Forty years after Zainichi labor case victory, is Japan turning back the clock?

by Hifumi Okunuki

I was hoping to start off the Year of the Sheep in a subdued, “sheepish” fashion, but bad news just keeps on coming. The ruling coalition is working hard to push through a bill to abolish overtime pay for high-income workers and another to deregulate temp-agency employment (haken). These bills will hurt the conditions of all workers in Japan, including foreigners.

Speaking of foreign workers, I’d like to focus this month on how labor laws in Japan handle the issue of nationality. But first, a detour:

Japanese society over the past couple of years has taken a dangerous turn toward extreme nationalism. My husband noted, “Since 2014, both NHK and the private broadcasters have changed how they refer to Japan, from using the word Nihon to Nippon.” The latter was used during World War II and is associated with jingoistic militarism. It also has a harsher consonant sound than “Nihon.”

I hadn’t noticed the nascent Nipponization until my husband pointed it out, but it’s true: Turn on the TV today and on nearly every program and commercial, you hear the word “Nippon” over and over ad nauseam. You see it in the titles of magazines, articles and even books. Even the Japanese theme song for last year’s World Cup by Sheena Ringo was titled “Nippon.”

All this Nippon talk is no sober commentary or level-headed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of a modern nation. Rather, it’s a praise-fest through and through, as the following examples illustrate (all of which use “Nippon” to refer to Japan in their titles):

1. “Except China and Korea, Everyone Is Pro-Japan: ‘Cool Japan’ Takes the World by Storm” (a book written by Toru Sakai);

2. “That Is Why the World Respects Japan” (a book by Manlio Cadelo);

3. “Tokoro’s Nippon Show” (aka “Rediscover Japan,” a TBS program);

4. “Japanese People Can Be Found in the Most Remote Places” (on TV Asahi);

5. “The World Says: OMG, Japan Is Friggin’ Awesome!” (also on TV Asahi).

Writing up this short list makes me so sickened that my mind slips back into my native Kansai dialect to think: Jibun kara yutara oshimai yaro! (You’re not worthy of praise if you have to praise yourself!). What on Earth is whipping up this storm of self-congratulation?

As if puerile, blathering, bloviating self-adulation were not enough, the march of self-righteous exceptionalism has decimated our media’s interest in or concern for other countries in general, while leading many to belittle and disparage Japan’s neighbors in particular. There seems to be a desperate need to despise Japan’s alter-ego bugaboo, South Korea, and to heap praise on how different and better “we Japanese” are.

In my humble opinion, this din of self-praise represents the death rattle of Japan’s self-confidence and self-respect. As this year marks the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, it’s surely no time for Japan to isolate itself from the outside world like a frog stuck in a well (i no naka no kawazu).

Let’s see, where were we? Oh, yes: How does labor law treat foreign workers? Article 3 of the Labor Standards Act prohibits discrimination based on nationality: “An employer shall not engage in discriminatory treatment with respect to wages, working hours or other working conditions by reason of the nationality, creed or social status of any worker.” But does this law reflect the reality of the workplace or is it just pie-in-the-sky pretty talk?

More than half a million ethnic Koreans live in Japan (Zainichi Korian) today, mostly as a result of Imperial Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula. Many are fourth and even fifth generation. In this 70th year since the end of the war, anti-Korean hate groups are regrouping and screaming to anyone who will listen that Koreans enjoy special privileges and preferential treatment. Really? Special privileges?

A closer look reveals that such privileges are “special” only in comparison with those of other foreigners, not Japanese citizens. For instance, Zainichi Koreans and Taiwanese — the descendents of those brought over in the colonial era, that is — are eligible for special permanent residence (tokubetsu eijūsha) status. These residents were also exempted in 2012 from the legal obligation to carry the identification cards that other foreigners have to.

But why do these fourth- and fifth-generation immigrants not have citizenship in the first place? These people in their own countries were subjected to colonial domination before and during the war, forced to become Imperial subjects of Emperor Hirohito, to take Japanese-sounding names, and many were dragged to the archipelago to supply forced labor. Yet after Japan’s defeat, these “subjects” were unceremoniously stripped of their citizenship. Far from being a privilege, the tokubetsu eijūsha visa designation was created to mitigate the soul-destroying discrimination these “new foreigners” faced on a daily basis.

Right-wingers also claim as “preferential” (tokken) the right for aliens to use aliases, particular “Japanese-sounding” names even though they have official Korean names. We must remember that these Imperial subjects were forced to take such names during the war. Another relevant point is that Japanese citizens and non-Korean foreigners also have the same right to use aliases, so it is in no way a special privilege.

