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The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus
In-depth critical analysis of the forces shaping the Asia-Pacific...and the world.

The Denationalized Have No Class: The Banishment of Japan’s Korean Minority-- A POLEMIC

Sonia Ryang


In a recent article by Bumsoo Kim entitled “Bringing class back in: the changing basis of inequality and the Korean minority in Japan,” I read:

“[…] this study shows that the legal/institutional and socioeconomic structural changes in Japan for the past few decades, by decreasing ethnic inequality between Koreans and Japanese while increasing class inequality among Koreans, have made class more significant than ethnicity in understanding the inequality problematic of zainichi Koreans [i.e. Koreans in Japan].”[1]

Perhaps it is logical that an oppressed and marginalized ethnic minority, once it begins to receive the benefits of the affluence of the host society, albeit belatedly, would shed its markings of ethnicity and begin to take on the markings of class. Perhaps it is also logical to think that in such a situation class, rather than ethnicity, would become more relevant to forging identity. Unequivocally, however, I remain unconvinced by the argument that a particular category becomes “more significant” than certain others, since the marking of the oppressed is always necessarily multiply compounded.

Young Koreans in Japan celebrate
wedding in traditional Korean style.

Nevertheless, what the above passage made me wonder—and what I found to be odd in it—was this: Koreans in Japan have always had incorporated class stratification: throughout the colonial period, during the US occupation and the entire post-war period, and to this day. The question is why, then, do some researchers think that class (and here, I take that they mean, through conflation, class consciousness and class differentiation) was not previously relevant to Koreans in Japan or, more precisely, when we think about Koreans in Japan. When did class disappear from the rhetoric and understanding of and about Koreans in Japan to the extent that now someone has to “bring class back in”?

These questions led me to think not so much about class as about being human—notably, about when a human is not a human in Japan. I find that focusing on class (including class consciousness and class differentiation) or, more precisely, the absence thereof, can provide a useful perspective when thinking about Japan as a nation-state in which non-nationals are not deemed human.


It is no news to Japan scholars that the concept of class does not always serve as a useful guide. Having said this, class is not a unified category. Following the Neo-Marxist intervention in academe, especially in the work of Louis Althusser and Pierre Bourdieu, no serious social scientist has been content with a definition of class limited to economic relationships. Rather, cultural capital and ideological mechanisms as we understand them today carry as much importance as socio-economic relations and income or wages.[2]

But there is also the problem of cross-cultural and cross-national compatibility of categories. For example, the category of middle class captures a much broader population in the US than in Britain. While in the latter, at least in popular and lay discourses of the everyday, the middle class stands in clear distinction from the working class (the histories of which have been written; for example[3]), in the former, the middle class seems to encompass heterogeneous income groups with vague nomenclatures, often including professionals, blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, small business owners, and so on. Furthermore, in both the US and Britain, poverty lines have often followed racial (in addition to ethnic and colonial) lines of division. While racialized economic borders have long divided the Korean minority from the Japanese majority, the vast majority of Koreans and Japanese would today classify themselves as middle class—if asked, that is. In other words, terms such as class are passé in popular discourse in Japan, just as poverty deceptively appears to have vanished in the eyes of many.[4]

But did class disappear equally and identically for Japanese and Koreans? In other words, is the mode of attrition of this concept from public consciousness the same for Japanese and Koreans in Japan, the former being members of the Japanese national polity, and the latter being outsiders in relation to it? In line with this, my further proposition is that class stratification, including membership of a certain class, should be understood as being premised upon national membership. More crudely put, if one is not a member of a national polity, one is not a class member: that is to say, the denationalized have no class. To a great extent, this is a truism, as many cases, globally speaking, confirm this position. But the case of Koreans in Japan presents a particularly clear instance of the phenomenon, as I shall show below.

I shall argue that there is an important mechanism at work here, involving legal, philosophical, and cultural elements, such that Koreans do not qualify to be included when one talks about class formation in Japan. Such exclusion of Koreans is not new. Throughout the postwar era, Korean residents in Japan have not been recognized as a sociological category, either in the context of censuses and surveys in Japan or from within the positionality of Koreans themselves.

The systematic exclusion of Koreans from Japan’s quantitative data, such as the national census, however, has not been matched by a similar practice in the area of qualitative studies, particularly in the case of the literary print market. Koreans in Japan have been studied from multiple angles, and their cases have been used to test many concepts that populate the margins of Japanese society, including poverty and domestic violence. Strangely, however, these studies have failed to touch upon the concept of class.

I do not attempt to fill this gap in the study of class among Koreans in Japan, but use this omission to highlight an intellectual challenge. I do so by paying close attention to the limbo-like ontology of Koreans in Japan in relation to Japan and Korea. This concept has been explored by other writers, generally carrying the implication of a moral inferiority, or more precisely, an inferior or lesser belonging in one terrain, presumably, Japan’s national entity. Instead, I shall take banishment, or exile, as an important conceptual pillar in this exercise. This position separates me from existing studies of Koreans in Japan that presuppose an inferior, incomplete form of belonging of Koreans in relation to Japanese society: what I am saying is that there is no such form of belonging—complete exclusion or banishment is all that exists for Koreans in Japan. The banishment of Koreans from Japanese society is as much a reality as a useful conceptual tool in clarifying why Koreans have not been studied from the perspective of class stratification in Japan. This, I shall argue, is a result of both internal and external perceptions; by the Japanese government and researchers on the one hand, and by Koreans themselves on the other.

It will be necessary to start from the postwar process according to which emerging Korean expatriate movements effectively segregated Koreans from the Japanese mainstream, rendering them invisible in the context of Japan’s domestic statistics. This needs to be understood in tandem with the legal exclusion of Koreans from the Japanese nation by a concerted effort of the US Occupation authorities in the immediate postwar years and the Japanese authorities thereafter. I shall then introduce a survey, possibly the only existing sociological survey available in English, carried out using quantitatively appropriate methods among Korean males in Japan by Kim Myungsoo in 1995, and shall further interpret its results.

My final goal is to address the question of what it is to be human rather than “Korean” or “Japanese.” The reader will recognize that I do not propose to conceptualize Koreans as holding a transnational or supranational existence or, worse still, “cultural citizenship”— labels that in no way capture the fundamental reality of Koreans in Japan.[5] I shall show that the reason why Koreans in Japan continue to be viewed as irrelevant to, or not conforming with, class divisions within Japanese society is that they are merely and nakedly human and not members of a national polity. As I shall demonstrate below, this is an example of what Giorgio Agamben calls bare life, a form of existence that Hannah Arendt claims as the most perilous and precarious in the modern world.[6]


It should not take too much to persuade the reader that, for a long time in postwar Japan, Korean residents were poor—poorer than their Japanese contemporaries, and poorer than Koreans in Japan are today. With a certain audacity, I might even claim that, for a substantial period, Koreans in Japan had only two cultural assets—a culture of nationalism and a culture of poverty. Koreans were poor, known to be poor, and expected to behave like poor people. This meant that, in the scheme of Japanese stereotyping of Koreans, they were associated with an array of damnable, beastly, and barbaric characteristics including a benighted querulousness, lack of education and intelligence, crude and slow wits, an easily excitable nature, opportunism, dishonesty, and deceptiveness. These were distinctly colonial characterizations of Koreans in Japan by the Japanese media and authorities.[7] But ironically, in the postcolonial self-understanding of Koreans in Japan, poverty and violence loomed large, as these formed part of the unmistakable heritage that Korean expatriate decolonization in Japan had to deal with.

