Blurred Borders: Structures Impeding the Success of Zainichi Koreans in Japan


Victoria Isabel Quintanilla

Victoria Isabel Quintanilla is currently a rising junior at Yale University majoring in History with a concentration in East Asia. She is most interested in researching ethnic identities in East Asia and different strategies employed by ethnic minorities to survive and succeed. Her current research is centered around Latinx identities in East Asia, particularly in South Korea. As part of her studies Victoria will be taking the 2018-2019 academic year abroad in South Korea to further her language skills and research under the Richard U. Light Fellowship and Mellon Mays Fellowship respectively.



Slashed skirts, derogatory remarks, disgust, and outright discrimination fill the lives and histories of the Zainichi Koreans of Japan. The pressure to perform and assimilate in a society is a constant pressure for many immigrants and ethnic minorities; however, the Zainichi are an interesting case for considering the intersections of ethnic identities and the role of the ethnic homeland on the ability to “fully” assimilate into a new host society. The fluctuating tensions and relations between Japan and the Korean peninsula over the years, particularly with the two regions’ long history of colonization and the new threat of nuclear proliferation from North Korea (used interchangeably with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK) have not been lost on the treatment of the Zainichi in Japan. Thus, the Zainichi Koreans face an added level of discrimination beyond their ethnic identity by having to react to their “homeland’s” political position with Japan in their daily interactions. Zainichi Koreans also face several impediments and discriminations as an ethnic minority, more particularly in the political realm in the form of legal status, domestic attitudes and manifestations of xenophobia, and Zainichi political platforms.

For the most part, the discussion surrounding discrimination of ethnic minorities is centered on an internal, state-level discourse with very little extension to the role of international politics and relations. Thus, an examination of the case of the Zainichi Koreans allows for a closer view on the functions of the ethnic “homeland” in their assimilation to Japanese society. In this essay, social and legal barriers will be explored in conjunction to see how Zainichi Koreans are in a different, liminal space between ethnic and political prejudices of Japanese society. This illustrates that Zainichi Koreans confront a different type of ethnic discrimination and marginalization as a unique political minority due to multiple forces. They are in a more precarious situation than other minorities due to a combination of social and legal factors that surround the climate they live in today. Internal and international circumstances pose a complicated situation for the Zainichi Koreans as they navigate Japanese society. While other minorities in Japan like the Burakumin, Okinawans, Ainu, and Nikkeijin all face injustices, it is the Zainichi Koreans who face the most precarious living conditions as they confront discrimination in multiple social scenes, in their legal status, and in animosity towards them based on presumed association with North Korea.


Zainichi Koreans are “temporary” Korean residents in Japan. Many are the second and third generation descendants of Koreans who remained behind after the end of World War II. Their story in Japan mainly begins with the 1910 Japanese Annexation of Korea and the subsequent flows of labor between Japan and the peninsula in the war effort. During the imperial era of Japan, many Japanese scholars attempted to incorporate Koreans into the Japanese empire and even attempted a stance in which Koreans were originally part of Japan and thus were also imperial subjects of the emperor. Name change campaigns, integration into the Japanese education system and forced learning of the Japanese language, and the use of Korean workers in Japan alongside the perpetuation of the isogeny between Koreans and Japan became part of the imperialist assimilationist policy to keep a firm grip over their conquered in Korea (Lie, 2008, 9). The Zainichi continued living in Japan and were usually treated as second-class citizens. Upon the signing of the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, many became (in effect) stateless as they lost Japanese citizenship. The 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) allowed for South Korean citizenship with special permanent residence in Japan should they pledge allegiance to the ROK.

