Estate agent sign says: ‘Foreigners Welcome’. In most estate agents they are not

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Imagine an England where race matters. Where natives come first in hiring and housing. Where foreigners are barred from certain locales, by signs in the windows. Where people openly judge you by your skin colour and, failing that, surname. Where all foreign residents are fingerprinted, and serious violation means swift deportation. Where health tourism is impossible. Where almost nobody gets a free flat. Where the surrounding seas are a true barrier. Where the number of refugees accepted each year is kept in the dozens, and economic migrants in the thousands. Where immigrant enclaves hardly exist, and whole neighbourhoods contain not a single foreigner.

Well, you don’t actually have to imagine this, because that land already exists. It’s called Japan.

I spent a long time in Japan. I have long meant to write about it. But  I thought I would put this fascinating country aside until my dotage, and focus my scribbling on Europe, where the interesting stuff is happening.

Then I read what the Japan-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro recently wrote about Brexit. Here’s a sample line:

“So we will soon be faced with this question: do we as a nation hate foreigners sufficiently to deny ourselves access to the single market? This might easily be rephrased as: is Britain too racist to be a leading nation in a modern globalised world?”

This seriously annoyed me.

Ishiguro (“The Remains of the Day,” brilliant novel) was born in Nagasaki and raised in Britain. He is British enough to have only limited Japanese and evidently little knowledge of the way foreigners are treated in his original homeland.

Until very recently, Japan was by far the most xenophobic developed country on earth. It is so racist that it is actually quite hard for Westerners to understand the extremes they have gone to until very recently, in the name of racial purity. In this piece, I’m going to say a bit about them. I’m going to focus on a group of foreigners in Japan that few have heard of, the zainichi.

First, some background. Although nearly homogenous, Japan does have several minorities. In the far north are the Ainu people, Japan’s aboriginals, now nearly extinct. In the south are the Okinawans, who have never been considered fully Japanese. Scattered throughout the country are the burakumin, who are native Japanese at the bottom of Japan’s little-known caste system. And then there are the zainichi, who are the ethnic Koreans who long accounted for over half of Japan’s immigrant population.

There have been Koreans in Japan since the 1000s, but today’s community is largely based on emigration during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea which so impoverished Koreans that many had to come to Japan to get a living. Others were brought over to work in factories and mines. Some women were forced into prostitution: the “comfort-women.”

Soon after the war, the entire community of then over a million Koreans were made stateless, as a not very subtle hint that they should all go back home. But Korea was in ruins, and the Korean War was looming. Many refused to go. They had been imperial subjects. They had started families in Japan, and in Korea now had nothing to return to. Japan’s government, then under American tutelage, could not do what it wanted to do, which was just kick them out. Instead, it pretended they did not exist.

So ethnic Koreans formed another untouchable caste (along with the burakumin ethnic Japanese in the meat-and-leather-handling trades). They were barred from jobs in respectable Japanese companies, and could not get credit. They were pretty much restricted to building sites, waste collection, money-lending and gambling-arcade management. They could not count on state-subsidized healthcare or state pensions They were turned away by private estate agents, and were forced to live in ghettos, often by riverbanks. Some of these were called “zero zones” (zero banchi) because they were not even given the Japanese version of a postal code.

They had to apply for Japanese nationality on maturity. Because of their mistreatment, many chose to become South or North Korean citizens residing in Japan rather than ask nicely for permission to be full citizens. This made their legal status in Japan barely more secure than that of a tourist. Every time they went abroad they could be barred from re-entry.

All this is what Kazuo Ishiguro would have faced were he a Korean living in Japan, rather than a Japanese living in Britain  among a people he now considers nasty xenophobes.

Many Koreans did naturalise but it made no difference what passport they held. If you had a Korean name, you were stigmatised and marginalised. Even their name as a community, the zainichi (in-Japan-people), subtly marked them out as unwanted guests, who at some time might become outside-Japan-people. They were made so unwelcome in the country in which most of them were born and raised that they had to assume Japanese names, called a tsuumei, or “passing-through” names (for getting through daily life), to avoid job and housing discrimination.

The tsuumei was also needed to keep personal relationships going. “I don’t want to tell anybody I am Korean,” a teenage zainichi girl wrote in a touching letter to the Hiragana Times magazine some years back, “as I will lose all my friends.” Having to systematically assume a false persona in public life made many zainichi feel like impostors and caused considerable psychological problems in the community.

But even if you used a tsuumei Japanese name, you could easily be outed by a tenacious potential employer (or father-in-law), because domicile is a matter of public record in Japan and the Japanese-Koreans were mostly forced into the well-known outcast enclaves. Private agencies offered discreet detective services to sniff out Korean blood. “Outed” is not my term, by the way. It is a word used for Softbank founder Masayoshi Son, Japan’s most famous zainichi and one of a handful of Japanese-Koreans to have made it to the top in business. In Sano Shin’ichi’s biography of Son, ‘Anpon’, Son’s self-”outing” at a restaurant is described by a friend at the scene:

“The time that he squarely outed himself about being a Korean was the winter of his third year [of high school] I think. … Suddenly Masayoshi Son made a sign for everybody to fall silent. .. ‘The truth is,’ he said, ‘I am a zainichi.’ Everybody felt disconcerted. Masayoshi Son, who made his confession, was wearing a really serious expression …”

Acknowledging Korean ethnicity was a “confession.” Son, like many richer zainichi, got his higher education in America.

This was the daily reality throughout most of the postwar decades. Because the Koreans looked and sounded exactly the same as the native Japanese, and because the zainichi communities were ignored by the Japanese media, few people even knew about the issue.In the 2000s, when I was mostly away from Japan, things eased up somewhat.

I look at that in the next part.


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Photo credit: Joe Slater

A longer version of this article first appeared in

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