And that violence, that ethnic Korean brand of violence, the intensity of which Japanese sectioned off in urban ghettos such as Sanya or Kamagasaki, readily found its way into Korean homes, fiercely inflicted upon weaker members of the family by the patriarch. The oft-quoted figure of the areru chichi or violent father, however, was also seen as burning with the flames of patriotism—there was always a good justification for his actions, as he had been destroyed, abused, exploited, and mentally injured by Japanese imperialism and colonial rule. Note that this portrayal was not found in the writings of Japanese commentators, let alone state-commissioned researchers, but in the writings of ethnic Korean writers in Japan.[8]

Strangely, however, the poverty of Koreans was not represented or perceived (by Koreans themselves) as a class phenomenon. It was, rather, an ethnic property. Just as Japan’s so-called “untouchables,” the burakumin, were associated with poverty, Korean neighborhoods were referred to as chōsenburaku or Korean hamlets (or ghettos, in more contemporary language). These consisted of persons engaged in a range of activities (and lack of activity) associated with poverty—raising pigs, collecting cardboard boxes and glass bottles, gathering old nails and melting them in backyards, the ubiquitous day laboring, and chronic unemployment. Families lived in shacks that sometimes had no running water, often using shared outhouses. Men were often heavily dependent on alcohol, which consumed the meager earnings from their daily labors. Women tried to cling to these paltry funds in order to provide for the children. Women also worked, often illegally and with a sense of humiliation, at times brewing rice wine or collecting scrap metal on the streets, all the while nursing and raising children. I have perhaps made the wrong emphasis here—humiliation was not foremost in their thoughts, rather they were preoccupied with the desperate struggle for survival.

All of this, however, remained in the ghetto. Indeed, as long as Koreans did not try to take advantage of the limited forms of welfare offered by local municipalities, there was hardly anything the Japanese government owed them—that is, speaking from the perspective of Japan’s domestic law. This is because, following their 1952 forfeiture of Japanese nationality, Koreans became officially and completely extra-territorials in the eyes of the Japanese government. That is, with the signing of the San Francisco Treaty between the US and Japan in 1952, Koreans lost all the legal properties associated with national belonging in Japan. Instead, thereafter, they became extra-national temporary residents, or sojourners, many of them stateless persons, to be precise. Thus they came to be excluded from veterans’ benefits, atomic bomb victims’ benefits, disability benefits, the national pension plan, national government welfare, and all other nationalized forms of social security. To be sure—and this is important—many Koreans were the recipients of seikatsuhogo, “livelihood protection,” a rescue measure implemented by local municipalities (not the national government). But no access was provided to national-level benefits and welfare. As such, the poverty of this group did not constitute a domestic class problem for the Japanese nation-state. The year 1952 therefore constituted an important juncture in the history of Koreans in Japan. I shall return to this point later.


Historically speaking, Koreans played an important role in the formation of the modern Japanese working class, Japanese trade unionism, and the Communist movement, both during the colonial and postcolonial periods. At the height of the Comintern’s intervention in the Korean and Japanese Communist movements during the 1920s, Korean communists in Japan, following the Comintern policy of one party per nation, joined their Japanese comrades in the name of trans-ethnic working class solidarity. The Korean comrades were famed for their level of commitment and fearless determination, and their activities often led to injury or imprisonment.[9]

When the war ended, there were 2.4 million Koreans in Japan, most of whom were repatriated during the years immediately following Japan’s defeat. Repatriation took place in a chaotic atmosphere, with virtually no administrative assistance provided by the Japanese or Occupation authorities. By 1948, only about 590,000 Koreans remained in Japan.[10] During the early years of the US Occupation (1945-47), leftist movements in Japan regained momentum. Koreans joined this wave by maintaining strong connections with working-class, progressive, and communist forces. Throughout East Asia, activists worked under the assumption that socialist revolutions would spread, domino-like, following the establishment of North Korea (1948) and the People’s Republic of China (1949). On this premise, it was argued that if the Korean left wanted to support Korea’s socialist revolution and the goal of national unification under North Korea’s leadership, it had to first join forces with Japanese communists in their efforts to bring down the current reactionary Japanese government.[11]

The headquarter of Choryeon (top) and Mindan (bottom) in Tokyo

The above belief in itself had not prevented leftist Koreans from forming their own organization. Within two months of the war’s ending, in October 1945, the League of Koreans in Japan (zainichi chōsenjin renmei in Japanese and chaeilbon choseonin ryeonmaeng in Korean), commonly referred to as Choryeon, was founded. This body was soon to be confronted with a rival nationalist organization, the Association of Koreans Remaining in Japan (zainichi kankoku kyoryÅ« mindan in Japanese and chaeil hanguk keoryu mindan), commonly known as Mindan. While it is conventionally (and not completely erroneously) understood that Choryeon supported north Korea while Mindan backed south Korea (reflecting Korea’s partition as of 1945 into a Sovietized north and an American Military Government-run south), the operational mechanisms of expatriate politics reflected boundaries that were far more complex, ambiguous, and unstable. For example, Choryeon had a Seoul office in South Korea. Moreover, the majority of Koreans remaining in Japan originated from the southern provinces of Kyeongsang, Cheolla, and Cheju, thereby rendering it somewhat unnatural that Choryeon enjoyed support among this population, unless one remembered that Koreans (and others also) in those days regarded the country’s partition as a temporary state-of-affairs soon to be resolved. Koreans of both left- and right-wing persuasions shared fiercely anti-Japanese and nationalistic sentiments and a strong desire to gain complete independence through a unified Korea. What divided them were differing views on how best to achieve the common goal of national reunification and independence from foreign occupation: one camp wanted to unify Korea under North Korean-style socialism, while the other wanted to free the peninsula from revolutionary influences associated with the Soviet Union and China.


