Japan’s Naomi Osaka, Denny Tamaki and Priyanka Yoshikawa open a Pandora’s box.
Forget ‘The Inscrutable Americans’ and think ‘The Inscrutable Asians’—stakes at which the Japanese in Asia may just win. Perfectly polished, professional and polite they are, but inscrutable nonetheless.
In to this picture, a young, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka stepped in, on the back of her spectacular victory in the US Open, beating Serena Williams. The drama surrounding the match aside, Osaka’s win propelled her as Japan’s new heroine—the first to claim a Grand Slam title. Besides Osaka, Denny Tamaki has hogged headlines recently for being elected as the Okinawa governor. Ironically for Japan, Osaka and Tamaki open a Pandora’s box, upending who or what is a Japanese.
Osaka is not a tanned Japanese as one would think, but a brown-skinned Japanese of Haitian-Japanese parentage. Tamaki is a Japanese of American-Japanese parentage. In reality, biracials such as Osaka and Tamaki—or Priyanka Yoshikawa (biracial Indian-Japanese beauty queen)—are pejoratively caricatured as ‘hafu’ or half.
Biracial Japanese, Zainichi Koreans (colonial immigrants from Korea), the Chinese in Japan, the Ainu (the original inhabitants of Japan/Hokkaido), the Okinawans (Ryukyu Islands) and the Burakumin (‘village people’ at the bottom of the social ladder)—all stand marginalised and peripheral, treated as ‘non-Japanese’ or not quite Japanese enough. In stark contrast to Osaka’s case, a popular model by the name of Kiko Mizuhara born to a Korean-Japanese (Zainichi Korean) mother and American father was hounded on social media in (2017) for ‘pretending to be Japanese’.
The case of the Zainichi Koreans in Japan is particularly interesting, tied as it is to Japan’s precocious historical tangle in the Northeast peninsula, which gives an insight into what might come into the way of a Japan-North Korea political and diplomatic thaw.
Japan’s exclusionary policies have fed from a potent notion of racial and cultural exclusivity ‘nihonjinron’—one that has even been elasticised to rationalise the glorious economic miracle of the 1980s. That notion of racial purity and homogeneity lurks under Japan’s skin.
The problem is that such does not reflect reality. Large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka have a Korea Town, China Town, Little India and even a Little Nepal is in the making. Tokyo’s Shin Okubo and Osaka’s Tsuruhashi are Korea towns, booming and bustling with K-food, K-fashion and K-pop.
Japan is home to half a million Zainichi Koreans (in 2000) with numbers decreasing to 0.4 million (in 2017). In reality, there are a million Zainichi Koreans because many have switched nationality. The term ‘zainichi’ literally means ‘residing in Japan’ or ‘existing in Japan’, the term itself unwelcoming, indicating that they are temporary sojourners.
The Zainichi Koreans came to Japan from the southern part of the peninsula at different times in history—voluntarily after Meiji Restoration (1868) as unskilled and day labourers. Because of Japan’s labour shortage, their numbers swelled from an estimated 2,500 in 1910 to 600,000 in 1935. The war years 1939-45 resulted in forced conscription. By 1944-45, there were an estimated 2 to 2.4 million.
During the Japanese occupation of the peninsula, the Koreans were regarded as ‘Japanese nationals’. Japan’s defeat in the Second World War led to an outflow of the Koreans with an estimated 1.5 million leaving Japan. Some chose to stay back to avoid the Korean War (1950-53). The subsequent division of Chosen (old name of Korea, Japanese pronunciation) into North Korea and South Korea along the 38th Parallel hindered return; in fact, some of the repatriated Koreans returned to Japan (illegally, it is said) because of the political instability in the peninsula.
While Japan is known for its post-war pacifist Constitution, less known is that Japan was absolved of its responsibilities towards the Koreans in the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1952). The Koreans lost their Japanese nationality. Further, Japan’s lack of diplomatic relations with both the Koreas rendered them stateless—they were only given Agreement Permanent Residency.
