Happy Pride!! Eclipse Rising member Haruki Eda reflects on his experience as a Queer Korean navigating boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and nationality as he relocated from Japan to the U.S. in search of knowledge and community.
June 25, 2016
When I arrived in the United States from Japan 10 years ago with a student visa, in San Francisco, on August 18, 2006, I was a 19-year-old gay Japanese. Or at least that’s who I thought I was at that time. Filled with hope and anxiety, I started my college at San Francisco State University, where I was determined to study the politics, history, and culture of LGBT social movements. I had no concrete plans but vaguely thought I’d go back to Japan after learning as much as I could, so that I could start contributing to the LGBT movements in Japan. By the time I graduated, however, I’d realized I had so much more to learn, about myself and my own history as a descendant of Korean postcolonial exiles in Japan, commonly known as Zainichi Koreans. It was the knowledge shared by radical queer and trans people of color (QTPoC) that inspired and challenged me to cultivate a sense of authentic self, however fleeting it may be, by uncovering hidden stories and building meaningful relationships.
I always knew I was “half” Korean because my parents would tell me occasionally that my father is a zainichi kankoku-jin (South Korean resident of Japan). I remember telling my 1st-grade classmates that my dad is a kankoku-jin (South Korean) and bragging how I can say annyonhaseyo and kamusasamunida. My classmates in this half-rural, half-suburban town didn’t even know what Korea meant until much later. I didn’t really know either. You can’t reject or accept something you don’t understand, and young kids always know that. So my Korean heritage was neither rejected nor accepted by my peers or myself, though it was vaguely acknowledged. We just didn’t know why and how it was supposed to matter.
Inheriting from my mother all the privileges that come with a Japanese name and citizenship, however, I never really thought of myself as Zainichi; I was just “half” kankoku-jin and full Japanese. I would enjoy my grandmother’s Korean food at the family reunion on every New Year’s Day, and I would enjoy not having to even think about what it meant to be in this family for the rest of the year. It was just a family I was born into, a network that existed, and somehow I hesitated to inquire too much because I felt like I was supposed to know all about it already. It wasn’t community to me. My father uses his Korean name, so I didn’t have to think about how to hide, and because I only have a Japanese name, I didn’t have to think about how to disclose. My Koreanness was just a fact, a piece of information, with no real meanings or stories behind it. It wasn’t knowledge to me.
Meanwhile, though, I had much bigger concerns as I realized I was sexually attracted to boys. The realization was timely, sudden, and swift, when I found a gay porn magazine at a local bookstore when I was eleven. I already knew the concept of homosexuality, but I didn’t know the word gei as a non-derogatory term to refer to it. It was fortunate that I encountered this magazine, this word, almost as soon as it became clear that I liked dicks better than boobs. I realized there’s a community out there, and I realized there’s knowledge out there. And I must get there. And there was San Francisco, the United States of America, the Western world, the real modernity, beyond the horizon of small gay enclaves of global Osaka or cosmopolitan Tokyo. At least I knew I was “half” Korean and fully gay, and I was not going to live like a normal straight Japanese people all around me. I might as well try something different. So I studied English and applied to SF State because it seemed like the best place for studying queer theory. (My favorite band Third Eye Blind was from the Bay Area, so that alone would have convinced me to move there.)
With my freshly and so smoothly issued F-1 visa on my Japanese passport, with my parents’ full financial support, and with little trace of my Koreanness on any of my documents, I landed at SFO as a gay Japanese international student. I assumed I would fly out from the same airport four years later as a gay Japanese college graduate. That never happened. It never happened because I went to SF State, the home of Ethnic Studies and other legacies of the longest student strike in U.S. history. I met so many committed activists and dedicated scholars creating knowledge and community together, on and off campus, as students and as teachers to each other. I jumped right in as soon as I felt confident enough in my English: I founded an organization for Queer Asian students on campus; I volunteered at a local HIV service organization for Asian and Pacific Islander communities, and I worked as an RA in university housing to be in charge of the International Learning Community. I learned that a community is something I build.
During these years, I made sense of my gender and sexuality through my connection to the local Queer Asian communities. I learned how my gender and sexuality impact the experiences I have in this world, in this country, always already mediated by my race, ethnicity, nationality, and citizenship. And much of it is actually that I am heavily protected by my male, cisgender, and able-bodied privileges. I tried to interrogate and challenge myself in order to learn what I am here to do. I came to recognize my queerness, rather than my “homosexuality,” as I navigate and negotiate various boundaries constructed around gender and race, within the bigger narrative of modernity and coloniality. Trying to understand how history and social structure intersect with desire, I conducted research and wrote papers on racial representation in gay porn. I learned that knowledge begins with a question. I was no longer a gay Japanese, but I was a proud Queer Asian, a radical queer of color. I graduated from college with this knowledge and community. But I had more work to do.
Even though I was starting to make sense of my racialized queerness, I didn’t really know what to make of my Koreanness, especially in relation to my queerness. Each time I met another Korean person from Korea, I would tell them that my father is Korean, “but I don’t really speak Korean.” I felt the need to clarify how inauthentic I am before they did so by asking me if I spoke Korean. It might have been a habit I developed as an openly queer person, since I usually made sure to somehow indicate my queerness when I met someone new. I didn’t want people making assumptions about me or asking me rude questions, so I would put everything out on the table first. In retrospect, though, while I was never ashamed of my Koreanness or queerness, I was unconsciously ashamed of my inability to explain what they mean for myself. It was my escape to let other people decide what those things mean to them on my behalf, rather than articulating my own sense of existence through my body.
