Saturday, March 13, 2010

Hyphenating Japan

This article is interesting. She seems to have a pluralistic overgeneralization about the experiences of Zainichi Korean youth in Japan, but covers a lot of issues related to the community. It's interesting to see how Japanese youth or minority youth in Japan are being influenced by what they believe to be a multicultural utopian society in the U.S. - an idea I disagree with. That's why Eclipse Rising's work to connect minority youth from Japan to youth of color in the U.S. is so important! The issue is not with being able to hyphenate your identity, but ending discriminatory practices that effect the daily lives of so-called non-Japanese living in Japan, connecting modern prejudices (personal, institutional, policy) as the extension of oppressive practices from the colonial days, and creating a cross-cultural solidarity movement among all oppressed groups in Japan to fight for their space in Japanese society. What do you think?

Hyphenating Japan by Debbie Hodgson

Lee Yun Chul is not your typical 21-year-old Japanese youth. His Korean family took Japanese citizenship before he was born. But after spending his high-school years in multiethnic London, Lee grew to resent the fact that his parents hid their Korean roots. He broke away from his family's koseki —something almost sacrilegious in Japan—and went through a painful process in court to change his name to a Korean one. With the stage name Liyoon, he joined his friend Kwak Jeong Hoon (known as Jewong) to form the rap duo KP, and hopes to become a model for the next generation. "My dream is that by my kids' generation, Japan will be a society where you can be called Kim or Lee and still be OK," he says.

In short, Lee is Korean and proud of it. But it's not that simple. He is also Japanese and proud of it. His family represents only a fraction of the more than 9,000 Korean residents who are becoming Japanese citizens every year. And that trend could spell the end for the zainichi—Koreans and their descendants who came to Japan before the end of World War II and live here as permanent residents. Given that there are fewer than 600,000 zainichi, they could be absorbed in the next fifty years if current rates of population decline, naturalization and inter-ethnic marriage continue.

But with extinction as a distinct group looming, young zainichi and Japanese of Korean ancestryare awakening to their ethnic identity, and letting the world know about it. Kang Sachiko, activist and official at South-Korea affiliated Mindan, says rapper Lee is one of a breed she calls the "new zainichi"—those who are trying to escape the stereotypes and inferiority complexes that plagued the old generation. Affluent and relatively untouched by discrimination, the new zainichi are being met halfway by young Japanese who are eager to embrace difference. Despite naturalizing and marrying Japanese, the new zainichi are giving themselves Korean names, studying the Korean language and trying to revive a fading zainichiculture. "We are proud of our roots, but don't care about nationality and bloodline the way our parents do," Kang says. "With that flexibility we are going to change Japan's obsession with being a homogenous nation-state."

With relations between Japan and North Korea at their worst in living memory, it comes as a shock that young Korean residents can be so optimistic. Ever since Kim Jong Il admitted last September that Pyongyang had abducted at least thirteen Japanese citizens in the 1970s and '80s, zainichi have been on the defensive. Since then, the government has focused on North Korean residents of Japan as never before. The Man Gyong Bong, which ferries Koreans to visit their relatives in the North, has suddenly been subjected to stricter customs and safety checks. Tokyo's right-wing governor Shintaro Ishihara drew the ire of Koreans in Japan and abroad with his recent suggestion that Koreans asked Japan to occupy their country in 1910. The government has revoked a long-standing tax exclusion policy applying to Chongryon, the zainichi group associated with North Korea, and has conspicuously left Chongryon schools out of a law change allowing graduates of foreign schools to take the public university entrance examinations.

But despite current tension, Japan's treatment of its largest ethnic minority is far better than it's ever been before. The Japan that used Koreans as slave labor for the good of the empire is long gone. Tokyo today sees both Koreas as regional powers that cannot be ignored. To many younger Japanese, South Korea is cool—the host of the 1988 Olympics, the co-host with Japan of a successful World Cup, a fount of TV and pop stars who've found success singing and acting in Japanese. Korean food is hugely popular, as attested by the hundreds of trendy Korean izakaya, and the success of Jong Kwon Fa, a second-generation Korean cooking personality in the mold of Kurihara Harumi. And particularly since the World Cup, thousands of Japanese of all ages tune into emotional Korean dramas and pick up brochures for vacations in Cheju as readily as for tours to Okinawa. "In my generation, Japan and Korea are relating to each other more," says company employee Taiki Yamaoka, 27. "We've entered a new era."

