Tokyo’s Koreatown emerged from the flow of bilateral ties


Staff Writer

Diplomatic friction between Tokyo and Seoul over territorial and historical disputes is making headlines once again, and Tokyo’s right-wing protesters know just where to go to get in the face of its Korean residents: Koreatown in Shinjuku Ward’s Shin-Okubo district.

Following are some questions regarding the ethnic enclave and its history:

Where is Koreatown?

Koreatown, although not officially so designated, occupies a roughly square grid situated north of Kabukicho and east of Shin-Okubo Station on the JR Yamanote Line, between Shin-Okubo Dori and Shokuan Dori, the main venue.

The district is recognizable at a glance, with its ubiquitous posters of K-pop singers along the streets, scores of shops and restaurant signs written in Hangul offering up all things South Korean, from imported cosmetics and CDs to Korean barbecue and kimchi.

According to the latest statistics, there are about 12,000 registered Korean residents in Shinjuku Ward.

How did the district become Tokyo’s biggest Koreatown?

Despite being a mecca for fans of South Korean culture, Koreatown basically started to take shape only in the 1990s.

Koreatown’s rapid growth was driven by many factors, including South Korea’s decision to lift all restrictions on overseas travel in the late 1980s, when Japan was suffering from a labor shortage and badly needed migrant workers.

In 1983, Japan also began opening its doors to exchange students after then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone proposed a plan to bring 100,000 of them into the country.

Shin-Okubo is within walking distance of Kabukicho, Tokyo’s largest entertainment and red-light district. At the time, rent was still affordable for the many incoming foreigners.

What were the early years like?

“There weren’t that many Koreans in the area when I opened my first store in 1994,” Kim Geun-hee told The Japan Times.

Kim, 57, first arrived as an exchange student in 1985. He later returned and opened Kankoku Hiroba (South Korea Plaza) in 1994 in Shin-Okubo and sold groceries and goods imported from his home country.

Within a year of opening his store, Kim said dozens of restaurants had set up shop in the area. This kicked off a chain reaction, and more Koreans started to frequent the area and move in nearby.

Kim said his original goal was to create a one-stop shop where Japanese could visit and experience South Korean culture, food and entertainment. He now heads Hiroba Corp., which handles virtually everything South Korean, including cosmetics, music, videos, arts and crafts, cafes, restaurants and a cooking school.

“I never thought Shin-Okubo would expand so quickly,” he said, adding that about 80 percent of the customers at his grocery store today are Japanese.

How did Koreatown develop in the 2000s?

It grew bigger as South Korean entertainment began taking off and gaining local fans.

The most notable catalysts were the action movie “Shuri” in 2000, which was the first major South Korean film to become a hit in Japan, and the TV drama “Fuyu no Sonata” (“Winter Sonata”), which was repeatedly broadcast in Japan to the point that the title became one of the buzzwords for 2004.

Many flocked to Koreatown to purchase items related to their favorite stars.

The South Korean boy band Tohoshinki then hit the scene, followed by popular girl bands Girls Generation and Kara.

Local residents say that Shin-Okubo started being called Koreatown at about the same time that Japan co-hosted the FIFA World Cup with South Korea in 2002.

How does the neighborhood differ from Japan’s other Korean-centric enclaves?

Osaka, Kanagawa Prefecture and even other parts of Tokyo — particularly the Ueno district — have areas with high concentrations of Koreans, but most trace their origins to the prewar era or shortly after the war, when Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula came to an end and many Koreans remained in Japan.

Shin-Okubo is unique, since many of its residents are relative newcomers who arrived after the 1980s.

“The new generation is more tech-savvy and able to do business quickly between South Korea and Japan. They are able to diminish the time lag between what is trending in South Korea and what’s being sold in Shin-Okubo,” Hiroba’s Kim said.

What impact have the recent anti-South Korean rallies had?

Disagreement is not rare between Tokyo and Seoul, whether it be over, for example, the annual screenings, presumably pro-revisionist, of Japan’s history textbooks, or the dispute over Takeshima, the two rocky outcroppings midway between the countries that South Korea controls and calls Dokdo.

Things were exacerbated by an unprecedented trip to the islets last August by then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

“Some (right-wing protesters in Shin-Okubo) have carried signs saying ‘Good Koreans, Bad Koreans — Kill Them Both.’ It makes me terrified,” Kim said. “Terrified, not for my safety or my business, but for what such actions can do to damage bilateral relations.”

