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Prejudice in Japan. Unlikely hero: his case sparked civil rights movement

Kyong Duk Kim is to Koreans in Japan what Rosa Parks was to blacks in America -- a trailblazer in the struggle for civil rights. But Kim, born in Japan of Korean parents, is, by his own admission, an unlikely civil rights hero.

``When I was growing up, I didn't feel I was really a Korean. I hated myself for being a Korean, and I thought if I acted like a Japanese I wouldn't be discriminated against. I went to Japanese schools and I used my Japanese name. My parents told me that I should learn Korean but I refused to learn it.''

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Kim went to Waseda University, one of the best private colleges in Japan. In his senior year, he awoke with a shock to the realization that he couldn't ``pass'' as a Japanese. ``I wanted to be a journalist for one of the big Japanese newspapers. A college counselor explained to me that . . . Japanese top companies would never accept me. A middle-level company would accept me if they felt pity for me. If I worked under such conditions, it would have been humiliating for me.''

Kim re-embraced his Korean identity with a passion. ``I thought that in order to be Korean again I should fight discrimination by myself.'' He decided to become a lawyer, fully aware that no alien had ever been admitted to the Japanese bar without becoming naturalized, despite the fact that Japanese law did not technically require it.

Kim passed his judicial examination and applied in 1976 to the government's Judicial Research and Training Institute. His application was summarily rejected when he refused to declare his intent to naturalize. To the shock of Japanese authorities, Kim then petitioned the Supreme Court to accept his application. His case became a cause c'el`ebre in Japan. The Japanese Lawyers' Association supported him, as did most of the Japanese press.

Still, ``everyone told me I had no chance to win.'' To his own surprise, the Supreme Court in 1977 rendered a landmark decision upholding his petition.

Kim's victory is one of two cases credited with sparking a vigorous civil rights movement now enjoying the support of a growing number of Japanese. The first case began in 1970 when Chong Sok Pak, using his Japanese name, successfully applied for a job with Hitachi, the giant electronics firm. When the company discovered he had concealed his Korean identity, it rejected him. His suit against Hitachi for discrimination, which won a court victory in 1974, sparked the formation of the new movement.

Previously, Koreans had been organized into two rival associations -- Mindan, supported by the South Korean government, and Chongnyon, backed by the North. The politics of these two groups, led by first-generation Koreans, were directed more toward Korea than toward the plight of Koreans in Japan. They have been challenged by newer, independent civil rights groups.

Since he became a lawyer in 1979, Kim has become a leader in the movement, handling many of the numerous civil rights cases. The movement's foremost target is the alien registration law itself, as symbolized by the requirement that aliens submit to fingerprinting to obtain an alien registration card. In what began as a spontaneous protest in 1980, Koreans have braved criminal prosecution to refuse fingerprinting.

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Mindan took up the issue and organized an anti-fingerprint campaign that has attracted worldwide attention.

Korean protestors have gotten wide publicity in Japan. Some have received threatening letters telling them to ``obey the law or go home.''

The Japanese government has responded sternly, filing criminal charges against many protestors, refusing re-entry permits in some cases, and placing subtle pressures -- like tax investigations -- on others. Mindan has called off the campaign for now, but independent groups are continuing it. There are now nine cases challenging the law in the Japanese courts.

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