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Prejudice in Japan. Korean minority battles for basic civil rights, cultural identity

Along Tokyo Bay, less than an hour's train ride south from the bright lights of Tokyo's fabled Ginza district, lies the gray industrial city of Kawasaki. There, in the shadows of the huge blast furnaces of the Nihon Kokan Steel Mill, lives one of the largest concentrations of Japan's Korean minority. They are descendants of Koreans who were brought to work in the mills before World War II.

In the Kawasaki neighborhood of Sakuramoto, half the nearly 2,000 inhabitants are of Korean descent. At a nursery school on the ground floor of the Korean Christian Church, both Japanese and Korean children play together noisily. Amid the happy babble of Japanese, children greet a visitor with the words an nyon, which is Korean for ``hello.'' Japan's invisible minority

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But this scene is a decided anomaly. Although Koreans are by far the largest single national minority in Japan, numbering about 800,000, they make up less than 1 percent of the total population.

Koreans share a common Mongolian racial heritage with the Japanese and are physically indistinguishable from them -- to outsiders as well as to Japanese. For the most part, the Koreans are an invisible minority in the midst of an otherwise purely Japanese nation. But their unobtrusiveness does not appear to lighten the burden of prejudice felt toward them by the Japanese majority.

Their presence, explains the Rev. In Ha Lee, pastor of the Sakuramoto Korean church, disturbs ``the Japanese mythology, in which they believe that they are a homogeneous people, very much monocultural. As long as they believe in this theory,'' he went on, ``they cannot see the Korean people and their problems.'' An `institutionalized' prejudice

The problems of Koreans in Japan flow from an intense prejudice against them among the Japanese people. ``It is a discrimination that is institutionalized,'' says Mr. Lee, a leader of the growing Korean civil rights movement, ``and deeply rooted into the minds and hearts of the Japanese.'' The common stereotype of Koreans among Japanese is that they are an inferior people, ``dirty'' and ``lazy'' in their habits, and prone to violence and criminal activity.

``The myth of a single-nation society is not age-old,'' explains Yasuaki Onuma, a professor of international law at Tokyo University. ``The Japanese government, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, employed this myth in order to integrate Japan as a modern nation out of the previous feudal society,'' Professor Onuma says. The Meiji government turned its back on Japan's cultural debt to China and Korea, its more ancient Asian neighbors, and turned to the West.

The Japanese sense of superiority to its Asian neighbors was brutally manifested in the annexation of Korea in 1910, where they implemented a policy of forced assimilation of the population. Lee, who was born under Japanese occupation in a small town in southern Korea, recalls being taught in Japanese-run schools, where ``I never knew the history of Korea but only learned Japanese culture.'' The Korean minority has its origins in the laborers brought to Japan to work in the mines and mills, reaching a p eak of 2 million during World War II.

The colonial legacy placed the Koreans in Japan in an uncertain status. Most Koreans returned to their liberated homeland, but some 600,000 remained after the war. Unstable economic conditions in Korea followed by the Korean war -- plus the roots that many had laid down in Japan -- encouraged them to stay. Yet, while Koreans were considered citizens of Japan under the prewar empire, the Japanese government, under the guise of decolonization, reclassified them legally as ``aliens.''

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Japanese alien registration and immigration laws enacted after the war stripped Koreans of most of the rights they had previously had. Koreans in Japan paid taxes but were not eligible for most social-welfare and pension benefits. As aliens they were subject to deportation and had to carry their alien registration cards with them at all times.

The division of the Korean Peninsula into a communist North and a South allied with the United States further complicated their status. Those Koreans declaring affiliation with the South were granted permanent residence as South Korean citizens under a 1965 treaty normalizing Japan-South Korea relations. Pro-North Koreans in Japan, numbering about 200,000, became technically stateless persons, as there are no diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The alien status of Koreans extends beyond the first-generation immigrants. Their Japanese-born children, most of whom do not speak Korean and have never seen Korea, are also required to register as aliens. Japanese nationality law, unlike that of the US, does not confer nationality automatically to those born in Japan. Until this year, acquisition of nationality came only through the father.

Increasingly, Koreans seek to escape discrimination through naturalization. Some 125,000 have already done so. The legal requirements for naturalization are not severe, but, says Lee, ``The unwritten requirement is how the person is assimilated to Japanese society.'' The police carefully investigate an applicant's ``behavior.'' One key test of assimilation is a Korean's willingness to abandon his Korean name in favor of a Japanese name.

The dilemma of being Korean is most painful for the second and third generations, who now make up 89 percent of the total. Culturally and linguistically they are Japanese, but they still face social and economic discrimination. Even for graduates of top Japanese universities, employment with the bigger Japanese companies is almost unheard of. As aliens they are ineligible for public employment. Koreans' civil rights movement

Gradually, particularly in the last decade, conditions for Koreans have begun to improve. The 1970s brought the birth of a small but vibrant civil rights movement (see accompanying article) that has garnered significant support among Japanese, especially from the younger postwar generation. The movement has focused its attention on the institutionalized forms of discrimination and won dramatic victories.

In the past three years the Japanese government has removed many of the legalized forms of discrimination. Koreans are now eligible for the same social-welfare and pension schemes as other residents. The nationality law now grants citizenship to any Korean born of one Japanese parent (currently 60 percent of all Korean marriages have a Japanese partner). The Koreans loyal to North Korea have been granted permanent residence status. The alien registration law has been slightly liberalized, for exam ple, raising the age of registration to 16 -- though not yet radically changing the concept of permanent aliens. Japan becoming `internationalized?'

``If you compare internationally,'' says Onuma, a supporter of the Korean civil rights movement, ``the Japanese government has behaved very well.'' Japanese laws are quite comparable with those in other industrial nations, including the US and Western Europe, says this expert, ``but in every country the status of aliens is very unstable and discriminating.''

Ironically, the removal of legal barriers could pave the way for the extinction of the Koreans as a distinct ethnic minority, so long as social pressure for total assimilation remains. Lee and reawakened younger Koreans hope to avoid this fate. His nursery school and its after-school program for older children promote pride in Korean identity and cultural exchanges with nearby Japanese schools.

The willingness of Japanese to accept Koreans in their midst without demanding conformity to the ``myth'' of a single-nation society is the litmus test of the internationalization of Japan. Onuma argues that the Korean cause is really ``for the sake of Japanese society itself.''

Current policy even bars foreign ``guest workers,'' as they're called in Europe. But Onuma points out that ``we are now living in the era when immigrant workers move by air flights. That means that geographical isolation doesn't mean anything. How can Japanese society keep its single nation isolated from other Asian countries? It's simply impossible -- not only impossible but not desirable.''

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