Between Coldness and Adoration: A Zainichi Korean’s Experience in Japan

"I urge Japanese readers to take another look at their elementary and middle school textbooks."

“Make extreme neutral” is the goal of Tokyo-based NEUT Magazine, which in this project with Public Books shines a light on different forms of violence and discrimination against Asian minorities—in Japan and around the world. Today’s essay, “Between Coldness and Adoration: A Zainichi Korean’s Experience in Japan,” by Natsu Shirotori, was originally published by NEUT in November 2022.

“Actually, I’m Korean.” How would you react if you heard this from a friend for the first time? After K-pop took the world by storm, a boom for all things Korean (ignited not only by music, but also by movies and dramas) swept across Japan. A great number of Japanese people have made it their ambition to study abroad in Korea, with some even aiming to become Korean idols themselves. In the eyes of young people today, Korea has become a dream destination.

Running counter to this is the abundance of voices in Japan that condemn South Korea. These can be readily found in major bookstores and broadcast media coverage, in addition to the hateful comments that pile up on news websites.

In Japan, these attitudes exist in contradiction with each other. But the context necessary for people to understand the reasons for this contradiction isn’t well-known enough.

For this interview, we spoke with SHIN—a Zainichi Korean—about discrimination in Japan. Zainichi Koreans are the ethnic Korean permanent residents of Japan. Zainichi means “residing in Japan,” and can refer to non-Koreans. But the term Zainichi has become synonymous with the ethnic Korean population in Japan, which includes nationals of both North and South Korea. Having experienced both coldness and adoration from others because of her Korean heritage, SHIN shares with us the memories of racism that have followed her from childhood to the present day.

I urge Japanese readers to take another look at their elementary and middle school textbooks. How much does the average Japanese person know about the deep-rooted history between Japan and the Korean peninsula? As a writer who admits to loving Korean pop culture herself, I felt that this interview was a sobering experience.

Today, young Japanese people who know nothing of the Japanese occupation of Korea, yet confess their love for the country, stand shoulder to shoulder with Zainichi peers who face discrimination every day. Now is the time to face this history head-on—there has never been a more opportune moment.

“I wished I hadn’t been born a Zainichi Korean”

Natsu Shirotori (NS): First, please tell us a bit about yourself.


SHIN (S): My name is SHIN, and I’m a model. I was born and raised in Kyoto, and began working as a model in Korea after graduating from high school. After living for a year and a half in Korea, I relocated to Tokyo in 2017. When I was in college here, I started coming to the café we’re in right now. I’d stop by from time to time since it was close to my apartment.

At some point, I learned that the owner was also Zainichi Korean. I began talking with her about things like cultural and generational differences and my parents’ home cooking. Before I knew it, this place had become like a second home to me.


NS: What can you tell us about your family?


S: Basically, I grew up with my mom, older brother, and older sister. Since we were poor and fatherless, my older brother worked through college to support the family.

My parents divorced when I was four years old. Until then, I had gone by my surname Shin, but after the divorce I started going by Aoyama, a tsuumei [Japanese name] 1 from my mom’s side. So I had two names, one Korean, one Japanese.

My grandma told me, “You ought to keep your Koreanness to yourself, else you’ll be discriminated against.” And I came to think that it would be best if I were Aoyama at both school and home. But after fourth grade, I transferred to a Korean school, where I went back to being Shin. From that point on, my Zainichi identity became a point of pride.


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NS: Why weren’t you proud of your Zainichi identity before then? Or rather, what did it take for your mindset to change?


S: When I was a kid, I felt uncomfortable with the Korean blood that ran through my veins. I always worried that people around me would hate me if they knew I was Korean. In elementary school, when my friends asked what my family members’ names were, I’d only share their Japanese ones. During the World Cup in 2002, while the rest of my family cheered for Korea, 6-year-old me was rooting for Japan.

But when my older sister started going to a Korean middle school, she began taking lessons in Korean dance. Going to her performance for the first time, I was shocked and mesmerized. I thought, I want to dance too! Soon after, I enrolled in a Korean school, where I began learning all about Korean language, history, and culture—and, of course, Korean dance, which I was totally into.

Bit by bit, I began to feel connected to my roots; it’s because of our history that we have this school, and because of this school that I dance. I can vividly remember the warmth I felt from my classmates when I opened the door to my classroom on the first day of school. Everyone was Korean, and everyone cared about me. I felt at home.


First memories of racism

NS: What experiences have you had of racism, living as a Zainichi Korean in Japan?


S: The first and most devastating experience happened when I was in my second year of middle school. I was with my mom in the bathroom of a shopping center below Kyoto Station, and we were chatting a bit in Korean. As my mom went to use the toilet, a lady touching up her makeup in the mirror looked back at me and said, “Fuck you, chosenjin”† with this condescending grin. 2

It was the first time I’d heard anything like that. “What did you just say?” I demanded, shocked and angered. The lady replied, “Who, me, a child of the rising sun? Nothing that concerns you.” But I needed to hear her apologize. I turned red and began to walk up to her, but then all of a sudden my mom came out from the stall. She pulled me away and said, “Calm down, we’re going.” I was bawling, my whole body shaking.