The left sought to build a supra-national class coalition. Ironically, such possibilities were augmented by the suppression of the left by Japanese and Occupation authorities. In 1949, Occupation authorities and Japanese military police responded to Choryeon’s support for North Korea, by closing down Choryeon’s headquarters, outlawing it and confiscating its properties, assets, and savings. This was the first application of the Prevention of Destruction Law or hakai bōshihō. Earlier, in 1948, Korean schools operated by Choryeon had been forcibly shut down under the provisions of Martial Law, resulting in deaths and injuries.[12]

In the wake of these developments, Korean left-nationalists had no choice but to join the Japanese Communist Party, which had not been suppressed by the authorities. However, this marriage of convenience soon showed signs of strain. The frustrations of Korean members intensified following the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, compounded by disillusionment when the promised East Asian revolution failed to materialize. Fierce debate took place among Korean members, some stressing solidarity with the international working class movement, and others calling for prioritization of national goals and efforts to end the bloody conflict on the peninsula. This debate was brought to an end unexpectedly by communiqués issued by the North Korean Foreign Minister in 1952, which expressed North Korea’s willingness to enter into normal diplomatic relations with the Japanese government currently in power.[13]

Following this development, Koreans withdrew en masse from the Japanese Communist Party and, after a few years of internal purges and fierce debates, re-organized as the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryun in its abbreviated Korean form. In retrospect, the emergence of Chongryun in 1955 completed the process of banishment of Koreans in Japan from the Japanese national polity first initiated through the 1952 forfeiture of Japanese nationality. The classification of exiled Koreans as sojourners, rather than as members of the society of the host nation, amounted to a postcolonial settlement in dual terms—for the Japanese government, which could now completely banish Koreans from any form of national planning, and also for Koreans in Japan themselves, who thus freed themselves from the legacy of Japanese colonial subjugation while remaining in Japan. Indeed, in the latter case, it was precisely because they continued to stay on in Japan that they had to self-exile themselves from the Japanese nation-state.

Chongryun, in contrast to Choryeon, renounced all forms of intervention in Japan’s domestic politics. Instead, it declared itself to be the organization representing North Korea overseas. This meant that Chongryun would not wage campaigns demanding civil rights, economic and social benefits, provision of medical care, or other civic entitlements provided by the Japanese government. It recognized these as rights reserved exclusively for Japanese citizens. Furthermore, it renounced the use of unlawful violence in all aspects of its activities, and declared itself to be a law-abiding organization in Japan. This marked the virtual disappearance of Koreans from Japanese left-wing movements. In exchange, Chongryun secured relative autonomy to operate its own schools with its own academic curricula. As long as its schools were not accredited as Level 1 schools, or ichijōkō, those classified by the Ministry of Education as capable of issuing academic certificates and degrees, the pedagogical contents of programs offered at these institutions would be left untouched by the ministry. At the same time, however, Chongryun schools would not be entitled to public subsidies, thereby freeing the ministry from the burden of having to finance the education of Korean students enrolled in Chongryun schools. Chongryun enjoyed substantial support among Koreans in Japan. At the time of its founding, Japanese intelligence estimated that as many as 90 percent of Koreans in Japan sympathized with and supported North Korea.[14]

Ethnic Korean students study at a Chongryun-funded
elementary school in Tokyo. 2007.

In short, by 1955, within three years of being deprived of Japanese citizenship, Koreans in Japan (or at least Chongryun and its affiliates, which accounted for the majority of Koreans at the time) had banished or exiled themselves from the Japanese civic terrain. During the period when their status had been ambiguous, that is to say, in 1949, when they were not legally excluded from Japanese citizenship status under the Occupation, they were “outlawed”; in 1952, they were excluded from Japanese civic entitlements; in 1955, Koreans themselves embraced this marginalization by effectively declaring that they had no wish to be counted within Japan’s civic life.

From then on, Koreans were erased from Japan’s national census, national surveys, GDP calculations, and income charts. They were also denied veterans’ pensions, payments for medical expenses for victims of the atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and welfare and social security payments. Further, they were denied access to national healthcare, the right to hold civil and public service jobs, and the right to vote, while they remained obligated to pay taxes in a classical form of “taxation without representation.” Fundamentally speaking, their exclusion (and self-exclusion) occluded them from class categorizations—there was, in other words, no way to include them in discussions and conceptualizations of socio-economic class formation and transformation in postwar Japan, since they had been stripped of civil status and privileges. More figuratively speaking, being a member of a certain class stands on the prerequisite of being a member of a national state polity: if one is not a national, one does not belong to any class, either.

But that is not all. Up until 1965, Japan recognized neither the governments of South Korea nor North Korea. Alien registration certificates carried by Koreans in Japan would include the terms chōsen (a general term for Korea; often used to refer to North Korea) or kankoku (South Korea). However, the Japanese government’s immigration bureau is on record as stating that neither term refers to a nationality.[15] It may not be intuitively obvious to the reader today, but up until 1965, Koreans in Japan had no official nationality available for them, since neither kankoku or chōsen written on the Japanese alien registration certificate meant a nation. Since 1965, following normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea, kankoku came to be deemed as a nationality. But even today, a minority of Koreans in Japan continues to have chōsen (Korea) entered in the space for “nationality” on their alien registration documents. This term does not denote a nationality, since there is no nation simply called Korea in the world. To this day, Japan does not recognize North Korea, which is often associated with the alien registration status under the name chōsen; no precedent exists to the effect that the North Korean government grants Koreans residing in Japan North Korean nationality. The oft-displayed understanding that those whose alien registration bears the label chōsen are the citizens of North Korea or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea living in Japan, therefore, is preposterous. Nevertheless, I emphasize, just as in the case of the 1955 self-banishment of (Chongryun) Koreans from Japan’s national polity, the self-declaration of these individuals as being North Koreans in Japan was a solid reality, if only on a rhetorical level, during the years immediately following Chongryun’s emergence.


The newly acquired name for the Korean left, “overseas nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” ethnicized their identity. For them, the bedrock of their consciousness was patriotism, not class-consciousness. Note also, that regardless of what Koreans thought they were, they had no citizenship or nationality. Their idea of being “overseas citizens of North Korea” was a baseless illusion recognized neither by North Korea nor by Japan, nor for that matter by any state or international organization.

North Korea does not issue passports to persons living overseas, and there is no documentation or paperwork inside North Korea that registers Koreans in Japan as citizens of the nation residing abroad. The only time North Korea has officially acknowledged that Koreans in Japan could potentially be North Korean nationals was when it entered into a formal agreement with the Japanese Red Cross so that Koreans could be repatriated from Japan to North Korea in 1959. It is extremely interesting to note that, as discussed in recent research by Tessa Morris-Suzuki, the Japanese government anticipated that the number of Korean would-be returnees to North Korea would total around 60,000. This just happened to be the number of Koreans receiving seikatsuhogo or “livelihood protection” (similar to, but not identical with, social security) through the minimal benefits program offered by Japanese local governments in the 1950s, and Morris-Suzuki suspects that the numerical equivalence here is not totally coincidental. As such, for the Japanese government, the issue of the Koreans and their poverty was to be resolved by physically eliminating them from Japanese soil.[16]

The repatriation of these individuals to North Korea, it should also be noted, became possible through the active assistance of the International Red Cross. It is ironical to observe that an international human rights organization assumed that the final, best solution was to move people from a country in which they had no claim to national citizenship to another where they were thought to belong. Here again, the human rights of Koreans in Japan were activated only when they were deemed as belonging to a certain country—even though there was no way of securing their return trip due to the lack of diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea. The ensuing tragedy was that Koreans who thought that they were returning “home” to North Korea found themselves marginalized, bereft of rights, and living under materially and politically harsh conditions.

