Chong Hyang Gyun has just written herself into the history books, but not for the reason she wanted.
The 54-year-old public health nurse spent a decade fighting the Tokyo Government for the right to take a promotion exam, from which she was barred because of her South Korean nationality.
Had she won, nationality would have ceased to be a factor in determining senior civil service jobs in Japan.
But last week, the Supreme Court supported Tokyo’s 1994 decision to bar her from promotion, saying: “Japanese nationality is necessary for positions which are linked to the exercise of public power.” The landmark decision, which effectively ruled that senior civil service jobs here should be filled only by Japanese, has been greeted with dismay by antidiscrimination campaigners.
Makoto Teranaka, secretary general of Amnesty International, Japan, says that Japan, as a signatory to the U.N. International Convention on Eliminating Racial Discrimination, has a duty to protect all residents from discrimination.
“Just because foreign residents do not have Japanese citizenship, it does not mean that foreign residents do not have rights. The rights of all should be protected,” he says. “Japan has a duty to do under the U.N. agreements that it has signed.”
Several days later, Chong is recovering from the subsequent media blitz, which was followed, she says, by hate mail sent to her workplace.
“We got about 300 messages that said things like ‘Go Home’ and ‘We don’t want to be lectured about our country by a Korean,’ ” she says. “Most of it seemed to have come via the same Web site.”
Although she has spent 17 years in her current occupation and fulfills all other criteria for promotion, she insists she is not angry or bitter.
“It took them seven years to come up with this ridiculous decision, you know? When I heard it, what came out were not tears, but laughter. I just think it shows this country’s most reactionary elements.
“Foreign people should know that Japan does not respect human rights. We live in an era of immigration, but the court is saying: ‘Don’t come here or you will just be treated like a robot.’ ”
Reaction to the ruling was mixed. The Asahi said it was “backward-looking,” a view echoed by the Japan Times, which said the challenge is to “make better use of talented people, Japanese or non-Japanese.”
But an editorial in the country’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri, said it was an “appropriate decision” supported by the Constitution, adding that the business of local government is connected to basic issues of “security” and “public peace,” which means it should be carried out only by Japanese.
“Some of the media just ignored the ruling, although NHK and TBS were fair,” she says. “One journalist came and said he supported what I did but his newspaper didn’t print his article. The Yomiuri editorial was really awful. It doesn’t say anything in the Constitution about barring foreigners from work. When I started this job nobody said I couldn’t get promoted. I only learned afterward.”
She believes the ruling should concern Japanese citizens as much as it does her: “Everyone thinks of Article 9 when they talk about the Constitution, but there is absolutely no debate about the most important issue here: what it has to say about private rights of citizens.
“Local government officials should not have the power to decide these things. If they can do this to me, they can take away the power of others too.”
Chong was born in Iwate Prefecture to a Japanese mother and Korean father, who she says was thrown out of Korea for anticolonial activities. She began life as a Japanese citizen, but in 1952 her parents switched nationalities after Korea’s colonial status, and automatic Japanese citizenship, ended. Her brother, a university lecturer, later became Japanese but Chong stayed Korean.
“My brother and I live our lives differently and have sometimes opposite opinions but we understand each other,” she explains, adding that she has never been tempted to take the same route, although she acknowledges it would make life simpler.
“I’m often asked why I don’t become Japanese and I say it is because of this history between the two countries; I’d like Japan to acknowledge this history and apologize for it.
“The fact that a person like me with Korean nationality exists in Japan at all is the result of the colonial era and that’s what I would like everyone to know; that’s why I pledged to stay Korean. The harder this struggle got the more strongly I felt about that.”
Keeping her pledge has been tough. “Well, to give an example, when I want to rent an apartment as a foreigner I need two Japanese guarantors, who have to produce evidence of their earnings and tax.
“Finding these people isn’t easy,” she says.
Discrimination forced her into her current occupation, she claims. “I couldn’t find corporate work because of my name so I became a white angel; angels don’t have nationality,” she laughs. “Or at least that’s what I was told by my high school teacher. There are a lot of Koreans in nursing because it’s a difficult, dirty job that Japanese don’t want to do.”
Chong says her deceased Japanese mother supported her fight. “Mum was more combative than I. She taught me from when I was very young that there is a lot of discrimination here and if I didn’t fight it, Japan would stay the same.
“Of course, my motivation is that I don’t want to be discriminated against, but I also don’t want people to have the illusion that there is no discrimination here. That strikes me as dangerous.”
Last week’s ruling by Japan’s top legal minds, which reversed an earlier decision in Chong’s favor by the high court, means that her legal battle has ended, but she says she will keep fighting.
“It’s not about how I or other foreigners personally feel; it’s about how we are going to change this society. Most people here do not have a clue about issues of oppression and human rights.”
Will she stay in her job? “Sometimes I want to leave, but I’ve planted roots here and it would be hard to start again. I don’t hate Japan; I just want to make it a better place to live.
“People don’t have a sense of how little freedom there is here. Will Japan change and catch up with the rest of the world or stay where it is? That’s the era we are in now and that’s the issue that my ruling leaves unanswered.”