Young Koreans Against Ethnic Discrimination in Japan

Yasunori FUKUOKA* and Yukiko TSUJIYAMA**
(Translation: John G. Russell***)

* Saitama University, Japan, Professor
** Nagoya Seirei Junior College, Japan, Lecturer
*** Gifu University, Japan, Associate Professor

The Bulletin of Chiba College of Health Science, Vol.10, No.2.


Japan is often described as a homogeneous society free of ethnic discriminat ion. In fact, Japan has its share of ethnic minorities, among them Ainu, an ind igenous people centralized in Hokkaido in northern Japan and over a million ethn ic Koreans who were brought to Japan during its colonization of Korea.1) All ex perience discrimination in Japanese society.

This paper focuses on young Koreans in Japan who combat ethnic discriminatio n. It examines their struggle in relation to Mintohren (Minzoku Sabetsu to Tata kau Renraku Kyogikai, National Council for Combatting Discrimination Against Eth nic Peoples in Japan), by which movements for the human rights of Koreans in Jap an are now primarily led. This movement became prominent after the 1970s. Toda y the majority of young Koreans in Japan are second and third generations. Neve rtheless as a result of anti-foreign government policies, they have been treated as foreign residents. Many are not naturalized Japanese and have been denied t he rights and status of full-citizenship.

This paper is divided into three parts. Before entering into a sociological analysis, Part I describes the historical background and the present condition of Koreans in Japan, and the development of the Mintohren movement. Part II del ineates the life histories of three young Korean members of Mintohren and examin es their motives and the characteristics of their mentality. Part III examines how the attitudes of Mintohren members toward discrimination differ from the con sciousness of other young Koreans in Japan. By doing so, the paper sheds light on the uniqueness of the Mintohren movement.


In 1910 Japan annexed Korea. Japanese colonial policy against Korea was ext remely cruel. From 1910-1918, Japanese authorities created a list of all Korean landowners and confiscated their lands. From 1920-1934, Japan initiated a proj ect to increase Korean rice production and much of the rice Koreans produced was appropriated and exported to Japan. As a consequence, many Korean farmers atte mpted to escape the wretched conditions Japanese colonial policy imposed on them by seeking employment in Japan, and by 1938 there were about 800,000 Koreans in Japan. Since 1939, many Koreans were brought to Japan to serve as forced labor in Japanese mines and factories. By the end of WWII in 1945, there were an est imated 2,300,000 Koreans in Japan.

Thirty-five years of Japanese colonial rule saw a quick intensification of d iscrimination against Koreans. Two major events characterize the nature of this rule. 1) Japanese authorities and private citizens massacred thousands of Kore ans at the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923) on groundless rumors that K oreans had poisoned wells; 2) under the imperial assimilation policy, Koreans w ere forced to assimilate and adopt Japanese identities. For example, Japanese c olonial policy dictated that Koreans speak Japanese and adopt Japanese names. With the war's end in August 1945, Koreans were liberated. Most who had bee n forced to come to Japan returned to their homeland. But among those who came to Japan with family and relatives to seek employment prior to the forced expatr iation, about 600,000 Koreans chose to remain. Although most of them desired to return to their homeland, they had already lost any socio-economic base for lif e in Korea, and with the partitioning of the Korean peninsula and economic turmo il they had little choice but to remain in Japan.

The Japanese government adopted a policy of strict assimilation and control toward these unrepatriated Koreans. Following the GHQ's (GHQ=the General Headqu arters of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers) definition of Koreans as persons of a third country who were neither victors nor vanquished, the Japanese government adopted a policy which negated their rights not only as Japanese cit izens but also as foreigners. Although many Korean schools were established in the postwar period, the government suppressed them. At the time, because the go vernment officially recognized Koreans as Japanese nationals, it objected to suc h schools on the grounds that it was ludicrous for Koreans to receive education as foreigners. By December 1945, however, Japanese authorities began to disenfr anchise unrepatriated Koreans because they were not "true" Japanese, and in 1947 they were made the object of the Alien Registration Ordinance (Gaikokujin Torok u Rei).

On April 28, 1952 the San Francisco Peace Treaty was promulgated and the Jap anese government unilaterally stripped Korean residents of their Japanese nation ality, stating that "until their status was decided legally, they could remain r esidents in Japan without having obtained resident qualification," thus placing their status in legal limbo. The Alien Registration Law (Gaikokujin Toroku Ho) forced Korean residents to submit to fingerprinting, a procedure not required of Japanese citizens. Viewed by the Japanese government as a potentially dangerou s and subversive element, they became the target of security regulation.

The Republic of Korea-Japan Normalization Treaty (1965) granted "permanent r esident" status to Koreans who had resided in Japan prior to the end of the war. However, although this status was also extended to their children, the plight of their descendants remains unresolved. Despite the acquisition of permanent r esident status, it remains incomplete and Koreans can still be deported. Moreov er, the Japanese government does not officially recognize the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north and it was only after 1982 th at Japan granted permanent residence to individuals supporting North Korea. Currently the number of ethnic Koreans in Japan exceeds 1,000,000, or about 1% of the population of Japan.2) Discrimination against them continues and Japa nese society has yet to recognize their human rights.

Education Discrimination:

In the area of education, most school-age Koreans in Japan attend public or private Japanese schools,3) the majority adopting Japanese names. That is, they receive their education not as Koreans but as "Japanese," are raised without t he least knowledge of the Korean language, and are exposed to Japanese prejudice s and discrimination in school and society. Schools cultivate a negative image of Koreans and even if they attempt to "pass" by adopting Japanese names, should the fact that they are Korean surface, their friends and, in some cases, even t heir teachers will discriminate against them.

