Zainichi, Part One

Imagine an England where race matters. Where natives come first in hiring and housing. Where foreigners are barred from certain locales, by signs in the windows. Where people openly judge you by your skin colour and, failing that, surname. Where all foreign residents are fingerprinted, and serious violation means swift deportation. Where health tourism is impossible. Where almost nobody gets a free flat. Where the four surrounding seas are a true barrier. Where the number of refugees accepted each year is kept in the dozens, and economic migrants in the thousands. Where immigrant enclaves hardly exist, and whole neighbourhoods contain not a single foreigner.

Well, you don’t actually have to imagine this, because that land already exists. It’s called Japan.

I spent a long time in Japan. Perhaps the lack of novelty, perversely, is why I have long been disinclined to write about it. Or perhaps it’s just that the ground rules of life are so different there that the subject is too much for a short article. Either way, I thought I would put Japan aside until my dotage, and focus my scribbling on Europe, where the interesting stuff is happening.

Then I read what the Japan-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro recently wrote about Brexit. Here’s a sample line: “So we will soon be faced with this question: do we as a nation hate foreigners sufficiently to deny ourselves access to the single market? This might easily be rephrased as: is Britain too racist to be a leading nation in a modern globalised world?

This pissed me off. Bigly.

Ishiguro (“The Remains of the Day,” brilliant novel) was born in Nagasaki and raised in Britain. He is English enough to have only limited Japanese (or so said an acquaintance who interviewed him), and evidently little knowledge of the way foreigners are treated in his original homeland. I found his remarks about us downright insulting. As far as I know, he has not written a word about Japan’s far worse racism.

I know that Japan and its immigration policies have many admirers on the patriotic right. And I too think their no-nonsense approach is basically sensible and will ensure that Japan, unlike most of west Europe, will survive in the next 50 years as a distinct, cohesive society. But there has been a price. Japan is the most xenophobic developed country on earth. It is so racist that it is actually quite hard for westerners to understand the extremes they go to in the name of racial purity. In this piece, I’m going to say a bit about them. I’m going to focus on a group of foreigners in Japan that few have heard of, the zainichi.

First, some background. Although nearly homogeneous, Japan, as is well-known now, has several minorities. In the far north are the Ainu people, Japan’s aboriginals, now nearly extinct through assimilation. In the south are the Okinawans, who have never been considered fully Japanese because of their distinct dialect and their long history of cultural closeness to China. Scattered throughout the country are the burakumin, who are native Japanese at the bottom of Japan’s caste system (yes, it has one; complex story, Google the word), pushed into ghettos and excluded from good jobs. And then there are the zainichi, who are the ethnic Koreans who long accounted for over half of Japan’s immigrant population.

There have been Koreans in Japan since the 1000s, but today’s community is largely based on emigration during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, which so impoverished Koreans that many had to come to Japan to get a living. Others were brought forcibly into Japan to work in factories and mines. Some women were forced into prostitution, in the so-called “comfort-women” controversy.

Soon after the war, the entire community of then over a million Koreans were made stateless by the Japanese government, as a not very subtle hint that they should all bugger off back home. But Korea was in ruins, and the Korean War was soon to begin. Many refused to go. They had been imperial subjects. They had started families in Japan, and in Korea now had nothing to return to. They stayed. Japan’s government, then under American tutelage, could not do what it wanted to do, which was just kick them out. Instead, it pretended they did not exist.

So ethnic Koreans formed another untouchable caste (along with the burakumin ethnic Japanese in the meat-and-leather-handling trades). They were barred from jobs in respectable Japanese companies, and could not get credit from Japanese banks to start their own businesses. They were pretty much restricted to building sites, waste collection, money-lending and gambling-arcade management. They could not count on state-subsidized healthcare. They were turned away by nearly all private estate agents, and were forced to live in ghettos in the fag-ends of the major cities, often by the riverbank. Some of these were called “zero zones” (zero banchi) because they were not even given the Japanese version of a postal code. Many were also excluded from the state pension system. They remained stateless, or rather, they were denied automatic citizenship, and had to apply for Japanese nationality on maturity. Because of their mistreatment, many chose to become South or North Korean citizens residing in Japan rather than ask nicely for permission to be full citizens in their de facto homeland. This made their legal status in Japan barely more secure than that of a tourist, and every time they went abroad they could be barred from re-entry.

All this is what Kazuo Ishiguro would have faced were he a Korean living in Japan, rather than a Japanese living in Britain. Living among a people he now considers nasty xenophobes.

Many Koreans did naturalise to avoid these risks, but it made no difference what passport they held or that they had lived all their lives in Japan. If you had a Korean name, you were stigmatised and marginalised. This wasn’t ugly National-Front type racism, with “go-home” graffiti and beatings in the street. It was the quiet and systematic suffocation of a large minority, with the tacit consent of the whole Japanese people and establishment. Even their name as a community, the zainichi (in-Japan-people), subtly marked them out as unwanted guests, who some time might be outside-Japan-people. They were made so unwelcome in the country in which most of them were born and raised that they had to hide their ethnic background by assuming a Japanese name, called a tsuumei, or “passing-through” name (for getting through daily life). That way they hoped to deceive Japanese employers and landlords into taking them for true Japanese, and so avoid job and housing discrimination. The tsuumei was also needed to keep personal relationships going. “I don’t want to tell anybody I am Korean,” a teenage zainichi girl wrote in a touching letter to the Hiragana Times magazine some years back, “as I will lose all my friends.” Having to live like this, having to systematically assume a false persona in public life, made many zainichi feel like impostors all their lives and caused considerable psychological problems in the community.

But even if you used a tsuumei Japanese name, you could easily be outed by a tenacious potential employer (or father-in-law), because domicile is a matter of public record in Japan and the Japanese-Koreans were mostly forced into the well-known outcast enclaves. Private agencies offered discreet detective services to sniff out Korean blood. I chose the word “outed” above to show what it is like living in Japan under this stigma, but in fact it is not my term. It is a word used for Softbank founder Masayoshi Son, Japan’s most famous zainichi and one of a handful of Japanese-Koreans to have made it to the top in business. In Sano Shin’ichi’s biography of Son, Anpon, Son’s self-”outing” is described by a friend at the scene:

“The time that he squarely outed himself about being a Korean was the winter of his third year [of high school] I think. It was while he was having fun with some good friends. Going into a restaurant, they were chatting. .. Suddenly Masayoshi Son made a sign for everybody to fall silent. .. ‘The truth is,’ he said, ‘I am a zainichi.’ How do you react to such words? Everybody felt disconcerted. Masayoshi Son, who made his confession, was wearing a really serious expression on his face, unlike his usual expression. After that, I do not remember what exactly he said, but I do remember that a rather dark atmosphere descended upon the scene.”

Acknowledging Korean ethnicity was a “confession.” Son, like many richer zainichi, got his higher education in America.

Finding out about all this was a considerable shock to me as a resident of Japan. I had never imagined racism could be taken to such bizarre, obsessive extremes. Yet, because the 6-700,000-odd Koreans looked and sounded exactly the same as the native Japanese, making the discrimination almost completely invisible, and because the zainichi communities were ignored by the Japanese media, few people knew about it, much less cared. Instead, the Japanese told the world they were free of racism, and the world believed them.

This was the daily reality throughout most of the postwar decades. In the 2000s, when I was mostly away from Japan, things eased up somewhat.

© text & images Joe Slater 2017 2024