From 1959 to 1976, 92,749 individuals were “repatriated” from Japan to North Korea. Considering that most Koreans in Japan originally came from the southern provinces, it was an inherently anomalous repatriation. Interestingly, no such mass repatriation of Koreans from Japan to South Korea took place following the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea in 1965, despite the fact that the majority of Koreans came originally from southern provinces. It is important to register that, due to pronatalist population policies that traced their origins back to the National Eugenics Law of 1940, Japan’s population continued to grow until the late 1960s, thereby obviating the need for migrant workers. It should also be remembered that postwar Japan was the destination for hundreds and thousands of Japanese returnees from overseas colonies, including Sakhalin, Mongolia, China, southeast Asia, and of course, Korea. As the defeated party in World War II and a nation in ruins, the former colonial master of Asia, Japan did not face an influx of (illegal) labor immigrants from outside. This meant that former colonial subjects, the majority of whom were Korean, were the only stateless persons in Japan.

As stated, it was not until 1965 that Koreans in Japan became eligible to adopt a nationality. Following diplomatic normalization between Japan and the Republic of Korea, Koreans in Japan could apply for South Korean nationality. What is extremely interesting is that permanent residence status in Japan was granted alongside South Korean nationality, and that this status made Koreans eligible for public housing, public medical care, and other benefits. It is clearly apparent from such an example that it is only when a person acquires a nationality that human rights begin to be accorded to that person.

Morally speaking, this measure was, of course, unjustifiable: why should the Japanese government only provide benefits to those Koreans in Japan who applied for South Korean nationality, while its colonial rule had subjugated the entire Korean peninsula? This remains an enigma until one considers the historical background of Cold War politics. As the dominant force in the postwar East Asian geopolitical environment, the US wholeheartedly connived in the above strategy. More fundamentally, the post-WWII global order presupposed a person’s belonging to a national polity as the most important condition for that person to be considered human—not the other way around. And this meant that the 1965 treaty left those Koreans who did not opt to identify themselves with South Korea stateless and hence, non-human in terms of human rights. Here is another instance of what Arendt describes: “Man, it turns out, can lose all so-called Rights of Man without losing his essential quality as man, his human dignity. Only the loss of a polity itself expels him from humanity.”[17] As long as the globe remains sliced up into national sovereign states, non-nationals or the de-nationalized will remain stateless, homeless, and rightless. They are rightless not because they are legally discriminated against, but because they are outside of the law. In a way, a convicted murderer has more normal human rights than the denationalized. And the denationalized is disenfranchised from domestic national class stratification: he has no class.

In this light, it should be clear how erroneous it is for many of those conducting research on Koreans in Japan, and especially those with a political conscience and a passion for justice, to argue that Koreans in Japan are treated as sub-humans, second-class citizens, and discriminated against inside Japanese society. For, they are not discriminated against inside Japanese society, since they are actually outside Japanese society, this arising from the fact that they are merely and nakedly human, and not sub-human. Furthermore, to argue that they are treated like second-class citizens would be to miss the central point that they are in no sense citizens in any class whatsoever.


Arendt once wrote:

Not only did loss of national rights in all instances entail the loss of human rights; the restoration of human rights, as the recent example of the State of Israel proves, has been achieved so far only through the restoration or the establishment of national rights. The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships—except that they were still human. The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.[18]

But in Japan’s case and also, therefore, in the case of non-Japanese in Japan, there was another peculiar twist, aptly depicted in the words of Zygmunt Bauman:

If birth and nation are one, then all the others who enter or wish to enter the national family must mimic, or are compelled to emulate, the nakedness of the newborn. The state—the guardian and prison guard, the spokesman and the censor-in-chief of the nation—would see to it that this condition was met.[19]

It is more than interesting to remember that persons who are naturalized in Japan are referred to as shinnihonjin or “new Japanese,” as if to indicate re-birth or a new life or, even more controversially, as kikajin, kika meaning a “return” to the correct state, implying that being Japanese or becoming Japanese is fundamentally right (and good) for humanity. This is all too deceptive, considering that a person who used to be only a naked human was not treated as human, while a person who had become a national was now treated as human for the first time.[20]

The enthusiasm and sense of profound commitment with which former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichirō (in power from 2001 to 2006) talked about the possible amendment of Article Nine of the Constitution need to be understood in this context, since this amendment would enable Japan to declare war against other nations: the possibility of war is the possibility of emergency, and further, a state of emergency is a state in which non-nationals can be exterminated more easily than at other times. Controversial behavior by the governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintarō, should also be seen in this light, that is, as evidence of a craving to declare a legal civil war in order to eliminate undesirable elements. Of particular note is his 2000 reference to foreigners and immigrants as daisangokujin, or “third country nationals,” a term used to denote non-Japanese, non-Allied nationals (i.e. former colonial subjects) in occupied Japan, branding them as responsible for social unrest. (During the same period, public school teachers that were sympathetic to the Koreans and/or resistant to the singing of Kimigayo, Japan’s national anthem that reveres the Emperor, were criticized and punished).[21]

Ishihara Shintarō, the governor of Tokyo

For, the exception here derives from ex capere, meaning “outside,” and a state of exception is a state in which the law makes itself known by suspending itself. This is an effective way to control a population that exists outside ordinary national law.[22] Of course, undesirable elements can include both nationals and non-nationals. The unknowable number of victims in concentration camps in North Korea and the testimonials of those who have escaped attest to this. Yet here, also, the degree of belonging to the nation became manifest in an unmistakable way: returnees to North Korea from Japan were often sent to camps that had been specially reserved for them, marking them out as a distinctly superfluous population, for example.[23]

Japan used to have a camp that was designated for the detention of illegal border crossers and offenders of the Alien Registration Law (i.e. non-nationals) awaiting deportation. ÅŒmura shÅ«yōjo, or the ÅŒmura camp, used to detain offenders for years without trial and no clear plans for their placement—reminiscent of US Guantanamo Bay facility today.[24] The majority of Korean detainees at the ÅŒmura camp originated from the southern provinces that belong to today’s South Korea. But, since the South Korean government refused to accept deportees from Japan, they became wandering stateless persons and were placed in semi-permanent protective custody.