Some Korean students attend ethnic schools. Most of these schools are spons ored by Soren (Chongryun, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan) which backs the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The Education Ministry, however, does not officially recognize these schools. Consequently, in principl e, graduates of ethnic high schools cannot take the Japanese college entrance ex amination. Nor do education authorities recognize graduation or academic record s from these schools.

Employment Discrimination:

Private firms often refuse to employ Koreans because of ethnic discriminatio n. Koreans are also excluded from holding civil service positions because such positions require Japanese nationality. Although in recent years employment dis crimination has lessened somewhat in the wake of movements against discriminatio n, historically, most Koreans have been limited to low-level occupations like da y-laborers, or self-service jobs such as pachinko (pinball) parlor managers, Kor ean barbecue house proprietors, scrap collectors, and small family subcontractor s.

Marriage Discrimination:

Mixed marriages between Japanese and ethnic Koreans remain a complicated iss ue. In cases where a Japanese youth announces an intent to wed a Korean, opposi tion is expressed by parents and relatives on both sides. The objections of Kor ean parents often stem from strong anti-Japanese feelings based on their experie nce of discrimination. Koreans may also oppose such marriages because they wish to preserve bloodlines. On the other hand, there are many cases where marriage is opposed by Japanese merely because the prospective spouse is an ethnic Korea n. Generally, opposition remains stronger among Japanese. Nevertheless, exogam ous marriages to Japanese are increasing.4) Except for those Koreans who live in Korean communities, who attend ethnic schools or who participate in anti-disc rimination movements, most young Koreans are unable to make friends among their ethnic cohort, and consequently choose Japanese as their marriage partners.

Housing Discrimination:

Koreans in Japan continue to encounter housing discrimination and are turned down for apartments by real estate agents. In 1989, a Korean in Osaka filed th e first legal suit against a real estate agent for unjustly refusing to lease hi m an apartment and against Osaka authorities who are reluctant to become involve d in cases of ethnic discrimination.

The Korean population in Japan continues to encounter discrimination in virt ually all areas of life in Japan. Prior to 1970, movements opposed to ethnic di scrimination were few. This is not to suggest that there were no organized move ments for Koreans to survive in Japan. As early as October 1945, such organizat ions had been formed. Following the partitioning of the Korean peninsula, two o rganizations were established: Mindan (Mindan, the Korean Residents Union in Jap an) (1948) which backs the Republic of Korea in the south and Soren (1955). How ever, the leaders, who were first-generation ethnic Koreans, considered Japan me rely a temporary home. They embraced strong desires of returning eventually to the homeland, giving priority to Korean unification rather than the problem of d iscrimination in Japan. Consequently, these movements never developed into full -fledged, radical movements to fight discrimination in Japan and to demand full civil rights.

Today, second- and third-generation ethnic Koreans are the majority. Born a nd reared in Japan, they attend Japanese schools; most of them can speak only Ja panese and their lifestyle is fundamentally Japanese. The 1970s was a period wh en movements against discrimination toward Burakumin (descendants of Japan's for mer outcasts), the disabled, and women proliferated in Japan. It was also a per iod when consciousness of international human rights was increasing. Dissatisfi ed with their unfair treatment and experience of racism, young ethnic Koreans be gan to organize a movement to eliminate discrimination. Unlike larger organizat ions like Mindan and Soren, Mintohren was started by individuals and small group s, eventually spreading across the entire country.

In 1970 a landmark case of symbolic import occurred. A young ethnic Korean, using a tsumei ("pass name"), passed a company test for Hitachi. However, when the company learned he was Korean, it refused him employment. He appealed in c ourt, winning the case in 1974. At the time, some ethnic Korean organizations c riticized his action, saying that by working for a major Japanese firm he was tr ying to assimilate. However, during the court battle the base of support for th is case was spread among both Korean and Japanese youths. As a result of this c ase, Mintohren was formed with the objective of fighting ethnic discrimination i n Japan.


Unlike Mindan or Soren, Mintohren is not a single, hierarchic organization. Although established as a result of the Hitachi employment discrimination case, it created small groups to battle ethnic discrimination on a regional level thr oughout the country. Indeed, it was by means of such small groups and solidarit y networks that Mintohren was established.

We would like to introduce three groups from among the central core of group s which form Mintohren: 1) Mukuge no Kai (the Society of Mukuge), 2) Tokkabi Kod omo Kai (Tokkabi Society for Children), and 3) Seikyu Sha (the Blue Hill Associa tion).5) We would also like to indicate that the youths committed to these move ments share the Mintohren outlook.

Case 1: Lee Kyung-Jae (Mukuge no Kai)

Mukuge no Kai conducts its activities among small, ethnic Korean villages in Takatsuki City, Osaka. Its founder, Lee Kyung-Jae, established the organizatio n immediately upon graduating high school in 1972, as a means of supporting Kore an boys and girls in their struggle against racism.

Lee Kyung-Jae was born in Nariai in Takatsuki in 1954. He is a second-gener ation Korean resident with South Korean nationality. Nariai is a village compos ed of only about 35 Korean households. It was here that the Japanese army assem bled over 10,000 Korean laborers, forcing them to dig tunnels through the mounta inside in order to construct secret factories. After the war, the site of the w orker's quarters became the center of the Korean village, but the area is far mo re impoverished than the surrounding Japanese villages, and it has become an obj ect of prejudice.

Both of Lee's parents were born in Korea and came to Japan during the coloni al period (1910-1945). Their life was a poor one. His father was a day-laborer and scrap collector; his mother worked in a quarry. Both parents spoke Japanes e at home because his mother, who had come to Japan at the age of three, could n o longer speak Korean. Neither parent received an education and even today they are unable to read and write Korean and Japanese.

