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Friday, Dec. 10, 2010

Yearning for multiculturalism

Young foreign residents seek identity that can be recognized by both Japanese and themselves

Kyodo News

While the number of foreign residents in Japan remains relatively small compared with most developed countries — less than 2 percent of the population as of last year — their presence is being increasingly felt.

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From ethnic Koreans to Japanese-Brazilians, the younger generations are actively making their voices heard, calling for greater understanding from the Japanese while also addressing their own identity issues.

"As a third-generation ethnic Korean resident, I personally have had almost no experience of any direct discrimination," said Kim Bung Ang of the Korea NGO Center Tokyo branch. "People of our parents' generation were unable to get jobs at Japanese companies, but nowadays rejection due solely to foreign nationality is rare.

"However, there are still cases in which (Korean residents) were asked by their employers to change their names (to Japanese ones) or were turned down by landlords when trying to rent," he said.

Unlike in other advanced nations, including Britain and the United States, being born in Japan doesn't automatically confer Japanese nationality if both parents aren't Japanese, and the majority of those classified as foreign residents were born and raised here.

The number of registered foreign residents of Japan came to around 2.2 million as of the end of 2009, or 1.71 percent of the total population, according to the Justice Ministry. Chinese nationals accounted for the largest group, at about 31 percent, followed by people of Korean descent and Brazilians.

Kim, who was born in Toyama Prefecture, noted that while Japan's treatment of foreigners has improved as a result of advocacy movements and international trends, protection of their human rights remains inadequate.

Japanese tend to liken foreigners living in Japan with how they are when they vacation abroad, Kim said, adding: "But to live in a foreign land is not as simple as that. The majority of 'zainichi' foreigners had no choice but to come to Japan due to reasons such as historical background and poverty."

Many ethnic Koreans came to Japan when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. A large number of Koreans were also conscripted by Japan during the war, including into forced labor.

Such Korean residents and others from Taiwan who were in Japan since before the end of the war and lost their Japanese nationality through the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, as well as their descendants, have been given special permanent residency. Some have obtained Japanese nationality through naturalization.

"But the Internet, for example, is filled with messages saying things like 'Koreans go home,' " Kim noted. "I think if there is more understanding as to why these foreigners are living in Japan, it will be less likely that Japanese people would say such things."

Ironically, bald-faced discrimination isn't always the problem. Many residents with roots originating on the Korean Peninsula, including younger generations who have obtained Japanese nationality by birth or naturalization, feel uncomfortable when their ethnic identity isn't recognized.

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"Even when we try to tell Japanese people we are Korean, they insist we're the same, partly because we look no different," Kim said. "We don't get accepted as who we really are."

Similarly, the majority of Japanese-Brazilians who came to Japan in the 1990s as migrant workers have a lingering affection for their motherland even as they begin to put down roots here, said Angelo Ishi, a third-generation Japanese-Brazilian who was born in Brazil in 1967 and came to Japan in 1990 to conduct research on migrant workers.

Revised immigration laws that took effect in 1990 opened the door to employment of Brazilians of Japanese descent at a time when the manufacturing industry faced a labor shortage. It was an attractive proposition for Japanese-Brazilians suffering through a prolonged recession at home.

"But many feel they would like to return (to Brazil) eventually, as they couldn't secure a place where they truly feel at home in Japan," said Ishi, an associate professor at Musashi University in Tokyo.

Both Ishi and Kim stressed the importance of providing opportunities for younger foreign residents to learn about their ancestors' history and language to help them establish their identities in Japan.

Kim, who was a leader in the Organization of United Korean Youth in Japan, said he set up classes for young ethnic Koreans to learn the Korean language and the history of the Korean Peninsula.

"In areas where the Brazilian population is concentrated, there should be public elementary and secondary schools that teach both Japanese and Portuguese, including to Japanese children," Ishi said, citing examples of bilingual public schools in the United States where Portuguese or Spanish is used in parallel with English.

"I believe this kind of school will help nurture in people an understanding of multiculturalism and will be effective in eliminating friction.

"Some Japanese people think of foreigners as uninvited intruders, but I hope they will recall that Japanese-Brazilians were indeed their invited guests," Ishi added. "Just like advocacy against smoking and the use of drugs, there should be more persistent campaigns against discrimination against foreigners."

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