ÅŒmura Immigration Control Center today in Nagasaki

This case points to an important factor in thinking about the bare life of stateless persons: in situations such as national emergencies or where certain decisions have been made at the national level, a person can easily become stateless, even if deemed to be in possession of a proper nationality. This was the case for Japanese Americans in the US after Pearl Harbor, when even those who were US citizens were sent to camps.[25] Not only that—inside the camps, they were studied as some kind of naked species whose reactions were meant to be used to inform the US government about the Japanese national character. Prominent anthropologists such as John Embree participated in this endeavor.[26] In other words, as stated above, states of emergency such as wars make anything possible—the elimination of humans, detention of undesirable elements, and deprivation of some citizens of their civil rights as the sovereign state sees fit.

The fact that the ÅŒmura camp has been relieved of its special duty as a place of detention for Koreans does not mean that the possibility of being incarcerated in a similar institution in future has been permanently removed. In the case of a national emergency, such as a war of the kind that Japan’s recent prime ministers were eager to have the option of participating in, it is non-nationals that would be the first to face detention in the name of national security.[27]


In 1981, simultaneous with Japan’s ratification of the International Covenants for Human Rights and joining the United Nations Refugee Convention, Koreans in Japan who did not have South Korean nationality were given permanent residence in Japan. Their status was termed tokurei eijÅ«ken, or special exceptional permanent residence, and the Japanese Immigration Bureau subsequently issued such persons re-entry permits for Japan, allowing them to travel abroad. Many Koreans whose family members had been repatriated to North Korea after 1959 were now able to travel to North Korea to be reunited temporarily with their families. However, due to Cold War tensions between the two halves of the Korean peninsula, it remained impossible to visit both North and South—it was an either/or decision at that time.

It was during the 1980s that many situational (not structural) changes were made in the topography of Koreans in Japanese society. First, there was an influx of Koreans from South Korea after the 1988 liberalization of overseas travel by the South Korean government. Secondly, inside the Korean expatriate movement, there was a considerable easing in the hitherto confrontational positions held by pro-South Korea and pro-North Korea camps in light of moves toward ending the global Cold War. Thirdly, and in connection with the above, it became accepted inside the Korean community in Japan that the first generation’s myth of an eventual return to the homeland was not going to be achieved. The generations born in Japan came to realize that they and their children would spend the rest of their lives in Japan.

In 1992, all Korean permanent residents, including those who had acquired permanent residence following the 1965 treaty and those who had acquired it in the years following 1981, found themselves under a common classification as special permanent residents, or tokubetsu eijūsha. This change was accompanied by a diverse range of improvements in the residential status of Koreans in Japan, including a softening in deportation stipulations for those found guilty in felony cases. But, it should be emphasized that, unlike US permanent residence, which can be seen as a transient status which naturally bridges the gap between the status of foreign national and that of US citizen, special permanent residence status in Japan is no guarantee of eventual citizenship. Japanese citizenship which may only be obtained through naturalization, an arduous process with no guarantee of success.

In the meantime, ambiguity remains the constant for Koreans in Japan in terms of their national affiliations. Those with South Korean nationality differ from those living in the Republic of Korea in that they do not have resident registration numbers, 13-digit IDs initiated about four decades ago that combine birth date, gender, a code for the region in which the holder was first registered and their order of registration.[28] This ID number is computerized and is required for the completion of basic tasks such as internet registration. Unless one has a number that can be identified in the Korean Information and Security Agency database, one is, for practical purposes, not a national. Koreans in Japan who have South Korean nationality do not bear such a number and do not appear in the database. For this reason, if the South Korean passport carried by a Korean traveler from Japan expires while he or she is abroad, a South Korean embassy or consulate in the given country cannot renew or reissue it. Current conditions under which Koreans in Japan retain South Korean nationality also exempt them from military service and taxation. In exchange, they are not eligible to vote or stand for election. In other words, their South Korean “nationality” is of a dubious sort.

On the other hand, those Koreans in Japan who do not have South Korean nationality, numerically in the minority today, remain stateless. But, paradoxically, rather than being recognized as stateless persons, often in popular consciousness, they are regarded as “North Koreans.” There is no form of North Korean nationality recognized at any level of Japan’s legal and juridical system, since North Korea is not recognized by the Japanese state. Yet, the Cold War ideology of non-South Korean equaling North Korean lingers on, triggering abuse and violence by Japanese perpetrators toward those not holding South Korean nationality and/or those affiliated with the North Korea-supporting expatriate organization, Chongryun, whenever there is any sign of hostility between the Japanese and North Korean governments. After the September 17, 2002, revelation that North Korean agents had kidnapped a total of thirteen innocent Japanese from Japan’s shores during the 1970s and 1980s, Koreans in this category became the most vulnerable. It should also be emphasized that the North Korean government, in the face of the persecution of the so-called “North Koreans” in Japan, made next to no effort to protect them.

It would be this group of stateless Koreans, whose form of existence is nakedly human without the official recognition of any nation-state, that would be the first to be loaded onto the trucks, possibly after being given one hour’s notice to pack one item of luggage, and sent away to the camps. The erasure of Koreans from Japan’s domestic socio-economic surveys has to be understood in this context. In other words, it should be clear that, far from enjoying the privilege of belonging to the lowest strata in Japan’s class structure, Koreans have been, and continue to be, fundamentally and unequivocally excluded from this structure. This is why their historical poverty must be considered ethnic poverty and vulnerability, and not a class phenomenon, in the context of Japan’s national order.[29]


Turning our attention to internal class-consciousness, or the lack thereof, among Koreans in Japan, reference to Chongryun will illuminate the situation. Chongryun actively promoted the view that the poverty of Koreans in Japan was an ethnic problem, firstly caused by colonial oppression, and later through continuing discrimination by the Japanese state. Rather than placing Koreans inside Japanese society, and subsequently demanding that the Japanese government grant Koreans the appropriate economic, political, and basic civil rights, Chongryun focused on raising the profile of North Korea among Japanese sympathizers on one hand, while organizing Korean affiliates as loyal followers of the North Korean regime and of Chongryun itself on the other. Strategically, it thus formed a broad ethnic front, soliciting mass support for itself. Backgrounding its success was the image of a South Korean regime tainted by support from the US and ruled by a military regime known for violently suppressing student and worker protests.

In Chongryun’s official rhetoric, all Koreans in Japan were destined to “be embraced in the warm bosom of our glorious socialist fatherland,” their sojourn in Japan only temporary in nature. As such, internal differences among Koreans in Japan—be they related to level of education or size of wealth—had to be disregarded. For, according to Chongryun, Koreans in Japan formed one united people dedicated to the eventual reunification of their fatherland and the “liberation of their brothers and sisters in South Korea from the US imperialist wolves and their puppet clique.”