Lee attended Japanese public schools under the name Ri Keisai, the Japanese reading of his Korean name. During his school days, Lee saw Korean students bul lied by their Japanese classmates, and witnessed that only Korean students inclu ding himself were unjustly searched by teachers when some money mysteriously dis appeared in school. Through these experiences he began to hate Koreans and want ed to become Japanese. The fact that his family was poor reinforced his hatred toward Koreans.

During middle school, hoping to conceal his Korean ethnicity, Lee adopted th e Japanese pass name "Takayasu Keisai." His desire to pass as Japanese was so s trong that he even refused to play with Korean friends whom he had known since c hildhood. After his first year, bored by school, he and two Korean friends hopp ed a freight train and ran away from home. The incident shocked his Japanese te achers who thought it important that Korean children receive an education that m ade them aware of their Korean identity. Eventually, he returned to school. On e of Lee's teachers, Y.H., raised the Korean problem in class. It was from her that Takayasu Keisai, who blamed his family's poverty on his father's "laziness" and who "hated Koreans," learned that the real culprit was discrimination. Thr ough her efforts and the support of his Japanese friends, a gradual revolution o ccurred in Lee's self-concept. He asserted to his classmates his Korean ethnici ty (Chosenjin sengen), declaring Lee Kyung-Jae, his real name (honmyo sengen) at his middle school graduation ceremony.6)

Lee advanced to a private high school that did not deal with the Korean issu e. Completely disappointed, he resumed the use of his pass name "Takayasu Keisa i" and concealed his Korean identity from friends. When he graduated from high school in 1972, his teacher refused to help him find a job. Graduating without any job prospects, Lee was inevitably forced to support himself with part-time w ork.

The same year, Lee called upon the Korean youths of Nariai to join him in fo rming Mukuge no Kai (the Society of Mukuge). Lee knew that the Korean students like himself were prone to violence and delinquency, but he thought that respons ibility for raising Korean children who would resist to discrimination rested no t only with Japanese teachers but also with Koreans themselves. He chose the na me Mukuge no Kai because he had heard that during the period of Japanese rule of Korea the mukuge flower was a symbol of resistance against Japanese colonial ag gression. From the group's inception, Lee resolved to use his Korean name.

At first, the organization was unable to attract members and experienced sev eral setbacks. But Lee overcame these problems. The organization began to take off in 1978 when it started an association for the local children of Nariai. A t the same time, Lee and his friends began negotiations with the city office of Takatsuki and in 1985 the Takatsuki Board of Education established the "Division of Resident Korean Education (Zainichi Kankoku-Chosenjin Kyoiku Jigyo)" as a se ction of the city board of education. Today, of six full-time staffers of Mukug e no Kai, two hold official positions as civil servants and two as part-time emp loyees. Despite the fact that they did not have Japanese nationality, they were able to become civil servants by successfully eliminating the Japanese national ity requirement for Takatsuki city employees.

The objective of Mukuge no Kai and the Division of Resident Korean Education is to raise Korean children free of self-hatred, to fight ethnic discrimination , and to take pride in their identity as Koreans in Japan. Today in Takatsuki, Mukuge no Kai is actively carrying out this objective. It organizes kodomo kai (children's associations) in three elementary schools, four middle schools and t hree regional offices, and helps Korean children to learn about themselves. It has also established kokosei no kai (an association for high school students), w here both Korean and Japanese students discuss the problems of Koreans in Japan. In addition, Mukuge no Kai offers Japanese language classes for the first-gene ration Koreans who have difficulty in reading and writing Japanese.

Once an active full-time member of Mukuge no Kai from 1979 to 1988, today Le e Kyung-Jae works at a Korean-managed real estate agency while acting as a Mukug e no Kai representative.7)

Despite several setbacks, Lee continued, sometimes by himself, to combat eth nic discrimination. We wondered at the source of his energy. Based on our inte rview with him, we suggest three factors to account for it.

First, his reconsideration of his hatred of being born Korean and toward his parents. "I hated the fact that I was Korean and hid it. I thought we were po or because we were Koreans. I hated the fact that I was born to Korean parents. If I had hated my father because he beat me, that would have made some sense. But if my hatred toward him came from the fact that I was born Korean because o f him, this hatred can not be justified. I first became aware of this when I wa s a middle-school student. It took a long time, but I finally realized that dis crimination was the real culprit." With this awareness, Lee continued his battl e against discrimination.

Second, Lee feels a strong sense of responsibility as a leader toward younge r ethnic Koreans not to give up the struggle. "I keep telling the younger kids, 'If you become delinquents and do bad things, then the Japanese will think that all Koreans are bad. Don't give up your struggle against discrimination.' My words would come back to haunt me, if I didn't live up to them."

Third, Lee fully realizes that in order to battle discrimination in Nariai, one must fight the battle oneself, without relying on others. In advancing his movement, Lee visited local chapters of Mindan and Soren. "I said to them, 'I'd like your cooperation to make our Nariai a good community.' But they ignored me , saying, 'Lee, you shouldn't concern yourself with such trifles. We've got a w onderful homeland, Korea.'" This experience convinced him that the only residen ts of Nariai could attack the problem of ridding the community of discrimination .

Case 2: Son Su-Gil (Tokkabi Kodomo Kai)

In 1974, So Jong-U (b. 1954; second-generation ethnic Korean), current secre tary-general of the Osaka office of Mintohren, established Tokkabi Kodomo Kai (T okkabi Society for Children) with the aim of creating a society in which Koreans and Japanese could live in harmony without discrimination and to foster self-pr ide among Korean children. The organization's name derives from "Tokkabi," a hu morous, heroic spirit that appears in Korean folktales.

The organization is based in Yasunaka in Yao City, Osaka. Yasunaka is a Bur akumin area settled by Japanese who were classified as outcasts under Japan's fe udal system of social stratification. Today the area is populated by their desc endants who remain targets of Japanese social discrimination. Scattered through out Japan there are several areas where Koreans reside in Buraku villages. Bura ku residents accept Koreans as fellow victims of discrimination. Yasunaka is on e such community.

It was into this community that Son Su-Gil, a third-generation Korean holdin g South Korean nationality, was born in 1966. He grew up with Tokkabi Kodomo Ka i and currently participates as one of its graduates.

Both Son's parents were born in Japan, neither receiving an education. Alth ough they can speak Japanese, they can neither read nor write it. His father wo rked as a manual laborer, his mother as a part-time worker. Their jobs provided for daily expenses but home was a barrack-like hut amidst the wretched poverty of the community.

As a child Son Su-Gil attended a Japanese public elementary school under the pass name "Yamamoto Hideyoshi." After classes he attended Kaiho Kodomo Kai (th e Children's Liberation Society), an organization for Buraku children. There he was taught about the Buraku problem and learned that his community was a Buraku area. At this time, his self-image was as a Japanese and a "child of the Burak u."

Son began his activities with Tokkabi Kodomo Kai as a third-grader. It was at this time that he first realized he was Korean.

"The first thing I realized was that I had two names. Yamamoto Hideyoshi an d Son Su-Gil. When I asked my adviser, 'Why do I have the name Son Su-Gil?,' he said, 'Because you're Korean.'" Son was ashamed of the name. "At the time I d idn't know why, but I thought that Koreans were bad." But Tokkabi Kodomo Kai in stilled in him the necessity of using one's Korean name. "They told me, 'We, Ko reans in Japan, are forced to adopt Japanese names. Yet we are still discrimina ted against. Use your real name and fight discrimination.'"

When he was a fifth-grader at the recommendation of his school teacher, Son Su-Gil and a classmate Lee Chang-Jae announced their Korean names over the schoo l's closed-circuit television system.

"I was worried that I would lose my Japanese friends if they knew I was Kore an," he says. But the Buraku children were especially very warm and supportive. Still, some friends ridiculed his Korean name and teased him because its pronu nciation resembles that of "son," a Japanese word meaning "disadvantage," "handi cap." At that time he argued with them: "I am determined to use my real name. Don't poke fun at me!"

As a middle school student, Son's relationship with Buraku children grew eve n deeper. "I continued to play with Buraku children," he recalls. "We had disc ussions. There were times when we'd stay up all night, talking, sharing our tea rs. It wasn't the kind of superficial discussion that says, 'Discrimination aga inst fellow human beings is wrong.' We'd think about Buraku and ethnic discrimi nation together, as Koreans different from the Japanese. We could really relate to one another."

Son and Lee advanced to different high schools. When he was a high school s enior, Son began to consider the kind of job he would like after graduation, but although his teachers helped his Japanese classmates find a job, they would not help Korean students. Tokkabi Kodomo Kai's So Jong-U recommended that Son and Lee apply to take the exam for a position at the post office. The position of a postal delivery boy, with its promise of steady employment and guaranteed sick- leaves, was attractive to both boys. However, because the position was a nation al civil service position, the nationality clause prohibiting non-Japanese natio nals from sitting for the examination remained an obstacle. Despite these diffi culties, the boys were determined to fight such discrimination for the benefit o f those who would come after them. On September 1, 1983, they picked up examina tion forms at the Osaka Central Post Office. But their applications were reject ed. Marshalling the support of fellow Koreans and Japanese, they continued to n egotiate with the postal authorities. As a result, the following year the natio nality clause for postal delivery boys was eliminated. The two studied hard and passed the examination. In April 1985, a year after they graduated high school , both were hired by the Postal Service.

The same year, five Koreans, including Son and Lee, were hired as delivery b oys. This did not mean, however, that ethnic discrimination within the postal s ervice ceased with their employment. "Koreans Go Home," "Kill the Koreans" were some of the graffiti occasionally scrawled on office walls.

Son and Lee formed the Society of Postal Employees to Consider the Problem o f Koreans in Japan (Zainichi Kankoku-Chosenjin Mondai wo Kangaeru Yubinkyoku Doh o no Kai). Today, its membership has increased to 16, of which 13 work under th eir Korean names. Their hope is to create a discrimination-free workplace where Koreans can work in peace of mind under their Korean names.

Case 3: Kim Su-Il (Seikyu Sha)

Seikyu Sha (the Blue Hill Association) is located in Sakuramoto, Kawasaki Ci ty, near Tokyo. From Ikegami-cho to Sakuramoto stretches a large ethnic Korean village. It is an area where many Korean laborers were brought to build militar y factories during the war. In 1974 Seikyu Sha, whose parent body is the local Korean Christian Church, began to urge Korean youths to use their real names, le arn about their Korean heritage, and resist discrimination. This association wa s named Seikyu (Chong-gu, blue hills) since it is another name for Korea, meanin g beautiful green mountains and rivers.

Kim Su-Il, a second-generation Korean, was born in 1961 in Ikegami-cho, Kawa saki City. Today he works on the staff of Fureai Kan (Fureai Hall), a community center, which was established in Sakuramoto in 1988 by the city in response to t he demands from Seikyu Sha. The word "fureai" is Japanese and means "opening on e's heart to others," reflecting the hall's aim of fostering exchanges between f oreign residents, particularly Korean residents, and Japanese as fellow citizens of Kawasaki.8)

Kim Su-Il's parents were born in Korea and came to Japan during the colonial period.His father attended school but dropped out because of poverty. Unable t o find a job, he supported the family by collecting and selling scrap metal. Hi s mother, who was employed at a Korean barbecue house, died at age sixty-two. As a child Kim adopted the Japanese pass name "Kaneyama Hidekazu."

"I remember it clearly. My elder brother laughed at me when I told him, 'I' m Japanese.'" It was then that Kim realized he was Korean. From his third year of elementary school, Hidekazu was full of self-hate, loathing his Korean ances tory:

"I hated myself. I mean really despised myself, you know. Myself and the f act I was Korean. I wanted to be Japanese. There was nothing pleasant about be ing Korean. We were poor. Dad would drink a lot and become violent." A large, quiet child, Hidekazu was often bullied by his classmates until fou rth grade. His teachers also treated him badly. There were other ethnic Korean s in class but, he says, "They all looked Japanese to me. I looked at people fr om the point of view of self-preservation."

As a middle school student, in the eyes of his teachers, "Kaneyama Hidekazu" was a model student. He was active as a committee member on the student counci l, and also as a member of the Judo club. However, his feelings of self-hatred intensified inside of himself, and he desperately concealed the fact of his Kore an ethnicity from friends. Indeed, whenever his mother prepared a boxed-lunch c ontaining Kimchi (Korean pickles) for him to take to school, he would refuse to eat it, fearing that if someone were to notice, his secret would be revealed.

This was also a time when he saw his elder brother and sister encounter the barrier of discrimination. His elder brother graduated technical high school bu t he was the only student in his class not to find a job, and was eventually for ced to take a job as a truck driver. His elder sister, a graduate of a commerci al high school, worked in a department store but burst into tears when she learn ed she was singled out for a warehouse assignment. These setbacks made the atmo sphere at home oppressive.

In high school, M.T., Kim's teacher, told him the school had a Korean proble m study group and invited him to participate. Upon learning this, Kim thought h e had come to a ridiculous school. But M.T., a Japanese, taught passionately ab out the history of Japan-Korean relations, and continued to urge Kim to attend. Kim finally came to trust M.T. One day a student in class said, "Koreans are s cary." Kim screwed up his courage and blurted, "I'm Korean."

Early in his sophomore year of high school, at the suggestion of M.T., Kim p roclaimed his Korean name in class. However, of 10 teachers, 8 continued to ref er to him by his Japanese name "Kaneyama" and friends who called him by his pass name increased. Ironically, although he had resolved to use his real name, few would call him by it.

As a result Kim came to think that Japanese could not be trusted. What enab led Kim to overcome this setback was a Japanese friend who during a class discus sion said, "I respect Kim. It's important to recognize him as a Korean." Kim w anted to become friends with such people. "As a Korean I want to live with my r eal name and fight discrimination."

Kim advanced to a vocational college, participating in Seikyu Sha as a volun teer. During the first year, he put in three nights a week, and the second year every night as a volunteer in charge of teaching middle school Korean students. "I have a very strong attachment to Kawasaki. I wanted to help younger kids a s someone who has himself experienced the pain of being a Korean in Japan." Bus y with his activities for Seikyu Sha, it took Kim eight years finally to graduat e vocation school. "I've given my youth to Seikyu Sha," he says. When he was 2 1 years old, he began to learn the Jang-gu (a Korean drum) at Seikyu Sha because he wanted to carry on the legacy of his ethnic heritage.

In 1988 Kim married a Japanese. Until a few years ago he had only considere d marrying a Korean, but one day he noticed that there was a contradiction betwe en his public advocation of integration and his private life. "Nationality isn' t everything. The problem isn't whether one is Korean or Japanese, but the way one lives."

Under Japan's Nationality Act, citizenship is based on "blood" not birthplac e. In 1985 the Nationality Act was revised to permit children to acquire Japane se nationality through either parent, not just father. Consequently, Kim's chil d acquired Japanese nationality through her Japanese mother. Nonetheless, the c ouple decided to give their child a Korean name and to cultivate in her an aware ness of her Korean identity despite her Japanese nationality.

From these three life histories of Mintohren members, one can schematize the ir identity crisis and the strategies they employed to resolve it as follows: As second- and third-generation Koreans, they share the same experience in t heir up-bringing: on the one hand they have assimilated into Japanese society; o n the other, they have more or less retained their Korean ethnicity and have bee n aware of their being the victims of ethnic discrimination by Japanese. This i s true not only of Mintohren members but of young Koreans in general. That is, born and raised in Japan, they have been socialized as Japanese, absorbing the l anguage and culture of Japan. Many adopt pass names, attending school and recei ving education as "Japanese." They are forced to assimilate. Conversely, young Koreans in Japan still maintain a degree of knowledge of their ethnicity. Whil e the degree varies with each individual, in their values and lifestyle, they ha ve internalized that they are "essentially different" from the Japanese around t hem and most have tasted the bitter pill of discrimination. Consequently, many grow up feeling they are "different" from and "inferior" to the Japanese majorit y and suffer a crisis of identity.

Lee Kyung-Jae, Son Su-Gil, and Kim Su-Il overcame such self-doubts and have established a stable self-identity. Here we would like to suggest some characte ristics of the Mintohren movement that account this. First, their realization t hat the problem lay not in the fact that they are Koreans but in the reality of discrimination against Koreans in Japanese society. Second, the fact that their source of spiritual strength was not anchored to the concept of Korea as a home land. They have a strong attachment to their communities in Japan and desire to establish their ethnic identity there. Third, the fact that in their combat ag ainst ethnic discrimination they focus on their personal experience in daily lif e. Fourth, their stress on the importance of living in harmony with Japanese. The Mintohren movement has been carried out based on these characteristics o f its members. In the next section, we will discuss how the orientation of the Mintohren movement differs from the consciousness of diverse young Koreans in Ja pan.


Many young Koreans in Japan experience the same difficulties as those of the informants described above. Among them are those who overcome their difficulti es and who aim for a stable self-identity. Members of Mintohren are representat ive of this group. But the resolve to overcome adversity and to seek self-liber ation is by no means limited to Mintohren members. Indeed, there are also young Koreans who have internalized a strong sense of ethnic identity through attendi ng ethnic schools from early childhood.