I cried all the way home on the train, thinking about how unfair it all was. My mom, who had faced much more in her day, told me coolly, “Don’t drag yourself down to her level.” From that day forward, I decided that I’d never judge somebody by their citizenship or the color of their skin.

Later, when I was working a retail job in Tokyo, a customer who was dissatisfied with my wrapping skills read my name badge and said, “I knew you weren’t Japanese. You shouldn’t be working here.” It had been so long since that moment in middle school, but it stung all over again, dealing with the same racism as an adult.


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NS: Did you talk to your friends or parents about that racism?


S: Not so much with my Japanese friends. In recent years, telling people I’m Zainichi Korean gets this positive response; they’ll say something like, “Oh, that’s so cool.” But few are interested in the struggles that follow me through life. And it’s not like I get chances to open up about it all the time.

I’ve wondered, though, if it’s something that I should bring up at all. If I tried to tell my Japanese friends about the pain I’d been through, what if they showed their true colors and I discovered their own ingrained racism?


NS: About that positive reaction from your Japanese friends—for young people in particular, it’s as if the K-pop boom has erased parts of the past. Does that make you feel uncomfortable?


S:It’s hard to put into words; but I’d say rather than feel uncomfortable, I almost feel amazed. Sometimes people tell me how they love Korea, but I wonder what exactly they love about Korea. For example: the huge popularity of K-pop, as well as Korean dramas and movies, isn’t a bad development per se.

But when things between our countries get tense, these negative, hateful comments pop up everywhere online. Reading these comments, I get really scared, even if just for a moment. So when friends tell me that they envy me, that they “want to marry a Korean,” I can’t help but wonder whether they’d still say so, if they knew what we’ve been through.


Barred from voting for a better society

NS: What are some specific things about Japanese society that have bothered you lately?


S: Most recently, I’ve been bothered by our lack of voting rights. In the past I didn’t really pay attention to it, but as an adult I can’t help but find it cruel. As an adult, with a developed sense of values, I’ve wanted to participate in the improvement of the society that I plan to keep living in. There are aspects of Japanese politics and society that I’m uneasy about, but I don’t even have the right to vote for change.

My citizenship is South Korean, but as a Zainichi Korean I have permanent residency here in Japan. 3 In 1980, there were more than 700,000 Zainichi Koreans living in Japan, but today there are only about 400,000. In previous generations, many people came to Japan, a foreign country, for a better shot at life, and then naturalized to reap the benefits of living here. Of course, once naturalized, one is granted not only the right to vote, but access to a much broader range of job opportunities.

Even though we pay the same taxes as Japanese citizens, we have no voting rights—that really strikes me as odd. Reading about last year’s House of Representatives election in NEUT and my friends’ social media posts made me really envy those who could vote.


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NS: Finally, please tell us why you agreed to this interview.


S: I’m 25 years old now. I want to better understand society, and I want to improve it, too. I’m in a special position to do that here as a Zainichi Korean. I want to make life better for those who’ve faced the same circumstances that I have. My hope is that through this interview, I’ll have conveyed some of my real experience.

I truly believe that with the help of others who feel the same way, we can make the world a better place. I don’t want to only be a model who makes clothes look good; I want to reach out to the world, limited though my reach may be.


This article was originally printed by NEUT Magazine in November 2022. This version has been translated from the Japanese by Toby Reynolds and edited by Mike Fu. icon

  1. 通 (tsuumei): an alias differing from one’s registered given name or family name, commonly adopted by foreign nationals, particularly those from East Asia, living in Japan. It was compulsory under the sōshi-kaimei policy issued in 1939 that Korean people change their surname to a Japanese one. The policy was reverted after Japan’s defeat in the war, but its ripple effect can still be observed today.
  2. 朝鮮人 (Chōsenjin): literally “Korean,” referring to the people of Chōsen. Originally a neutral term commonly used before the division of North and South Korea, the word has since taken on discriminatory connotations in Japan today. Today, South Korean people are referred to as Kankokujin and North Koreans as Kitachōsenjin.
  3. From 1910 onward, following the Japanese occupation and colonization of the peninsula, Koreans were forced into labor, military service, and relocation to Japan. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, some Koreans returned home, but many remained in Japan due to the unstable political and economic climate in that period. Korean nationals living in Japan were granted permanent residence under special terms following a treaty signed in 1965; a special designation for permanent residency was established in 1993. Today, some 400,000 Koreans live in Japan as “Special Permanent Residents.”
Featured-image photograph by Takanobu Watanabe