Chongryun was able to sustain this notion for two decades or so due to the ethnic marginalization of Koreans as a whole in Japan, and occasionally explicit and blatant acts of discrimination specifically targeted at Chongryun and its affiliates. Chongryun’s political deprivation and impotence in Japan actually strengthened its internal unity, the unity of an ethnic community that was discriminated against due to its political allegiance. This further delayed recognition of the fact that affiliates of the organization were, in fact, divided from each other in multiple ways as a result of the uneven distribution of economic, political, and social capital.

Class divisions evidently existed among Chongryun followers from the very beginning. But this reality was made part of the larger expatriate cause for the reunification of Korea under North Korean initiative. Wealthy donors were decorated and highly praised by both Chongryun and the North Korean government, called aegukjeok sanggongin or patriotic industrialists and entrepreneurs. Their children received special treatment in schools, along with the children of highly ranked cadres. They were given offices in Sanggonghoe or the Korean Association of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, an auxiliary organization within Chongryun. Indeed, they played a key role in enhancing the morale as well as the economic foundation of Chongryun’s endeavors. Here, class division was occluded and deemed secondary—patriotic commitment and loyalty toward North Korea’s leadership formed the utmost priority in Chongryun’s rhetoric and practice.

It was from the early 1980s that inequalities and the uneven distribution of power inside Chongryun, and within North Korea itself for that matter, became the subject of attention for Chongryun affiliates on a number of levels. However, again, this was not done with reference to class differentiation within Chongryun, but through criticism of its bureaucratization by disgruntled voices within the organization. Such criticisms, however, ultimately proved to be ineffective. This was due to the fact that if any Chongryun member wished to leave the organization, there was virtually no sanction that the organization could actually place upon him or her: all he or she had to do was to leave and continue to live on the margins of Japanese society, albeit disenfranchised, as he or she had done until then in any case. By the 1980s, the Cold War mentality of “either with us or against us” had subsided, and unhappy individuals inside Chongryun were prepared to leave the organization. Although this did not mean that they would immediately support South Korea from that point on, the iron curtain, it was understood, had been lifted, and elements of the Korean population in Japan, especially the younger generations, looked to the middle ground.

We must remember that, whereas the transition from a labor-intensive to a capital-intensive economy occurred during the 1960s for the Japanese mainstream, it only reached Koreans in Japan in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, such a transition did take place: the decades of hard work and hardship (and I mean, literally, twelve hours or more a day of labor for starvation-level wages, virtually no savings, and other aspects of the culture of poverty) that older generations endured began to pay off, enabling them to leave Korean ghettos for decent residential areas, provide their children with a higher education, and enjoy some real leisure. In short, the problem of Korean poverty was mainly resolved due to the endurance of the Koreans themselves, outside the planning frameworks and concerns of the Japanese government.

Post-poverty younger generations were altogether different. First off, they were employable in Japanese sectors, unlike their uneducated parents. In a cultural sense, too, they were no longer brought up simply with nationalism, but were also well versed in Japanese contemporary popular culture and socially accepted standards. Politically, in comparison with their parents and grandparents, they no longer had such a fierce interest, nor such a deep personal and professional investment, in homeland-oriented politics.

As stated above, by becoming permanent residents of Japan, Chongryun Koreans gained documentation allowing them to travel abroad. Although the application procedures were maddeningly cumbersome, this re-entry permit enabled Chongryun Koreans to leave Japan and return. The first destination many Chongryun Koreans chose to visit was, predictably, North Korea, partly to be united with their repatriated family members, and partly to be educated “in the bosom of the fatherland.” Various tours were offered—family reunion tours (long-term and short-term), cadre re-education courses (two-week trips up to one-year stays), delegation visits (either based on political merit or monetary payment), professional training visits (for artists, performing artists, musicians, Korean language teachers, and so on), and high-school tours (as prizes for best Youth League unit or winner of nation-wide athletic meets, for example), to cite only a few categories.

Chongryun visitors to North Korea quickly discovered that the glorious socialist fatherland that they had adored and admired was very far from the “paradise on earth” they had expected to find. Previously repatriated members of their families were not given the opportunity to fully participate in nation building, suspected as they were of lacking in loyalty and seen as having been contaminated by reactionary ideologies. Party supervisors assigned to Chongryun visitors treated them in an arrogant and often sexist manner (in the case of male supervisors with respect to female visitors). Chongryun visitors were not accorded freedom of movement; even journalists had to be accompanied by supervisors and were often denied access to fieldtrips for no clear reason.[30]

On a more personal level, Chongryun visitors were harassed, ridiculed, and simply treated with very little respect: flaws in their Japanese-accented Korean were met with contempt, and even their clothing, hairstyles and posture were monitored and pedantically corrected. For many, following a wave of emotional upheaval during their initial visit, repeat visits only confirmed their disillusionment. Chongryun Koreans, even including cadres, who had been born and grew up in Japan, found harassment by the party in relation to such miniscule and insignificant areas of their personal lives not only irritating, but deeply insulting. They failed to understand the way North Korean socialism worked—through heavy ideologico-cultural policing and incessant intervention by the state into the personal realm. This is because Chongryun Koreans, and especially those of younger generations, are individuals that have cultivated a remarkable level of competence in distinguishing between organizational and non-organizational spheres, having spent all of their lives in Japan while remaining devoted to the success of North Korea.[31] In a way, the newly-granted right of overseas travel acted as an opening for the development of a new, critical vision of both North Korea and Chongryun itself.

Such looming skepticism coincided with changes in the economic status of Koreans in Japan. Not everyone, of course, achieved the dizzying success of Son Masayoshi, a naturalized ethnic Korean entrepreneur, but it is true that many second and third-generation Koreans succeeded in a competitive market environment. Although many failed in the 1990s recession, for a good part of the 1980s, younger Koreans acquired valuable experience as part of Japan’s economy, albeit from the margins and in a more precarious position than their Japanese contemporaries. No longer were they confined to running pachinko pinball halls and yakiniku (BBQ) restaurants, and when they did engage in such types of enterprise, young owners introduced fresh and innovative commercial strategies that no longer bore the marks of a culture of poverty. Trendy, odor-free BBQ restaurants became popular date spots for young couples in Tokyo, while pachinko halls began catering to women players, featuring annexes with soft interiors and a children’s corner.

Son Masayoshi, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Softbank Mobile
as well as Softbank group. Son is one of Japan's richest entrepreneurs.

The trajectories of such individuals can be contrasted with those of Koreans newly arriving in Japan in their hundreds and thousands at the beginning of the 1990s. The South Korean government started to issue passports to ordinary citizens around the time of the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988, and many visitors on various types of visa began pouring into Japanese cities, coming close to replicating the Korean ghettos of earlier periods; that is, creating their own enclaves for social gatherings. These typically included small restaurants or bars with non-generic, Japanized names (of the kind often seen in business premises owned by earlier generations of Koreans in Japan). However, such names might refer to a small country town or street, easily recognized as an “insider” location by Korean natives. Such eateries and bars might also often have Korean signage—an unmistakable sign of the newcomers.

