Perpetual Foreigners in a Homogeneous Society

A recent Japanese Supreme Court ruling that it is not unconstitutional for the Tokyo City Government to disallow a second-generation Japan-born Korean employee to sit a qualifying examination for a managerial post has caused disquiet among liberal-minded Japanese and others. This is especially so because Japan is a staunch supporter of human rights and has consistently criticised other countries for their lapses. This controversial decision ended a decade-long legal battle for a Korean nurse who had unsuccessfully sued her employer for damages for denying her an opportunity for job advancement.

It is a common perception among Asians that racial discrimination is manifestly a Western problem. Many would therefore be surprised that it exists in Japan too, with its warm, courteous and cultured population. However, for those who are familiar with the Japanese scene, racial prejudices against residents of Korean ancestry are still prevalent as a historical legacy, despite their assimilation into its community long ago. Many Japanese genuinely believe, albeit erroneously, that Koreans are inferior to them. They are perceived as generally untrustworthy, ill-tempered and more prone to violence and crimes.

Japan colonised Korea from 1895 to 1945. Numerous Koreans were brought to Japan to provide cheap but efficient labour for its growing economy and war effort. Others came seeking a better life. When World War II ended, Japan had more than two million Korean residents. Most had since returned to their homeland but many stayed on and regarded Japan as their permanent home. Today, Japanese-Koreans number less than 600,000. Notwithstanding that they have been making significant contributions in various fields to the Japanese society, they are still treated as if they are “gaijin” (foreigners), even for those who have embraced Japanese citizenship. To overcome overt discriminations and inequality, most were compelled to hide their racial origin by assuming Japanese names and identity in order to survive in a hostile environment. Those who refused to do so often had to pay dearly for their pride.

Take the legendary Japanese sumo wrestler, Rikidozan, as an example. He was idolised in Japan as the greatest sumo wrestler of his time. He concealed his Korean ethnicity from the public. He kept a secret room at home, where he could be Korean again, surrounding himself with his native art, books and music. When his true identity became known, his fans were so shocked that they couldn’t accept the reality. He died in 1963.

To understand the Japanese psyche, one must be aware that, among the major countries, theirs is undoubtedly the most homogeneous of them all. Out of a population of about 130 million, foreign residents total just above 1.5%. It is common knowledge that most Japanese lack linguistic skills and therefore are ill at ease with foreigners when meeting them socially. They would rather seek the company of their compatriots. Many are convinced that their culture is superior to that of others.

Would becoming Japanese citizens help remove these deep-rooted prejudices and enable Japanese -Koreans to take their rightful place in the community? This would certainly give them more rights, but there were impediments. Under Japanese laws, all naturalised citizens must, among other stipulations, have Japanese names and renounce their original names. Most aspirants consider this mandatory requirement absurd and demeaning. It is therefore not surprising that most Koreans and other foreign residents had not opted for citizenship. Fortunately, this unjustifiable legal provision was finally abolished around 1990, after having been in force since 1950.

Despite the less than hospitable treatment meted out to the Japanese-Koreans, there are encouraging signs that the younger and more enlightened Japanese are more sympathetic towards their plight and are making their views felt at various public forums and in the media. These have influenced legislations conferring voting rights in local governments and easier naturalisation processes for them. Furthermore, the rise of South Korea as a dynamic developed country with a high standard of living, coupled with its popular culture becoming more appealing to Japanese who flock there to experience its multi-faceted splendour, should help change their traditional mindset on Koreans in general and Japanese-Koreans especially.

Lam Pin Foo
3 February 2005

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