Choi Sun-Ae didn’t want to stand out.
As a third-generation Korean born and raised in Japan, she wished she had a common Japanese name like Yoko or Yuko.
Choi says she was ashamed of her Korean heritage and wanted to fit in with her Japanese friends. It bothered her to have to correct her teachers every time they mispronounced her name.
But one decision she made in 1981 propelled her into the spotlight, hitting her with an irreversible turn of events that carried her all the way to the Supreme Court.
Last month, the top court rejected her 12-year legal battle to win back her status as a permanent resident of Japan, which she had lost over her refusal to be fingerprinted.
At age 21, she refused to comply with the Alien Registration Law, which mandated that all foreigners have their fingerprint taken each time they renewed their registration.
It was a personal decision, she recalls. Her younger sister, then in her midteens, opposed fingerprinting in late 1980 because “none of her Japanese friends was forced to do the same.” So the rest of the family decided to back her by doing the same.
As Choi and a few others stood up against a practice that had prevailed since 1952, throngs of permanent Korean residents of Japan — who felt the practice mirrored the authorities’ portrayal of them as potential criminals — followed suit.
The Chois were among the very first group to question the fingerprinting system in the 1980s. A movement to reject the practice caught on nationwide, and about 10,000 Korean residents refused to be fingerprinted in 1985. It eventually forced the government to eliminate the requirement for all permanent residents in 1992.
“I had no idea my action would develop into a social movement,” Choi said in a recent interview at her Yokohama apartment.
The movement brought her fellow Koreans victory. But Choi was trapped.
Alarmed by the growing number of foreigners refusing to be fingerprinted, the ministry in the mid-’80s started denying re-entry permits to those who refused to be fingerprinted and wanted to travel abroad.
Choi was denied a re-entry permit in 1986 when she left Japan to study music in the United States. While many others gave in and had their fingerprints taken to go abroad or refrained from traveling overseas, Choi went ahead with the U.S. trip without a re-entry permit in 1986.
“People asked me, ‘Could you not have waited (until the situation improved)?'” she said. “But to study abroad, timing is an important issue. For me, it was important to go then, when my aspirations were high.”
The ministry also stripped her of the permanent resident status that the offspring of Koreans who came here during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula are entitled to by law.
On April 10, the Supreme Court dismissed her 1986 suit, in which she demanded that the government repeal its re-entry rejection, reinstate her permanent resident status and pay her redress.
The ruling brought home to Choi the startling reality that Japan has not changed over the past half century.
“I had heard from my father over and over what Japan did during (the war),” said Choi, now a 38-year-old pianist and mother of two. “But I could not quite understand what he meant. But when I got that ruling, I felt the war’s impact for the first time in my life.”
And yet, Japan is the only place she feels she can call home.
“I can’t speak Korean and I have been to South Korea only a few times,” she said. “I can’t say I will live as a South Korean.”
Ever since she returned from the United States in 1988 on a 180-day visa, she has been officially registered as a “new alien.”
Now Choi has a three-year visa, which puts her through the same ritual of being asked for a fingerprint and refusing it each time she tries to renew it.
Choi is now married to Japanese professional cellist Susumu Miyake, 33, whom she met while studying music at Indiana University. They have two girls, aged 5 and 2, who have Japanese nationality.
Although Japan is her only home, Choi says she wants to retain her Korean citizenship.
“I want to retain my Korean nationality because I am proud of my Korean parents and I want to show my respect for my parents’ struggle to live here as Koreans.”
Hiroshi Tanaka, a professor of social studies at Hitotsubashi University, argues that the ruling failed to address the historical aspect — Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 and the uprooting effect this had on people from the peninsula, including farmers, who came to Japan in search of work. Korean residents had Japanese nationality until that was revoked with the signing of the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty.
“The ruling basically says that a nation has absolute power and it can do anything to foreigners, just like twisting a baby’s arm,” Tanaka said. “(This mentality) is extremely disturbing.”
Although Choi’s suit ended in defeat, she says it was still worth fighting.
“I learned that the wall was thicker than I imagined,” she said. “But I have come to be able to speak out when something hurts me, and that’s healthier than holding the pain inside.”
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