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Legal rights of ethnic Koreans lingering issue for Korea-Japan ties

Presently, more than 600,000 Koreans reside in Japan, constituting its largest ethnic minority group, a legacy of Japan’s 1910-45 colonization, during which hundreds of thousands of Koreans were taken there for forced labor.

Despite their longstanding campaigns to gain Japanese citizenship rights ― encompassing rights to take up government employment and participate in elections ― the Japanese Diet has yet to pass a resolution regarding this issue, faced with fierce social and political opposition. Such rights should not be granted to those who have not yet adopted Japanese nationality, rightwing dissenters in Japan claim.

The majority of Koreans in Japan are “Zainichi” Koreans, which refers only to long-term residents who have retained their Korean nationality instead of acquiring Japanese nationality. Meaning “staying in Japan,” the Japanese word Zainichi itself usually refers to Koreans in the country because of their significant presence in Japanese society.

Over the decades, Zainichi Koreans have strived to gain full legal rights without having to adopt Japanese nationality, which helped them achieve special rights and privileges compared to other foreigners, such as health insurance benefits and state pensions.

Also, requirements for naturalization have been steadily lowered for the Koreans to the point that only criminal records or affiliation to North Korea would hinder the process of naturalization.

But Zainichi organizations are skeptical of the move, regarding naturalization as de facto assimilation into the Japanese society that will weaken the Korean ethnic identity in Japan. Neither Japanese nor South Korean nationality laws allow multiple citizenships for adults.

Role of Seoul government

In order for permanent Koreans in Japan to gain full legal rights without having to undermine their ethnical pride, support by the South Korean government is critical, pundits say.

“It makes it a harder battle for these people because the issue is often viewed as a problem limited to the overseas Korean society,” said professor Kim Sook-hyun of Japan’s Tohoku University. “This is an issue that can’t be solved unless the Korean government, especially the presidential office, takes up an active role.”

In June, Yukio Hatoyama of Japan’s ruling Democratic Party stepped down from the prime minister post, stirring concerns here over future Korea-Japan ties.

Hatoyama was considered one of the strongest pro-Korea members of the liberal party, who had expressed his intent several times to properly mend ties with Korea by invalidating its 1910 annexation treaty and granting Koreans the right to vote in elections for prefectural and municipal assemblies, mayors and prefecture governors.

Easing such concerns, Hatoyama’s successor Naoto Kan has said the “Japanese government should make clear” its past responsibility in the relations with Korea and that his party was “making effort with strong belief” over the issue of granting suffrage to Koreans in Japan.

Nevertheless, the overall political instability will make it difficult for the Japanese parliament to immediately pass the resolution over the issue, pundits say.

“The Korean government must make its position strong and clear on the need of reestablishing Korea-Japan ties upon Japan’s proper apology and appropriate measures concerning our people in the country,” said Lee Nak-yon of Seoul’s main opposition Democratic Party.

Since taking office two years ago, President Lee Myung-bak has promoted “futuristic ties” with Japan by letting go of the past and not seeking an apology over issues that have strained the relations between the two neighboring countries for the past century.

While his Grand National Party and right-wingers in the country supported the conservative leader’s policy, opposition political blocs and victims of Japan’s brutal colonial rule fiercely criticized Lee.

In a recent meeting with a group of elderly social leaders, Lee said he was “highly optimistic” that the Japanese legislature will soon pass the bill granting voting rights to ethnic Koreans there and emphasized he was “fully behind” the ongoing campaign for such legal rights.

Increasing naturalization

Some 10,000 Koreans naturalize in Japan each year, according to state data, with a growing number of younger Zainichi Koreans only speaking Japanese, going to Japanese schools, working for Japanese firms and marrying Japanese people. Most naturalization occurs among the younger Koreans during the period when they seek formal employment or marriage.

The limited legal rights and lingering sense of discrimination are what pushes most young ethnic Koreans to give up their nationality and legally become Japanese, pundits say.

If the phenomenon continues, the Zainichi population will collapse once the older generation starts to die out, a Korean-Japanese newspaper reported recently, citing statistics of sharply increasing marriages between Japanese and Koreans.

“The Japanese government should stop treating Zainichi (Koreans) as temporary residents and provide a proper legal framework for their permanent settlement as Korean-Japanese,” Hidenori Sakanaka, a former official at the Japanese justice ministry said in a widely-known report. “They must not be forced to abandon their Korean identity and nationality.”

By Shin Hae-in (