Kang Sang Jung: Born but not Bred

As a Korean raised and resident in Japan, academic and social commentator Kang Sang Jung has faced identity issues all his life


Kang Sang Jung is one of the most influential ethnically Korean residents of Japan (zainichi). A political science professor at the University of Tokyo, he also gives lectures around the country, is a regular television commentator and has a column in the prestigious weekly current affairs magazine Aera.

In his 2008 life-guide book “Nayamu Chikara” (“The Power of Wavering”), which has sold 755,000 copies, Kang analyzes why it can be so hard to live in today’s Japan despite the supposed benefits of its free-market economy and cutting-edge information technology.

In part — along with his academic motivation to understand the workings of society — he clearly appears to attribute his deep insight into the society to his background as a member of a disadvantaged minority.

In 1950, he was born in Kumamoto, Kyushu, a son of poor Korean parents who moved to Japan from the southern part of the Korean Peninsula before the outbreak of World War II. Growing up at a time when Koreans were harshly discriminated against, Kang used to call himself by the Japanese name Tetsuo Nagano — a practice that was adopted by most zainichi to help them avoid racism in Japan.

But after he returned from his first visit to South Korea in 1972, when he was a university student, Kang stopped using his Japanese name and started to call himself Kang Sang Jung. That was because, as he explained in his autobiography “Zainichi,” he decided to embrace his Korean ancestry.

Then, after gaining his first degree at Waseda University in Tokyo, he studied for his doctorate at the same institution, specializing in the history of political thought. He also studied at the University of Erlangen-Nurnberg in Germany, before taking a part-time post at a private university in Japan in the early 1980s.

It was soon after that, in 1985, that Kang first surfaced in the mass media when he refused to be fingerprinted, as was mandatory for all foreign residents in Japan.

Though he gave up his protest when he faced arrest, a supporter helped Kang into a post as an assistant professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo. After the Gulf War broke out in 1991, he regularly appeared on television as a political pundit and also began to publish books on political issues.

In 1998, Kang was appointed to a post as a professor in the Institute of Socio-information and Communication Studies at the University of Tokyo. Kang remains one of only three Korean professors at Japan’s top university — which has around 1,300 professors in all. Since 2004, he has held the post of Professor of Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies at the university.

On May 15, the 58-year-old scholar spoke to The Japan Times at his office in the university in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward.

In your book “Nayamu Chikara” (“The Power of Wavering”), you give advice to readers stressed out by the rapid changes in society due to the development of information technology and the expansion of the free-market economy. Why did you write about these topics?

Since ancient times, people have believed that technological development leads to Utopia. Certainly in the modern era it has created new forms of society, and people expected a completely different future, a kind of Utopia. However, what we see today is a “dis-Utopia” — no Utopia at all. So why is it so hard to live? It is because individual lives don’t seem to have a value in the face of all this information and science. What is lacking is that value is not being put on forming a society based on the ideal of people sharing their feelings about the meaning of living.

These are political issues, because politics is not only about power and conflict. Politics involves what kind of society we form, how we distribute scarce resources fairly, how we can help handicapped people, and how we can share values and support each other. Politics should be about such things, and should be about putting them into practice. But we are deadlocked in politics here. That’s why everyone feels it is hard to live.

So, in my book, I have tried to explain the problems we are facing by referring to the writings of Soseki Natsume (Japanese novelist, 1867-1916) and Max Weber (German political economist and sociologist, 1864-1920) in an easily understandable way.

Nowadays, many young people seem to suffer from existential angst, asking themselves such questions as “What do I want?” or “Why am I living?” Did you have similar experiences in your youth?

I had similar problems. I was distressed about my nationality, my identity and various problems related to adolescence. But my problems were clear in a sense. The problems people are facing today are difficult to see and hard to connect to a “big story.”

For example, I was distressed and used to ask myself, “Why was I born this way in this society?” But then, through trial and error, I got rid of my nationalism, so that now I can see the countries in relation to each other and I have tried to place myself on the border of Japan and South Korea.

However, impoverished young people in today’s Japan cannot connect themselves to some overriding thing. Before, young people could connect themselves to social movements and a sense of solidarity with the labor movement, revolutions and efforts to change the relation of capital and labor. But now all the problems in society are considered to be associated with individuals, and they must solve them by themselves.

I think too much responsibility is put on individuals. People in poverty cannot rely on labor unions. Politicians are not representing the people. Local communities are deteriorating. Social security has been cut. Poor people rarely have any place to go, because society welcomes certain people and excludes the others. For example, even university graduates, once they become nonregular employees, have a hard time regaining regular jobs — while those who have inferior academic records are forced to become disposable workers.

Right now, in figures just released for 2008, suicide is most prevalent among people in their 30s, of whom around 5,000 killed themselves — the highest number on record. There are many people in their 50s and 60s who commit suicide, but their numbers are not increasing in the way they are among young people. It’s against this background that my book is selling well, I believe.

You were born in Kumamoto, and your parents came from the southern part of the Korean Peninsula. Would you tell me about your parents?

My father, who was the eldest son of a poor farmer in Korea, came to Japan in the 1930s. He worked in a munitions factory owned by Mitsubishi in Tokyo’s Sugamo district until U.S. air raids began and he was evacuated to Nagoya, where another of the firm’s factories was located. But then Nagoya was bombed and his son, my elder brother, was killed. As the majority of Japanese adult men were soldiers at the end of World War II, Korean men were taking their roles as laborers. Before the war ended, my father foresaw Japan would lose, and he decided to return to Korea. On his way, he went to Kumamoto to see his younger brother, who had been working as a military policeman there. Then, even after his brother went back to Korea, he stayed on there with my mother, who he’d married by arrangement and who had come over from Korea during the war.

Would you tell me about the Korean community in Kumamoto, where you grew up?

It was like the Third World. The Koreans there were excluded from Japanese society. They were very poor, though Japanese people were poor, too. The situation gradually changed in the late 1950s, when the government declared the postwar period over. Around that time, my father started his own recycled-goods business and we moved out of the Korean community.

In your book “Zainichi,” you say you felt very depressed when you learned history in elementary school. Why was that?

We were taught that ancient Japan, called Yamato, had a colonial government on the Korean Peninsula named Mimana. Its existence is not believed nowadays, but the government’s version of history — and Japan’s relationship to neighboring countries — during World War II was still reflected in the history education I received at school. That was what led many Japanese people to have a contemptuous attitude toward Koreans at that time. Today, millions of Japanese and South Koreans visit each other’s countries every year, which is incredible.

When you were a student at Waseda University, you visited South Korea for the first time in 1972. Why did you go then?

I had played baseball when I was student and wanted to play professionally, but I gave up my dream. After that, I was depressed and could not figure out the purpose of living. At the end of my second year at Waseda, my uncle in South Korea, who was a rich lawyer, contacted me and said, “Why don’t you come over here for your summer vacation?” So I decided to go.

What were your impressions from that visit?

I got culture shock. At that time, South Korea was developing under a dictatorship, and the society was full of inconsistencies and people were struggling to make a living. I was surprised by the gap between South Korea and Japan because around that time, in 1968, Japan’s GNP exceeded that of West Germany. But after I’d been in South Korea a while, I began to feel very comfortable and sort of nostalgic about the country. Then, after staying there for one month, I left with painful reluctance.

Why did you revert to your Korean name when you returned to Japan?

I thought it was something I had to do; it was something like a ceremony. I decided to stop looking back. I wanted to move forward as a zainichi. Although changing my name didn’t change my life drastically, back then Korean relations were tense and I joined a group of South Korean students in Japan. Although a joint North-South statement on July 4, 1972, led me expect a dialogue was starting, the governments of both countries strengthened controls on citizens, and in South Korea a new system gave dictatorial powers to the president. In the 1970s, Japanese university graduates got stable jobs and became “corporate warriors,” but Koreans in Japan were having a hard time. We were against communism and also both “red” and “white” dictatorships, and we wanted to see the democratization of both North and South Korea.

So, you have been supporting the democratization of North Korea since the 1970s.

I believe I have maintained the same stance on North Korea. But Japan’s stance on North Korea has changed a lot. Especially in the last 15 years, Japanese opinions on the North have become extremely one-sided. Before, Japanese thought North Korea was a more developed country than South Korea, but now Japanese believe North Korea is like a prison and part of the “axis of evil.” Unless Japanese change their ideas on North Korea, I don’t think they will be able to solve the problems between the countries. They need to consider the problems from realistic points of view. May I continue?

Please go ahead.

North Korea and the United States signed the Framework Agreement in 1994 right before Kim Il Sung died. U.S. Secretary of State (Madeleine) Albright visited Pyongyang, and North Korean heavyweight Cho Myong Nok went to the White House and met President (Bill) Clinton. Clinton planned to visit Pyongyang in one or two months, and I expected the framework would let the U.S. and North Korea reconcile at a rapid pace. However, Clinton never went and 15 years have passed since then, and the situation has got worse and worse regarding such issues as uranium enrichment, abductions and the North’s development of long-range missiles. Also, since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, North Korea’s solid bond with Russia and China has been cut and it lost its strongest supporters. On the other hand, South Korea normalized diplomatic relations with Russia and China, and trade between South Korea and China increased by a huge amount.

In these circumstances, North Korea has been isolated in East Asia. To survive, it has tried to play a seesaw game with South Korea to achieve parity. For that purpose, though, I guess the North considered it essential to normalize its diplomatic relations with the U.S. and Japan, so it signed the Framework Agreement. But that is no more than waste paper now. The North has become more and more obstinate, but I believe that pressures cannot change North Korea. In the last 15 years, other countries have not been able to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program or its missile development, so the other countries must change their ways of thinking of the North. By giving and taking with North Korea, the situation needs to be moved forward step by step.