The following four types are recognized when the orientations of young Korea ns in Japan are categorized based on their attitudes toward ethnic discriminatio n. These are ideal types, and the characteristics of each type are emphasized i n the following explanation.In as much as they are ideal typical, a single indiv idual may in fact combine features of the various types. Nonetheless, through t his discussion one may better understand the characteristics of Mintohren member s.

For the purpose of analysis, we breakdown the identity of young Koreans in J apan on two axes. The vertical axes measures the strength and/or weakness of th eir interest in the history of oppressed Koreans; the horizontal axes measures t he strength and/or weakness of their attachment to the Japanese communities in w hich they were born and raised. On this basis the following 4 identity types ca n be distinguished:


I. Pluralist Type

The words "mutual cooperation" symbolize the mentality of the pluralist type , whose core agenda is the realization of a society based on the recognition of ethnic differences but free of ethnic discrimination. That is, their aim is to solve the problem of social discrimination through "social change," accomplished at the local level, starting with their own communities and neighbors.

One observes the pluralist type primarily among Mintohren members. A review of their life histories reveals that most adopted Japanese names in their schoo l years and, as a result of Japanese prejudice, grew up with a negative image of their identity as Koreans in Japan. However, in one form or another, they happ ened to learn about the history of Koreans in Japan, and came to realize that th e source of their problems is not the fact that they were born Korean but the re ality of Japanese discrimination, eventually taking pride in their identity as K oreans in Japan. They strongly believe that they do not have a homeland but tha t their real home is the community in Japan in which they were born and raised. They neither seek to return to the homeland nor advocate complete identificatio n with the Japanese state. Rather their degree of attachment to their place of birth in Japan is quite strong.

Moreover, they maintain that in order to combat ethnic discrimination, one m ust use one's real ethnic name, viewing the use of Japanese pass names as merely a temporary escape from discrimination not a solution. Whether intentional or not, individuals who adopt a pass name conceal their Korean identity and lose th e opportunity to meet with Japanese who show a willingness to understand anti-Ko rean discrimination.

A review of their life histories also reveals that many cannot speak Korean and lack a full appreciation of Korean culture. But they do not view this fact as shameful since it is merely the result of the circumstances over which they h ad no control. Still, they believe that it is "desirable" to be able to speak K orean and many have made efforts to do so.

In sum, for the pluralist type there is still no fixed "model" lifestyle. T hey neither identify with Koreans in the homeland nor with Japanese, but are att empting to create their own identity and lifestyle as "Koreans in Japan."

II. Nationalist Type

"Resident foreign national" is the expression which represents the mentality of the nationalist type. Their core agenda is to contribute to the "developmen t" and "unification" of Korea. Consequently, they do not seek to assimilate int o Japanese society, but hold an awareness as resident foreign nationals, who fee l compelled to support the resident Korean community. They attach tremendous im port to the preservation of their organization against Japanese government polic ies that attempt to violate their rights as foreign nationals. However, having taken this position, it is difficult for them to transcend their position as for eign nationals and demand various rights. Consequently, they generally evince a strong element of "self-isolation" in their battle against ethnic discriminatio n.

This type can be seen in the young Koreans who compose the active members of Soren. Typically, they attended Soren sponsored ethnic schools and colleges wh ere they learned Korean history, language and culture. As a result they have in ternalized a strong sense of pride in their Korean roots. In this sense, they h ave not experienced an ethnic identity crisis. Although they are often the targ ets of right-wing Japanese when en route to ethnic schools, they are proud, and display no self-hate based on their Korean ethnicity. They assert the unity of Korea. As a result of having learned of Japanese aggression against Korea, they are strongly critical of Japan and feel no attachment to it. For them Japan is "merely a foreign country." Their model is the native Korean and there are tho se who say that they will return to Korea when it is unified.

Through family, community and the media, they have easily mastered the Japan ese language, as well as Korean at ethnic schools. They view the ability of Kor eans to speak Korean as totally natural, regarding those who cannot as "pitiful and no longer qualified to call themselves real Koreans." In principle they bel ieve they have only one real name, their given Korean one. However, in order to pass in Japanese society and escape the inconvenience that a Korean name would impose, several in fact do adopt Japanese names. Believing they already possess a strong sense of ethnic consciousness, they do not see the use of Japanese nam es for the sake of convenience as weakening their self-identity.

Those belonging to the nationalist type also have a tendency to restrict the ir activities to the ethnic Korean community. There are even those whose close friends are all Korean. One youth told us, "Although I have some Japanese acqua intances, I don't have any close Japanese friends." In work as well, most are e mployed at organizations and institutions affiliated with Soren, and there are m any cases where they work for their parents. Believing that it is impossible to gain employment with Japanese firms, they don't even consider it. Compared wit h the pluralist type, due to this kind of self-isolation from Japanese society, the degree of personal experience of social discrimination is relatively low.

III. Individualist Type

"Self realization" best represents the mentality of the individualist type, whose core agenda is the realization of self through assertion of individualism. Their chosen response to social discrimination is to liberate themselves throu gh social mobility.

The bearers of this identity type are mainly young people who aspire to atta in an overseas education in the United States, work for multinational corporatio ns, or achieve an elite life in Japan by going to a first-class college and join ing a first-class company. Typically, their life histories resemble those of th e pluralist type, in that they feel a sense of incongruity at living in Japan as ethnic Koreans but unlike the pluralist type they do not embrace a negative sel f-image, viewing the problem as one of environment. In this sense they are conf ident in their abilities and believe that they can change their circumstances by travelling overseas or by advancing themselves in Japan. One can probably desc ribe their outlook as "cosmopolitan."

