Nationalist sentiments against ethnic Koreans are reportedly on the rise in Japan once again, reportedly in connection with looming elections in Seoul and ramped up missile testing in Pyongyang.
Zainichi, the Japanese term for ethnic Koreans living in the country, often wind up on the receiving end of such hatred in Japan, which in the past year has seen at least two notorious attacks that sparked fears throughout the community.
In January 2020, a Korean community center in Kawasaki received a card that threatened to “exterminate” Koreans in Japan, according to The Japan Times. Kawasaki is home to one of Japan’s larger Korean communities, and the message arrived after the city enacted the nation’s first anti-hate speech law.
In August 2021, seven buildings in Utoro — a district in Uji, Kyoto prefecture, home to descendants of Korean laborers in World War II — were engulfed in flames. Shogo Arimoto, 22, was charged with arson, according to Kyodo News.
Arimoto was also accused of setting fire to the offices of Mindan — a Korean union affiliated with Seoul — in Aichi prefecture. Days after his arrest, someone else smashed Mindan’s windows in its office in Hiraoka, Osaka prefecture, the Asahi Shimbun reported.
“These things seem to come in waves and the new surge is linked to the elections, particularly in South Korea as criticising Japan is a popular position. And now we have the North testing missiles as well, so there is plenty for Japan to get angry about,” Chung Hyon-suk, a Zainichi living in Tokyo, told the South China Morning Post.
While recent attacks appear reactive to current geopolitical tensions, they can be traced back to the countries’ colonial history. In January 2021, conflict also erupted after the Seoul Central District Court ordered Japan to pay 100 million Korean won (approximately $82,960) to each of 12 Korean “comfort women” who filed a lawsuit against Tokyo in 2016, according to SCMP.
Japan rejected the ruling under the principle of sovereign immunity; however, it also ruled in a 2006 case against Pakistan that a foreign government must follow civil jurisdiction unless there is a fear of sovereignty infringement, as per The Diplomat.
Kim Myong-chol, a 70-year-old Zainichi, claims Japanese people have always used Koreans as a scapegoat for their own problems, which he attributes to Koreans being an “easy target.”
“Japanese have a special feeling of superiority over Koreans. Many of them have a hatred for Koreans and Korean culture, and that is the same attitude that they used to justify their colonial rule over the Korean peninsula in the past,” Kim told SCMP.
Japan’s most vocal racists hail from a far-right group known as the Zaitokukai, which is shorthand for “Zainichi Tokken wo Yurusanai Shimin no Kai,” or “Citizens Against the Special Privileges of Koreans in Japan.” Its members believe that Koreans abuse “special privileges” by constantly painting themselves as victims of Imperial Japan.
The Zaitokukai is no longer active as a social movement, but experts believe it left a growing contingency of followers. Authors of a University of Notre Dame paper who studied anti-Korean sentiment in Japan speculate that the Japan First Party, which holds one political seat in the country, is a front that allows the hate group to perpetuate and continue hate-oriented activities.
Japanese youth seem to reflect a different story, at least in terms of general sentiment towards South Korea. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, a 2020 survey revealed that 54.5% of those under 29 reported feeling an affinity with South Korea, compared to less than 30% of those aged 60 and above.
This perceivably greater tolerance among younger generations has been attributed to Hallyu, or the rise of Korean pop culture, in Japan. Minori Fukushima, a sociologist and an associate professor at Tokoha University, suggested that young men no longer distance themselves from K-pop, unlike many who did in the past.
“Lately, there have been male students at my university who dye their hair green or pink and tell me that ‘it’s the fashion of K-pop artists,’” Fukushima told the Mainichi. “I feel that Korean culture is also making a quite increasingly favorable impression on boys.”
Meanwhile, as North Korea, has increased missile testing in January, per CNN, ultranationalists are presumably unlikely to distinguish Seoul from Pyongyang.
One approach Korean Japanese have adopted in response to experiencing racism has been to assimilate by hiding their heritage. Japan does not collect data on ethnicity, according to Bloomberg, and many Zainichi have adopted Japanese names and naturalized over the years.
Still, reduced visibility does not mean the elimination of anti-Korean racism. “The significance shouldn’t be quantified and measured by the official size of the population,” Hwaji Shin, an associate professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco, told Bloomberg.