What should Japan do regarding its relations with North Korea?

Japan has an important role in denuclearizing North Korea, even though Japan has a difficult stance on that country. The problem of the North is not due to the political system and security issues; it’s because the Cold War hasn’t ended on the Korean Peninsula and the old attitudes from the (1950-53) Korean War remain and are causing a risky situation.

To solve this, North Korea, South Korea, the U.S. and China need to change the Korean War ceasefire agreement to a peace treaty. Japan was not directly involved in the war, so it doesn’t have to play a leading role, but, in terms of denuclearizing North Korea, Japan has an active role to play. In Prague in April, U.S. President (Barack) Obama spoke in support of nuclear disarmament, and the U.S. and Russia will start negotiations on reducing strategic nuclear arms and work on implementing a nuclear test-ban treaty. In the future, they should let China join the negotiations on reducing nuclear arms.

So, now that countries are taking steps toward a world without nuclear weapons, Japan should host six-country nuclear talks in Hiroshima. I suggested the idea on Aug. 6 and 7 in a symposium in 2007, but unfortunately there was no official reaction. That was because of Japanese hostility toward North Korea, as they believe they should tackle abduction issues before nuclear ones. However, following Obama’s nuclear-disarmament speech, Japan should invite him to Hiroshima and let him deliver a message on nuclear disarmament. Other member countries of the six-party nuclear talks should also visit Hiroshima and consider new initiatives to denuclearize the world.

To what extent are your views on North Korean issues influenced by your background as a Korean living in Japan?

Well, I want to achieve the reconciliation of Japan and the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, my experience studying in Europe influenced my way of thinking. Why could West and East Germany be unified? Why could the European Union come into existence, even though many European countries were on opposite sides during the Cold War? I think all that was because (in Helsinki on Aug. 1, 1975) European countries were able to conclude a comprehensive security framework called the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Did your life change after you became a University of Tokyo professor?

Many people took notice, and reporters contacted me about it. Then I realized that the public has a very high regard for the university, and that my new position might enhance my influence in society. Although I honestly think I could work in any university, at the University of Tokyo I am outsider in two ways: I am a graduate of another university and also I am Korean. However, that’s all right for me because I have had a strong awareness of being an outsider in society. I want to stay as an outsider inside the society, along with those contradictions. I believe that is my raison d’e^tre.

How do you find working at the University of Tokyo?

I decided I should just stay as I am. I have not felt any pressures . . . (even though) I have not been very sensitive to the university’s hierarchy. I was planning to retire in my late 50s to return to Kumamoto and relax. But the thing is, I am working as if someone put me on a stage, and I feel expectations from other people. I don’t actively try to appear in the mass media but I don’t believe I should refuse requests.

I also want to expand the limited image of zainichi in Japan. They have been labeled as zainichi and their diverse aspects have not been recognized. I don’t find that labeling good, so I am trying to speak out through various media if I have the chance. I think the image of zainichi may have changed a little bit through my appearance in the mass media. Perhaps people didn’t think there was such person as myself, and I want to expand that phenomenon. Decades ago, there was a common idea that “women should be like such and such.” But as women differing from that idea started to appear in society, they expanded the limits for other women. The same thing can happen regarding zainichi. Several decades ago, it was impossible for a book written by a zainichi like me to sell as many copies as mine has.

If you were reborn in the world, would you want to be a zainichi again?

As I loved my father and mother, I would want to be born as a child of my parents. I would also want to be born in Kumamoto, as I love it there. Zainichi like me are people who live in Japan, and at my age, I have finally realized that it is important for our lives as zainichi that we do live in Japan. I accept my position — after all, what else can I do? I cannot only emphasize my Korean origin; I am a zainichi to the end.

Yet, because I am a minority outsider in society, I can see various things that others cannot see. I am always thinking analogically; I want to consider things with “compound eyes,” because without those eyes, the complexity of problems cannot be understood.

There are a number of Korean people living in Japan who use Japanese names, and on Internet bulletin boards anonymous contributors often name celebrities who they believe are zainichi. Why does this happen in today’s Japan?

It is because postcolonial problems still exist here. In France, Yves Montand, a famous actor and singer, was regarded as a potential presidential candidate even though he was of Italian-Jewish origin. His origin is not a problem for French people. Actually, the current French President (Nicolas) Sarkozy is a Frenchman of Hungarian-Jewish origin. Yet in Japan — the world’s second-biggest economic power — there are those who classify people according to their ancestry. This is very unfortunate. People have to change and regard residents from Korea in the same way as people from Kyushu or Hokkaido.

So, as Japanese society is not yet equally open to all, what can be done to make it open to people from other countries?

Local governments have policies for creating a multiracial, multicultural society, but they are not effective. The governments need to make real efforts to put these policies into practice. Though my influence is little, I hope that more people like me will appear in the public domain so that a multiracial, multicultural situation will become the norm. I believe Japanese society is now changing in that direction.