‘Born and raised’ but forever ‘foreign’

18 September 2015

A bunch of us are on the subway bound for Shinjuku station. Our friend from Osaka is taking us out to dinner to his favourite sushi restaurant in Tokyo. Our quiet conversation is broken when two noticeably drunk Japanese salary men enter the train. They stumble into the carriage and noticing us, turn to each other and mutter something in slurred speech.

“Now a days there’s just so many of those (Chosonjins) [Koreans] around…they should hurry up and go back to where they…”

Without catching the whole sentence, my friend gestured for us to move carriages, saying “I don’t want to have to deal with this now.” Not understanding what just happened, I asked him to explain.

My Osakan friend Hanyoung is a 21-year-old Korean Zainichi. Although he was born and raised in Japan, for the purposes of the Japanese Nationality Act, he is regarded as a foreign national. Naturally Hanyoung speaks Japanese fluently and identifies culturally as a young Japanese. His level of Korean matches mine, and he has only visited Korea as a tourist. Hanyoung is Japanese by my standards, however no matter how much time goes by, he continues to be treated differently by the society that he belongs to.

I asked him whether such open racism was common, and how he tolerated it. He replied that although it was hurtful, he was used to it, and tended to just tune out if he came across it. “I get it everyday. I will never be seen by [them] as a real Japanese guy. When I walk with friends from here I can blend into the crowd easily, but tonight walking with you guys I’ll be taken for a tourist for sure. The good thing is I’m pretty popular with girls, they think I’m a K-pop idol.”

Approximately half of the ‘foreign’ population in Japan are Korean. In 1991 the Japanese government established a special permanent residency system for individuals born in former Japanese colonies such as Korea and Taiwan and their descendants. This system created a special status for Korean foreign nationals in Japan, separate from foreigners that are categorised simply as either ‘gaijin’ (Caucasian) or ‘kokujin’ (black). As Korean Zainichi do not fit either category, most find themselves placed in a grey area, not ‘foreign’, but not ‘Japanese.’

Moreover, Korean foreign residents face heavy discrimination in terms of social security and other rights that are enjoyed by “pure” Japanese citizens. Legally, according to the Japanese Nationality Act, they will never receive the same status as a Japanese national. The law judge’s nationality based upon jus sanguinis (right of blood), and consequently children born in Japan from foreign nationals do not automatically receive Japanese nationality.  Therefore unless they choose to become legally naturalised (give up their Korean heritage), a fifth generation Korean Zainichi could still be deemed as a foreign national by law.

Increasingly with the influence of Korean pop music culture, dramas and Korean cultural wave, the younger generation in Japan are breaking down legacies from the two countries’ delicate past. Increased intermarriage and naturalisation of Korean Zainichi has also helped integrate Korean residents in Japan. However discrimination is still widespread, and it seems that it will take many years before homogenous Japanese society will accept its increasing ethnic diversity.

Thinking about the day-to-day issues Hanyoung faces in his own country, my thoughts returned to different accounts of discrimination I have witnessed in Korea through my travels. Second and third generation foreigners living in Korea still face daily discrimination, and as a result many ethnic minority populations choose to live in diasporas, clustered in the outer suburbs of Seoul.

I recently attended a nail art lesson held by a community centre for Russian and Uzbekistani-Koreans. Most attendees did not speak English and rather spent the session switching impressively back and forth between Russian dialects and Korean when they addressed me. When I asked them about their status in Korea, the majority agreed that it would take years before people would become open minded enough to consider mixed race Koreans as belonging to mainstream society. However they had a very supportive community that allowed them to live harmoniously in Korea without many problems.

As someone born and raised in a multicultural country, the stories of my new Russian-Korean friends and Hanyoung, made me appreciate the general openness of our own society to people that are perceived as ‘different.’ Despite our many problems, most Australians are taught to see each other as part of the same nation regardless of race, ethnicity, language or cultural background. We still have areas for improvement, however our problems pale in comparison to those faced by ethnic minorities of homogenous Japan and Korea.



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James Wookey

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