Thursday, November 4, 2010

Koreans in the Midst: Korean National Identity in Japan

A few weeks ago I went to a screening of two amateur films about the situation of Korean-Japanese, or Zainichi.  One of those films can be seen online (Japanese only):

Before discussing the film itself, there are a few things worth noting. This is not some jingoistic pro-Korean film, but even still it stands out from the truly dark background of widespread Japanese attitudes.  I actually had trouble finding this video after the event, because a search for "Korean High School" turns up mostly angry screeds by right-wingers.  Even among those who have found this video, a number of the comments are ambiguous and even hostile; some are simply along the lines of "go back to Korea," but others show the notable subtlety of Japanese racism.  For instance, one guy argues that all Zainichi couldn't possibly be descendants of forced laborers from the WWII era, implying that they're somehow inflating historical wrongs for personal gain (a favorite trope of the Japanese right). I haven't yet read the best-selling hate manga "Against Koreans," but I wouldn't be surprised if this was one of the elaborate 'theories' laid out in it.

The film deepens the image of Japan as shockingly regressive in its attunement to the situation.  On the one hand, the opening montage of young people shows how scant actual knowledge about the situation of the Zainichi is among average Japanese. In fact, as came up in discussion after the viewing, many Japanese aren't even aware that the Zainichi exist.  It's not quite fair to make the comparison to the awakening of America to the problem of minority rights - the Zainichi situation is much more recent - but it's still jarring to hear people in a modern nation profess this kind of ignorance.  Also extremely strange is that it was deemed necessary to offer masks or other means of hiding the identity of so many of the participants. The subject is genuinely inflammatory, especially to an extreme and sometimes violent fringe, but the idea that speaking about it would be either embarrassing or dangerous is, again, completely foreign to my American mindset.

But the film also demonstrates a lot about the Zainichi population that could be deemed to contribute to the problem.  First and foremost, it really is amazing that the Japanese government is funding high schools within its own borders that indoctrinate Japanese permanent residents to follow a military opponent of Japan. It's convenient for the Japanese right to obscure both the differences between North and South and the history - North Korea didn't actually exist when most Zainichi families were first brought to Japan - but I can certainly understand where the outrage is coming from. 

More subtly, the Zainichi given the chance to speak in the film express a range of personal opinions that are probably difficult for some Japanese to hear without flinching. Like most expatriate communities, it's clear they still have great loyalty to their homeland. And the association of Zainichi who have at least some sympathy for the North (Chongryon) promote an active anti-integrationist agenda, encouraging members to renounce any possibility of Japanese citizenship, as well as the right to vote. In the U.S., this is much less of an issue because the political tensions pulling on immigrants are largely insignificant, but try this one on for size - would Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the U.S. be nearly as fun if Mexico was firing test rockets over Florida?  Or, more to the point - how about a Muslim cultural center?

The situation is exacerbated by the lack of any concept, on either side of the debate, separating nationality from citizenship, or more generally, of multiculturalism.  Korean activist groups (whether affiliated with North or South) consider accepting Japanese citizenship as synonymous with abandoning Korean identity, leaving Zainichi with a rather grim choice.  While international politics continues to make Zainichi its unfortunate playthings, even sudden peace with the North wouldn't solve the underlying problem - how do we reconcile the reality of the mobile 20th century (to say nothing of the 21st) with mindsets unable to approach national identity as something complex and multidimensional?

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