Kyodo on LEE Soo Im, ethnic Korean-J activist and scholar


Now here’s something more in depth from the Japanese media. Thanks Kyodo.

I know Lee Sensei as she cites in:
Lee, Soo im; Murphy-Shigematsu, Stephen; and Befu, Harumi, eds., “JAPAN’S DIVERSITY DILEMMAS”. iUniverse Inc. 2006. ISBN 0-595-36257-5. Two citations, in Chapter 4 (Murphy-Shigematsu, “Diverse Forms of Minority National Identities in Japan’s Multicultural Society”, pp. 75-99) and Chapter 5 (Lee, “The Cultural Exclusiveness of Ethnocentrism: Japan’s Treatment of Foreign Residents”, pp. 100-125).

Read on. Debito in Sapporo


FOCUS: Koreans’ struggle casts fresh light on Japanese immigration debate
NEW YORK, March 28 2007 KYODO NEWS
Thanks to Matt Dioguardi for notifying me.

Debates over whether or not to import more foreign workers have always been a thorny issue in Japan, but it came to bear an extra sense of urgency when the country’s total fertility rate dropped to a new record low of 1.25 in 2005.

While foreigners still comprise about 1 percent of Japan’s population, the number of new arrivals has been steadily rising, especially from South America and China.

As these newer immigrants struggle to settle into the Japanese society, the decades-old struggle of the zainichi, or the ethnic Koreans in Japan, has come into clearer focus, says Lee Soo Im, professor at Ryukoku University.

A third-generation ethnic Korean, Lee was born in 1953 in Osaka Prefecture. Like hundreds of thousands of their compatriots, Lee’s grandparents emigrated to Japan in 1921 after losing their farmlands following Japan’s colonization of Korea in 1910.

Her maternal grandfather had a job in Tokyo, but never returned after the massive 1923 Kanto Earthquake. Through various contacts, the family learned that he was among about 6,000 Koreans killed by vigilantes acting on rumors that Koreans were planning a riot.

At the end of World War II, Korean population in Japan totaled over 2 million, swelling through forced conscriptions to make up for labor shortages in the Japanese mainland.

For a few years after 1945, Koreans in Japan were still considered Japanese citizens. But their citizenship was revoked abruptly in 1952 as Japan regained independence that year.

Becoming foreigners in the country they have already settled in, Koreans in Japan faced enormous hurdles in the coming decades, denied a variety of rights including social welfare and national pension.

While Japan’s ratification of the 1982 refugee recognition treaty, which barred nationality-based discrimination, improved the situation to some extent, unspoken discrimination in jobs, bank loans, housing and marriages persisted.

Growing up in Osaka, home to a large ethnic Korean community in Japan, Lee said she had grown immune to racial slurs, including the neighborhood kids’ yelling at her, ”You stinking Korean!”

But Lee was unprepared for her first encounter with an ”institutional discrimination” when she was about to graduate from Kyoto’s renowned Doshisha University.

”My grades were good, and I wanted to work for a municipal bank…and the teacher said, ‘No, they won’t hire Koreans.”

”I lost all my hope. I graduated from my university in 1975 and decided to immigrate to this country (the United States),” Lee spoke recently at New York’s Korea Society.

Financing her tuition with money she saved by teaching English and mathematics in Japan, Lee taught English to immigrants’ children in the United States, majoring in teaching English as a second language at the University of California, Los Angeles, and at Boston State College.

”I got a lot of hope, and courage from these immigrants, especially Korean children. They were telling me, ‘Teacher, one day we want to be like you.”

While in the United States, Lee also met her Iranian husband and gave birth to a daughter in Boston. Having little desire of returning to Japan, the family was set to move to Iran, but the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 made this impossible.

Back in Japan, Lee decided to apply for Japanese citizenship to safeguard her family’s visa status. But the immigration office was not convinced that she would become the ”head of a family” under Japan’s quintessentially paternal family registry system.

”They didn’t even give me an application form,” Lee said.

Fortunately, demand for English teachers was growing at the time, and Lee managed to find a secure job as a general director at an English language institute.

Her career bloomed, but seeking a fresh challenge, Lee applied for a teaching post at Ryukoku and was hired by the university in 1996. The move opened up her world to the study of ethnic Koreans and a host of human rights issues ethnic minorities face around the world.

Regaining her confidence, Lee went back to the immigration office in 1999 to apply for citizenship. The office was initially reluctant, but gave in after she threatened legal action, Lee said.

Lee became a Japanese citizen in 2002. Unlike most Koreans who naturalize, however, she decided to retain her Korean name, a decision questioned by an official in the process.

”I was told, ‘Why don’t you become a pure Japanese? That way, you could avoid discrimination, and your life will be better off,”’ Lee said.

”I said no. I want to naturalize, of course, to make my status more established, but I want to naturalize to make my presence become more visible in the society.”

Growing up, Lee used a Japanese name and hid her ethnicity until she was 18, when she decided to receive a high school diploma in her Korean name after a long struggle over her identity.

”I have to be a living example, teaching the domestic internationalization to Japanese people,” Lee said.

Lee, who recently co-edited ”Japan’s Diversity Dilemmas: Ethnicity, Citizenship, and Education” to highlight issues surrounding the country’s immigrant population, says there are no such thing as pure Japanese. A homogenous Japan is a myth built upon foreigners forced to live ”invisibly,” she says.

While the Japanese perception toward Koreans got a lift in recent years thanks largely to the Korean pop culture, there is a backlash by nationalists, in addition to a move to reinstate patriotic education, a trend she is particularly concerned about.

Lee forecasts that the Japanese attitude toward immigrants will not change unless the situation ”really hits the bottom.” But she believes Japan can no longer expect foreigners to choose between assimilation and exclusion under the forces of globalization.

”I love Japan and fighting against the system is my way of showing patriotism to my country,” Lee said.

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