwing, such as Kiyosuke Okuno, who don't even try to conceal their prejudice against the Korean people and constantly give approval to the past colonial rule. For me, there is nothing strange about this. The existence of nearly 600,000 ethnic Koreans in Japan, living in quasi-refugee conditions, has been for these Japanese rightists an unsettled issue in the liquidation of its past colonialism, or so-called postwar settlements. Up to a certain period, they projected that the question would gradually disappear as these Koreans eventually assimilate into the dominant society in two or three generations. Those stubbornly refusing to assimilate would, they hoped, become a tiny minority that can be negligible. However, this did not happen and the rightists have decided to change their approach. It was thus a kind of manifest of their new policy, which is to draw a line to divide these quasi-refugees into those who are to be naturalized and those to be made aliens.

It is very difficult to argue against this logic in any fundamental sense, because either the current government of North Korea or South Korea is based on the nationalist idea. Also, people like Hiroshi Tanaka argues that since the Japanese government has been blamed for its failure to offer personal choice, like Germany did to its Austrian residents in the post-WWII period, to Koreans before they were collectively expatriated in 1947, the proposal to offer these people an opportunity to become Japanese on their request should be unchallengeable. This is really a tough argument to counter. Here, we find ourselves standing at an important crossroads.

Aside from the practical question of how one should choose a nationality, the challenge facing zainichi Koreans, including those who have already acquired Japanese citizenship, is to establish a theoretical basis that would assure us to be able to (1) firmly demand our rights in this country, based on the awareness that we were refugees created in the historical process of the colonial rule, wars of aggression, and the cold war hostilities in the 20th century, and (2) preserve the perspective we earned thanks to our refugee experience, that is, a perspective that could relativize the state, and enable us to put forward our claim without falling into the trap of a narrow national perspective.

<to be continued ...>

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Translated by Makiko Nakano (=^o^=)/
Contact /Last modified 03/02/22