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Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2001

Three identities and one life

LIVES OF YOUNG KOREANS IN JAPAN, by Yasunori Fukuoka, translated by Tom Gill. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2000, 330 pp.

It is estimated that there were 2.5 million Koreans living in Japan at the end of World War II. Although many returned home after the war, there are still approximately 600,000 "Zainichi" Koreans, as these migrants and descendants are called, living and working in Japan. They make up the nation's "largest ethnic minority."

Prohibited from entering more prestigious occupations, Zainichi energetically filled in the cracks and established a thriving but marginal community. As successful as the third generation has become, they remain outsiders, strong but invisible.

Their marginal position in Japanese society has pushed them in two opposing directions: They must assimilate to be successful but they must preserve their Korean heritage to maintain their identity. Thus, they became adept in constructing multiple roles. So-Mi Young-Ja, for example, went through university with three identities. "In most Japanese company, I'd be Japanese. At home I'd be Korean. With my close friends, I'd be Zainichi Korean."

How do they manage their identities? What is it like for them to live as a minority in a relatively homogenous country? How can they reconcile their Korean roots with their Japanese lifestyle? Why haven't they fully assimilated into Japanese society?

Professor Yasunori Fukuoka's "Lives of Young Koreans in Japan" addresses these issues. His representation of their lives is a remarkable balance of advocacy and objectivity: The empathy and outrage he feels for the suffering of the Zainichi Koreans imbues his writing with a passion and intensity that is balanced by the integrity of his scholarship.

By conducting extensive "life history interviews" that examine the most intimate and revelatory details of a large sample of third-generation Zainichi Koreans, Fukuoka, with the aid of Dr. Tom Gill's sensitive and evocative translation, delivers a textured mosaic that captures the fragility and strength of the human spirit.

What is it like to be young, gifted and a Zainichi Korean? The author lets these young people answer this question for themselves. And their tales captivate. There is no affectation or posturing . . . no embellishment or prevarication. They tell it like it is and in some cases it is hard to tell.

Yoko confesses that she tried to hide her identity throughout public school. "I . . . didn't tell a soul. I even tried to hide the fact that my parents were running a yakiniku restaurant, since inside me I had this image that 'yakiniku equals Korean.' " The majority of these children really thought that they were Japanese. At some point in their lives, a comment, taunt or jeer would burst their bubble. Most eventually got over the trauma -- but not the searing pain -- that would ultimately be used to help them forge a stronger sense of identity and purpose.

Kim Ja, for example, first encountered discrimination when she was in elementary school: "I was bullied, of course, and I had this very powerful awareness that Koreans get bullied and hated being Korean." Several years later, she had a transformative experience at a meeting of the Korean Youth Association in Japan. When she introduced herself as "Boku Kyoko" (the Japanese pronunciation of her name), she was mildly rebuked: "Wrong . . . Your name is Park Kong-Ja!" She confesses that up to that time she didn't know the Korean reading of her own name. "Somehow I was ridiculously pleased to hear it pronounced in that way."

Lee Chang-Jae was lucky enough to have a support group and a few teachers who encouraged him to be proud of his ethnicity. While he appreciated their support, he was also bitterly aware of the unlucky circumstances of his life. "We were despised, we were poor, and I really had not the slightest idea as to what I was supposed to be proud of."

The problems of the Zainichi Koreans will not go away tomorrow -- there is too much history -- that must be overcome. The very presence of the Zainichi touches a sensitive nerve in their adopted homeland. They are a nagging reminder -- for a country that prides itself on its homogeneity -- of ethnic divisions within Japan. And unlike the Westerners and Southern Asians who pepper and enliven the Japanese urban landscape, third-generation Zainichi Koreans look, act and for the most part, think like their Japanese counterparts. It is a classic case of an outsider becoming too close to being an insider.

Despite these historical and social pressures, major changes in governmental policy and in the attitudes of the general population have made Fukuoka cautiously optimistic about the future of pluralism in Japan. He feels that institutional discrimination "against foreign residents will be swept away." As the young and the enlightened, however, move toward embracing coexistence, he cautions us through the words of his good friend, Kim Haeng-Yi, a second-generation Zainichi Korean:

"Don't discriminate; do distinguish. Many people have the mistaken notion that pursuing assimilation is the way to achieve liberation. I rather think that what is needed now is the courage . . . to make distinctions. Because after all, each and every one of us lives under different conditions and inhabit a different internal world."

Philip Zitowitz teaches at Meiji University in Japan.

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