Industrialization came in different eras in different parts of the peninsula and this variation led to shifts in perceptions of Zainichi in Japan and attitudes towards them. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea grew first on its communist ideology and experienced rapid economic stimulation and benefits after the Korean War. They were on the rise, and at the time, the North was still new enough that contemporary understandings of the poor, malnourished, totalitarian nation were not the same, so there seemed to be an almost curious support of the burgeoning nation. However, economic hardships befell the DPRK and famine hit the population in the early 1990s. In this time, the South had industrialized under President Chung-hee Park into a modern nation on the rise beyond self-sufficiency and a technological powerhouse. The rise of South Korea and the decline of North Korea on the international stage paralleled the growths and declines of Mindan and Soren (political affiliation groups that will be further discussed below), but more importantly emphasized the relations that Zainichi faced in Japan in conjunction with the peninsula’s politics (Ryang and Lie, 2009, 64-66). The geopolitics of the region left a heavy mark on the experiences of the Zainichi in Japan, especially in the turbulent times of the Cold War (Suzuki, 2012, 55-57).


In contrast, the minority of Koreans in Japan (roughly 5,000 today) who
do not have South Korean nationality are stateless.  Rather than being
recognized as stateless, however, in lay terms they are often regarded as
“North Koreans.” There is no North Korean nationality recognized at any
level of Japan's legal and juridical establishment, as I have mentioned.
Yet the Cold War ideology by which “not South Korean” automatically equals
“North Korean” lingers on, especially in the current global climate ofU.S.-led
demonization of North Korea. In Japan, this climate has triggered anti-North
Korean abuse and violence against those who lack South Korean
nationality and/or who are affiliated with the North Korea-supporting expatriate
organization, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryun.
(Ryang and Lie, 2009, 12)

As encapsulated by the quote above, one of the most daunting aspects of the shadow of the ethnic homeland in the peninsula haunting the Zainichi Koreans of Japan today is crystallized in the statelessness many face. While the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations normalized relations, it only allowed for recognition as a South Korean citizen and consequently the assuredness of gaining special “temporary” residency in Japan. Those who do not choose to apply for this exception face an uncertainty in their very existence. They have an increased precariousness in their survival because these individuals, many of them with North Korean affiliations, have no officially recognized state support. Only foreign nationals receive an alien registration card and those aged sixteen or older are obliged to carry the card with them at all times. They must show it at the request of police officers or other law-enforcing officers, and, if they refuse, they can face imprisonment for one-year maximum or a fine of up to 200,000 yen (Wickstrum, 2016, 49). The stateless have no such official registration and, should they face legal trouble, they are not recognized as citizens of any state and legally have few modes of redress due to this condition of statelessness (Park, 2014). They lack a passport and have difficulties traveling and working internationally (Moon, 2015). Arguably, this condition of statelessness is one of the biggest pressures on contemporary Zainichi. It is only exacerbated by the fact that “Japanese citizenship policies are among the most restrictive of advanced industrial economies” as Japanese citizenship usually contends with the jus sanguinis frame of thought with citizenship through blood and heritage (Ryang and Lie, 2009, 148). This also means that it is “difficult to become Japanese, either legally or in the form of social acceptance,” and the stateless Zainichi are placed at a crossroads in which they cannot identify with South Korean citizenship and have little means to achieve “Japaneseness” (ibid, 122). Internal strife between the two national Korean organizations in Japan, Mindan and Soren, in dictating “authentic identities for the Korean community” also means that it is difficult to present a unified front in which Zainichi can ban together to fight for rights within Japan (ibid, 165). Here the Zainichi Koreans become stuck in the “in between” of neither “bird nor beast” with their legal status as foreigners (Suzuki, 2016, 96-98; Ryang and Lie, 2009, 165-166).