As many as ninety percent of Japanese-born Koreans are, for all intents and purposes, completely assimilated. They lead quiet if somewhat schizophrenic lives, passing as Japanese in public and using Korean names among themselves. That's a legacy from the colonial period, when their ancestors were forced to use exclusively Japanese language and names. Deprived of citizenship after the war, they were denied access to most jobs in the new economy. So many turned to self-employment, setting up pachinko parlors, barbecued-meat restaurants and other businesses.

For many of this generation, there was but one goal: to guarantee a better life for their descendants. In Tokyo's Shibuya district, just up the road from the teen shopping mall 109, is a narrow unpaved alley with a fading sign that says "Love Letter Alley". It's where Japanese women who'd had love affairs with GIs during the Occupation went to have their letters translated, and it was amongst the alley's makeshift translators' stalls that Kim Byeong Hyo, 81, built her rags-to-riches story. Having escaped near-starvation in Japanese-occupied Cheju, she worked, since the age of twelve, sewing soldiers' uniforms in Osaka. Moving to Tokyo after the war, she set up a Chinese restaurant in Love Letter Alley, charming her customers with her pretty face and hardworking attitude. She'd come home at 4:00 a.m., breastfeed her baby, then grab two hours of sleep before opening the shop again. Soon she employed seven cooks and ten waitresses. "I just wanted my children to be able to go to school," she says.

She accomplished that for her nine children—and more. Kim now owns several large properties back in Cheju and a couple in Shibuya, too. But despite her success in Japan, she says, she would be heartbroken if her grandchildren naturalized or married Japanese. It's at this point that her grandson, Bu Dukjoo, jotting down his grandmother's oral history on his iMac, has to bite his tongue. "It hurts me," he says later, "when Grandma says she doesn't want her grandchildren to marry Japanese. She's had so much pain. I want to end that pain in this generation—by that I mean grow to love Japan, take citizenship. I don't tell her that, of course."

As far as Bu is concerned, he says, taking citizenship is like joining a soccer team and shouldn't be confused with personal identity. But by openly endorsing the idea of becoming a Japanese citizen, he's breaking a significant Korean-Japanese taboo. Though thousands of resident Koreans are doing just that, they tend to do it quietly. To naturalize or not is a complicated matter of pride and deference to one's ancestors—sometimes still living—who survived all manner of insults from the Japanese state. Add to that government pressure to adopt Japanese names, and taking Japanese citizenship is equated for many with denying one's Korean roots. "I was called a traitor many times by other Koreans," says Lee of the KP duo. "That hurt more than being taunted by Japanese."

None of this holds back ethnic Koreans who have decided to naturalize—if only because these days it's the practical thing to do. Chung Chon Su, who works processing documents for Koreans, including naturalization papers, says the process can take up to a year, cost up to ¥500,000, and involves copious paperwork and background checks to prove the will to assimilate. But many Koreans have decided to swallow their pride and comply, for their children's sake. "Of course, they aren't happy about it," says Chung. "In other countries like the U.S., naturalization is cause for a party. Here it's done in secret, and no one is celebrating much."

The issue splits zainichi intellectuals. Tokyo Metropolitan University's Chung Dae Kyun, author of "The End of the Zainichi Korean", says that with discrimination at levels "so low as to ignore" and with little attachment to Seoul or Pyongyang, it's illogical to continue resisting becoming Japanese. Practising what he preaches, the professor recently completed his naturalisation paperwork. But Tokyo University professor Kang Sang Jung insists that there's a need for Japan to separate ethnicity and nationality. Instead, he says, Japan should provide avenues for non-Japanese to maintain their difference and still be treated with respect.

Whatever the arguments, the young generation is voting with their feet. The good news is, naturalisation no longer necessarily equals assimilation. Like rapper Lee, Kang Sachiko was born with Japanese nationality, as Yamazaki Sachiko, to a Korean-resident mum and half-zainichi/half-Japanese dad. But when she turned 23, she started working for the South Korean Residents Association youth group, gave herself a Korean name, and started researching her grandparents' history. "I want to create a Japan where it's natural for minorities to live openly, not to hide," she says. It's something that more and more Japanese agree with, too. "I don't like the aspect of Japan that is prejudiced against difference," says Dohi Ikumi, 25, who first met Kang Sachiko when they were studying Korean in Seoul. "I may be in the majority as a Japanese in Japan, but I can suddenly become a 'minority,' like when I had to have counseling for family problems." After getting to know Kang, Dohi was drawn to other Koreans in Japan, and now has a wide group of Korean-Japanese friends. "They're so positive and outgoing. When I see how much they love and take pride in their nationality and ethnicity, I start wondering why I as a Japanese wasn't like that. I even started going to rakugo, traditional story-telling performances, to get to know Japanese culture better," she says.

