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Zainichis: A Cautionary Tale

Japan is opening its doors. After a long tradition of stringent immigration policies that severely limited the number of foreigners allowed to reside in its borders, Japan recently set forth new policy proposals which would create new visa categories in an attempt to attract more than 500,000 new workers by 2025. The policy change reflects Japan’s growing immigrant population which has seen over 1.28 million new foreign workers in the last 5 years. The motivation for this policy change lies primarily in the need to combat Japan’s glaring shrinking population problem: its birth rate recently dropped to a historic low while those in the workforce are rapidly aging. By 2049, Japan’s population could dip under 100 million from a current population of 129 million. This brutal decline in population could be a signal of demise for Japan’s output productivity; hence, Japan has seemingly reoriented itself to the outside world to revamp its industries that are suffering from labor losses and a lack of skilled workers. However, these new policy changes must be seen as a purely economic ploy instead of an attempt to integrate the country with the rest of the world. This can be seen from the state of hidden minority populations living in Japan. In particular, the story of the Korean ‘Zainichis’ (foreigners) reveal what more can be done for those already living quietly within Japan’s walls.

Dynamics between South Korea and Japan have been historically volatile, with the two sides finding each other on opposite sides of different conflicts for significant periods of time. However, with the signing of the Treaty of Ganghwa in 1876 (a direct result of Japan’s gunboat diplomacy) the power balance shifted entirely toward Japan as it acquired control of Korea’s underlying economic activities like industry production and trade. The following years saw the gradual annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, the movement of Koreans both within Korea and outside of it, and a stronger Japan-centric approach to policymaking. 

As Japanese settlers made their way toward the Korean peninsula, significant number of Koreans were displaced to make way. Land reform initiatives required official documentation of land ownership, favoring incoming Japanese landlords and corporations. From 1910 to 1932, the percentage of arable land in Korea under Japanese ownership rose from 7% to 52.7%. As economic stressors and famine arose, Korean peasants migrated to Japan to find low-paying jobs through which they would be able to survive.

World War II saw a further spike in Korean migration due to Japan’s coercive measures to support the war effort. Japan conscripted Koreans to work in the mines and factories, and to engage in military combat. Between 590,000 and 720,000 Koreans were taken as forced laborers. Furthermore, these numbers do not include those who continued to migrate to Japan under worsening economic conditions, nor comfort women: young girls who were forced to engage in sexual activities for Japanese soldiers.

After the end of World War II Korea regained its independence, and many Koreans in Japan returned to their homeland. Still, approximately 600,000 Koreans were left stranded in Japan due to abysmal economic circumstances that refused them passage back. The actual number, which would include undocumented Koreans and those simply forgotten, would most likely exceed this estimated sum.

Those left behind have since struggled to assimilate in a country that refuses to accept them. After Japan formally gave up its claim to the lands it had annexed in the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, Koreans in Japan have found themselves in a state of limbo: their Japanese citizenship was revoked under the koseki, a system that determined citizen registration, and they had no way back home, leaving them stranded.

Many have tried (to little avail) over the past few decades to find a sense of belonging in the place they have to call their new home. Schools became a particularly fearsome battleground for Koreans combatting Japanese bureaucratic insistence on assimilation. Prior to the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Koreans living under Japanese rule had to conform to compulsory education rules applying to all citizens; furthermore, the closure of Korean ethnic schools in 1948 meant that Japanese schools were the only option for Korean Zainichis to attain an education. However, these schools were not reinstated, and to be accepted as a Zainichi student was seen as a favor or gift from the institution because schools were under no legal obligation to accept them.

Acceptance also held a condition that Zainichis would look to uphold Japanese values and learnings. In other words, Zainichis had a cultural dilemma between helping their children assimilate into Japanese society, and reminding them of their cultural roots that lie an ocean away. Acceptance into Japan’s schools did little to change the treatment of Zainichi students: stories of overt discrimination, physical harm and societal ostracism have gradually surfaced, revealing the scars left on those of Korean descent, many of whom try to hide their origins by choosing Japanese names. Although no definitive study has been conducted to measure the aggregate condition of Zainichi individuals’ schooling conditions or job prospects, census results have shown that Korean Zainichis face a higher percentage of unemployment than their Japanese counterparts. Furthermore, Korean Zainichis also tend to work in less stable employment positions, such as a higher percentage of Korean Zainichis working part-time compared to native Japanese workers. All of these statistics imply that forms of discrimination have continued to trickle down through the years in every aspect of society.

Beyond the classroom, the conditions faced by Zainichis in general Japanese society are no better. Reports from organizations such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have brought to light conditions of Zainichis and the lack of protections guaranteed by the Japanese government. This includes a lack of adequate hate crime laws, disproportionately  low employment levels for Korean Zainichis, issues with voting rights in certain local governments, and many other problems that plague minorities just trying to get by. In response to these accusations, and by mandate of the U.N., the Japanese government has implemented supposed policy changes to address issues of discrimination towards minority populations; however, the current bills do not specify any details about enforcement, let alone any literature on the prohibition of crimes such as hate speech. Instead of taking meaningful steps toward overturning decades longtime issues of minority marginalization, the Japanese government has instead enacted a new bill that answers foreign criticism without any tangible change.

The Japanese government has done little to truly alleviate the marginalized condition of Korean Zainichis, and with an influx of foreign workers seeming inevitable given Japan’s desperate attempts to revitalize its industrial landscape, this should be a warning to all those making the passage. In order to foster a more welcoming environment for workers coming from afar to alleviate Japan’s economic pleas, Japan must generate policies that will do more to ensure their protection, including protections against social discrimination (e.g. children in schools) and discrepant economic opportunities so as to guarantee that any and all who enter the country have the full promise of earning what they work towards without the fear of having their hard work, or even their humanity, diminished. Furthermore, government subcommittees should be created that will ensure the proper enforcement of punishment for any organizations or individuals who attempt to take advantage of or in any way harm said foreigners. Until the plight of millions who have been discriminated against, disparaged and diminished is appropriately resolved, immigrant populations should be careful not to see the flexibility of Japan’s immigration laws as an open invitation. 

Photo: “Japanese Temple

About the Author

Ye Chan Song '22 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Ye Chan can be reached at