Another impediment due to legal structures is the koseki system, or family registry system. Since many Zainichi Koreans are only special permanent residents, few are legally registered into Japan’s citizen registry. When official moments occur in life, like marriage and employment, legal documents must be produced to show legal status. This has a social effect as many Zainichi must then face not being actually Japanese in the eyes of the government and presenting themselves as such in public spaces.  “Real names” are also exposed through this process and the Japanese alias’ that had helped them stay invisible are no longer enough (Fukuoka, 2000, 30-33).  This production of documents can lead to many forms of discrimination. Employment is often a hot topic. The Pak v. Hitachi case of 1974 highlights discrimination when employers find out that their employees (or potential employees) are Zainichi and choose to fire (or not hire) them (Kim, 2011, 292). This blatant ousting of the Zainichi from “regular” Japanese spaces also occurs in housing situations. Many landlords do not want “mixing” to occur and have their Japanese clientele endure living with “others.” Thus many Zainichi are often banned or not truly allowed in certain spaces, especially high-end housing districts.

The social ramifications of the koseki legal system continue with intermarriages. As Fukuoka (2000) observes that Zainichi Korean-Japanese marriages are on the rise, there are still barriers towards making these intermarriages more socially allowable (33-34). Opposition can come from both sides. While the actual couple may be fine with the intermarriage, the parents/family on either side can be opposed. Furthermore, statistics show that there is a greater portion of Zainichi women marrying Japanese men (ibid, 36). While this may mean that Zainichi men are having a harder time finding partners, it also means that the dominant status of the male is rampant in Japanese society today and the virilocal practice of the bride moving in with/close to the groom’s hometown can discourage Japanese women from marrying a minority man who usually lives in an ethnic enclave (ibid, 38). While gender roles and expectations may be very implicit in the dealings with Zainichi-Japanese marriages, it does not discount the fact that the koseki system leaves an opening for sleuthing from both parties to find out “true” legal statuses. This legal barrier makes it all the more difficult for the Zainichi to marry since when their documents are presented any charade/alias is unveiled and attitudes can drastically change.


Out of the 1965 Normalization Treaty came a new, starker, split in the Korean population in Japan. Here is where political impediments and legal structures became possibly the most significant barriers for Zainichi Koreans in the post-war era to find assimilation and success in Japan. Zainichi are particularly precarious as they live in a political-legal in-between that causes them to have little clout in society due to a lack of these basic rights and skewed public perception of them. After the Korean War in the early 1950s, the overseas Koreans in Japan faced an ideological and political split amongst themselves as they supported either the North or South, despite their respective geographical roots. Thus, Mindan and Soren (the aforementioned political affiliation groups) were born as forms of diasporic nationalism (Wickstrum, 2016, 51-53). Mindan became the Zainichi organization that supported the ideas and formation of South Korea. This organization sprouted ethnic organizations and activities to foster the identity of affiliated Zainichi. Soren, also known as Chongryon, became the opposite faction that supported the North Korean state and did similar work that supported Korean ethnic identity with the creation of particularly strong North Korean-style schools and organizations (Ryang, 1993, 230-231).

The inter-Zainichi societal factor of the split between Mindan and Soren continues to affect them today. The dichotomy between the two Zainichi Koreans may be best exemplified with the contemporary issue concerning voting rights in Japan. While Soren-affiliates have not been supportive of having such rights, Mindan-affiliates have been on the other end of the spectrum supporting longer term rights for their “temporary” stay in Japan. While both banded together in the 1990s in the anti-fingerprinting campaign that marked the Zainichi Koreans in the Alien Registration, the two do not always see eye to eye (Suzuki, 2017). There has been discordance as Mindan has supported a more assimilationist stance since 1994, while Soren has asserted a more separatist stance since then. Soren’s take on local voting rights is that Zainichi should not have them since they view themselves as overseas North Koreans and should stay out of Japanese internal affairs since this could potentially lead to more assimilation and a loosening of North Korean political ties (Shipper, 2008, 78).

