In western media, the island nation of Japan is often portrayed as homogeneous, a country that shares a common language and culture. There has also been a lack of discussion of racial and ethnic discrimination within Japan in international news, namely the systematic discrimination of Korean people. As with many countries around the world, a small but vocal extreme right-wing movement exists in Japan, and in 2016 the country passed its first anti-hate speech bill to address this issue. Demonstrations led by anti-Korean hate groups have decreased significantly thanks to the law, but the Japanese government is still lacking in its response to the systemic discrimination of Koreans in Japan. 

As mentioned by Ryuta Itagaki, some media outlets describe this type of hate as unprecedented, due to its increasing visibility through social media platforms and online message boards. To confront the underlying issue of the discrimination of Koreans in Japan, it must be understood that such feelings are not new. This type of discrimination stems from the colonial history of Japan and has taken place for the past century. This problem should be further examined to improve human rights and the quality of living for Koreans in Japan. 

Zainichi Identity 

Korean residents who reside in Japan are called Zainichi. The term translates to ‘a foreigner who lives in Japan,’ pointing to a societal perception that they are not legitimate Japanese citizens. Roughly one million Koreans are permanent residents or citizens of Japan. As described by Youngmi Lim, “Zainichi Koreans, whose ancestral migration resulted from Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula, are a culturally assimilated minority group” which has largely integrated within the Japanese majority through naturalization and intermarriage. Zainichi people have a range of diverse cultural identities, some attend Korean language schools in Japan while others speak solely Japanese and have adopted Japanese names to avoid social stigma. Many Korean people immigrated to Japan as migrant labourers after the colonization of Korea in 1910, pointing to the significance of Japan’s colonial history in shaping the country’s current demographics. 

Japanese Occupation of Korea 

The Empire of Japan officially occupied Korea from 1910 until 1945. Throughout Japan’s 35 year annexation of the country, atrocities were committed against Korean citizens, including the forced mobilization of Korean people during the colonial period. To supplement a labour shortage that emerged due to World War II, Korean civilians were drafted to work in Japanese industries in 1939. By the end of the war, more than one million Koreans had been forced to work under cruel conditions in mines and factories. As a result, roughly 500,000 Koreans remained in the country after the war, whose descendants are called Zainichi Koreans. Additionally, there was the sexual slavery of girls and women at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army. Known as ‘comfort women,’ countless Korean girls and women were regularly systematically sexually abused by Japanese soldiers. 

During the period of occupation, Japan went to great lengths to erase many facets of Korean culture. Ancient texts and thousands of historical documents were destroyed and the Korean language was forbidden from being used in schools and universities. The imperial legacies of these events have had lasting impacts on the identities of Korean peoples in Japan. 

Currently, the tensions between Japan and South Korea are incredibly high, especially in the face of Japan’s refusal to acknowledge its aforementioned colonial history. While Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has signalled the importance of the relationship between the two countries, he maintains that it is up to South Korea to mend relations. Without proper acknowledgement of the forced mobilization of Korean people, Japan-South Korea relations will remain unsteady in the near future. 

The Origins of Korea-phobia

The beginnings of ‘Korea-phobia’ are notable, as much of the hate-speech utilized against Koreans does not mention racial or physical characteristics, instead focusing on the illegality, attitude, or social status of Korean peoples. Although Japan’s colonial history has largely been distorted and concealed by the government, historical events such as the Kanto Massacre indicate the level of othering and suspicion which was placed on Koreans during the Japanese colonial rule. 

The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake that rocked the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area, resulted in over 140,000 deaths. In the midst of the disaster, newspapers began to spread rumours that Koreans were poisoning local wells in order to kill Japanese citizens. A massacre ensued, and more than 6,000 Koreans and Japanese socialists were murdered by police, soldiers, and vigilantes. This event has been celebrated by some extreme right-wing groups – including Zaitokukai – and serves as a warning for the power of xenophobic sentiment.

Zaitokukai, established in 2007, is officially entitled the ‘Citizens League to Deny Foreign Resident Privileges.’ The group lobbies for the removal of special privileges they believe Koreans are given in Japan. Their ideology is based on their belief that Koreans in Japan benefit disproportionately from public welfare assistance, that they are violent criminals, and that Korean schools in Japan promote an “anti-Japanese” curriculum. 

In their own words, the group denies promoting hate speech in their demonstrations, arguing that only a select few from their rallies utilized phrases such as “Kill Koreans.” Reports of several Zaitokukai gatherings indicate otherwise. In recent years, several anti-racist civic groups have organized in a response to Zaitokukai, with members from both the Japanese majority and Zainichi minority. In 2018 an anti-immigrant demonstration by the hate group was outnumbered by counter-protestors, signifying a lack of public support for Zaitokukai’s extreme right-wing views. 

Systematic Discrimination of Korean Peoples

Shifting away from the extremism of Zaitokukai, Japan’s colonial history has also developed systematic disadvantages for Korean peoples. Many of the disadvantages that the Zainichi face stem not only from Japan’s colonial past but also as a result of the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco. Following the Japanese defeat in the Second World War, the San Francisco Peace conference was held to officially end hostilities and called for Japan to allocate compensation to allied nations. Korea and China were not invited to sign the peace treaty. When the Japanese government relinquished their colonies, they effectively removed citizenship rights for Korean and Taiwanese people residing in Japan.

Presently, even some fourth and fifth-generation Zainichi Koreans are legally viewed as foreign nationals. Without citizenship, they are unable to vote and cannot pursue a career in public office. Additionally, many elderly and disabled Zainichi have been shut out from Japan’s national pension plan and are not financially protected in retirement. 

Education barriers also persist for Zainichi, as many Korean schools in Japan have been excluded from the tuition waiver program, which provides financial assistance for public and private secondary schools, including international schools. The government justified this ruling as an effort to show its strict stance against North Korea. However, this decision mainly impacts Zainichi high school students, who have unequal access to education as a result of ethnic discrimination on the part of the Japanese government. These schools are an opportunity for Zainichi Korean students to learn their language, culture, and history, which were stolen during the colonial period. 

Moving Forward

Ultimately, the Japanese government has an enormous impact on the social treatment of Zainichi. The government’s failure to address Korean human rights and important historical events is incredibly problematic. This means that an open acknowledgement of Japan’s colonial history – including reparations for comfort women – by the nation’s leader would have a ripple effect on the treatment of Koreans in Japan. Moreover, government decision-makers should remove legislation that directly prevents foreigners (specifically Zainichi Koreans) from being promoted to positions in public office. The aforementioned actions would be a principal step in improving human rights for Koreans in Japan.

Some Japanese civic groups have joined together with South Korean organizations to openly condemn the inaction of former Prime Minister Abe, including his distortion of historical events and threats to peace. It is hopeful that many Japanese citizens do not tolerate the extreme racist views which are so distinctly displayed by Zaitokukai, but work can be done to improve the social perception and stigma Zainichi Koreans face in Japanese society. Overall, there is a need to hold the Japanese government accountable for its role in the systematic discrimination of Korean people. 

Toko Peters

Toko is from Vancouver, BC, and was born in Hamamatsu, Japan. After obtaining her B.A. in International Relations at UBC, she continued to pursue her passion and affinity for writing, politics, and world...

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *