Editors’s note: This is the second piece of the series “In and Out of Japan.”
From the end of the war until 2007, Koreans represented Japan’s largest ethnic minority group. There are currently around half a million individuals in Japan who identify as Korean. This is only surpassed by the number of Chinese.
The number of Koreans in Japan, however, has been shrinking over the last 20 years.Turbulent international relations have played a part in the diminishing number of Koreans arriving in Japan and the number of Zainichi Koreans (ethnic Koreans in Japan) identifying as Korean. During the administration of Park Geun-hye, relations between South Korea and Japan reached a low not seen in many years. This is due to the deepening “comfort woman issue,” the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute, South Korean fears of a remilitarised Japan, and the effect of the 2011 “Triple disaster” in eroding trust between the two neighbors.
North Korea also factors into issues of identity and belonging for Koreans in Japan. Following ten years of nuclear tests and sporadic missile launches, North Korea, from a Japanese perspective, is considered a significant threat. The catalyst for the low point in North Korea–Japan relations was Kim Jong-il’s admission that North Korea had been kidnapping Japanese citizens. Reflecting the broader Japanese public opinion, during an interview with a Japanese policymaker in Tokyo he told me that North Korea had sent spies to Japan via the Zainichi community. All the bouncy K-pop in Seoul does not compensate for North Korean military posturing and state abduction projects. The specter of North Korea contributes to the rise in anti-Korean sentiment in Japan.
While these issues have a hand in how Zainichi Koreans identify, several further points are central to the diminishing number of individuals in Japan identifying as Korean. First, since the 1990s, reflecting a tendency for Zainichi Koreans to see ethnicity as separate from nationality, it has become more common for Zainichi Koreans to naturalize as Japanese. Furthermore, the number of Zainichi Koreans opting for South Korean citizenship also steadily grew from this time, reflecting the convenience that comes with traveling on a South Korean passport. Only a few hard-core individuals still cling to their North Korean Chōsenidentity cards. I met several of these individuals; they “love” North Korea but balk at the prospect of living there.
Second, the number of Zainichi Koreans marrying Japanese continues to rise. These unions are not political expressions, many fourth or fifth generation Koreans feel more in common with Japanese than either of the two Koreas.
We are entering a new phase in terms of what it means to be “Zainichi Korean.” This shift is symptomatic of temporal, geographical, political, and cultural distance growing between Koreans resident in Japan and each of the two Koreas. Koreans will not disappear from Japan, rather we may see the emergence of a truly transnational community, in which members exercise a flexibility in regard to where they identify. Today, a “third way“ in Zainichi Korean identity politics, seems more likely than ever.
Markus Bell is a lecturer at the University of Sheffield’s School of East Asian Studies. His research expertise is in the areas of migration, kinship, memory, and transnational social networks. He currently teaches a course on North Korean history and society, and migration and Northeast Asia. Follow him @mpsbell.