Education is a particular social aspect in which Zainichi Koreans face obstacles, as Zainichi attend “Korean” schools in Japan. Both Mindan and Soren have ethnic schools that teach the Korean language beyond the normal school subjects like mathematics and history and, in Soren schools, the added focus of studying the Kim regime as “the new generation of North Korea” (Ryang, 1997, 23-26). Here is where the Zainichi face long term effects in Japanese society. While Mindan schools were not funded by the South Korean government, Soren schools received a large part of their funding from North Korea. Furthermore, it is the Soren schools that particularly had ethnic dress codes in which female students had the more traditional chima chogori garb and where North Korean teachings of the Kim regime were part of the curriculum (Suzuki, 2016, 93; Ryang, 1997, 24-25). Thus, especially for the North Korean school attendees, their ethnicity, and implicitly their family’s political alignment, were made visible. Today it is generally thought that “Mindan members no longer make any serious commitment to language reproduction or ethnic education” while Soren continues to support diasporic nationalism through its education system (Wickstrum, 2016, 53).

On another note, these ethnic Korean schools also had the added disadvantage of not always being recognized by the Japanese state as official schools (Ryang, 1997, 24-25). So when students applied to colleges, many had to go through extra examination to prove they had learned in the Korean ethnic schools as opposed to going through the typical Japanese schooling system (ibid, p. 24). This could lead to lasting effects in which Zainichi Koreans often had to keep the pace alongside their Japanese peers while in a different school system. Wickstrum (2016) argues that a decrease in popularity for Soren schools is because more Mindan schools have begun being accredited by the government while “Korean schools operated by Chongryun [Soren], which are accredited as miscellaneous schools, do not enjoy the benefits available to Japanese schools and students, including financial assistance from the Japanese government” (55). Code-switching is a prevalent phenomenon as many Zainichi students speak Japanese outside of the school, and many times at home, with Korean reserved for all times at school (ibid, 33). However, their assimilation is not complete and their schooling often leads to precarity in their futures. While the Soren school system has its own university, the Mindan schools do not, so code-switching becomes all the more vital to potentially survive outside the Korean ethnic school system. Whether North Korean schools will continue to function due to DPRK funding, or Mindan students function both as Korean and Japanese, the ties to the ethnic homeland are not far behind. This may be most apparent in a quote from Okano (1997) in which the Zainichi students in an albeit regular Japanese school realize they are placed in a position in which they must work extra hard to overcome their disadvantages:

Sasaki High [Okano’s pseudonym for their research site] organizes a special session for gaiseki [form of gaiko-koseki,or “of foreign nationality”] students and their parents when it holds the general meeting for all first-year students and parents. The school's intended message is that gaiseki students face barriers in obtaining employment and should work hard to counter this "disadvantage" by obtaining extra qualifications and being active in sport clubs, and so forth. (533)

This exemplifies the stark divide and disparities that the Zainichi face in post-school life and how their ethnicity is never far behind regardless of prescription to either Mindan or Soren. While Okano focused on Zainichi in a regular school, their work indicates to a grander scheme of disadvantages in the Japanese social scene that impedes the Zainichi’s ability to succeed.

Overall, the intra-Zainichi relations that have led to a chasm in ideologies, allegiances, and ethnic education have created conditions for a more fragile forefront of united Zainichi resistance. Furthermore, as discussed before, the public perception of Zainichi due to presumed affiliations with North Korea is only exacerbated by the visibility of Soren students and the fact that they are many ways the most visible population within the Zainichi demographic. The divisions in performing ethnicity, both at the educational level and political organizational level, have led to the consequences of having a more precarious group with little in common to unify against Japanese discrimination since both prescribe different routes towards navigating their roles in Japanese society.


However, it is not just political systems that block the Zainichi ability to assimilate into Japanese society. With Japanese society having the popular myth of a homogeneous society it is difficult for the Zainichi to not face discrimination (Fukuoka, 2000, xvii-xviii). The Zainichi face continued discrimination in Japan today from school, the housing and employment market, and intermarriage prospects as well. Social effects often popularly manifest from this unique experience of the Zainichi and their relationship with Japan versus the peninsula. “9/17,” in which female ethnic school uniforms were slashed as animosity and intolerance grew around the fear of North Korea, was one exhibition of how the Zainichi have been socially affected by rough tensions between Japan and the peninsula. This came after the September 14, 2002, Japanese media report on the 1970s/80s abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea. Death threats and verbal abuse emerged as fear mounted (Ryang and Lie, 2009, 62-64). Being identified as a “Chongryon” Korean, seen as ultimately loyal to the Kim regime in North Korea, made Zainichi particularly vulnerable. The previously invisible minority, from name changes to lack of citizenship, became a feverishly contested one as Japanese sentiments against and around North Korea soared. The new visibility that was previously hidden by name changes and acculturation to Japanese society came to the forefront as the Zainichi were once again placed on the pedestal of Japanese xenophobia.

