On Zainichi Koreans

The term “Zainichi” refers to the Koreans and their descendants who moved – or who were forced to move – to Japan during the period of colonial rule in Korea. Unlike many other migrant Korean communities, Zainichi communities can directly trace their origins to the history of Japanese colonization.

The Great Korean Empire that had ruled the Korean peninsula was turned into a protectorate of Japan through the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1905, and formally annexed in 1910. It is no exaggeration to state that the 36 years of colonial rule that followed was a history of exploitation and discrimination. Many Koreans who were deprived of their livelihoods due to Japan’s oppressive policies were left with little choice but to move to mainland Japan in order to survive. From the late 1920s to the early 1930s, 80,000 to 150,000 Koreans migrated to Japan each year. The majority of them were farmers from the southern part of the peninsula who labored in grueling “3D” (dirty, dangerous, and demanding) work conditions. As war intensified starting in the late 1930s, approximately 720,000 Koreans were forcibly mobilized as laborers; by the time of liberation in 1945, there were over 2 million Koreans living in Japan.

Upon liberation, scores of Koreans who had endured their harsh living conditions while clinging to the hope of eventual return to their homeland flocked back to Korea. Because Japan, a defeated nation, had not made any provisions for repatriation, the ports of Hakata and Senzaki overflowed with massive crowds of Koreans waiting for ships to take them home. The land near the ports were packed with people who slept outdoors as they waited for a ship; some, unable to wait any further, rented their own boats. Within less than one short year after liberation, some 1.3 million Koreans made their way back to Korea.

However, the political, economic, and social conditions on the Korean peninsula continued to be chaotic, as bilateral conflicts intensified due to the partitioning of the peninsula at the 38th parallel by the U.S. and Soviet forces and the establishment of two competing administrations. Faced with an uncertain future due to these political uncertainties as well as severe economic inflation, a growing number of Koreans decided to delay their return or else make their way back to Japan.

The 10 years after liberation are said to be the most painful period in the history of Zainichi Koreans. The majority of Zainichi Koreans faced immense hardships, having lost their jobs due to the suspension of the munitions industry and the return of Japanese repatriates from overseas. Prejudice and discrimination against Koreans by Japanese society persisted after liberation, and the Japanese government did not hesitate in institutionalizing discrimination and blatantly promoting antiforeignism. Even in such a harsh environment, Zainichi Koreans did not consider themselves a people without a country but instead fostered a sense of pride and hope as foreign civilians from a liberated, independent country, and formed organizations throughout Japan to tackle issues such as securing basic living rights and promoting ethnic education. However, there were also individuals who, despairing over the persistent conditions of poverty and discrimination in Japan, “returned” to North Korea between 1959 to 1984. This massive repatriation movement profoundly changed Zainichi society. The “Korean ghettos” (Chōsenjin buraku) that had formed around or in all major cities in Japan were drastically dismantled, and as rapid economic growth accelerated in Japan so too did the assimilation of Zainichi Koreans into Japanese society.

Zainichi communities today are comprised of a wide variety of nationalities and lifestyles, beginning with the first generation of immigrants who took on any number of demanding jobs in order to survive and dreamed of one day returning to their homeland, to the second and third generations born and raised only in Japan, to the young fourth and fifth generations who will play an important role in the continued internationalization and diversification of Japanese society.

As of December 2018, the number of Zainichi Koreans holding South Korean or Joseon nationality is 479,193. 66% of those individuals are special permanent residents (tokubetsu eijūsha), designated as the descendants of the first generation who moved to Japan during the colonial period. As such they are differentiated from those Koreans who came to study or work in Japan after the 1980s. The “Joseon” (Chōsen) designation is simply a status category that was created through the Alien Registration Ordinance of 1947 for the sake of expedience, as something to print in the nationality column on alien registration cards. Because there is no longer any country called “Joseon,” it is the same as being stateless. While more people are acquiring South Korean and Japanese nationalities, there are still 29,559 people with “Joseon” status as of the end of 2018. Despite the fact that acquiring Japanese nationality promises relief from many disadvantages and inconveniences, many Zainichi Koreans still choose to retain their South Korean and Joseon nationalities.