Koreans in Japan

ETHNONYMS: Chösenjin (North Koreans), Kankokujin (South Koreans)

At present, there are 700,000 Koreans in Japan, three-fourths of whom were born in and have grown up in Japan. Most are legally classified as "resident aliens." Koreans make up 85 percent of Japan's resident alien population. Most Koreans in Japan speak no Korean.

The historical connection between Japan and Korea is very ancient. In the seventh century, many Japanese nobles claimed Korean ancestry. Nara-period documents ( A.D. 710—784) claim that the Yamato regime had control of part of Korea. Archaeological evidence, however, demonstrates an early Korean presence in Japan, but no comparable Japanese presence in Korea.

Later history reversed the trend. From the tenth through the sixteenth centuries, Japanese pirates attacked Korea extensively. In 1592 Toyotomi Hideyoshi began a seven-year war with Korea as a prelude to taking China; he failed, but managed to destroy large regions of Korea. Japan overran Korea in 1904, annexing it in 1910. Koreans were dispossessed of land so that emigrant Japanese could farm it. Koreans were forced by the threat of starvation to go to Japan; by 1930 there were 419,009 Koreans in Japan. Between 1939 and 1945 Koreans were forcibly moved to Japan, and there were 2,400,000 in Japan by the end of World War II. During that war, Koreans worked primarily in the coal mines, but they also supplied cheap factory labor. This freed Japanese to enter the military. By 1944, the need for soldiers was so acute that even Koreans were conscripted. During their occupation of Korea, the Japanese burned Korean books and forced Korean schoolchildren to learn Japanese. Following the war, most Koreans in Japan returned to Korea; the 1950 Korean-Japanese population was 544,903. It was not until 1972 that most Koreans in Japan were granted permanent residency, ending their stateless existence.

Koreans are readily identifiable to Japanese by their monosyllabic, one-character surnames, which many Japanese treat with derision. As a result, most Koreans have adopted Japanese names in addition to their Korean names; only 20 percent of Korean high-school students in Japan are registered under Korean names. Many Koreans attempt to pass as Japanese to gain better employment or to enter private schools. When discovered, however, they are quickly fired or expelled under the pretext that they are not citizens.

It is possible for those Korean Japanese whose parents were born in Japan to become naturalized citizens of Japan. To be successful, the applicant must be of "good behavior," and this precludes anyone with even the most minor of police records. On the other hand, most Koreans do not wish to become naturalized. The older Koreans still harbor hatred of the Japanese for their past actions. Many younger Koreans do not wish to be naturalized because they realize that doing so will cost them the acceptance of the Korean community but will not gain them the acceptance of the Japanese. Naturalization also requires one to "Japanize" his or her name, an emotionally difficult step for many. Intermarriage, a large step toward full assimilation, is very popular; in 1972 48 percent of Koreans marrying in Japan married Japanese. Some of these marriages were to Burakumin, who often live near Korean communities and do not discriminate against Koreans.

Although there are Korean ghettos in Osaka and Tokyo, most Koreans are spread out in many places in Japan, and this has served to make their political organizations less effective. Political organization is further divided among Koreans themselves; some 350,000 belong or are sympathetic to the Mindan (Korean Resident Association in Japan) organization and support South Korea; another 300,000 belong or are sympathetic to the Chongnyon (General Federation of Koreans in Japan) organization and support the North Korean government. Members of Chongnyon are seen by the Japanese government as citizens of North Korea, with which they have no diplomatic relations. This means that Chongnyon members have no right to the free national health insurance, to child benefits, to welfare or pensions, or to free education. Because they live in Japan, however, they pay the same taxes that Japanese citizens pay.

The Japanese government closed several Korean ethnic schools in 1949. Now, only 20 percent of Korean schoolchildren attend Korean ethnic schools, nearly all of which are operated by Chongnyon and supported financially by the North Korean government as a propaganda effort; a major part of the curriculum of these schools is "Kim Il Sung Thought." Those who attend the Chongnyon schools may complete an all-Korean education at Chōsen University, also supported by Chongnyon. Those who graduate from Chongnyon schools and who wish to attend a Japanese university have a difficult time gaining entrance. In a country in which educational achievement is an important basis for assessing personal status, this fact has tremendous consequences. Koreans in Japan rarely have good jobs; most work as manufacturers of handicrafts, as day laborers, as restaurant, bar, mine, or factory workers, or in family-operated businesses. Further, the option of working for the government is open only to Japanese citizens.

See also Burakumin ; Japanese ; Korean


De Vos, George A., William O. Wetherall, and Kaye Stearman (1983). Japan's Minorities: Burakumin, Koreans, Ainu, and Okinawans. London: Minority Rights Group.

Lee, Changsoo, and George A. De Vos (1984). Koreans in Japan: Ethnic Conflict and Accommodation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Min, Pyong Gap (1992). "A Comparison of the Korean Minorities in China and Japan." International Migration Review 26:4-21.

Mitchell, Richard H. (1967). The Korean Minority in Japan. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Wagner, Edward W. (1951). The Korean Minority in Japan, 1904-1950. New York: Institute of Pacific Relations.


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User Contributions:

This is a well written article and I found it very informative. I'm a korean living in New Zealand and I hardly relate to my culture now. I was considering teaching in either japan or korean as I know a bit of both, but I realized that it'd be quite difficult for me to assimilate to either of the places. I feel like I don't belong anywhere sometimes. I want to call myself a New Zealander but most people just conclude me as an 'Asian' from an asian country and nothing but 'new zealander'...

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