Koreans living in Japan without nationality want unification
‘Chosen-seki’ say that despite daily inconveniences and discrimination, they will remain stateless unless there’s unification across between the two Koreas
By Park Ji-won
As related countries move quickly toward the June 12 summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore with the aim of denuclearising the North and possibly declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War, there is one group that for decades has hoped to see a unified Korean Peninsula.
They are ethnic Koreans living in Japan, known as “Zainichi Koreans,” especially those who choose to live without a passport, hoping to see the two Koreas reunite. The word Zainichi refers to the ethnic Korean community that arrived in Japan during the 1910-45 occupation of Korea and stayed on after Japan’s defeat in World War II. As years passed and bilateral ties between Seoul and Tokyo were forged, the Zainichi largely split into two groups depending on their historical backgrounds: permanent residents with South Korean nationality and a South Korean passport, and “Chosen-seki” (Korean domicile) or those who have chosen not to have nationality. The latter can travel overseas by being issued temporary travel documents. Chosen-seki can be understood as being stateless or having an alternative nationality.
Chosen is a way to read the Japanese romanisation of Joseon. It was the name of the last existing kingdom of Korea which lasted five centuries until the beginning of the 1900s. But in 1947, Japan ordered the Korean people in Japan to list their nationality as “Chosen.”
Despite discrimination, Chosen-seki Zainichi in Japan said they stand solidly by their status.
“I won’t change my stateless status if there is no big change in the current situation. If I decide to change it, it might only be for my children’s future,” said Ryang Sun-hui, 34, a fourth-generation ethnic Korean with Chosen-seki status, during a phone interview with The Korea Times. Ryang is married to a man of the same status, and their three children also have the same status.
“I won’t change my status until Korean unification,” said 28-year-old Kim Song-ran, who works for an Osaka-based community group connected to the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), a pro-North Korea organisation.
“I never thought about changing my status, regardless of unification, as I can remain as evidence of the Chosen-seki,” said 28-year-old Kim Yun-ok. She also works for a Chongryon community group in Hyogo.
Their remarks may come across as strident, but unification has been one of their lifetime goals since around the time their communities were formed in Japan.
As of June 2017, the Chosen-seki constituted a minority of 30,000 ethnic Korean residents in Japan while another 535,873 had South Korean nationality, according to Japan’s justice ministry. Chongryon is known to have the highest number of Chosen-seki people while its pro-South counterpart, the Korean Residents Union (Mindan), has almost none.
As their numbers decrease, they face “inconveniences” or discrimination in their daily lives, the interviewees said. Born and raised in Japan, they are fluent in Japanese. Yet many of them have trouble going overseas, as they are automatically considered North Koreans, or suspicious persons with no nationality.
“Whenever we, who are Chosen-seki, visit the airport to go overseas, we are summoned to a private room and forced to open our suitcases for searches,” Ryang said.
“We are obliged to sign a piece of paper in a small room that guarantees we are not involved with any nuclear weapons in order to go on trips,” Kim Yun-ok said.
They experience “unseen” discrimination on a daily basis, whether they’re shopping online or trying to rent a home.
“I heard my friend couldn’t get a job as the company said it doesn’t hire Chosen-seki. I heard that was one of the reasons some change their status to South Korean nationality. Also, there is difficulty in renting a home as Japanese owners require a Japanese guarantor or simply refuse Zainichi from the beginning,” Kim Yun-ok said.
“When Japanese people hear my Korean name, they ask me where I am from. It is hard for me to answer that I am Chosen,” Ryang said.
“The worst thing was being turned away at the blood donation centre. I heard the centre’s officials say we don’t need Zainichi blood. I was shocked to have heard that,” Kim Song-ran said.
Such discrimination has been proven in a survey. Almost 40 per cent of foreign residents experienced discrimination in finding jobs and housing over the previous five years as of 2017, according to Japan’s justice ministry. The survey was the first of its kind conducted by the government.
“It is somewhat sad to say, but I have gotten used to such inconveniences. When I face discrimination, I just think it’s happening again,” Ryang said.
Chosen-seki as identity
Despite these obstacles, the Chosen-seki embrace their status as their “identity.”
“The early Zainichi generations faced a life-or-death situation. Seventy years ago, Japanese police rushed into our school and killed several people saying they had been ordered to get rid of Chosen schools. There is still ongoing discrimination against our schools by the Japanese government in a way by not giving subsidies for our children’s education,” Kim Yun-ok said.
Under an education organisation called “Chosun Hakkyo” (Chosen School) or “Urihakkyo” (Our School), Chosen-seki have been learning about the Korean ethnicity in their regular syllabus.
Back during the colonial period, many were educating their children there as they were thinking about returning to Korea later. However, ironically, the Japanese government’s pressure to remove the education facilities made people gather at the schools to fight and protect their children.
Many Zainichi with South Korean nationality also choose Urihakkyo as they have little chance to receive education on their ethnic heritage in Japanese or South Korean schools. There are four South Korean government-funded schools in Japan, mainly in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Meanwhile, there are 64 Chosen schools categorised into elementary, middle and high schools and universities throughout Japan.
Chosen schools have been playing a central role in unifying the Zainichi community ideologically and locally. They have been funded and receiving guidelines and textbooks from Chongryon from the beginning, and have more recently seen additional funding from South Korean non-governmental organisations.
“Living in Japan, we were somewhere in between Korea and Japan. However, by getting educated in a Chosen school, we think we share the same ethnicity with Korea and are proud of our Chosen education,” Ryang said. Her husband said Zainichi Chosen-seki people favour the ethnic education over teachings on socialism or communism.
“My father, younger brother and sister chose to have South Korean nationality while my mother and I retain our Chosen-seki status. We achieved some kind of unification at home,” Ryang said.
Unification to them
When asked about unification, more than anyone, the interviewees think it is an absolute goal the Koreas need to achieve so they can remain as they are. Many of them want to go to their grandparents’ home towns which are mainly located in South Korea.
“I just want to visit my grandfather’s hometown on Jeju Island,” Ryang said. Her husband did not believe unification will come.
“I want to visit my grandmother’s hometown in the South. And I hope there will be an equal society for everyone including us. We Chosen people are the same people. I want people to consider us as the same human beings,” Kim Yun-ok said.
“I think the North is preparing for unification. I witnessed it when I visited the North, or our country, on April 27 by coincidence. I think there will be unification soon. I think there are definitely many things to do for us, before and after unification,” Kim Song-ran said.
“We are just Zainichi regardless of nationality. I think citizenship cannot change our lives as it isn’t visible from the outside.”
A South Korean lawmaker insists Chosen-seki are not North Koreans but ordinary people who want to see unification.
“Chosen-seki people just think if the countries unite, there is only one home country,” Rep. Kang Chang-il said to The Korea Times. Kang submitted a bill to ease the issuing of travel visas for Zainichi Chosen-seki who want to enter South Korea. In January, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs relaxed regulations on the issuance of travel visas in favour of them.
“Chosen-seki are not that related to North Korea. People misunderstood them. Some of them are against the North. Seki is a categorical code for the Japanese government. Those people are people belonging somewhere in between borders. They just want unification.”