It was only in 1965, following Japan’s diplomatic rapprochement with South Korea, that Agreement Permanent Residents could choose to take on South Korean nationality. The remaining who did not take it on remained stateless and were deemed to be pro-North Korea.
The revision of the Immigration Control Act (in 1981) made an allowance of permanent residency to the remaining Koreans who were not South Korean nationality but with stateless Chosen Koreans (name of undivided Korea, or as Chosen-seki) in case they applied for it.
Broadly speaking, Koreans in Japan came to be divided into pro-Pyongyang/pro-Seoul or pro-leftist/pro-rightist factions. Many chose to be neutral or dreamt Korean reunification by remaining stateless Chosen.
Particularly, the second and third generation Koreans were Japan-born, spoke Japanese, bore Japanese names and likely/barely spoke Korean. Despite this, their Korean ancestry undercut them in real life.
In the last few decades, scholars have chronicled discrimination, hate-speech and issues that the Koreans have had with nationality. Japan follows patrilineal descent in citizenship, which excludes children born to Japanese mothers. Despite revision in 1985, this is yet to take root. Koreans have been subject to forced fingerprinting such as during alien registration for permanent residents (abolished in 1993) and excluded from employment opportunities.
The case of Chung Hyang Gyun has been chronicled by the international press (in 2005). Born to a Japanese mother and Korean father, she was debarred from a government job. The Supreme Court intervened and ruled that she could not take the job (at the public health centre) because she was a ‘foreigner’.
Ostracised from the mainstream, Koreans struggled to meet ends. Many set up Yakiniku restaurants (Korean style BBQ restaurants), a theme explored in third-generation Zainichi-Korean Chong Wishing’s film ‘Yakiniku Dragon’ (2018).
Koreans came to be associated with ‘shady business’ pachinko ‘gaming’ linked to the Japanese mafia (yakuza). In fact, ‘pachinko’ is regarded as Japan’s largest ethnic industry. Pachinko magnate Chang-Woo Han’s pachinko management company Maruhan (founded in 1972) has a net worth of $1.9 billion, and ranks as one of Japan’s 50 richest (Forbes 2018). Pachinko operators have been consistently dogged by rumours that the money flows into North Korea.
Initially, Koreans organised themselves through the League of Koreans (1945). They regrouped as the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan or Chongryon (1955) funded by North Korea which serves as North Korea’s unofficial embassy in Japan. The official web page of North Korea calls Chongryon ‘a powerful organisation of overseas citizens of the DPRK’.
Chongryon had a majority of Zainichi Korean members in the 1980s because it operated educational institutions and functioned as a nodal cultural entity. Chongryon members have supported North Korea through remittances, but there are allegations that it has been a conduit for drug trafficking, transfer of technology and abductions. Between 1954 and 1984, Chongryon ran a campaign to return to North Korea to which 93,000 Zainichi Koreans responded. But some defected back to Japan (and were granted asylum by Japan) and lived to tell their tale.
Since the 1990s, more numbers belong to the Mindan, the pro-Seoul South Korean Residents Union.
In the recent past, Japan has clamped down on Chongryon—stopped remittances to North Korea and ordered Chongryon (riddled with financial woes) to sell its assets including its headquarters in Tokyo. The recent Osaka High Court judgment (September 2018), excluding pro-Pyongyang Korean high schools in Osaka from tuition-waiver programme, also comes as a big squeeze.
Strangely, the Korean community in Japan—many of whom don’t speak Korean, or are less acquainted with the social/cultural mores of North/South Korea—have morphed into a bone of contention between North Korea and South Korea. But with the thaw—the third meet having taken place between Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un and President of South Korea Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang—this may change.
For Japan, the tragic abduction of 17 Japanese citizens including the 13-year-old Megumi Yokota (in 1977), an estimated 800 citizens missing, nuclear tests that threaten Japan and ballistic missile tests that fly over Hokkaido are valid Japanese concerns. For North Korea, isolated and living in the past, Japanese colonisation, forced conscription, the saga of the ‘comfort women’ and the discrimination of millions remain valid concerns. For Japan and North Korea, it has been a vicious cycle, where both are hostages to the vestiges of history—unable or unwilling to break free, at least for now.