He was there, in court most of the time, when the human rights of Korean residents in Japan were at issue — denial of pension rights, forced fingerprinting of foreign residents for immigration registration, and blocked promotions of Korean nationals working for local governments. He also served in a lawsuit filed by a Korean woman forced to labor as a “comfort woman” for the Imperial Japanese armed forces.
On Dec. 28, Mr. Kim Kyong Duk died of stomach cancer. He was 56. Probably because reports of his death came at yearend, newspapers gave it only minor coverage. Still, he will be remembered as a pioneer who became the first foreign national in postwar Japan to be admitted to the Supreme Court’s Legal Training and Research Institute to become a lawyer.
Mr. Kim, who was born in Wakayama as a second-generation Korean resident, was hardly an activist early on. Rather, he hid his nationality and tried to shed things Korean to get accepted into Japanese society. He changed, however, after graduating from the law school at Waseda University. Because of his nationality, he was not hired by any company. The experience prompted him to discard his Japanese name in favor of the Korean one.
Firm in his identity, he decided to fight discrimination in Japanese society by becoming a lawyer. He passed the bar examination in 1976. Since the legal training institute, back then, accepted only Japanese nationals, the Supreme Court called on him to become naturalized. He declined the request and began a solo campaign to gain entry. Although he expected a long battle, the top court made a turnabout the next year and accepted him into the institute without requiring that he acquire Japanese nationality. Mr. Kim was registered as a lawyer in 1979.
In court he fought to uphold the human rights of Korean residents and to enhance their legal status, taking on the Japanese state. Although he lost many cases, the effect of his original campaign endured: More than three dozen Korean residents were able to become lawyers. Also, thanks to his efforts, the Japanese nationality requirement for teachers at national universities and for public servants in local government was dropped.
Mr. Kim’s legacy will remain with his words: “Korean residents are the first foreigners that Japanese encounter in their internationalization.”
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