This xenophobia is only exacerbated by the ultra-right, nationalist group, the Zaitokukai (popular abbreviation of Zainichi Tokken o Yurusanai Shimin no Kai [translates to “Special Existence Club”]. This group has a main platform against having Zainichi Koreans in Japan, claiming that the Zainichi

...are given what they deem to be special privileges, such as the right to
vote and claim benefits without taking on Japanese citizenship. They
also claim that, because the Zainichi are allowed to register with either
their Korean name or a Japanized version, these foreign nationals have
two potential identities with which to claim their benefits... (Punk, 2014)

The Zaitokukai are a domestic manifestation of anti-Koreanness in Japan and display a popular front of these sentiments often playing off the fears of North Korea and the rights of the Zainichi. Although this may be seen as reactionary politics, and while the Zaitokukai may not be wholistically representative of the Japanese people, they still pose a significant barrier in how the Zainichi can live in Japan. The Zaitokukai is emblematic of the risks and fears surrounding the Zainichi Koreans when it comes to reactive nationalism. The party also shows how the Zainichi have yet to be seen as separate from the ethnic “homeland” and are perceived apart from everyday Japanese, and even other foreigners, as not only foreigners but foreigners that are a state risk and taking resources from the Japanese. This rhetoric is similar to that used in the United States of America around minorities, particularly Muslims and Arab Americans. However, in the case of the Zainichi and Zaitokukai, it seems that colonial history and actualities of legal status to the Zainichi are missing. Whereas in the US dialogue the 9/11 attacks are considered a cornerstone of dialogue and xenophobia is broader to multiple ethnic minorities, the Zaitokukai focus only on the presence of the Zainichi Koreans in Japan as problematic.

Zainichi are collectively viewed as a singular population with little regard to their geographical origins within the peninsula. This means that Zainichi can often be viewed as a national security risk for the Japanese state. Historically, with the human rights atrocities in the Park regime in the South and the communist, totalitarian state in the North, Japan had reason to fear that the ethnic Koreans in Japan with their political organizations would be dangerous. Returnees to both the North and South were also seen suspiciously (Lie, 2008, 71). The post-war imaginary of Koreans and Zainichi in a conflated state led to many ways in which the Zainichi paid the price for the peninsula’s politics and issues. Zainichi Koreans faced derogatory discrimination. Avid support for North Korea in the post-war period as the country climbed was still overshadowed by anti-communist sentiment that Koreans were potentially “threatening” and a possible “dagger” to “bourgeois comforts and security” (ibid: 148). Japan as a government did little to staunch the flow of this social imaginary with its education system offering little discourse on Korean/Zainichi lives; thus, a view of Korea as a backward country stemmed into the perceptions around Zainichi and ignorance became a standard around which the Zainichi were perceived as threats to the increasingly democratic and capitalistic Japan (ibid, 148).

This popular public perception was only reinforced with the kidnappings of twelve Japanese women in the early 1970s by North Korea and contemporary worries around nuclear proliferation by North Korea (ibid, 69, 133). Other incidents in the 1990s like the nuclear weapons crisis of 1994 and the missile issue of 1998 (and more recently in 2006 and in the past couple of years) continue the fraught tensions between Zainichi Koreans and Japanese society (Ryang and Lie, 2009, 108). Amongst this, Mindan became a “glorified passport agency” that functioned on the practicality of obtaining South Korean citizenship, and Soren declined in popularity as it faced resentment around North Korea’s growing list of crimes (ibid 70). Thus the political relationships of the the peninsula seep into the Zainichi Korean politicization as an ethnic minority in Japan.


