National / History | 70 YEARS AFTER THE WAR'S END

A legacy of WWII, Korean residents test nation’s ability to accommodate non-Japanese

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

This is the second report in a five-part series looking at the impact of World War II still being felt in Japanese society.


Underneath the train tracks of JR Tsuruhashi Station, it’s easy to wonder if you’re still in Japan. The smell of yakiniku barbecue permeates the air and the narrow warrens of shops offer all sorts of Korean foods, including the ever-popular kimchi pickles. Advertising posters are often in Korean, and the shop owners chat with each other in the same language.

The Tsuruhashi district is known nationwide and, increasingly, abroad as one of Japan’s main Korean neighborhoods. It’s part of Osaka’s Ikuno Ward, home to over 24,000 resident Koreans. That’s nearly 20 percent of the total ward population, the highest ratio of resident Koreans nationwide.

There are no official statistics on the total number of ethnic Koreans with Japanese nationality, but about 430,000 Koreans live in Japan as foreign nationals with permanent residency. Of these, about 370,000 hold special permanent residency, as they or their forebears came to Japan between 1910 and 1952 as colonial subjects.

The Kansai region, particularly Osaka, Kyoto, and Hyogo prefectures, are home to the largest numbers of Korean residents. Today, the Tsuruhashi “Korea Town” area attracts locals and tourists from around Japan and the world. It has a reputation as being one of the few remaining traditional working-class neighborhoods of “old” Osaka, the one that hasn’t yet been transformed into a cold, gleaming, upscale cultural desert of Italian and French fashion house chains and fast food restaurants — as one finds in many other parts of the country.

“Tsuruhashi and the Ikuno Ward area are one of many areas settled by Koreans during Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula. They did a lot of dredge work on the rivers and canals in the area, and were mostly laborers,” said Kwak Jin Woong, head of the Tsuruhashi-based Korea NGO Center.

The occupation lasted from 1910 to 1945. During that time, millions of Koreans, who were legally Japanese citizens even though they faced discrimination, came to Japan to work. After 1940, many were forcibly brought to do the toughest, dirtiest, and most dangerous jobs. By the time Japan surrendered in 1945, there were about 2 million Koreans living in the country.

The U.S.-led Allied Occupation offered them the chance to return to their homeland and about 1.4 million did. The roughly 650,000 who remained did so for a variety of reasons. Some had worked in Japan before 1940, had children born in Japan, and felt more Japanese than Korean. Some had prospered, or believed their economic prospects would be better if they remained in Japan. And some simply were too poor to return to Korea.

Occupation officials were not quite sure what to do with the large population of Koreans who remained. Officially, the American government wanted them to be treated as either “liberated nationals” or “enemy nationals.” But in May 1947, the Japanese government passed the Alien Registration Law, which declared that Koreans and Taiwanese were now to be considered foreigners. As such, they were required to carry identification papers.

When the Occupation ended in 1952 with the signing of the San Francisco Treaty, which returned sovereignty to Japan, the government formally revoked the citizenship of Koreans in Japan. The peninsula had been divided into North and South Korea and the Korean War was raging.

An estimated 90 percent of Koreans in Japan changed their nationality to South Korean, and two civic groups were formed: Mindan, which supported South Korea, and Chongryon, which supported North Korea.

About a decade later, in 1965, Japan and South Korea normalized relations, but those who supported North Korea were effectively stateless.

In 1959 the North Korean government launched an effort to draw Koreans from Japan by promising them the rewards of a socialist paradise. By 1967, Chongryon had gotten about 89,000 Koreans in Japan to resettle in the North, according to Soo Im Lee, a professor at Ryukoku University, in her 2012 report “Diversity of Zainichi Koreans and Their Ties to Japan and Korea.” Zainichi is a name for Japan-based ethnic Koreans.

Those that remained in Japan suffered discrimination in public life and from society, and they remained second-class citizens.

However, the Japanese government exploited the existence of Mindan and Chongryon, using their executives as quiet back-channel liaisons between Japanese politicians and the governments of South and North Korea.

It would be revealed in the late 1990s that some Chongryon members also served as spies for North Korea in Japan.

In stories that sounded like the plots for fiction thrillers, Korean residents in Japan who had become disillusioned with North Korea wrote books about how they had received coded instructions over short-wave radio and made secret trips to Pyongyang to deliver suitcases full of cash.

They also mapped parts of the coast on the Sea of Japan, where North Korean agents sought isolated beaches on which to land at night by rubber boat. The mappers would include information about the nearest train station for agents to continue their journey.

By the end of the Cold War in Europe in the early 1990s, much had changed. In 1991, the Japan-South Korea Foreign Exchange Memorandum gave pro-South and pro-North Korean residents in Japan the status of special permanent residents. Previously, only those with South Korean nationality had enjoyed special permanent residency status.

At the same time, the past 20 or 30 years had seen some positive changes. The requirement that Korean residents be fingerprinted was abolished. Some municipalities now allow Korean residents to vote on certain local ordinances. More public-sector jobs are open to Korean residents than in the past.

However, problems remain. Kwak noted that many major Japanese firms remain reluctant to hire Korean residents, and that discrimination in jobs and housing hasn’t disappeared. More worrisome for many Korean residents is the rise of anti-Korean hate groups like Zaitokukai, which verbally abuse Koreans and make death threats toward them.

A survey by the Organization of Korean Youth in Japan between June 2013 and March 2014 of 200 Korean residents under 30 years old showed that about a third of them avoided discussing Japan-Korean history in public and on the Internet. In an August 2014 report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Lawyers Association of Zainichi Koreans (LAZAK) called on the U.N. to pressure the Japanese government to prohibit the use of public facilities by groups promoting or inciting racial discrimination.

Just this month, the Diet has also begun to debate a bill that not only Korean residents in Japan but human rights activists have long sought: a law that would ban public racial discrimination at the national and local level. Kim Chang Ho, a lawyer with LAZAK who helped prepare last year’s report to the U.N., called the bill a major step forward to secure the rights of foreigners, but noted it faces tough political hurdles.

“The bill was jointly submitted by the Democratic Party of Japan, the Social Democratic Party and independent Upper House member Keiko Itokazu. But the Liberal Democratic Party has taken a very cautious stance, so it’s unclear as to whether . . . the bill will be enacted in the current session,” Kim said.

If enacted, the bill would benefit not only Koreans but all foreign residents in the future. It is part of the larger effort by Japan to come to grips with not only its historical legacy in Korea in the pre- and postwar period but the more general question of how Japanese in the future want to live with foreigners in their midst.

“For many years, Japan’s policy toward resident foreigners was one of ‘assimilation,’ which basically meant ‘make them the same as Japanese.’ Now, it’s evolving toward ‘integration,’ which allows for more differences,” Kwak said. “Hopefully, though, we’ll see the day when the official policy and social mindset in Japan is one of ‘coexistence’ with Korean residents and foreigners, which will respect and protect differences.”