Identities Adrift Off the American Shore
Korean-Japanese Relations, National Identity, and the Zainichi
Where are you from? The question may as well be What are you?
When people in the United States ask me that initial question, I’m left with many possible explanations, none of them either precise or satisfactory. I could begin by telling you I am not Zainichi, that I was simply born to two Korean parents in Japan by circumstance, not a victim of history or discrimination. Or I could tell you that I am Korean, as my mother and father and aunts and uncles and grandparents and my sister would insist. Or another option, the truest to myself: I’m nobody. I don’t belong anywhere. I’m a kid born in Tokyo, where I don’t belong, to two parents from Korea, where I am equally displaced. Usually though, the answer you’ll get is that I’m Korean but was born in Japan.
Lay out a map in front of you. Place your hand on America—a country you know well—and then begin sliding your finger toward the right, what the map key calls east. Trace the lines that cross through Europe: France, Greece, Poland; then the names you come across as you advance farther east, past the Siberian hinterlands. And there it is, slightly south of that icy patch, bisected by a bulging line: the northern Democratic People’s Republic, a shard hanging off the behemoth labeled China, and the southern Republic of Korea bordering the sea. Across the sea, which on most maps you will find called the Sea of Japan but also sometimes referred to as the East Sea, is Japan. The sliver of ocean between these masses of land—one a roughly evenly divided peninsula and the other a splintered archipelago—is minuscule compared to the vast length you have traveled from the American continent through the European Old World to the eastern edge of the map. Yet the distance that the two people of these countries feel from each other is prodigious; emotionally distant conjoined twins, they are yoked together at the hip, but no longer on speaking terms.
In Korea, it’s difficult for me to admit I was born and raised in Japan. Consider an incident from when I was much younger. My mother and I were in a taxi together in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. I spoke in English to my mother because I had observed my dad telling my mother things in different languages in order to hide what he was saying from the notoriously nosy Korean taxi drivers. Before she could respond to my query, the taxi driver took one look at me and asked, “Where is he from? Where was this kid born?” My mother immediately replied, “Oh, he was born in America.” The taxi driver nodded toward my mother and then looked into the car mirror, as if to nod to himself in assent, as if to say, yes, that’s okay. My mother and I haven’t spoken about it since. To this day, however, I tell curious taxi drivers who can hear the accent in my Korean and anyone else who asks—because it’s Korea and most people feel the need to thumb through other people’s business—that I was born in America, instead of Japan. My family and I discuss neither the lying nor the event in the taxicab because the lesson was learned the first time around, after the old man’s nod: It’s okay to be Korean-American. It’s not okay to be Korean-Japanese.
Korean and Japanese relations have always been contentious, even before the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. There have been various territorial disputes over small islands sprinkled across the geographical gray area between them that cause animosity to this day. During 2012, all over the Japanese news, images and videos aired of Korean protesters burning Japanese flags over a small island (which, coincidentally or not, was also found to have gas deposits) called Dokdo. I recall walking out to Tokyo’s famous Shibuya crosswalk, what most American tourists refer to as the Japanese Times Square, to see right-wing demonstrators protesting Korea—and they too would have burned flags if it weren’t illegal to do so in Japan.
Then there is the matter of colonization. From 1910 to 1945, Japan annexed and controlled Korea. My grandfather often tells me of how, when he was a child, he was taught Japanese at school and given a Japanese name printed on all of his government-issued documents. Korean was spoken at home in hushed whispers and rarely in public. In short, Japan attempted cultural genocide. And there remain the countless other atrocities committed under the banner of imperialism: the so-called “comfort women”; experiments on human subjects, including vivisections and injections of germs and viruses; forced labor, unmarked graves, rapes, and denial. Since 1945 there has been no official apology from the Japanese government. Instead, Japanese cabinet ministers visit Yasukuni Shrine every year to supplicate before the icons of Japanese heroes—many of them convicted war criminals.
* * * *
Jus sanguinis, right of blood, is the law in Japan and Korea. Unlike the United States, which practices jus soli [i], right of the soil, these two countries do not allow citizens to hold more than one passport, and the passport one receives is contingent on the nationality of one’s parents. Therefore someone born in Japan to two Korean parents, such as myself, has to be Korean and cannot be Japanese. Nationalization is possible—in Japan, one can apply for citizenship upon turning 21 if one has lived in the country for five consecutive years—but one can only be Japanese. There can be no gray area in the realm of nationality, which most Koreans and Japanese view as black and white, either/or, just as they do territorial disputes. Despite the views to the contrary, however, there are still individuals who exist in this gray area, individuals stuck between the disparate worlds of Korea and Japan.