Indeed, rediscovering pride in one's Korean roots is natural now because so much of Korean culture has caught on. Some of the coolest celebrities—like hip-hop diva BoA and sexy actress Yun Son A—are Korean—as in straight from the peninsula. And now, Japan has its own homegrown version of Korea Cool—the tarento Sonin, a Korean-Japanese from Shikoku, who unlike many Korean performers in the past, never bothered to hide her ethnicity. Sonin herself doesn't know why on earth she should. "There was discrimination in the past, but it's nothing to do with me," she was quoted as saying in "Quick Japan" magazine in August.

She's luckier than some zainichi, who say they endure regular discrimination. The stigma is so embedded that even Korean bosses of "ethnic businesses" won't employ people with Korean names, says the son of such a pachinko parlor owner in Nagoya. "Koreans get discriminated against at the formative stages of life," says Mindan's Bae Cheoul Eun: "when they go for job interviews, propose marriage and look for an apartment."

Certainly, incidents of prejudice have been noticeable lately. Since Pyongyang admitted abducting Japanese citizens, attacks on girls wearing Korean school uniforms have increased sharply, the Association of North Korean Residents' Tokyo headquarters has been bombed, and bullets have been mailed to the organization. The Association receives hundreds of hate calls a day, and police now patrol its heavy steel gates. Prejudice can affect even the very young. Says Kim Jeho, a 27-year-old businessman in Tokyo's Okubo district: "My four-year-old niece stopped a family gathering in its tracks a while ago when she told us how a girl at nursery school had taunted her, saying how glad she was to have been born Japanese. I patted my niece on the head, but all the while I was thinking, 'Can this really still be happening?'"

It's because of incidents like this that Kim thinks the "new zainichi" are kidding themselves. "They say stuff that is music to Japanese people's ears, like 'Ethnicity doesn't affect anything;' 'We don't dwell on the past.' But I can tell them, I still receive discriminatory treatment when I go for jobs or try to rent an apartment. As long as that goes on, I choose to 'dwell' on it," he says.

Chongryon (the Association of North Korean Residents) and Mindan (Association of South Korean Residents) were originally set up to protect Koreans from such prejudice. But nowadays their role is less clear-cut. Mindan's Bae says individualistic young people are pulling away. "The organisation feels a sense of crisis," he says. Classrooms at Chongryon-affiliated schools are empty, and teachers go unpaid as enrollments drop—from 20,000 twenty years ago to 14,000 now. Reality, and the increased attacks are forcing Chongryon to adjust. It's changing its once heavily ideological, pro-Kim Jong Il textbooks, and this year for the first time had a Japanese Ministry of Education official visit a Chongryon school.

But more ideologically-flexible young people may already be ahead of them. Mindan's Youth Group leader in Okayama, Lee Bo Chang, does something that would have been unthinkable in the past: though he's a Mindan official, he meets for a drink once or twice a month with people from the rival Chongryon group. "I don't like the way organizations ignore individuals," says Lee. "We're making horizontal networks." Tonight, they gather in the bar of a restaurant run by Lee's mother. The friends rib each other about the shortcomings of each other's organisations over milky white makkoli wine. But they also share heart-to-hearts on love, marriage and the thorny subject of Korean reunification. "The older generation wouldn't drink together like this," Lee says. "But for us it's easy to become close."

Some zainichi Koreans express hopes to return and live in an eventually reunified Korea. But most Korean-Japanese, for better or for worse, have tied their future to that of Japan and are intent on making it a better society in whatever way they can. They're already influencing some young Japanese. Nineteen-year-old Hayasaki Wataru is one. "KP—that's Korean Pride, right?" he says at one of the duo's recent concerts. "That's cool. Why don't we have any 'Japanese Pride?' We need to work on that." Tabu Nobuhiro, strategy manager for KP, has a grand vision for a pan-Asian culture. "In New York City, no one cares where you are from. Different ethnic groups influencing each other is the way culture and a mature society is born," he says. "That's what I want for Japan."

KP's Lee is certain about the future. "When I finally finished the legal process, I saw my Japanese passport there with the Korean name on it, and I thought, Yes! This is the way the Korean-Japanese should be."It's certainly one option. And with the diverse politics, philosophy and goals of today's zainichi, expect many other variations on the theme.

Newsweek Japan Cover 26th November 2003

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