However, some would say that the Zainichi are not any more of a precarious situation than other ethnic minorities. One comparable minority that is also a product of colonization and subsequent discrimination are the Okinawans of the Ryukyu Islands off the coast of the Japanese archipelago. As the poorest prefecture in modern Japan, the Okinawans face a unique situation of being Japanese citizens of an ancient separate nation that can claim an ethnic and an indigenous minority status (Taira, 1997, 141-144 ). But this does not overshadow the fact that the Okinawans are indeed considered Japanese nationals. Ultimately, Okinawans are citizens of Japan and can reap the benefits that come with such status. As citizens, they have some representation in the National Diet through the prefecture and can exercise their need for rights through this avenue, while separate activism without a representative is necessary for Zainichi Koreans. Undoubtedly, it is the Zainichi Koreans that face a harder path towards to legal recourse due to their lack of citizenship.

Another minority community that Zainichi are often placed in conjunction with are the Nikkeijin Brazilians. The Nikkeijin are the descendants of Japanese who emigrated to South America in the late 19th century. These Japanese tended to be second and third sons who would not be inheriting land or those who looked towards better prospects in South America. Many settled in Brazil. Today’s pull factors to Japan include higher pay per hour and the chance to work in an advanced, first world economy (Tsuda, 2003, 55-57, 86). They come under special policies to help with Japan’s aging and ever-dwindling working population. The homogeneity myth that persists in Japan leaves an open outlet for these Nikkeijin, who have Japanese blood, and their spouses/family to come work in Japan without tarnishing Japanese conceptions of purity (Fukuoka, 2000, xxx). While the Nikkeijin are in Japan under a special visa status and are also in a risky situation due to their legal status, they enjoy the privileges of having Japanese blood, which Fukuoka (2000) explains is an integral part of being considered truly “Japanese” (xxx). While the Nikkeijin are comparable as a minority susceptible to legal ramifications, they can utilize their “Japaneseness” as a way to survive in Japanese society despite the fact that many of them did not grow up culturally Japanese like the Zainichi.

Both the Okinawans and Nikkeijin are minorities facing oppression and obstacles from the Japanese government and Japanese society. However, they each have mechanisms to cope and succeed in society if they do so choose to utilize them. The Zainichi lack both the legal status of the citizenry, like the Okinawans, and the social prerequisite of blood ties and heritage of the Nikkeijin Brazilians to help find success in Japan.


The struggles of Zainichi Koreans in Japan stem largely from the legal factors, intra-Zainichi societal structures, and grander societal frameworks that impose obstacles restricting Zainichi success. The livelihoods of Zainichi Koreans are very precarious as their very existence is jeopardized in conjunction with their legal status and ethnic affiliations, both in party lines within other Zainichi or the overall perceptions of them by the Japanese that label them as dangerous and in collusion with North Korea. Social imaginaries and legal structures have caused an evidently insecure situation for the Zainichi Koreans who have played a role in Japanese society for decades. Their inability to be allowed to be a visible minority due to fears of discrimination makes it all the harder for activism. And the consequences of enacting ethnicity come with backlash of marginalization from social circuits of employment, housing, and marriage. The shadow of the ethnic homeland always looms close as heightened tensions between Japan and North Korea continue today (Shipper, 2010, 65-66). The complex interactions of different social and legal structures alongside the Zainichi affiliation with the ethnic homeland combine to form what is arguably one of Japan’s most vulnerable minorities. The internal, state-level dialogues and the overarching, international, diplomatic discussions that are necessary for the Zainichi to find a more secure home in Japan have yet to be put on the table, but are clearly necessary for progress in decreasing the riskiness of being a Korean having to hold the mask of a Japanese alias to protect oneself from discrimination.



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