National / Media | MEDIA MIX

The guy just needs a home

North Korean striker Jong Tae Se has lived and breathed Japan, but plays for rivals

It’s difficult to decide which spelling to use. In Japan, the name of North Korea’s striker at the World Cup in South Africa is usually rendered as Chong Tese. North Korea spells it Jong Tae Se, but in those instances where South Korea reports on the 26-year-old soccer player, it’s Jeong Dae Se or Jung Dae Se.

I’ll use Jong Tae Se, since he pins his national identity to North Korea, even though he’s basically never lived there. Jong’s tri-country background — born and raised in Japan by a father with South Korean nationality but educated in North Korea-affiliated schools — is irresistible to reporters looking for human interest color at the World Cup, especially given the contrast between North Korea’s state-enforced conformity and Jong’s strident individuality. He can’t go anywhere without his hip-hop-stuffed iPod and even drives a Hummer, but he wept openly when the North Korean national anthem played prior to the team’s match with Brazil, a scene that prompted derision in the blogosphere.

But while the international press explained Jong’s circumstances, without a detailed background of the history of zainichi — Korean residents of Japan — much of their explanation necessarily fell short. Likewise, Japanese viewers might have found it strange while watching Fuji TV’s live coverage of North Korea’s pounding by Portugal last Monday to hear the announcers continually say that Jong plays for Kawasaki Frontale. What is a North Korean doing in the J. League? Isn’t there supposed to be, like, an embargo?

Some people will make the leap of logic, but as Jong told author Shin Mugwang in his book “Sokoku to Bokoku to Futtoboru” (“Homeland, Motherland and Football”), Japanese people ignore his accomplishments in Japan.

Still, if they want to find out about him it’s not difficult. Several weeks ago, the weekly magazine Aera profiled Jong, whose 91-year-old grandmother came to Aichi Prefecture from Japan-annexed Chosen (Korea) in 1932 to work at a textile mill. After losing two husbands and her Japanese citizenship, she and other Koreans started a school after the war so that their children could learn the Korean language, but the American occupation authority shut it down. They eventually opened another school. South Korea did not acknowledge it, but North Korea did and contributed to its construction.

All of her five children attended the school, including Jong’s mother, who taught there as well. She later married a man whose nationality was South Korean, but Jong himself attended the same school, which came under the auspices of Chongryon, the Pyongyang-affiliated General Association of Korean Residents of Japan. “His heart is rooted in North Korea,” the grandmother tells Aera. Though he knows about the world’s contempt for North Korea and recognizes its “problems,” Jong feels loyalty toward a country that has been “like a parent” to him. His nationalism is so strong, in fact, that some Japanese rightwingers profess admiration, if only for his “attitude,” as one commented to Aera anonymously.

But “nationalism” may be the wrong word, since Jong’s allegiance isn’t really to a country but to a state-of-mind. Both he and Ahn Yong Hak, the other zainichi player on the North Korean team, and whose parents’ nationality is North Korean, said they have no desire to live there — or in South Korea for that matter (Ahn has played professional soccer in the south, which usually doesn’t recognize North Korean passports). Their loyalty is to the idea of zainichi, which makes them special in their own eyes.

It also makes their lives more complicated. Due to laws no longer in effect in both Japan and South Korea, Jong’s nationality at birth was deemed to be the same as his father’s, and in order for FIFA to allow him to play for North Korea in the World Cup, he had to change it. That proved difficult, but Chongryon talked to the North Korean government, which issued him a passport. When he goes overseas he has to apply for a special re-entry visa from Japan’s Ministry of Justice using his Japan resident permit.

These inconveniences don’t seem to bother Jong or Ahn. They are professional athletes who make a good living, but their attititude toward their situation is instructive with regards to the current controversy over possible suffrage for non-Japanese permanent residents. People like Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara are against giving non-Japanese, even those born and raised here, the right to vote in local elections. They believe zainichi should naturalize.

According to the Ministry of Justice, there are about 590,000 zainichi. Approximately 8,000 opt to be naturalized every year, and even they don’t always feel as if they belong. Users of Internet bulletin boards like 2Channel make a sport of outing naturalized Koreans. Fourth-generation zainichi Tadanari Lee, who became Japanese so that he could qualify for the Japan national soccer team at the Beijing Olympics, says he suffered more discrimination in South Korea than in Japan, but nevertheless told Shin Mugwang that his identity remains resolutely zainichi.

The majority of zainichi know only Japan and the Japanese language, but their defining attribute is their position vis-a-vis Japanese authority. Even though they were born here and so were their parents, they are denied Japanese nationality at birth if both parents are Korean. They have to demonstrate their worthiness by voluntarily forfeiting their heritage.

The naturalized zainichi politician Akira Maeda is opposed to suffrage for unnaturalized zainichi but in favor of giving dual nationality to children of zainichi at birth.

As it stands, zainichi are born into an adversarial relationship with Japan, which is why Jong told Shin that he figures the only way he’ll ever get noticed as a soccer player by the average Japanese person is to score a goal against the Japanese national team. When you think your birthplace doesn’t appreciate who you are, you always have something to prove.

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