More importantly, at least during the initial stage following their migration to Japan, kinship ties and the circle of family friends served as the most effective sources of recruitment. Thus, earlier generations of Koreans and their descendants (the “old-comers”) became the major employers of the newcomer Koreans. This inevitably re-arranged the self-perceptions of long-term Korean residents in Japan. Although confined within the ethnic sector, “old-comers” now faced the somewhat bewildering realization that they were the preferred employers of newly-arrived Korean workers.[32] The arrival of these new Korean immigrants, whose Japanese proficiency was poor, customs and mannerisms obviously different, capital insignificant and appearance foreign, led to the noticeable gentrification of “old-comer” Koreans in Japan. This, of course, paradoxically also meant that the latter became less easily distinguishable from the Japanese mainstream in terms of class and ethnicity. Is this the case, though? Let us see.


I have dwelt so far on the topology of Koreans in Japan’s national landscape. In this final short segment, I shall look at the class morphology of Koreans in Japan—if there is any, that is. Given the dearth of survey data pertaining to Koreans in Japan, Kim Myungsoo’s 1995 survey shines with significance. While its sample is confined to a very narrow category of Korean men in Japan who have South Korean nationality and are aged twenty and above, and a comparable set of Japanese men, the survey results shed light on correlations between economic status, education, and social status. The responses of 889 Korean male permanent residents in Japan were obtained in ten interviews conducted between February 1995 and October 1996. These were compared with the responses of 1248 Japanese men aged between twenty and sixty-nine, obtained through interviews conducted in October and November 1995. Kim finds surprisingly that as the average Korean mean income slightly surpassed that of the Japanese. Very little disparity was also noted in terms of years of education, with a mean of 12.01 years for the Koreans and 12.35 for the Japanese.[33]

Where the Korean data deviates from the Japanese pattern is in the patterns for advancement in society. Whereas for Japanese respondents, length of education correlated with social status, education did not secure comparable upward mobility for the Koreans. At the same time, as many as 70 percent of Korean respondents primarily depended on family and friends, that is, ethnic connections in order to secure employment, and they predominantly ended up among the ranks of the urban self-employed.[34] In Kim’s sample, 42.3 percent of Japanese respondents are white-collar workers as opposed to 26.6 percent of their Korean counterparts, while 23.2 percent of Japanese respondents are self-employed as opposed to 52.1 percent of their Korean counterparts.[35] Of particular significance is the fact that the educational level of Korean fathers was not reflected in the degree of social advancement of their sons, demonstrating that cultural capital does not have the same value for Koreans and Japanese once they are placed in the Japanese (national) job market.[36] A key difference lies in the fact that Koreans are unable to turn to formal Japanese government agencies in order to secure employment given their non-national status (I have already discussed what it means not to have national status).

The breakdown of occupations for Koreans is also indicative: 11.57 percent working in restaurants, 16.07 percent in construction, 12 percent in simple manufacturing, and 8.3 percent unemployed; hardly any are found in the professional or executive sub-class. Not surprisingly, Kim finds that the older the Korean male, the more disadvantaged he is in the job market.[37]

Myungsoo Kim concludes “that employment opportunities and status attainment processes among Korean minority members [in Japan] are in fact far from being fully equal in comparison with the Japanese as the data analyzed in this article indicates, even though the outcome of Korean minority status attainment here appears to have reached levels similar to those of the Japanese.”[38] Compare this with Bumsoo Kim, whose words are quoted in the opening of this article, arguing that class is becoming a more important factor than ethnicity when thinking about Koreans in Japan. Both Kims hold that the livelihood and career achievement of Koreans in Japan today are improving and becoming comparable to their Japanese contemporaries. Yet, in contrast to B. Kim, who regards ethnicity as no longer being as relevant as class, M. Kim shows that large disparities remain between Japanese and Koreans within the Japanese nation state. How should one understand this?

We are dealing here with a parallel phenomenon: the job attainment, living standard, income level and other quantitative indicators documented for Koreans in Japan stand on fundamentally different mathematical (figuratively speaking, that is) footing than that of Japanese nationals. Consider the fact that the government retirement plan is unavailable to many first-generation Koreans in Japan. This makes the family savings of Koreans something other than simply money saved, since it will have to finance elder care single-handedly with no government subsidies. Consider also the fact that large numbers of Koreans continue to work in ethnic enclaves. This makes for situations in which family income remains vulnerable, work hours are much longer, and labor, much more intense and arduous for Koreans. Consider further the fact that the Korean children grow up fully understanding that public service careers such as those of a government official, diplomat or public school teacher are not an option. This renders their ethics of socialization, aspirations for job attainment, and economic goals altogether different than those of Japanese children.[38] Why these differences? It is because the situation of nationals and non-nationals are not comparable since non-nationals not only are denied access to many career avenues but are also excluded from many of the benefits provided to citizens in ways that differentiate class stratification. In sum, as long as Koreans in Japan have no national membership (not just in Japan, but also in Korea, North or South), they will be unable to fully enter the system of class stratification in Japan or Korea.

It is true that many local governments have opened the door to Koreans and non-Japanese, allowing them to obtain low-ranking civil service jobs—perhaps a first step in altering the excluded status of Koreans in Japan.[39] But, a high hurdle remains in the quest for civil status, as Japan is not a federation or a union of states: as long as the central government strenuously excludes Koreans in Japan, there is little that local municipalities can do. It came as no surprise, for example, that the Japanese Supreme Court upheld the decision by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to bar a civil servant from taking an exam for promotion to a managerial position due to her South Korean nationality; that is, her not being Japanese.[40] In other words, Koreans can be civil servants so long as they stick to sweeping the floors and cleaning the bathrooms; if they wish to be supervisors or managers, they will need to be reminded of the fact that they are merely human and not citizens.

As long as the system of nation-states governs our world, refugees, immigrants, and other stateless persons have no place in the domestic class stratification within individual nation-states. This does not mean that it is not possible (for scholars) to classify them or measure them according to national socio-economic classifications and surveys. Neither does this mean that they do not have class consciousness. But in the case of Koreans in Japan, who in effect have no citizenship, or (South Korean) citizenship of a precarious kind, it is no wonder that their class position has been ignored (even by themselves). Similarly, it is not surprising that factors such as poverty, which could otherwise lead to class formation, are constantly ethnicized.

In the US, poverty is racialized with the result that unemployment, high crime rates, lack of education, drug abuse, and other paraphernalia that fill the closet of poverty are associated with non-whiteness and other ethnic markers. Nevertheless, poverty which disproportionately confronts people of color and other minorities, is a national problem, one requiring the attention of Congress, national and local government budgets, and the object of legal and institutional reforms. Such is not the case for Koreans in Japan who remain outside all of these categories and largely invisible. As such, their exclusion from Japan’s system of class stratification is not because they are discriminated against as an ethnic minority or as second-class citizens inside Japan, but because they are not there, inside: they exist outside Japanese society, that is, they are banished from it. Without bearing this point in mind, any discussion of ethnicity or class factors, or the shifting weight of importance between these with regard to Koreans in Japan, will prove to be one-dimensional.


