It was a big leap for Takae Hayama to switch from her Japanese name to her real name when she went to college.

Lee Gwi Hoe, a third-generation “zainichi,” or ethnic Korean in Japan, remembers being overly conscious of herself every time her teachers took roll call using her Korean name.

“I was told not to use my Korean name when I was young,” said Lee, 31. “But I did not want to spend the rest of my life acting like a Japanese.”

Lee’s university years were spent fulfilling her strong desire to pursue her ethnic background. She changed her name and finally started studying Korean, a language she had not been able to speak.

For the past 60 years, Koreans hid their ethnic background and lived under Japanese aliases to assimilate into the society or to avoid discrimination.

But many younger Korean residents are no longer shy about revealing their ethnicity because South Korea’s image has improved in Japan in recent years.

South Korea’s popular TV drama series, “Winter Sonata,” featuring star Bae Yong Joon, known here as “Yon-sama,” set off a craze in Japan for everything South Korean.

During Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, many Koreans came to Japan, some by force and some voluntarily. The number reportedly topped 2.5 million by 1945, when Japan surrendered to the Allies.

Although those Koreans were forced to become Japanese citizens during the colonial rule era, they were stripped of that status after the war and registered as “foreigners.” As such, they were deprived of various benefits most Japanese take for granted.

Many Koreans have become naturalized Japanese citizens since then and enjoy the same rights as Japanese. But some Korean groups criticize the Japanese government for trying to “assimilate” Koreans as Japanese.

Of the some 2 million foreigners registered in Japan, Koreans constituted the largest proportion, with 607,419, or 30.8 percent, as of the end of 2004. The Koreans were followed by Chinese at 487,570, or 24.7 percent, according to the Justice Ministry.

Most Koreans who are born and raised in Japan suffer from the gap between their identity and their nationality, said Chung Dae Kyun, professor of sociology at Tokyo Metropolitan University.

Chung, 57, an expert on zainichi issues, said many of them cannot explain why they are still nationals of South or North Korea, although they never lived there. Many are not familiar with Korean culture and cannot speak the language.

Chung, who himself became a naturalized Japanese citizen last year, claims ethnic Koreans should acquire Japanese nationality to resolve that gap and that the Japanese government should do its utmost to simplify the naturalization process.

Applicants need to submit various documents, including a copy of their family register from their homeland. The application may be rejected if the government considers the applicant “inappropriate” as a Japanese citizen. The process usually takes about 12 to 18 months.

“By integrating ethnic Koreans into Japanese society, the society will become ethnically diversified,” Chung said.

But for many years, Koreans who became naturalized Japanese citizens were often considered “traitors” by fellow Koreans.

In 1970, a Korean university student who became a naturalized Japanese committed suicide, reportedly because he was distressed by the fact that he couldn’t fit into either group.

Pro-Pyongyang Koreans are especially cautious about the government’s “assimilation policy.”

Song Hyon Jing, principal of a pro-Pyongyang Korean School in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, points out that such a policy is reflected by the fact that the government refuses to provide the subsidies to Korean schools that it gives Japanese schools.

“What they are saying is that if we don’t like it, then we should become a Japanese citizen,” Song said.

But even though Song’s school and other pro-Pyongyang Korean schools educate younger generations about Korean history, culture and language to preserve their ethnicity, an increasing number of his fellow Koreans are acquiring Japanese nationality, he said.

Currently, there are some 600,000 Korean residents in Japan, 465,000 of whom either immigrated during Japan’s colonial rule or are their descendents. And about 10,000 zainichi are believed acquiring Japanese nationality yearly.

Older Koreans who came to Japan in the colonial era have mixed feelings on the trend.

“I think it is natural for them to become Japanese citizens,” said Choi Suk Ui, 78, who came to Japan in the early 1930s with his parents at age 4. “If maintaining Korean nationality would be an obstacle to that person’s future, I have no right to oppose.”

Choi had hoped to become an academic at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto Prefecture when he was a student there. But he gave up his dream because ethnic Koreans have effectively been shut out from academia.

At that time, zainichi were also not hired by well-known Japanese companies, he said.

Although Koreans who were born and raised in Japan find it hard to relate to South or North Korea, Choi said he identifies himself as a Korean.

Choi said he does not blame those who want to adopt Japanese nationality, but added that he hopes young Koreans will retain their ethnic identity.

Kim Boong Ang, corepresentative of the Organization of United Korean Youth in Japan, said fewer youths are relating nationality with ethnicity.

“There’s a wider diversity in the ways of thinking of the younger generation,” Kim said. “More people think that becoming a Japanese national does not mean becoming ethnic Japanese.”

Masahiro Nishihara, 27, who became a naturalized Japanese citizen when he was 17, along with his family, may be one example.

Nishihara had not liked the fact that he was a Korean resident in Japan. It made him feel different from his Japanese schoolmates. But the experience of becoming a Japanese national led him to be more conscious about his ethnic background.

“When I explain myself, I tell others that I was brought up in Japan with a Korean background,” he said. “I don’t want to hide my family roots.”

Nishihara said he hopes to teach his children Korean when he starts a family.

Softbank Corp. President Masayoshi Son, a Japanese national who retains his Korean name, could serve as a role model for people like Nishihara.

Hidenori Sakanaka, former chief of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, noted that about 90 percent of zainichi marry Japanese, whose kids are entitled to Japanese nationality. In addition, some 10,000 Koreans in Japan are opting to adopt Japanese nationality each year. This trend, he said, shows those who retain their Korean nationality are in rapid decline.

“Instead of living (with South Korean nationality), they should live as Korean Japanese (with Japanese nationality),” he said.

History of Korean immigrants

Below is a historical summary of Korean immigrants and how they were treated in Japan:

After Japan put the Korean Peninsula under colonial rule in 1910, many Koreans, who were deprived of their land and jobs were forced or voluntarily came to Japan.

Their numbers increased in the 1920s, and by the time Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, there were about 2.5 million Koreans in Japan.

Despite Japan’s defeat, a large number of immigrants remained in Japan because they no longer had the means to live at home and because of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, which had been divided into two nations.

Repatriation became all the more difficult after North Korea, which was backed by the Soviet Union, invaded the U.S.-backed South in 1950.

The Korean residents, who were force to become Japanese citizens during the colonial period, nominally held Japanese citizenship until 1952, when the San Francisco peace treaty went into force.

But the government decided in 1947 to regard Koreans as foreigners under the alien registration law.

They had to carry alien registration cards with them at all times and were forced to register their fingerprints. The fingerprinting system was abolished in 1999.

Korean immigrants and their descendents have had to put up with various forms of discrimination that deny them occupational, educational and social benefits.

In 1970, an ethnic Korean high school student sued Hitachi Ltd. for rejecting his application because he was a “zainichi” (an ethnic Korean living in Japan) and not a Japanese national.

The Yokohoma District Court ruled in favor of the student in 1974, ordering Hitachi to retract its decision and pay him 1.7 million yen in compensation.

Koreans were also blocked from participating in the national pension system until 1982, when the nationality clause was abolished. When the pension law was revised in 1986, the government decided against implementing special measures that would extend benefits to foreign residents aged 60 or older.

Five zainichi filed a lawsuit against the government, but it was rejected by the Osaka District Court in May.

Government policies regarding ethnic Koreans have improved in recent years, but some zainichi groups say they are still insufficient.

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