When I was a child, my family was close friends with a Korean family in our neighborhood. The Kims used their real name. The father opened a surgery clinic in their home. I remember my parents often saying, “Most Koreans know they will not be hired by Japanese companies so they have little choice but to use their Japanese aliases. Mr. Kim is clearly a Zainichi Korean, but he can survive because he has a medical license and his own clinic.”

Most Japanese do not know and do not want to know the history of how Zainichi Koreans struggled desperately to survive decade after decade of discrimination and exclusion. Schools avoid the subject, but Japanese people must make an effort to learn about this painful history.

One Zainichi Korean sued the Hitachi conglomerate in 1970 for “unhiring” him after they discovered his ancestry. Pak Chong Sok used his Japanese-sounding alias to sit for the company exam, but during routine paperwork upon being hired, he was required to submit proof of identification. Pak submitted his foreign registry card (gaitōsho) and Hitachi immediately withdrew the offer of employment, openly stating that “We cannot hire a Korean.”

In court, Hitachi tried to justify the firing by claiming Pak had falsified his resume by using a “false name.” The trial thus ended up revolving around a single point of contention: Did using an alias constitute falsification?

On June 19, 1974, the Yokohama District Court ruled that “using a Japanese name did not constitute falsification because he had in effect been forced to use such a name, and the name was insufficient grounds for dismissal.” The company had violated the equal-treatment provision of Article 3 of the Labor Standards Act, as well as the “public order and morality” principle from Article 90 of Japan’s Civil Code.

The judge elaborated in the verdict on the unconscionable and bitter circumstances suffered by Zainichi Koreans in Japan. This rare expression of sympathy for the suffering of Koreans here by a Japanese judge warrants a lengthy citation:

“The plaintiff wrote his alias in order to appear as if he were Japanese, but the motive that led to this fabrication deserves extraordinary sympathy on many points in light of the historical and social background of Koreans including the plaintiff as explained above, and in light of the reality that Koreans living in Japan are refused employment, particularly by big Japanese companies — except with special exceptions — for the sole reason that they are Korean.”

This case is crucial as it took on Article 3 head on. The resurgent nationalism of 2015 tries to justify discrimination against foreigners who are in the minority by emphasizing nationality, something that one cannot choose at birth.

At the risk of starting off the new year on a note of pessimism, I believe that efforts against this kind of discrimination have made zero progress in the four decades since this landmark court case. If anything, we have turned back the clock.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union (Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union). She can be reached at tozen.okunuki@gmail.com. On the fourth Thursday of each month, Hifumi looks at cases in Japan’s legal history to illustrate important principles in labor law. Your comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    I was in general agreement with the author about the use of Nippon rather than Nihon and the number of chest thumping programs about how great the Japanese are but then I hit this claim. “More than half a million ethnic Koreans live in Japan (Zainichi Korian) today, mostly as a result of Imperial Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.” While it is strictly true, it is also somewhat deceptive. The Korean population in Japan is now increasingly from the ROK (Republic of Korea, aka South Korea). This is easy enough to calculate. Take the figure for Korean nationals in Japan. Subtract the figure for those holding “special permanent resident status” which is 99% people of Korean ancestry born in Japan.  As of 2014.6 Japanese government figures indicate that there were 508561 Korean nationals in Japan. Of these 360004 are “special permanent residents.” In other words about 70% of the Koreans in Japan have some colonial connection but 30% do not. Further, the author never answers the question she poses “But why do these fourth- and fifth-generation immigrants not have citizenship in the first place?” The answer is simple: because they don’t naturalize. Naturalization is not particularly difficult. I know because I’ve done it myself. For a native speaker speaker of Japanese born and raised in Japan, it’s just a question of collecting the documentation. There is no charge for naturalization in Japan. Even for someone like myself who had to collect documents from two foreign countries and translate all of them into Japanese, the process is not particularly difficult, comparable to applying for a US Green Card (permanent residency). Roughly 40% of all those naturalizing in Japan are Koreans born in Japan. Those who do not have citizenship do not have it because they are not doing the paperwork to naturalize. Japan is NOT unusual in not giving citizenship automatically to the children of parents who do not have citizenship.

    • Paul Johnny Lynn

      But if the figures you quote are true, and “..about 70%…have some colonial connection…”, does that not indicate a good number of them were born here? And if so, why should a person born here not be granted citizenship, no matter what their parents nationality?

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        Relatively few countries grant citizenship on the basis of where you are born. For example, I have British permanent residency but neither I nor my wife are British citizens. If our children had been born in Britain, they would not have automatically been British citizens. There are many different patterns but generally at least one parent must be a citizen for children to be citizens by birth. Further, Koreans in Japan have not mounted a movement for automatic citizenship and many are against it on the grounds that automatic citizenship would be the end of their Korean identity. An discussion of this and related issues can be found in Morris-Suzuki, T 2010, Borderline Japan: Foreigners and Frontier Controls in the Postwar Era, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.

