Staff writer One Hokkaido resident is too proud to give up his South Korean nationality despite the disadvantages it brings while living in Japan.
“My pride in having Korean ancestry, name and nationality overwhelmed the urge to live as a Japanese,” said the man, who runs a restaurant on the outskirts of Sapporo.
The second-generation Korean, who was born in Japan, said that decades-long discrimination also made him attached to his nationality.
But pride is not the only factor that discouraged the restaurateur, who asked that his name be withheld, from becoming a Japanese citizen.
In fact, the man applied for citizenship with his wife and four children in the early 1980s in order to avoid the employment discrimination imposed on the country’s Korean population.
But officials of the local bureau of the Justice Ministry in Sapporo told him to wait five years, because it was on record that he had illegally parked a couple of times in previous years, he said.
“I was upset, because I thought they had no right to reject a citizenship application from someone born in this country,” said the man, who is determined to retain his South Korean citizenship for the rest of his life. His children now all have Japanese citizenship.
Last year, 9,842 North and South Korean nationals, most of whom had lived in Japan as special permanent residents, gained Japanese citizenship. Special permanent residents are those who or whose ancestors came or were forcibly brought here from areas under Japanese colonial rule before and during the war. They were technically Japanese citizens, but were stripped of this status after Japan regained its sovereignty in 1952.
The number of Koreans who acquired Japanese citizenship hovered around 5,000 annually until the early 1990s, and then it drastically increased to the present 10,000 level.
Yasunori Fukuoka, professor of sociology at Saitama University, attributes such an increase to the fading view among Koreans here to regard naturalization as a betrayal of their ethnic origins.
He said a survey that he conducted in 1993 of 800 young Koreans revealed that only 6 percent of those polled believed acquiring Japanese citizenship would be a betrayal to Korea.
“The younger generation today seems to consider naturalization more as necessary paperwork to make their lives easier than as something significant to their identity,” Fukuoka said.
Lee Yong Gyu, a 21-year-old third-generation North Korean, said he was surprised when his relatives gave him the go ahead to change his nationality to South Korean in order to avoid the harsher discrimination he expected when applying for jobs.
“As all my relatives have strong pride in North Korea, I was expecting them to oppose my idea of switching nationalities, even to that of South Korea,” the Meiji University student said.
“But they did not, and then I realized that the suffering they had experienced because of their nationality helped them to accept my proposal,” he said.
What’s in a name?
The increasing number of foreigners applying for Japanese citizenship, however, does not necessarily mean they are eager to become Japanese.
A 21-year-old student of a Kyoto college, whose family switched nationalities from South Korean to Japanese when she was in kindergarten, said her family did so to avoid any employment discrimination that might crop up in the future.
“Also, my parents told me that they were tired of living without many social rights, including suffrage,” she added.
According to a survey released last month by the Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan), which represents about 400,000 South Korean residents here, 24.9 percent of 1,325 people polled last year said they want to gain Japanese citizenship.
Of those who coveted citizenship, 51.7 percent said it was for the sake of their children and 46.2 percent said it was necessary for their work and daily lives. In addition, 3.6 percent said they just hated living as Koreans.
Only 13.4 percent of those who responded said they use their Korean names, 50 percent said they usually use a Japanese name and 35.6 percent said that which name they use depends on the occasion.
“To become a Japanese citizen or stay as a Korean should be based on the free will of individuals,” the Kyoto student said. “But most Koreans seem to have been pushed to become Japanese citizens by discrimination.”
A consequence of such forcible assimilation is that some people regret acquiring Japanese nationality, which they once thought was necessary to live in Japan.
A 42-year-old housewife in Hyogo Prefecture, who acquired citizenship in 1986 after she married a Japanese, said she still wonders if she made the right decision to officially abandon her South Korean nationality.
“I thought it would be necessary for my future children, and I still tell myself often that it is necessary.
“But when I think about myself, I still feel empty for losing my roots and identity,” she said, adding that respect for one’s ancestors and family origins is very strong in South Korea and, unlike in Japan, people do not change their family names after marrying. The flip side is that such discrimination causes many Koreans to stick to their nationality, she added.
While an increasing number of Koreans acquire citizenship, there were still 517,787 Korean special permanent residents living here without such fundamental rights as suffrage as of 1999.
Doubts about sincerity
Amid intensifying calls for suffrage among the country’s foreign residents, lawmakers of the ruling coalition formed a special project team in January to ease naturalization requirements for special permanent residents.
The team agreed Thursday to abolish the complex screening process that the Justice Ministry currently uses. The panel also unanimously agreed to allow applicants to continue using kanji not approved by the government for name registration. The ministry often asks applicants to change the characters to those used in Japan.
To reflect these changes, the team intends to submit a bill to the current Diet session to amend the Nationality Law.
Seiichi Ota, a Liberal Democratic Party member of the Lower House who heads the project team, said the group aims to remove the obstacles blocking Koreans and other special residents from becoming citizens of Japan.
“To ease the naturalization procedure is part of Japan’s responsibility to retrieve the rights of special permanent residents,” he said.
Ota, however, said the team is not intending to apply the new policy to other foreign residents.
Some experts, however, wonder about the project team’s sincerity, because its review of the naturalization policy came so quickly after an argument erupted over a controversial bill to provide special permanent residents with the right to vote in local elections.
Hiroshi Tanaka, professor of sociology at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, said he believes some lawmakers intend to sidetrack the suffrage bill by concentrating on mending the naturalization policy.
“It seems more like a political tradeoff to quiet special permanent residents, the most vocal advocates of the suffrage bill, than a policy to take into account such foreigners’ human rights,” he said.
He said the effort to ease the naturalization policy emerged every time foreigners waged civil rights movements, including their push to abolish mandatory fingerprinting in the early 1990s, and faded away after such movements calmed down.
Fukuoka of Saitama University said that the easing of naturalization requirements will not end the suffering of Koreans and other non-Japanese living here.
“The country must move to fully protect the ethnicities of foreigners and those who have newly acquired citizenship by giving them the opportunity to study their original culture and eliminate discrimination against them,” he said.
“Each Japanese also needs to abandon the myth that Japan is a country with a single ethnic group and fully respect the cultures of ethnic minorities here,” he said.
If not, then an easier naturalization procedure will only work to reduce the number of special permanent residents and assimilate people without acknowledging their history, he added.
A type of ethnic cleansing, perhaps.
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