This paper was originally prepared for a workshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, organized by David Slater and Hiroshi Ishida, on social classes in Japan. I’d like to thank them for their astute comments, and other participants in the Michigan workshop for their constructive suggestions. I am indebted to Youngmi Lim, who provided me with valuable information and materials, including Kim Myungsoo’s article. Comments and suggestions by Tessa Morris-Suzuki and John Lie were immensely helpful for the revision of this paper. As usual, Mark Selden’s critical reading enhanced this article. And Don Cameron’s skillful copyediting benefited this paper beyond measure.


[1] Kim (2008: 871).

[2] Perhaps the best-known Althusserian class theorists would be Poulantzas (1973), Therborn (1986), and of course, Althusser (1984, 1990) himself. For Bourdieu, see (1977, 1984).

[3] Thompson (1964) and, more classically, Engels (1993).

[4] Of course, the increasing numbers of homeless in Japan’s cities are outside the domain of popular perception.

[5] I regard the view that facilely sees Koreans in Japan as “Korean Japanese” as unrealistic. See, for example, Tai (2004). Similarly, I include in this category authors who suggest that Koreans should simply acquire Japanese nationality. These include Tei (2001) and Lee (1997).

[6] See Agamben (1995) and Arendt (2000). See below in the text.

[7] See Weiner (1989).

[8] An array of historical and recent literary representations can testify to this effect, starting from writers such as Kin Kakuei (1970) and Ri Kaisei (1972), and later including Yang Seog-il (1998), and Kaneshiro (2000).

[9] History testifies, however, that the Korean members had to work extra hard, risking their lives and proving their bravery, in order to earn the trust of their Japanese comrades within the party, while it was almost unheard of for a Korean to rise to high-ranking office within the trade unions or the party in Japan. See Iwamura (1972) for example.

[10] Wagner (1951: 95).

[11] Kim (1946).

[12] Martial Law was proclaimed in Kobe, which witnessed the fiercest resistance. Three Koreans died—one teenager shot by the US military, one child dying from a head injury inflicted by the police, and one teacher murdered while in prison. See Inokuchi (2000) and Koshiro (1999) for some details.

[13] The North Korean initiative failed. The Japan-ROK treaty was not signed until 1965. Until then, North Korea tried to preempt South Korea by making various gestures including the 1952 communiqués and the opening of repatriation in 1959. See text below and Ryang (2000a) with regard to repatriation.

[14] Hiroyama (1955: 10).

[15] Ryang (1997: 122).

[16] Morris-Suzuki (2007). Morris-Suzuki discovered, by investigating newly de-classified papers, that the role played by the Japanese Red Cross was much more significant and decisive than had been previously thought.

[17] Arendt (2000: 38).

[18] Arendt (2000: 41).

[19] Bauman (2003: 130).

[20] An average of about 10,000 Koreans are naturalized each year as Japanese citizens. See Ministry of Justice statistics.

[21] Ishihara made the reference to Koreans and other non-nationals in Japan today as daisangokujin in front of the Ground Self-Defense Force. See “Mr. Ishihara’s Insensitivity,” The Japan Times April 15, 2000. (Accessed May 29, 2008).

[22] Agamben (2005). Much of Agamben’s ideas are derived from Schmitt’s notion of sovereignty (Schmitt 1922).

[23] See, for example, Kang (2001). For a totalitarian society, see Arendt (2000: 119-145).

[24] Pak (1969), Yoshitome (1979), and Pak (1983). Due to the South Korean government’s reluctance to accept any deportees from Japan, the camp was already overcrowded by the 1950s, and the Japanese government virtually gave up on the deportation of detainees (Tatsumi 1966). This intensified the nature of their limbo status.

[25] See for example, Kurashige (2002).

[26] Ryang (2004: Ch.1) for a discussion.

[27] Today ÅŒmura Detention Center is one of three detention centers under the Ministry of Justice, Immigration Office, of Japan. Still based in Nagasaki, southwestern Japan, it functions as a confinement and examination facility for illegal immigrants in Japan. Detainees usually end up being deported. According to recent Ministry of Justice statistics, during the year 2006, 7,807 persons of Korean nationality, 2,987 Thai citizens, 850 Malaysian citizens, 658 Indonesian citizens, and 480 Sri Lankan citizens were deported. (Accessed May 9, 2008).

[28] Kim (2005).

[29] It needs to be added that there has been a huge increase in the number of Koreans in Japan being naturalized. In 1969, 1,889 Koreans became naturalized; by 1995, the figure had jumped to 10,000. In 2001, the total number of naturalized persons (not only Koreans) exceeded 15,000 (See an article from Japan & Politics, March 11, 2002. Accessed May 8, 2008). These individuals would be absorbed within Japanese census figures, but it must be emphasized that deep-seated prejudices in Japanese society would lead many to feel ambiguous and ambivalent about being considered part of the Japanese national polity.

[30] My two visits in 1985 as a reporter for the Chongryun media organ, Choseon Sinbo (Korea Daily), attest to this. I was routinely tricked in relation to where I should meet my supervisor, where to go, and whom to talk to, while my hotel rooms were randomly changed every one or two days. I think this was done simply to confuse, exhaust, and harass me, so that I would not be able to properly complete my assignment covering the family reunions.

[31] Ryang (1997) discusses this issue.

[32] Ethnographic studies and other forms of research on Korean newcomers in Japan have been actively carried out in Japan. See Ko (1995), for example. See also Ryang (2000b, 2002b).

[33] Kim (2003: 8).

[34] Kim (2003: 14).

[35] Kim (2003: 9).

[36] Kim (2003: 14-15, 12).

[37] Kim (2003: 12, 11).

[38] I discuss this matter pertaining to ethnic ethics of care and justice in Chapter 4 “Diaspora and the Ethic of Care: A Note on Disability, Aging, and Vulnerability of the De-nationalized” of my Writing Selves in Diaspora: Ethnography of Autobiographics of Korean Women in Japan and the US (2008).

[39] Ahn (2000).

[40] Rusling (2005).


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Sonia Ryang teaches anthropology at the University of Iowa. Her forthcoming book will be entitled Writing Selves in Diaspora: Ethnography of Autobiographics of Korean Women in Japan and the US, will be published by Lexington Books in 2008. She is currently conducting a year-long, multi-sited research project on healthcare disparity among Iowans of Asian heritage.

She wrote this article for Japan Focus. Published June 8, 2008.

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Authors: For all articles by the author, click on author's name.   Sonia Ryang