The Story of a Korean Minority in Japan

By Sakari Teerikoski

Koreans constitute the largest ethnic minority in Japan. While most of them have either South Korean or Japanese citizenship today, a part of this group belongs to a lesser-known minority. The Chōsen-seki are not nationals of Japan. Neither are they citizens of South Korea or North Korea. They are stateless. Their present-day situation is a fragile matter as far-right nationalism in Japan continues to rise.

When Japan conquered Korea in the beginning of the 1900s as part of their empire-building leading up to the Second World War, countless Koreans were transferred to Japan to serve as workforce. When the war ended and peace was made, Japan lost hold of Korea and the displaced Korean population in Japan was allowed to return to their homeland. However, some Koreans decided to stay. Their homeland would soon be ravaged by war leaving it divided into a South and a North. 

Citizens of nowhere

Koreans who had remained in Japan had to choose which of the two Koreas to identify with. The Japanese government only recognised South Korea as the legitimate Korean nation and has no diplomatic ties with North Korea to this day, meaning that a stateless status was imposed on those who wanted to identify with North Korea or were unwilling to choose either side. These are the Chōsen-seki.

International law defines a stateless person as ”not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law”. It’s a vulnerable position to be in. They don’t have passports. Only with special visas are they able to travel to South Korea and North Korea. Still, the Chōsen-seki minority has carried on with their Korean traditions to this day. This is largely thanks to them operating their own schools where they teach the Korean language, history and traditions. 

The North Korean dilemma

However, the education in these schools comes with a twist. The North Korean regime under Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il funded the schools with the aim of creating a positive image of North Korea among ethnic Koreans in Japan. This worked, and North Korean propaganda is still clearly present in the education material, even to the extent that Chōsen-seki students can visit Pyongyang in their final year of high school. 

This does not mean that Chōsen-seki grow up to be loyal to North Korea – many Chōsen-seki are in fact strong advocates of a unified Korea – but it does contribute to a somewhat rosy picture of the communist regime among them. What’s more, the North Korean version of history is part of the curriculum. This is troublesome not least because it tends to portray Japan as an enemy state.

Torn between two nations

While this identification with North Korea has historically been tolerated, things have changed for the worse since the regime started to fire long-range missiles into waters near Japan as part of their nuclear missile program, thereby making North Korea the main security threat of Japan. As a result, hate speech started to be directed towards the Chōsen-seki. 

Right-wing nationalists, such as the Japan First party, fuels suspicion towards them, claiming they may have hidden agendas connected to the enemy. Far-right activists occasionally campaign to “get rid of the dirty people” by sending them “back” to North Korea. 

Meanwhile, and partly as a consequence of this, the Chōsen-seki – proud of their Korean heritage and committed to keeping the culture of their community alive – have also cultivated slight anti-Japanese sentiments directed towards those who they perceive as hostile towards their cultural heritage. The problem is of course that part of this heritage is directly influenced by a hostile regime that has committed countless breaches of human rights. 

Dark skies ahead

This minority will find it ever harder to be an accepted part of society, as tensions between Japan and North Korea continue to rise. The challenging situation of the Chōsen-seki is likely to become an escalation of distrust between this ever-shrinking minority and a majority population which views them with increasing scepticism. 

Any continued hostility from North Korea towards Japan, such as continued missile testing and development of nuclear arms, will for sure have its negative impact on the lives of the Chōsen-seki. Sentiments against them will be increasingly fuelled by the far right. This narrative will make the Chōsen-seki perceive the Japanese society as being against them – as a threat to their cultural identity. If they in turn develop anti-Japanese sentiments for this reason, then that will additionally fuel the narrative of the far right. The spiral is complete.

Happy ending?

On the other hand, any political developments towards Korean unification could positively ease the situation for the Chōsen-seki. President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has already taken steps to make it easier for them to obtain visas for travelling to South Korea, for example. 

If the two Koreas were to actually unite, the once divided homeland of the Chōsen-seki would reappear on the map. This would open the door for them to citizenship and they could continue with their lives and traditions as Korean citizens living in Japan.

By Sakari Teerikoski

Illustration: Lisa Wilson

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