There is a name in Japan for people of Korean descent: Zainichi. They are the descendants of Koreans who stayed behind in Japan following the end of the occupation; individuals and families who thought they could better rebuild their lives in Japan. Korea’s economy, ruined by years of colonization and war, was equivalent to that of a modern war-torn African country such as the Congo or Somalia. Some Zainichi passed as Japanese by changing their names from Korean to Japanese. Others kept their names — these people became much easier targets for discrimination. Initially the Zainichi were considered Japanese citizens, relics from the occupation when all Koreans were Japanese subjects and thus technically “citizens.” Then, in 1952, the San Francisco Peace Treaty transferred Japanese sovereignty from the United States military back to the Japanese government but also revoked the Japanese citizenship of the Zainichi. The Zainichi were now forced to be Korean citizens, despite the fact that the children of the first Korean diaspora were born and raised in Japan, almost totally ignorant of Korean culture and language. Versed in the intricacies of one culture but now told they belonged to another by virtue of their “blood,” the Zainichi became and continue to be islands, controversial objects like the disputed gray territories between the two historical nemeses. Ironically, unlike the resource-rich physical territories under dispute, neither country wishes to claim sovereignty over the diaspora. The subsequent generations of Zainichi are victims of history and the cultural dogma of jus sanguinis—people unable to be accepted in either Japan or Korea.
Discrimination against the Zainichi is rampant, and the only way to advance in society is to pass. Tei Taikin, a nationalized Zainichi who changed his name and passes as Japanese, writes, “In order to remove such uncertainty, you need to get your nationality closer to your identity—that is, acquire Japanese nationality and, hopefully… live as a Korean-Japanese.” Korea and Japan don’t want to claim the Zainichi or truly acknowledge them because they are reminders of the past. Most Koreans see them as traitors who refused to return to the motherland after three decades of fighting for independence. Most Japanese view them as Korean nationals pretending to be Japanese citizens. In effect, the only way for a Zainichi to escape is to disappear among the Japanese and deny historical ties to Korea, to never allow anyone to find out what they really are. And when Zainichi “return” to Korea, they usually find themselves in a foreign culture to which they are only connected on paper. Like me, their memories and childhoods were spent on the archipelago across the sea. The only way for the Zainichi to survive is for them to no longer exist; they must take on a role they were never born into, only scared into. While not Zainichi, I too am afraid to admit that the only way I can find solidarity is to disappear under the veil of an artificial national identity—possibly as an American. Systemic discrimination frightens me less than the mindsets that have rendered a harmonious existence for the Zainichi impossible.
At an SAT cram school I attended one summer in Seoul, an argument broke out over Japanese and Korean historical guilt. After I’d told the members of the predominantly Korean-born class that I was born and raised in Japan, several of them brought up the historical controversy. I decided to defend Japan. “You’re not really Korean,” they seethed, “otherwise you would never take up the side of the Japanese.” I tried elaborating on how Korea itself was no angel; after all, Koreans had committed and participated in many of the atrocities that had occurred in Vietnam. They refused to listen, and what began as a series of ill-advised murmurs (resembling quiet squeals because most of the students’ voices hadn’t even cracked yet) escalated into shouting, mostly one-sided. “Traitor,” some of them called out. We were kids, but already a certain mentality had been ingrained in us about what being Korean and Japanese meant. So what about those who don’t fulfill either role? What about the Zainichi?
* * * *
“St. Augustine writes from his cope of dust that we are restless hearts, for earth is not our true home.” The Zainichi are late Koreans, remnants from another era of colonial borders, late for the independence of the Korean peninsula, too late to ever find a satisfying answer to their ontological ponderings. Intuition tells me, tells all of us, that we are people adrift, meant for some other place.
I have a US green card in my passport wallet. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s a national identity of some sort. As with the Zainichi, I am something of an island, unclaimed by either Japan or Korea. I’ll take on the identity of American because in America I can pass. In America, there has historically been a dream and a promise of assimilation. And even so, immigrants still find individual identities: Irish-Americans still find hope in Kennedy’s presidency from five decades ago, Italian-Americans once looked toward Mario Cuomo and now toward his son Andrew. Assimilate me. Claim this island. Though I am not ready to call myself American, I am ready to belong.
[i] The United States is among the few countries in the world to offer unconditional citizenship to everyone born on its soil. To most white Americans, the question “Where are you from?” is a fairly innocuous one—in the United States, for the most part, where one is from denotes his identity. Some of the millions of immigrants in America may dispute this, but historically, immigrant groups that were initially unwelcome in the United States—Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Irish—have gradually become accepted and now can proudly proclaim themselves to be “Italian-American” or “Irish-American.” My answer that I am Korean, not “Korean-Japanese”—a term that doesn’t exist—but born in Japan seems logically inconsistent to most Americans. Place and nationality being exclusive from each other is generally not part of the American worldview.