I never had Zainichi Korean friends while growing up in Japan, and my Korean friends from Korea didn’t have any answer to my inauthenticity. Only when I started meeting Korean Americans, many of whom queer or trans, I finally had a space to let out my confusions and questions and anxieties about my Koreanness. I was able to ask real questions about what Korea means and what it means to be Korean. And soon enough, through multiple personal connections, I was invited to a report-back event of a Korean American delegation to North Korea. The event was put together by Eclipse Rising, a Bay Area-based Zainichi Korean community organization, and two Zainichi women who went on this delegation were explaining why North Korea behaves the way it does, because of the historical and geopolitical contexts of U.S. imperialist involvement in East Asia since the World War II. They mapped out so clearly how Japanese colonialism, the national division, and the ongoing Korean War have everything to do with the stories of discrimination my father used to tell me about. My journey became deeper than ever on that day when I had my first Zainichi Korean friends, my first Zainichi Korean knowledge and community.
Koreans in Japan are subject to legal discrimination based on their nationality, whether South Korean nationality or now defunct Chosen nationality of pre-division Korea. Until 2000, all special permanent residents in Japan, most of whom are Korean, were required by the law to be fingerprinted when they turned 16: all the fingers, not only the tips but the entirety of the fingers, as if their criminality is a given. They are still required to carry the alien registration card with them at all times, and if they were unable to produce the document upon inspection by the police, they could be prosecuted under the Criminal Law. According to Japan’s immigration policy, one must have a Japanese parent to obtain citizenship at birth. Being born in Japan does not result in full legal rights, although taxation is the same as for citizens. Many Zainichi Koreans reject the option of naturalization, because nationality and ethnicity are very closely conceptualized together by Zainichi Koreans, and the legal process is just slow and long and uncertain enough to discourage them from applying. Without citizenship, they face enormous difficulties obtaining employment or legal protection, or getting approved for marriage by their Japanese partners’ families. Meanwhile, they are policed and punished for practicing or exhibiting any hint of Koreanness through language, culture, name usage, or political expression.
The attacks on Korean schools in Japan are emblematic of these oppressive systems. Immediately after the end of colonization, Koreans who decided to remain in Japan, at least temporarily because of the political uncertainties in the Peninsula, grasped the opportunity to educate their younger generation about their history and culture in their own language, with their own Korean names--all denied under the colonial rule. The schools they built, however, became a target of repression by the Japanese police, which was desperate to regain their authority after Japan’s loss in the war. The Allied Forces, led by the U.S. military, viewed the Korean schools as a breeding ground for communist insurgencies, so it authorized violent raids of some schools as well as the community organization that established them. Korean schools have survived and thrived despite such heavy repression since then, but their curriculum is still not considered to be an equivalent to the standard Japanese education, and graduating from a Korean school does not lead to a legally meaningful diploma.
When I started learning about Zainichi Korean history, I immediately saw the similarities between Zainichi Koreans and people of color in the U.S., particularly how both communities have valued culturally relevant education and defiantly challenged the reproduction of mainstream knowledge that only maintains the system of oppression. There is a reason why I was kept from my own history and why I did not fully identify as Korean, and it wasn’t me. Thus I came to a definition of Zainichi Korean identity that is not based on legal documents or even a set of certain cultural experiences that supposedly make someone an authentic Zainichi Korean. It is an incoherent, indeterminate identity category that is articulated most clearly when we mumble that we don’t speak Korean, that we don’t know what Koreanness means, that we’re not so sure if we’re really Korean, but we’re questioning it, we’re trying to understand it, and we’re creating knowledge about it through our bodies.
Zainichi Koreans are connected to people of color in more ways. The U.S. military is an institution that violently exploits us all, by constructing a scapegoat figure of the Muslim terrorist, by recruiting working-class youths of color, by stealing, occupying, polluting, and radiating the land and water all across the world but especially displacing Indigenous peoples of North America and the Pacific, by raping and sexually exploiting women and children around the bases, by propagating oppressive and mediocre views of racialized masculinity and femininity among young Americans, and by murdering us, over and over again. In fact, all the violence and oppression that the Japanese nation-state has inflicted on Zainichi Koreans were encouraged by the U.S. empire in its attempt to establish economic and military control over the Asia-Pacific region. The division that Zainichi Koreans have internalized, between the pro-North Chongryun and the pro-South Mindan, wasn’t entirely their fault but deeply embedded within the competitions and collusions among Japan, the United States, North and South Koreas, China, and Russia over the past hundred years. Yet the mainstream discourse of the Korean division does not have a solid grasp of the workings of gender and sexuality in the geopolitics of the Trans-Pacific.
Radical QTPoC community organizers have taught me how geopolitics operates on multiple scales. They have challenged me to interrogate how our everyday experiences of power and violence at the hands of the nation-state directly reflect what's going on at the planetary level of border-making, displacement, capitalist exploitation, military-police-prison-medical industrial complex, and neoliberal education. They have inspired me to think and imagine beyond what I see, and to reach deeper into myself and farther out to distant shores of history waiting to be remembered. They have taught me my duty to uncover connections I wasn’t meant to recognize I have.
And this is why I care about the dignity and rights of the former Comfort Women, whose unspeakable trauma remains under the threat of collective amnesia. This is why I care about the lives and deaths of my Black brothers and trans sisters and Muslim friends and refugee families, who continue to be targets of state terrorism. This is why I care about La Mission as not just a figure of nostalgia but as a real community that's crumbling apart precisely because of gentrification triggered and trivialized by wealthy IT companies and their uneducated employees. This is why I care about Ferguson as much as Fukushima, Oakland as much as Okinawa, and Hawai’i as much as Hiroshima. This is what it means for me to be a Queer Zainichi Korean, to tell our stories and create community and knowledge, to care for one another and heal together, to commit to the highest standards of critical thinking and solidarity and love.