Because they aspire toward social mobility, their sense of community attachm ent is weak, and they are not particularly concerned with ethnic Korean history. Nor do they feel an attachment to either Japan or Korea in their relation as i ndividuals to the state. Nor do they pay much attention to the question of whet her they should use Korean names or Japanese ones. In interpersonal relationshi ps, they feel a sense of liberation with strong individualists, who are not preo ccupied with affiliation, but who value individual achievement instead. In term s of language, rather than Korean they are passionate about English, believing t hat mastering it will help advance their careers and opportunities for social mo bility.10)

IV. Assimilationist Type

The word which best symbolizes the mentality of the assimilationist type is "naturalization." Their core agenda is to "become Japanese." They believe that by assimilating they can exist without experiencing ethnic discrimination.

The bearers of this type are those young people who naturalize. Typically, they are raised in an environment surrounded only by Japanese, the entire family itself adopting a Japanese name and concealing their Korean ethnicity. Even at home, it is rare that ethnicity is preserved. However as they mature, they beg in to internalize the negative image of Koreans embraced by Japanese. They are pained when they discover that they are ethnic Koreans. They attempt to cope wi th this incongruity by adapting to Japanese society.

It is a common characteristic that they have close Japanese friends only. T hey desire to become the same as their Japanese friends and take the attitude of escaping their Korean ethnicity, asserting that their home is Japan not Korea. Their attachment to their communities is strong. They feel uncomfortable with their Korean names, believing their Japanese names to be their real ones. On th e issue of language, they feel the fact that they are unable to speak Korean was natural and unavoidable, and view the history of Japanese aggression against Ko rea as a thing of the distant past about which they can do nothing. They attemp t to cope with social discrimination by eliminating difficulties through adaptin g themselves to the world around them.11)

The identity type of Mintohren participants corresponds to Type I. Of cours e, not all movements against ethnic discrimination are carried out by Mintohren. For example, Mindan and its affiliated association, Zainichi Kankoku Seinen Ka i (Korean Youth Association in Japan) have been fighting discrimination. The id eal type of the members of these organizations falls between Type I and II. Sor en and its affiliated associations have also played a significant role in combat ting ethnic discrimination, and the young members of these organizations are cat egorized as Type II. What these various groups have in common, however, is the strong desire to be aware of the history of oppressed Koreans. The core members of these movements display strong elements of characteristics associated with T ypes I and II described in the upper two (see graph). Those displaying Types II I and IV characteristics, on the other hand, tend to see ethnic discrimination a s a matter resolved through individual efforts.

Although all these groups (Mintohren, Seinen Kai, Soren-youths) are opposed to ethnic discrimination in Japan, their approaches differ. First, one of the d ifferences between Mintohren and other groups lay in the manner of how ethnic co nsciousness is expressed. Soren-youths express this consciousness in terms of f eeling of solidarity with native Koreans in the north. Although the fact that t hey were born and raised in Japan and have absorbed Japanese culture has made th em somewhat different from native Koreans in outlook, they conceive of themselve s as essentially the same. They have no doubts about their Korean nationality. On the other hand, members of Zainichi Kankoku Seinen Kai recognize the fact th at they live a different existence from Koreans at home but they positively embr ace their Korean nationality. Mintohren members in contrast are not concerned w ith concepts like "homeland" or "the state." They prize their Korean ethnicity, but do not stress nationality.

Second, while at first glance it appears that the anti-discrimination demand s of these groups are similar, they differ significantly in the ways in which th ey conceptualize the problem. Mintohren, Soren, Mindan and Seinen Kai are unifi ed in their demand that the Japanese must apologize to and compensate Koreans in Japan for Japanese colonial aggression and atrocities, and that it must also re solve the legal status of Koreans in Japan by establishing their rights and guar anteing ethnic education. However, in the case of Soren, the unification of Kor ea and the development of the homeland are given priority. Thus, they treat the problems of ethnic Koreans as a matter of guaranteing them their rights as "for eign nationals." They insist on nothing that falls beyond this demand. For exa mple, although Mintohren, Mindan and Seinen Kai demand the right to vote in loca l government, Soren does not, since it believes it would only further the assimi lation of Koreans in Japanese society. The current movement of Mindan and Seine n Kai seeks to correct the inadequacies of the Republic of Korea-Japan Normaliza tion Treaty. Consequently, although Seinen Kai views the problems of ethnic Kor eans as a domestic issue that should be resolved through negotiations between et hnic Koreans and the Japanese government, in reality it tends to advocate cooper ation with the South Korean government to achieve this goal.

On the other hand, Mintohren is organized on the grass-roots level, a charac teristic that distinguishes it from Soren, Mindan and Seinen Kai. Mintohren was formed to improve the position of Koreans in Japan. Concerned with the questio n of what to do with the negative image of Koreans, the Mintohren movement striv es to strengthen the resolve of Korean youth to resist discrimination. It began as an organization to confront the employment discrimination problem faced by y oung Koreans who are disqualified from positions because of the nationality clau se and to help them realize their desire for stable employment. Mintohren has a dopted an ad-hoc approach in order to realize these goals. It gives priority to the battle against social discrimination. In this sense, Mintohren has a stron g tendency not to get caught up in dogmatic ideological questions such as suppor t for North or South Korea, which have tended to dominate the ethnic Korean comm unity.

Third, there are differences in the type of members who comprise Mintohren a nd the other movements. Soren, Mindan and Seinen Kai are organized by ethnic Ko reans only. In contrast, Mintohren's approach sees the struggle as a joint proj ect, involving the combined efforts of both Japanese and Koreans in Japan. As t he three case studies presented illustrate, participants in the Mintohren moveme nt involve not only leadership from the Korean community in Japan but also the s upport of Japanese teachers and friends who attempt to raise consciousness about the injustice of ethnic discrimination. The slogan of Mintohren is "Tomo ni Ik iru (Living Together)." The aim of the movement is to create a society where al l people, regardless of ethnic differences, can live together in mutual cooperat ion. The fact that members of the organization themselves come from different b ackgrounds but have joined forces to battle discrimination has tremendous value. And in fact, many Japanese participate in Mintohren groups.


