Japan is located in east Asia, with only the Sea of Japan separating it from South Korea and North Korea.
In 1876 the Japan-Korea Treaty was signed which significantly modernised Japan as a political state, and in turn led to an increase in Koreans migrating to Japan (including students and asylum seekers). This migration grew significantly after the Second World War finished, as well as just after the Korean War in the 1950s. When the Second World War ended Korean immigrants were given the status of foreign nationals, given Japan’s influence over Korea, but when the San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed in 1952, and the Allies stopped occupying Japan, it effectively ended Japan’s claim over what was now a divided Korea (North and South Korea had separately declared their independence in 1948). As a direct result, Zainichi Koreans lost their foreign national status.
From 1956 the repatriation of Zainichi Koreans out of Japan began. Because Zainichi Koreans were no longer Japanese citizens they weren’t afforded the same rights when it came to things such as healthcare or financial support and the attraction of returning to Korea was significant (to both the North and South, although the number returning to the North dropped sharply in the late 1960s).
Today, through groups such as Mindan and Chongryon, Zainichi have established a more settled existence in Japan. There is a system of naturalisation, with Zainichi applying for Japanese citizenship, that is far less complex or prohibitive than it used to be, meaning it has become more popular among younger generations. As a result, the official number of Zainichi in Japan continues to diminish.
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After the end of the Second World War and the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, laws were created in Japan to financially support its citizens. However, these laws didn’t apply to Zainichi Koreans and caused problems regarding their access to medical care and the publicity of their identities – each Zainichi Korean was given an official name by the Japanese government as well as their own name and had to supply their fingerprints for identification.
Ethnic Koreans who haven’t taken, or been given, official Japanese status, have a separate status as a Special Permanent Resident, known as Tokubetsu Eijusha. This status gives Zainichi Koreans greater rights than other foreigners in the country, as well as allowing them to vote in Korea (North Koreans in North Korea, and South Koreans in South Korea).
Despite the drop in numbers, Zainichi Koreans are the biggest minority in Japan today. This Korean diaspora is represented by North and South Koreans, despite the hostility between the two nations. The biggest migration of Koreans to Japan happened at the beginning of the 20th century. There are around 500,000 Zainichi Koreans living in Japan today, and Zainichi Korean is the form of Korean dialect they speak, which differs to the Korean spoken in North and South Korea.
The Japanese word Zainichi translates as ‘staying in Japan’. Despite the implied notion of temporary status, it is still used to describe the Korean diaspora that has settled in the country for four or five generations.