Japan is home to many minority ethnicities. Some had travelled to the country during the more contemporary events, such as World War Two, whilst others took refuge in Japan during the Tokugawa period. Those include the Burakumin, Koreans and Ainu residents. In this essay, I will be speaking about migration patterns in Japan and how it affected the immigrants, focusing on Koreans who make up one of the largest minority ethnicity groups in Japan. Japanese colonial rule in Korea (1910–1945) and the World War Two (1939-1945) will be my target historical events. I will also describe what constitutes a sense of nationhood and what it means in the Japanese context.
Starting from the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan began transforming from a secluded outdated society into an industrialized world power under western terms. The authorities, aiming to modernize the state that would match the level of economic and civilizational development of western countries, decided to create a modern Japanese nation, aware of its uniqueness and distinctiveness. It was then that the theme of national identity appeared in the public discourse as an attempt to consolidate the Japanese around the idea of a unique nation. Foreign advisors and technology were imported to improve the country’s industrial, commercial, and educational development. Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War and in Russo-Japanese War helped Japan establish a reputation amongst the West. Eventually, Japan became increasingly interested in Korea, viewing it as an area for industrial and agricultural expansion and the next step towards gaining an imperial status. In 1910, the Japanese gained full influence in Korea which lasted until 1945 when the Japanese were defeated in World War Two.
When the Japanese Empire annexed the Korean Empire, shortly afterwards a Korean migration to Japan began. Deprived of their lands and employment opportunities in the colonial market economy, Koreans moved to Japan in search of work. By the late 1920s, their numbers in Japan exceeded 200,000. Japanese industries then started recruiting Koreans in order to solve their labour shortages. By 1939, Koreans were brought to Japan as forced labor and by 1945, 667,684 such Koreans were working under harsh conditions in Japan’s mines and factories. At the end of the Pacific War, there were about 2 million Koreans in Japan, the majority of them being unskilled physical laborers and their families. Some Koreans stayed in Japan after the war. More migrants arrived to Japan from Korea following the Jeju uprising (1948-49) and the devastation of the Korean War in the 1950s. In 1952, San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed and ended the occupation of Japan by the allies. Japan had to give up its territorial claims to Korea and effectively, Zainichi Koreans (Korean residents) lost their Japanese nationality. As a result, Zainichi Koreans were not able to receive government support or insurance and caused them to be shut out from public life and discriminated against. They also had no automatic right to obtain a Japanese citizenship or dual identity/citizenship and were deprived of voting rights.
By definition, a sense of nationhood is to have a sense of devotion to the nation’s culture and interests in light of its independence. Therefore, anybody who wants to claim their nationhood to Japan, should be able to do so as consequently, due to historical events like Japanese colonial rule in Korea and the World War Two, generations grew up on a foreign land and eventually claimed it as home. Therefore, in terms of identity, years of migration have initiated a sense of hybrid identity – Japanese-Korean in this case. Nowadays, an overwhelming majority of Koreans are second or third-generation residents who speak Japanese as their first language and have been born in Japan.
However, to this day, Koreans are classified as foreign residents. Although they are entitled to permanent residency and national welfare rights, they still face discrimination in such areas as employment, housing, and education. the post-war ideology of homogeneity has made it difficult for foreigners such as Koreans to express their ethnicity, forcing them to pass as Japanese. Post-restoration Japan idealized cultural and ‘racial’ homogeneity as the foundation of the nation-state. Politicians often refer to the superiority of the Japanese race, a race uncontaminated by other racial and ethnic groups. For decades, the Japanese leadership had inculcated in the populace the myths of Japanese which was supposed to be guaranteed by the uninterrupted lineage of the imperial household over centuries. This xenophobic attitude proves challenging for those of multiple ethnicity.
This can also be observed when biracial Japanese residents are referred to as “ha-fu”, literally translating to half. They are often treated as non-authentic Japanese and face discrimination and confusion linked to their nationality. Many factors contribute to one’s sense of national identity. These include: the language or accent, ethnicity, shared cultural references, shared festivities and genetic origin. Ha-fu’s might appear different, sometimes despite being born in Japan. They challenge the traditional idea of nationhood as despite their genetic origin or other factors they may feel a sense of belonging to Japan.
According to Japan’s Nationality Act, young adults with multiple citizenships are forced to choose one country as a nationality by the age of 22. This creates an internal conflict for many as they are forced to choose between their citizenship, identity and family ties. Many foreigners, like Koreans, being born or having lived in Japan for a long time, have acquired a sense of a hybrid identity – feeling a belonging to more than one country, which as a whole contribute to their identity. The Justice Ministry confirmed that some 890,000 people were or are in a position to have dual nationality. This figure is based on official family registries maintained by local municipalities between 1985 and 2016, and includes people who have declared or forfeited Japanese citizenship.
- Sugimoto, Yoshio, An Introduction to Japanese Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) – chapter 7: ‘Japaneseness’, Ethnicity and Minority Groups
- Eiji Oguma, A Genealogy of ‘Japanese’ Self-Images, (Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2002)
- Weiner, Michael (ed.), Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity (London: Routledge, 1997)
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