Isomura ‘sangokujin’ explanation irks Koreans

Local ethnic community miffed with mayor despite his criticism of Ishihara's gaffe


OSAKA — An attempt by Osaka Mayor Takafumi Isomura to explain the historical usage of the discriminatory word “sangokujin” has backfired, prompting local Korean resident groups to demand a public explanation and apology.

During a mid-April press conference, Isomura criticized Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara for his lack of sensitivity in using the term. He then explained the word’s history, claiming the term was used by many Japanese in the postwar period in a noninflammatory manner.

But some media reports quoted the mayor as saying the word was not discriminatory, which sparked a chain of protests from the Korean community.

The 500-member Osaka-based Human Rights Association for Koreans in Japan issued a statement calling on the mayor to retract his remarks and to publicly explain what he meant.

“The city’s explanation of the mayor’s remarks was not sufficient,” said Jung Woo Suh, the association’s president. “We still do not know how the mayor feels personally about the use of the word.”

The mayor’s comments were condemned by resident associations with ties to both North and South Korea. Jung’s group, whose members have links to both countries, said that, unlike Ishihara, the Osaka mayor has never uttered discriminatory remarks in public about Koreans.

Isomura, a former academic who studied at Johns Hopkins University’s school of international studies in Washington, D.C., is considered far more progressive than many of his predecessors, and has heavily promoted Osaka’s business and cultural ties with Asia over the past five years.

“It’s extremely regrettable that this has happened with a mayor whom many said was friendly to the foreign community,” Jung said.

Immediately following the mayor’s remarks, officials from the city’s human rights bureau met with Jung and contacted other local Korean groups to explain what the mayor had said and to assure them that Isomura did not share Ishihara’s feelings.

Isomura, however, has not offered a further public explanation and city officials said he has no plans to do so.

Jung said that if an apology to resolve the issue is not forthcoming, other actions, including dropping support for the city’s 2008 Olympics bid and organizing protests, would be considered.

Controversy over the word is particularly sensitive in the Osaka area, home to Japan’s largest Korean community. Many are descended from those who arrived in the early part of the 20th century as forced laborers, following Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula.

Despite the grim history, though, many ethnic Koreans say they feel more comfortable in Osaka than in other cities.

Parts of Osaka, especially the Tsuruhashi district, are well known in the Kansai region for having large numbers of ethnic Koreans. Many younger Japanese visit Tsuruhashi for the area’s Korean restaurants or to study the Korean language.

“In general, I would say that Osaka people are not as discriminatory toward Koreans as Tokyo people are because they have a longer history of dealing with them,” Jung said.