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Japan Journal

Growing up Korean in Japan - Part 1 of 2

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 1999. Since it was written, the situation of Koreans in Japan has changed, but since many issues persist today, we thought this was still important to share.

From time to time the topic of xenophobia in Japan comes up in my higher level English class.

The other week, I had one such class with a group that included an eye doctor, two Ph.D. students, and one university professor. At the beginning of the class I recited some statistics about the alarming rate at which the population of Japan is aging, the low birth rate, and then, the clincher, the negligible rate of immigration to Japan.

They all agreed that this was a problem, but didn’t go so far as making any accommodation for gaijin (foreigners) to become Japanese, OK, OK, I realize there’s no use disputing this point. But what about opening the doors of the country to more immigration to off-set the low birth rate, shrinking work force, etc? It seemed like a sensible solution.

Yuichiro, the young 30-year old professor who likes to surf, snowboard, and wants to do research work at the University of Toronto, said, sour faced, “Then people from Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, and other places will cause lots of trouble; there will be more crime and social problems.” There was an uncomfortable silence. So many alarm bells were set off, so many echoes. I was shocked by the unabashed prejudice coming from this usually soft-spoken, “internationalized,” self-proclaimed hipster. Nobody challenged his ideas.

Dr. Yui, a prosperous eye doctor, 50-ish family man with a penchant for Italian cars, golf, and pipe smoking, finally broke the silence saying half-jokingly, “If it gets to a critical point, the government will tell families to have more babies and Japanese being the way they are, will.

* * * * *

Joomi Kim grew up in a Korean family here in Sendai. Her grandparents immigrated to Japan at about the same time mine moved from Japan to Canada in the decades preceding World War Two. Her dad, Yongho Kim’s family is from Cholranan-do and mom, Okwa Choi, from Kyongsang Pukk-to. They were farmers and fishermen, hard working people, like the first generation Japanese who immigrated to Canada, in search of a better life for their families. They were hardy, adventurous, desperate souls who possessed the imagination and courage to uproot themselves from their ancestral land, daring to break the timeless cycle of life, to start over again in an unknown faraway land. Tantalized by stories of untold riches and opportunity, life could only get better, it had to; they didn’t question the power of dreams.

Joomi’s 38. She opened a yakiniku (Korean barbecue) restaurant called “Kaya”, in the Haranomachi area of Sendai, two years ago. She runs the restaurant with the help of her two younger sisters: Jongmi and Sangmi. Her parents have been operating another yakiniku restaurant in the same area for the past 14 years.

Joomi’s eldest sister, Hiroko Craig (nee Bakcha Kim), lives with her husband Tim Craig, a University of Victoria marketing professor and manga afficionado, in Victoria, B.C. where they recently purchased a house. Their family includes daughter Emily, 13, and son Danny, 16, both of whom are fluent in Japanese and English.

* * * * *

The immigrant’s story is not a well known one here in Japan. Japanese are rightfully embarrassed by this shameful chapter of their history. Immigrants have traditionally been brought over, by force or voluntarily, to do manual work, at best, little more than slaves. But in a culture where there is little tolerance for differences of any kind, there is no glory in coming from another ethnic heritage. Their descendants, now Sansei, Yonsei, and Gosei, usually feel embarrassed by their ancestry, hiding pasts behind made-up names, deference and, worst of all, silence about who they really are.

Hearing Joomi’s story reminded me of my own restless feelings growing up yearning to melt into the Canadian mainstream, to be faceless, embarrassed to tell people my Japanese middle name, Masaji, to somehow erase the reasons for the laughing finger pointing and vicious name calling. There wasn’t anything glorious about growing up Nikkei in Canada either.

Our similar immigrant’s stories of initial hardship, hard work, being scorned, made prisoners, persevering, keeping their dreams in sight, and, one or two generations later, seeing the fruits of their labor ripen with the success of their offsprings in the new land, the fulfillment of a destiny that they had prophesized long ago.

I can’t imagine what it would be like growing up Korean in Japan. Joomi lives with no small amount of courage, facing the world unmasked, take her or leave her, an inspiring example of an individual whose identity has survived intact despite the staggering odds.

* * * * *

When did your family come to Japan?

“I don’t know exactly. It was before World War Two. My grandparents came from South Korea. Most Koreans who immigrated to Japan came from mom’s home-town area (Kyongsang Pukko-to) because it was in the southern part of Korea, close to Japan. I’ve heard that because they were poor agricultural workers they had a hard time making a living. I really don’t know many stories because they don’t like to talk about old memories when there was so much pain and hardship. They came to Japan when Korea was still colonized by Japan. They were poor. There was a lot of discrimination. I don’t really know what kind of life my grandparents had in Korea. I doubt if even my dad and mom know much about it. I think this is the same with other Korean Sansei in Japan.”

Joomi’s parents families both first settled in Osaka or Tokyo; she’s not certain. At the time, her mom was a baby and dad, four years old. Then when World War Two started, with bombs falling, her mother’s family moved to Akita City, Akita-ken; her dad’s family escaping to Yamagata City, Yamagata-ken. They both attended Japanese schools and speak Korean but not fluently.