Have any inspiring incidents taken place in Shin-Okubo?

In January 2001, Lee Su-hyon, 26, made newspaper headlines after he died trying to save a Japanese man, a total stranger, who stumbled off the train platform at Shin-Okubo Station. Both men, as well as another man, were killed by an oncoming Yamanote Line train.

Then-Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who attended Lee’s funeral, told reporters that Lee served as “a role model for young people.” Mori also expressed hope that the tragedy “will inspire wonderful bilateral relations.”

Then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung sent a message to Lee’s parents, saying their son’s noble morality will be remembered forever in both South Korea and Japan.

The incident was later made into the film “Anata wo Wasurenai” (“We Will Not Forget You”). Its screening in 2007 was attended by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

What does the future hold for Koreatown?

Hiroba’s Kim said the recent easing of the yen has had an impact on local businesses, but not to the point where it has caused damage.

“Some surveys show that business in Shin-Okubo has doubled in five years since 2008,” he said, adding that his company will see annual turnover of about ¥5 billion, which is more or less the same as the past few years.

But Shin-Okubo must evolve, because many local businesses are offering similar services and products, and competition is stagnating, he said.

Kim also expressed hope that the district will continue to do what politicians in both Japan and South Korea have been unable to achieve.

“It’s not right to ignore our unfortunate past. But people in both countries also need to get along as we move forward. I feel that Shin-Okubo can and should provide a stage for that,” he said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

  • Carmen Sterba

    I’m glad to see this article. I was one of the few American college students who studied at a Japanese university in the 1970s, and then lived and taught in Japan for 30
    years before retuning to the US. One of the things that bothered me was the prejudice towards East Asians and South East Asians. However, by the time, I left, Korean dramas were becoming popular with Japanese housewives, K-Pop and trips to Korea became popular with young people. It’s a healthy exchange; Japan and
    Korea are neighbors.

    However, it’s really regrettable that there are politicians such as former Tokyo governor Ichihara Shintaro and Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru who are so puffed up with pride and full of ignorance towards the people in their neighboring nations. They are like the samurai who shouted before and after the Meiji Era, “Revere the Emperor, out with the foreigners.” Emperor Akikihito
    is not prejudiced towards Koreans; he knows he has Korean ancestors.

  • Joshua Gautreau

    actually no. its because as a foreign newspaper.. AKA ENGLISH it is naturally interested on issues that affect foreigners. Common sense I thought.

  • KenjiAd

    Ethnic minorities are made easy scapegoats probably in every country, almost always by people with strong bigotry. KKK, Neo-Nazis, just to name a few. So in this sense, Japan isn’t particularly unique.

    But what is unusual in Japan is that these bigots actually have tacit or sometimes even explicit support of certain politicians, scholars, and media. Their approval is giving a credibility to their bigotry, which has been proliferating over the Internet by masquerading itself as just a patriotic view on Japan and Japanese people.

  • It’s not and never justified by pointing out some names of other oppressed minorities on abroad, as for what happening in here Japan, there’s no justification or excuse for ourselves to compare with others.
    It’s not concerning with whether unique or not, just a fact that we’re holding serious racism inside of us, or which is too tolerate with human rights violation, tolerate enough to allow it for several years untill certain civilians finally started to stand against this racism, in early time of this year.
    What we have to do is just to be shameful of passed abandoned several years, by reminding and imagining ourselves how it was awful out there by each time of their “performance” presented, not a thing to drag in other country’s racism.
    This racists are not a group of patriots, nor right wingers, as real Japanese traditional right wingers have been hating them since ever, just some people who’re spending their life times in very unthriving circumstances in every meaning for all through their lives, as a profile of their leader tells.

  • A M Corbett

    I think Hiroba Kim said it best in that it is up to ordinary people to get along – despite the past between the two countries – and maybe show politicians how it`s done. Yes, money might come into it but it`s not just about money and investment. As Carmen said, they are neighbours, no reason why they should not enjoy aspects of each other`s country – in this case pop music, soap operas etc.

    As for those people carrying signs like that around (Good Koreans, Bad Koreans…) and not being jailed for incitement to racism, that is a total disgrace. Well I suppose with the comments from a mayor like the one in Osaka and the former Tokyo governor they get some kind of encouragement but still it is their choice to go out on the street and act on their resentment. A person`s situation might be bad – unemployment, bad family situation – but is that an excuse to follow the herd and take it out on Koreans – whether they are recent newcomers to Japan or people whose families may have lived in Japan for centuries? No.