Prejudice in Japan. Plight of Japan's minority parallels that of US blacks

``Koreans in Japan are like blacks in your country,'' a Japanese friend told me recently. ``They have become successful as professional baseball players, wrestlers, popular singers, and actors. But you won't find them in the top levels of Japanese corporations.'' Ignoring certain glaring differences, there are parallels in the economic impact of discrimination on Koreans in Japan and blacks in the United States. Most Koreans came to Japan as conscript laborers forced to aid the Japanese war effort in the 1930s and '40s as low-wage, unskilled workers in coal mines and factories. Those that stayed after the war were largely confined to low-wage jobs. Korean income levels are still unofficially estimated to be signficantly lower than those of average Japanese.

Many Koreans sought their fortunes on the margins of society. While their actual numbers are small, Koreans are associated in the popular mind with Japan's organized-crime gangs that run vice and gambling rackets. Other Koreans ran nightclubs and bars in less savory parts of Japan's big cities.

But some Koreans have ``made it'' in Japan. Takeo Shigemitsu is the best-known Korean success story, although he prefers not to draw attention to his Korean origins. He owns the Lotte Company, the largest chewing gum and confectionary manufacturer in Japan.

Jin Shik Chon, the 53-year-old son of Korean factory workers, is fiercely proud of his success. Now a wealthy, self-made entrepreneur, Chon was only nine years old when he accompanied his parents to Japan. He left school after junior high and built a small business empire from scratch. Chon's holdings include five supermarkets, eight pachinko parlors, a company manufacturing and selling Korean foods, and a cooking school.

In good humor, gesturing with never-resting hands, Chon recalls that his schoolmates used to taunt him as a ``smelly Korean'' and would beat him up. ``Now the people who beat me up,'' he says triumphantly, ``are my friends, and they respect me.'' Chon proudly states that he ``always did business openly as a Korean. In the past,'' he reflects, ``I was very hateful toward Japanese people, but when I began my business I realized I had to trust them. Now I employ 1,000 people and -- except for one Korean --

all my top executives are Japanese.''

Chon is somewhat disdainful of fellow businessman Shigemitsu for abandoning his Korean name. ``He's a nice man, but his philosophy of life is very different from mine. In Japan, he is Japanese. When he goes to South Korea, his name is Mr. Shin.''

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