Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2018, 17:46 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Japan : Koreans

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Japan : Koreans, 2008, available at: [accessed 20 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Close to 600,000 Koreans are permanent residents or citizens of Japan (Source: CIA World Factbook, 2007 estimate). Mainly distributed in the major industrial and economic centres of the country, the largest number of Koreans lives in Osaka, followed by Tokyo and Hyogo prefectures. Like their counterparts in North and South Korea, most Koreans in Japan speak Korean, though younger Koreans who are second or third generation increasingly speak only Japanese.

The term 'Zainichi Koreans' (from the Japanese word meaning 'staying in Japan') is sometimes used to describe those who are permanent residents of Japan but who haven't acquired Japanese citizenship. ' Many consider them to be the country's largest minority, since the Ryūkyūans are in many cases deemed to be ethnically Japanese and therefore not minorities. However, the Government of Japan does not officially consider Koreans or any other group as minorities except for the Ainu people. They consider Koreans the largest foreign residents.

The political division of Korea between a communist North Korea and now democratic South Korea are mirrored to some degree in the ideological divide between the two main Korean minority organisations in Japan: Mindan, or Korean Residents Union in Japan, is pro-South while Chongryon, or General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, is a pro-North organisation. The distinction between these two minority organisations are more ideological than geographical, however, as Koreans associated with the pro-North or pro-South organisation are not necessarily linked by birth to North or South Korea respectively.

Both organisations operate private minority schools in Japan, though the pro-North Chongryon has been more active in this area and is perceived as the more militant in maintaining the Korean culture and language and resisting assimilation. Most Korean-language school are operated by Chongryon rather than Mindan. It is believed by some that a majority of Koreans are today affiliated with Mindan (though there are no official statistics on this), partially perhaps in response the economic and political transformations in South Korea, and perhaps also of the younger Koreans becoming more interested in integrating into Japanese society and facing less flagrant discrimination.

The worst forms of intolerance and denigration against Koreans have begun to weaken, with an accompanying increase in the number of Zainichi Koreans seeking and obtaining citizenship (about 10,000 a year). Nevertheless, Zainichi Koreans still face a large number of obstacles in their exercise of civil and political rights because of their status in Japanese society as permanent residents rather than citizens.

Historical context

The presence of such a large number of Koreans in Japan is intrinsically linked to the close - and uncomfortable - relationship between Korea and Japan in the first half of the last century. Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, and initially made colonisation attempts that led to large numbers of farmers losing their land and becoming a convenient pool of cheap labour. Many were brought to Japan in the 1930s and 1940s as Japan needed to replace its own people engaged in the war effort.

While Koreans had been citizens during the occupation period, they would eventually lose Japanese citizenship after the Second World War. Though more than a million Koreans were to return to Korea, the difficult economic situation there and the looming confrontation between South and North Korea, among other factors, meant that perhaps 620,000 Koreans remained in Japan. The adoption of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1952 brought the end of their right to Japanese citizenship, since they would have had to abandon Korean citizenship in order to be naturalised as a Japanese citizen. Most Koreans at the time were not willing to make the necessary break at the time. As foreigners - even though many were born in Japan - they were excluded from a number of employment categories, could not vote, and suffered from negative attitudes within Japanese society which tended to denigrate Korean culture and minorities.

The situation of the Korean minority in Japan is thus unique: initially 'unwilling' citizens of a colonial power, often brought into the country as cheap labour for dangerous or menial jobs, they would eventually lose their citizenship unless they abandoned all legal connection to their home country.

The second half of the 20th century would see Koreans at the receiving end of unfavourable or discriminatory treatment linked either to their position as non-citizens or because of long-standing prejudice. They were for most of this period not allowed to register their Korean family names which they might have lost previously through the Japanese government's forcing the adoption of Japanese-sounding names during the colonial and war periods. Until about the 1990s, those who wished to acquire Japanese citizenship had to surmount burdensome or even demeaning requirements, such as requirement to fingerprint all ten fingers.

Because of the prevailing attitude of government authorities who view Japan as a monocultural and monolinguistic society, members of the Korean minority who wished to maintain their language and culture have had for decades to take away their children from state schools and educate them in private schools using Korean as medium of instruction. Not all of these schools have been recognised and they receive no funding from the Japanese government. In 2003, the Department of Education allowed graduates of Mindan-run Korean schools, but not of Chongryon schools, to sit the university entrance exams as of right.

The civil rights movement which gained strength in the 1980s, changing attitudes in Japan towards minorities and the normalisation of relations between South Korea and Japan led to further developments which would be more favourable to the Korean minority. Zainichi Koreans were granted in 1991 the status of 'Special Permanent Residents' which recognised their unique position within Japanese society. Legislation and regulations were amended to reflect this new status, including allowing them to work in previously inaccessible employment categories, such as teachers in public schools (though still only at the lowest levels). While private Korean schools were finally given a form of official recognition at this time, this was still limited and still did not entitle access to universities.

From this period a number of trends have affected the size of the Korean minority and their status in Japan. On the one hand, there are an increasing number of 'new' Koreans arriving from South Korea in order to work or study in Japan. In addition, the number of Koreans who are Special Permanent Residents has diminished overall (less than 472,000 in 2003) as many of them have begun to apply and obtain Japanese citizenship (about 10,000 a year since about the mid-1990s), with perhaps 300,000 ethnic Koreans who have citizenship in 2006. Additionally, the impact of Japan's and of Korean organisations' increased presence in international human rights fora, the growing acknowledgement of the legitimacy of some of the human rights concerns of the minority all contributed to a change in their treatment.

Current issues

The absence of comprehensive legislation prohibiting discrimination, especially by private parties, means that the Korean minority is still vulnerable in Japanese society, as they have traditionally been victims of intolerance and prejudice in the land which for many of them has been the only home they know. The history of abuse against minorities such as the Koreans have made some of them hide their Korean identity, though a few high profile individuals in 2005 and 2006 have 'come out' and acknowledged publicly their Korean heritage.

One of the continuing contentious issues for the Korean minority remains education. The Japanese government in 2003 made graduates from most international schools and foreign schools - as well as Japanese schools - eligible for the university entrance examination. This has not been extended to most Korean schools (with the exception of the small number of Mindan-sun schools), meaning that Korean students from these schools remain seriously disadvantaged. There also appears to be other forms of continuing discrimination against Korean schools, with donations to foreign schools being tax-exempt, but not those to Korean schools. Since most Korean schools are thus still not recognised as regular schools, children attending these schools will risk also discrimination in employment.

Though some municipal governments have in recent years provided some level of support and provided subsidies to Korean schools this still remains low and is by no means generalised. There is no movement from educational authorities in 2005 and 2006 to establish state schools teaching in Korean - a concept which appears to be alien in light of the still pervasive view of Japan being ethnically homogenous. This is despite international comments and criticisms since 1998 from international bodies such as UNESCO and more recently the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2004 on the limited opportunities for children of minorities to be educated in their own language.

There also continues to be the problem for some members of the Korean minority who are still unable to access the pension system and the health insurance scheme in Japan. As a result of legislative changes in 1982 and 2004, some foreign residents - and in particular Koreans - are still unable to access both schemes because at the time the Japanese government did not provide remedial measures for those falling between gaps in the law - mainly elderly Korean residents in the certain age group or disabled residents who do not have Japanese citizenship. There continues to be tens of thousands of Koreans and disabled who thus still do not have access to the pension scheme.

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