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Japan Journal

Growing up Korean in Japan - Part 2 of 2

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Hearing Joomi’s story reminded me of my own restless feelings growing up yearning to melt into the Canadian mainstream, to be 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.

Do you struggle much with your identity?

“I don’t really have a problem with my identity. I’m not trying to be Korean. I don’t think it’s a shame to be a Korean born in Japan, however a lot of people do. Most have Japanese family names. All of my sisters and I do, too. I think I’m a bit different from other people. Most, perhaps at the bottom of their hearts, or even unconsciously, feel ashamed about being Korean. I don’t. A lot of people in Japan get confused about their identity; I don’t really because I went to school and had to wear a Korean costume, everybody knew I’m Korean. I don’t have a hard time accepting that I’m Korean. If I had gone to Japanese schools and used a Japanese name, I would have more difficulty myself accepting myself as Korean.”

“My Japanese family name is Tamagawa, but if I use it, it’s like accepting some shame about who I am. I don’t like that. My younger sister still uses Tamagawa because she went to Japanese school and worked using that name. We were forced to use Japanese names in history, so I didn’t want to use it. Many people with whom I graduated from high school will say ‘you have to have a Korean soul or way of thinking,’ but they still use Japanese names. It doesn’t make sense.”

What is the reaction of Japanese when they learn you’re Korean?

“I use Kim everywhere and it’s well known to be a typical Korean name. Everybody can guess that I’m Korean. I’ve never really used ‘Tamagawa’ when I worked. Even when I worked for a Japanese company, I used Kim. Some people would knowingly say to me ‘what a strange name,’ then I’d say, ‘it’s because I’m Korean.’ I’m not really shy about this.”

“I want to use myself as an example. There are no real differences. I’m Korean. I was just born in Japan. I willingly used Kim when I was working for a Japanese company. It they didn’t want to accept me, then I didn’t want to work for that kind of company. Probably most Japanese don’t have a chance to get to know Koreans because most hide their identity. It they have a bad image of Koreans, perhaps when they see a good example, they might change it.”

What about your Korean high school friends?

“Most of them are narrow minded. They live in a small world. I don’t like it. It’s a small, tight, closed community.”

Do you think of yourself as Korean or Japanese?

“I lived in London in 1990-91. Until then I understood myself to be Korean. In London, the teacher was asking about things in ‘your’ country and I was answering ‘I don’t know about Korea, but in Japan…’ There were Koreans in the class, but I really didn’t know much about their culture. I was born and raised in Japan. Then I started thinking about myself as Japanese. My mother tongue is Japanese, but my way of thinking is different. I’d rather say that I’m Japanese although I don’t have a Japanese passport.

Do you get angry about this?

“Sometimes. Why all the extra paper work when I go to government offices? Now, I have a South Korean passport which means I could live in Korea if I wanted to. I’ve never thought seriously about moving.”

What are the biggest cultural differences between Japan and Korea?

“Probably honne (private self) and tatemae (public self). Korean culture doesn’t have that way of behavior, it’s very direct. I’ve heard some people call Koreans ‘Asian Latins.’ Every time I go to Korea, I think I’m Japanese, but when I come back to Japan I think I’m Korean again because I use a Korean name and whenever I have to fill out some bureaucratic paperwork, it reminds I’m not Japanese.

What is Japanese, then?

“Why I think I’m not ‘Japanese’ is because I don’t have citizenship. Even if I nationalized into a Japanese, I still wouldn’t want to use a Japanese name. If you change your citizenship, then you have to use a Japanese name. Even if you have a name like ‘Smith,’ for example, then you have to find a kanji for it. You can’t just use Smith. I’m not sure whether I’d be able to still use Kim, or not.”

How many times have you been to Korea?

“Five or six. The first time I went, I really wanted to speak Korean as much as possible. Everybody said ‘you speak good Korean.’ They thought I was Japanese. When I explained that I was from Japan and a third generation Korean, then they didn’t really welcome me. I think it’s because many Koreans who immigrated to Japan have become rich. When they visit Korea with lots of money, then they often look down on the local people. That’s my guess.”

“Also a lot of second and third generation Koreans can’t speak Korean. So when they go to Korea, people wonder why their parents didn’t teach their mother tongue to them. The local people don’t really have a good image of Koreans living in Japan. They didn’t really welcome me.”

“The younger people were okay; middle-aged or older people had more complicated feelings about my identity. They think I’ve been ‘Japanicized.’ Realizing this, after when they’d say ‘you speak good Korean,’ I’d answer that I’m really interested in Korean culture, then they really welcomed me, even though they think I’m Japanese.”

What were your impressions the first time you went to Korea?

“It was a little shocking. The way they deal with people was completely different from the way I know. When I was around Seoul, I remember seeing an old man in the park who was dancing to music he was listening on his Walkman. That kind of thing would never happen in Japan. I was surprised. He was in his own world, and they way he was dancing was very traditional, the same way I remember my grandmother dancing. I thought ‘how nice.’ They seemed to enjoy their life and openly expressing themselves.”

“A bad experience was when I was window shopping; shop owners would ask me in to their shops and urge me to try things on. They’d say ‘try it on, it’s free.’ If I didn’t buy something, they didn’t like that. They’d shoo me away saying ‘go away.’ Japanese people would never say that. They’d say, ‘Oh, thank you,’ even if you don’t buy something. Korean culture is very straight in good and bad ways!”

Do you think of yourself as being more “Japanese” in some ways and “Korean” in others?

“Many people say I’m quite talkative and open, but I don’t know if it’s because I’m Korean or just my personality. I think it’s just my personality. I know other people who went to Korean school and they’re very reserved and close-minded. Still, I was very influenced by the Korean community I grew up in.”

What is your family connection with Korea now?

“My younger sister went to my grandmother’s hometown in Korea last month for the second anniversary of her death and to return her cremation ashes to the sea there. When my uncle heard that story he said ‘Why didn’t you spread it on the land? The ashes are just going to return to Japan again!’”


*This article was originally published in the December 1999 / January 2000 issue of the Nikkei Voice.

© 1999 - 2000 Norm Ibuki

citizenship identity joomi kim korean in Japan naturalization sendai

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.