This paper has presented a general overview of Koreans in Japan, indicating the mentality and characteristics of the Mintohren movement. We would like to c onclude by placing Mintohren at the center of the movement in the struggle again st ethnic discrimination. Mintohren started as a grass-roots movement by young Koreans in Japan at a time when the "myth of repatriation" embraced by first-gen eration Koreans who wanted to return to Korea was beginning to crumble. As a re sult, it adopted an ad-hoc approach to the struggle against discrimination, view ing joint action with Japanese positively. Since the 1970s Mintohren has contri buted greatly to eliminating ethnic discrimination against Koreans in Japan, but it has only recently begun to receive such justified recognition in the Korean community in Japan. Even now it merely occupies a third place position against such large and powerful organizations as Mindan and Soren that still support the homeland. Nonetheless, in introducing Korean social movements in Japan, we hav e focused on Mintohren because we believe that its ideal of living together show s the potential for bringing about a tremendous change in Japanese society which at present continues to suppress ethnic minorities under the illusion of "monor acialism."


Korean and Japanese names are given in traditional East Asian order, family name first.

  1. In addition, as a result of the colonization of Taiwan there are several hun dred thousand Chinese, and Okinawans may also be viewed as an ethnic group. The re has also been a rapid increase in foreign workers, primarily from Asia.
  2. At the end of December 1988, there were 677,140 Koreans in Japan who hold pa ssbooks (Gaikokujin Toroku Sho, Alien Registration Cards) in compliance with the Alien Registration Law. They comprise of 72% of foreign residents in Japan.

    Of course, among them are Korean nationals who have come to Japan to work or study but the majority is Koreans who live in Japan for the aforementioned reas ons, most of whom today are second- and third-generation Koreans in Japan. The Japanese Nationality Law is not based on place of birth but on bloodline, so eve n if one is born in Japan, one does not automatically acquire Japanese citizensh ip. From 1952 to 1989 the number of "naturalized" Koreans holding Japanese citi zenship was about 150,000. Naturally, their children also hold Japanese citizen ship. Others have acquired Japanese citizenship as the offspring or descendants of "international marriages" between Japanese and Koreans. It is estimated tha t their total number exceeds one million.

  3. In 1985, the number of Korean children attending primary and secondary schoo ls was about 150,000, among which 130,000 (86%) attended Japanese schools and th e remaining 20,000 (14%) attended Korean ethnic schools. 13% ethnic schools run by Soren, 1% run by Mindan.
  4. In 1988, of 10,015 resident Korean marriages, 2, 362 were between Koreans; 7,598 between Koreans and Japanese. However, the latt er includes marriages between Koreans in Japan and ethnic Koreans who hold Japan ese nationality, and those between Japanese men and Korea-born women, a growing trend in recent years.
  5. It is extremely rare for organization combatting discrimination against Kore ans to receive public funds from local governments. The three cases introduced in this paper are examples where funding was obtained from local governments as a result of negotiation.
  6. "Honmyo sengen" is the act of telling friends one wishes to be called by one 's real ethnic name. At such times, Koreans relate their experiences of discrim ination and seek Japanese understanding of the Korean problem. There are many c ases where this is carried out by Japanese teachers who teach anti-discriminatio n classes. Such declarations are thought to be the first step toward creating c hildren who will resist discrimination.
  7. In 1982, while continuing these activities, Lee Kyung-Jae renewed his passbo ok, but refused to be fingerprinted because he felt impermissible any system tha t violates the human rights of Koreans in Japan. As a result, he was arrested b y the police in 1985 and indicted for violating the Alien Registration Law. How ever, with the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989, the Supreme Court granted Lee an official pardon. Many Mintohren members refused to be fingerprinted. Later Kim Su-Il also refused.
  8. At first, local Japanese residents opposed Fureai Kan and its opening was de layed a year. However, its achievements came to be looked on favorably by Japan ese. In 1990, the Japanese director was replaced by one of Mintohren's most abl e leaders, Bae Jung-Do (b. 1944), himself a second-generation Korean.
  9. These identity types are based on interviews, ranging from 3-5 hours in dura tion, we conducted with about 120 young Koreans in Japan over a two-year period from 1988-1989.
  10. During the course of interviews we met several young Korean s who were employed by major Japanese firms. We feel certain that the Mintohren method of combatting ethnic discrimination played a vital role in enabling thei r self-realization.
  11. The naturalization procedure is unique to Japan. It is permitted by discre tion of the Minister of Justice who determines whether the applicant has become sufficiently Japanese. In other words, it requires that Koreans, the targets of Japanese oppression, bow their heads and ask to be made Japanese. In this sens e, naturalization requires that the applicants abandon their ethnic identity. M oreover, in as much as Japanese society tends to exclude those of different ethn ic heritage, naturalization does not result in complete elimination of discrimin ation. For no matter how determined one is to assimilate, one can never truly b ecome "Japanese." In reaction to this, there is a movement among Koreans who ha ve acquired Japanese citizenship to live as Korean again by abandoning their Jap anese names and using their Korean ones. From 1987-1989, naturalized Koreans wo n four court cases where they appealed to have their Korean names legally recogn ized. The group Minzoku-mei wo Torimodosu Kai (the Society for Return of Our Et hnic Names) operates in conjunction with Mintohren.

Fukuoka Yasunori
Faculty of Liberal Arts
Saitama University, JAPAN
Tel. & Fax.:+81-(0)48-858-3070