“The second generation, even my generation, we didn’t want to be discriminated against so we didn’t speak Korean in public.”

Both families worked as laborers. Her mom’s side were road construction workers. Her dad’s father was a supervisor of a road gang. Both grandfathers died young. Joomi’s dad has one brother and two sisters; her mother’s family included six brothers and two sisters.

“My dad and mom were married in Tendo City, Yamagata,” said Joomi. “It was an arranged marriage! The first time they met they didn’t even talk to each other. The second time was their wedding. This is common with their generation.”

How “Korean” was your upbringing?

“My dad’s dad died young; we lived with his mom. I called dad, mom, and grandmom using Korean. I knew how to say ‘hello’ or ‘how are you’ in Korean but I couldn’t talk. They didn’t really hide that we were Korean so it was quite natural. I know I was Korean but in other families, their parents would hide the fact. When they grow up and their family hasn’t taken out Japanese citizenship, then there’s some paperwork at 16 when they’re required to have a gaijin card; it must be quite shocking.”

“My dad’s mom spoke really good Japanese with no accent. I think it’s because she lived in a rural area so she had to speak Japanese. My mom’s side always spoke Korean. Her dad wasn’t talkative. I remember her mom always mixing Korean with Japanese. Even when salesmen came to the house she’d use a mix of the two languages. They’re all passed away.”

You went to the Korean school in Sendai.

“I went to Japanese elementary school until the third year then moved to Korean school. The Korean community leaders always ask families to send their kids to Korean schools. My mother’s side had some political ideas. My father really has no interest in politics. My mom didn’t want her kids to go to Korean school because it’s too political. The school was a strong supporter of North Korean politics. But my grandmother was high profile in the community; she wanted to keep her image. So we were sent. “I remember in my third year of Japanese elementary school I had a home room teacher who didn’t like me because I was Korean. Teachers visit the kid’s house once a year. We were poor at the time, living in a poor house, maybe he didn’t like the image, he didn’t get a good impression. I remember I had a foot injury at the time and I couldn’t wear socks. Even though he knew I was injured, he said ‘kitanai (dirty).’ I remember that clearly. Until then I had really good marks, then suddenly they dropped.

“Still I wanted to go to a Japanese school. You can imagine, it was like a communist community always talking about ‘great leader Kim Il Soung this and great leader that’ and America is evil or something like that. There was a song I had to sing when I was 10 years old. The words were something like ‘the proletariat forever’. I was just a kid but I felt the pressure, that’s why I didn’t like it; I wanted to move. At the time, the North Korean immigration to Japan had lots of power. Once you get into a Korean school it’s hard to get out. The odd one out gets pointed at, very Japanese you know. In the Japanese school system, students learned about the Japanese political system but I was learning about the North Korean system. When I finished high school I didn’t really know about the Japanese system. (Graduates from Korean high school couldn’t apply to enter national universities at the time.) I worked for the Korean bank, dealing mostly with the first generation immigrants, for the next 10 years.”

Why do Koreans born in Japan have to carry a gaijin (foreigners’ identification card) card?

“I understand that the main purpose is to control and monitor Korean people in Japan because so many are from North Korea, even the third or fourth generation. We don’t have to put our fingerprint on the card because of the big controversy about 10 years ago.” (All foreigners in Japan are required to carry an identification card, which includes their fingerprint at all times.)

You use a South Korean passport. Is this a choice?

“It can be said that it’s a choice but in practice there is no choice because unlike in Canada if you are born there you automatically get nationality. We don’t. It only matters it your parents are Japanese or not. Before, only the father had to be Japanese, then the child was considered to be Japanese. If the mother was Japanese and the father gaijin, then you couldn’t have a Japanese passport. It’s changed recently because Japan needed so many workers and Brazilian Sanseis came to Japan in big numbers. They had to change some regulations. Until then, a couple of decades ago, the situation was even more discriminatory.

“I can get Japanese citizenship. I asked the government about what kind of papers I need to apply for it. It is so complicated. It’s the same paperwork that people who weren’t born in Japan and apply have to fill out. When I was studying English in London (England), I met a girl whose parents were both Chinese and was born in Germany. When she reached 18 or 20 she could apply for German citizenship and it was a simple one page form.

“I need my birth certificate, my parent’s marriage certificate, tax information, and so many other things. This is the point, you can nationalize into Japanese if you reach legal adult age but in one family, one person alone can’t change their nationality, everyone has to. One house, one nationality. My sister wasn’t interested in changing her nationality. As long as we live in Japan, we face a little discrimination but we don’t have difficulty living. My one big worry is what if I have trouble in a foreign country, which embassy should I go to?”

Part 2 >>

*This article was originally published in the November 1999 issue of the Nikkei Voice.


© 1999 Norm Ibuki

citizenship identity immigration korean in Japan language naturalization

About this series

A collection of Norm Ibuki's writings from 1995 to 2004 about his experiences while living in Sendai, Japan. Originally published in the Nikkei Voice (Toronto) newspaper.