      • Bruce Chatwin

        As Non-Japanese Bull fighter notes, you are completely wrong on this. According to the UK government website: You’re automatically a British citizen if you were born in the UK after 1 January 1983 and 1 of your parents was a British citizen or settled here at that time.

        You can register to become a British citizen if you were born in the UK on or after 1 January 1983 and neither of your parents was a British citizen or settled at that time. You must be 10 years old, or older and have lived in the UK until you were 10, or older.

        17% of the countries in the world have unrestricted jus solis (citizenship based on being born in a country) and more than 25% of the countries in the world have some form of jus solis.

        “They want all the rights and privileges of citizenship WITHOUT becoming citizens. No country offers this.”
        Apparently, New Zealand and Uruguay give non-citizens national voting rights. Eleven countries give non-citizens the right to vote in subnational or local elections.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        You didn’t read what I wrote. ” If our children had been born in Britain, they would not have automatically been British citizens.” Children born to a permanent resident are ENTITLED to REGISTER as a British citizen. You have to do the paperwork. They are not automatically a British citizen. Koreans born in Japan are also entitled to naturalize. Because they have permanent residency at birth, they automatically meet the main requirement for naturalization in Japan. They only need to do the paperwork. For someone who has lived in Japan and who is fluent in Japanese, this is relatively trivial. Further, in 1983 Britain switched from a policy of giving most people born in the country citizenship to a much more restrictive policy. Voting rights is just one element of the rights that are usually restricted to citizens and not the one talked about in the article. To use New Zealand as an example, you have to be a citizen to hold certain national government jobs or to own certain categories of rural property. That two (tiny) countries give national voting rights to non-citizens doesn’t mean much especially given that there are currently 196 recognized countries in the world. And, to return to Britain as an example, despite having British permanent residency and despite paying more in taxes than a large fraction of the population with citizenship, I have no voting rights at any level. I think my statement still stands. I wrote “They want all the rights and privileges of citizenship WITHOUT becoming citizens. No country offers this.” Some countries give you bits and pieces of what citizens have. No country gives you the whole ball of wax. If there is any embarrassment, it is the people in this venue who engage in knee jerk Japan bashing without knowing what they are talking about.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        The most detailed treatment of why Koreans born in Japan do not have citizenship is found in Erin Aeran Chung, Immigration & Citizenship in Japan (Cambridge, 2010). As I noted earlier, Koreans have NOT pushed for automatic citizenship and many think it would destroy their sense of identity and community. This position is inherently contradictory. They want all the rights and privileges of citizenship WITHOUT becoming citizens. No country offers this.

  • Mark Makino

    I don’t think the conclusion of the article is warranted by the very loosely connected dots that form its body (although the dots are presented forcefully). Still, I agree with the general sentiment that people are probably less sympathetic towards Koreans now than 5 years ago (unless they sing and dance) and 19th-century ethno-nationalism is making a comeback.

  • Disqus2Learn

    If you include half Korean/Japanese population. Probably more………….

    • Japanese Bull Fighter

      People of mixed parentage are not relevant to the point made in the JT article. If you have one parent who is a Japanese citizen, you will have Japanese nationality and thus cannot be subject to any employment “discrimination” based on whether you are a citizen or not.

      • Disqus2Learn

        My point is there are many Half Korean-Japanese living and working in Japan. Using Japanese alias name or not. Does not matter they are Japanese or Zainichi Korean or half Korean. There ancestry should be about 6-12 Million.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        Show me your calculations. Your numbers are wildly implausible.

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    “The resurgent nationalism of 2015 tries to justify discrimination
    against foreigners who are in the minority by emphasizing nationality,
    something that one cannot choose at birth.” True, but you can easily change your nationality by going through the naturalization process. “I believe that efforts against this kind of discrimination have made
    zero progress in the four decades since this landmark court case.” Possibly, but I’d like to see some evidence for that. I’ve not seen such discrimination in Japanese academia. Korean nationals hold tenured positions in Japanese universities including the most prestigious. A Korean friend (from Korea, not BIJ) is a department head at a major national university. I think that if anyone cited a case from 41 years ago for the US or the UK and claimed “nothing has changed,” they would be asked to show some evidence. That should be the case for Japan as well and at least in this article the author has given no evidence of continued employment discrimination with respect to Koreans born in Japan. There may indeed be such evidence, but it is not in the article.

  • wangkon936

    This article was disturbing… :(