Japan's Korean Minority

`WE intend to live in Japan as Koreans," says Bae Cheol Eun, one of nearly a million Koreans in Japan. Bae was born in Japan and says he regards it as his homeland. Although he has been to South Korea on visits, Japan is "the only country I really know."

Many Japanese would regard these statements as contradictory. If Japan is his homeland, why doesn't Bae become Japanese - a choice up to 150,000 Koreans resident in Japan have made?

Bae's decision not to do so says something about Japan's Korean minority. It says much more about Japanese society and the degree to which it will tolerate diversity.

Faced with a somewhat analogous situation in Germany, President Weiszacker delivered a moving Christmas message appealing for a more welcoming attitude toward foreign workers, principally Turks.

"Of course we want to feel at home in Germany," he said. "But are we clear enough ourselves about just who is contributing to make sure that our home works well?"

Mr. Weiszacker spoke after neo-Nazi arson attacks that killed three Turks, including a 10-year-old girl who had never known any home but Germany. He asked for changes in strict German nationality laws that would allow Turks and others to acquire dual nationality. Japanese and Koreans are much closer ethnically and linguistically than Germans and Turks, and have a relationship going back to the dawn of Japanese history, when Korean settlers brought Chinese civilization and crafts to Japan. In the late 16t h century, Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea caused great devastation and loss of life. But until the West forced open the doors of Japan and Korea in the mid-19th century, culturally, the relationship between the two countries was equal.

Once the Japanese accepted Western civilization, they modernized more rapidly than the Koreans, toward whom they quickly adopted the attitude of Western imperialists. Korea became a Japanese protectorate, and in 1910 was annexed outright. The Japanese adopted the French policy of assimilation, forced Korean schoolchildren to speak only Japanese, and encouraged the use of Japanese surnames. During World War II, all Koreans were obliged to give up their own surnames for Japanese ones.

Defeat in World War II and the American occupation brought democracy to Japan. But in abandoning dreams of world conquest, and the accompanying policy of assimilation, the Japanese retreated into a narrow definition of nationality, restricting it to those of their own ethnic background. With few exceptions, such as one made to accommodate Bonin Islanders descended from shipwrecked American seamen, a Japanese had to have a Japanese surname expressible (ironically) in Chinese characters. The principal vic tims of this policy were Japan's most numerous minority, the Koreans.

For many years, foreigners in Japan, including Koreans who may have lived in the country all their lives, had to be fingerprinted in order to be registered as residents. Koreans and other foreigners opposed the measure as discriminatory, since the only Japanese required to do this were criminals. A couple of years ago, the provision was finally dropped for permanent residents, as most Koreans are.

It has also become legal for Japanese citizens to write their names in Japanese phonetic characters, and Koreans do not have to change their surnames even when they become citizens. But according to Bae, most Koreans becoming Japanese still adopt Japanese surnames, because the whole point of doing so is to be accepted as Japanese.

Japanese attitudes are beginning to change, though slowly. Korean affairs expert Soji Takahashi, who teaches at Tsuda Women's University, says that marriages between Koreans and Japanese are increasing.

Regional governments are hiring Koreans to teach in their elementary and secondary schools. There is a movement to allow foreign residents to vote in local elections, as the Netherlands does.

It is not easy to eliminate discrimination in a society long conditioned to holding outsiders at arm's length. But the acceptance of diverse ethnic and cultural strains at home is an imperative for a country with global economic reach that aspires to leadership in world affairs. Improved treatment of Koreans is a good place to start.

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