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  5. Chosen-seki as Stateless Residents: Is Their Social Integration in Japan Possible?

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FOCUS June 2021 Volume 104

Chosen-seki as Stateless Residents: Is Their Social Integration in Japan Possible?

Soo im Lee

Old-timer Koreans in Japan  are descendants of colonial-era migrants who moved from Korea to Japan1 during the first half of the twentieth century. They constitute one of the largest postcolonial populations whose civic rights and direct participation in the society have been blocked due to the “nationality clause” and their status as foreign residents.

Of the total number of foreigners living in Japan (almost three million as of June 2019), Korean residents in Japan (commonly termed the Zainichi Koreans) constitute the second largest foreigner group after the Chinese. Of the total number (309,282) of special permanent residents (the former colonial subjects and their descendants), 278,465 have South Korean nationality and 27,150 are called Chosen-seki residents. Chosen is their geographical origin as a substitute for nationality, and Chosen-seki is a legal status assigned by the Japanese government to ethnic Koreans in Japan who neither have Japanese nor Korean nationality.

Zainichi Koreans in Japan are divided into two distinct ethnic organizations. Those who are pro-Pyongyang and those who do not want to take either side of the divided nation (North or South Korea) belong to the General Association of Korean Residents Union in Japan (Japanese: Chosen-Soren; Korean: Chongryun). Those with South Korean nationality and those who are naturalized Japanese citizens belong to the Korean Residents Union in Japan (Japanese: Mindan). These organizations have provided indispensable support to ethnic Koreans living and working in Japan who lacked legal protection. They were especially important for first-generation Koreans who were not eligible to receive social welfare benefits from the Japanese government.

Revocation of Japanese Nationality

Few Japanese know or understand that these old-timers were once forced to take up Japanese nationality during the period when the Japanese imperial government ruled Korea as a colony from 1911 to 1945. But just before Japan ratified the San Francisco Peace Treaty with the US and the Allied Powers, the former colonial subjects were deprived of suffrage rights, and then the revocation of their Japanese nationality followed. Since then, Koreans in Japan were placed under the Alien Registration Law. In summary, Koreans were treated as second class citizens during the colonial period and even the basic rights they had as Japanese nationals were withdrawn in 1952.


The plight of Zainichi Koreans has been described as “Japan’s hidden apartheid” by Hicks (1998). During the period of U.S. occupation of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur received instructions from the U.S. government to designate Koreans as either “liberated nationals” or “enemy nationals.” The Alien Registration Law (enacted on 2 May 1947, Edict No. 207) had Clause 11 that provided for “Koreans designated by the Ministry of Justice, as well as Taiwanese, to be considered foreigners for the time being.” As a result, former colonial subjects with limited Japanese citizenship were registered as foreigners and were obligated to carry at all times an alien registration document; which had the word “Korean/Chosen/朝鮮” without stating it officially as nationality. This resulted in a vague legal status for the former colonial subjects and their descendants.

Foreigners suffered numerous discriminatory measures under the Alien Registration Law. When this law was repealed in 2012, the new Basic Resident Registration Act was supposed to treat foreign residents equal to the Japanese nationals. In reality, foreign residents are still the target of discrimination.

Zainichi Koreans as Special Permanent Residents

The 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea led to the Japan-Korea Legal Status Agreement of the same year.  Under this agreement, Koreans who chose the Republic of Korea as their country were granted “permanent residence” status. The grounds for deportation have been considerably eased compared with those for other foreign nationals. The qualification to permanently reside in Japan can be inherited until the second generation, while the status of the third generation and beyond was scheduled for discussion after twenty-five years. Those who did not choose the Republic of Korea as their country remained stateless since relations between Japan and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) had not been formally established.

On 1 November 1991, the Japanese government granted the “former colonial subjects and their descendants” with “special permanent resident/特別永住者” status. This is based on the Special Act on Immigration Control for those who have relinquished Japanese Nationality pursuant to the San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan (1991, Act No. 71) / 日本国との平和条約に基づき日本の国籍を離脱した者2 等の出入国管理に関する特例法(平成3年法律第71号).” The Japanese provision “離脱したもの/ Ridatsu shitamono” that means “relinquished their nationality voluntarily,” does not reflect the reality that the nationality of the colonial subjects was revoked by the Japanese. This law lumped together the pro-South Korea Koreans, pro-Pyongyang Koreans, and Taiwanese who were once Japanese nationals and granted them special permanent residence permits.

The Zainichi community is rapidly aging, like the rest of Japanese society and it might disappear before the status of Zainichi Koreans becomes legally stable. Moreover, about 9,000 Koreans apply for Japanese citizenship through naturalization annually. The number of marriages between Koreans and Japanese has increased as well, with more than 80 percent of Korean youth marrying Japanese. Under the current nationality law based on jus sanguinis principle, children obtain the citizenship of their Japanese parent(s). See the author’s discussion of this issue in her book Deprived of Japanese Nationality Zainichi Koreans; the Dawn of Japan’s Immigration Policy (2021, in Japanese).

Deprived of Japanese Nationality Zainichi Koreans; the Dawn of Japan’s Immigration Policy – Soo im Lee (2021)

Are Children Political Tools?

Despite the Koreans’ high degree of social and cultural assimilation into the Japanese society, the Chosen-seki Koreans try to maintain their own culture and language by maintaining their own ethnic schools called Korean ethnic schools.

Several well-publicized examples of hate speech targeting these Korean ethnic schools have been recorded. In December 2009, January 2010, and March 2010, anti-Korean activists staged three demonstrations chanting abusive slogans, such as “children of spies,” via loudspeakers against a Korean primary school in Kyoto. They claimed that the school illegally used a nearby park as a playground for more than fifty years. The school did in fact use the park, but with permission from Kyoto City and the local residents’ association. After the rallies, the ultra-rightists uploaded videos of the demonstrations online. Since the demonstrations and the social media posting of the incidents severely traumatized the students, teachers, and parents, the school filed a lawsuit in 2010. The lower court ruled in its favor.

On appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision in December 2014, and dismissed the appeal of the ultra-rightist activists. The Supreme Court ordered the latter to pay some twelve million Yen in damages to the school and banned them from demonstrating in the vicinity again. It was an epoch-making ruling since the Supreme Court determined that the ultra-rightist group’s activities constituted “racial discrimination” as defined by the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.3

Korean ethnic schools, which are defined as private miscellaneous (kakushu) schools, are legally entitled to state and local government subsidies. In fact, a number of local governments provide subsidies, albeit in small amounts, to Korean schools. But the national government does not offer subsidy of any kind.

In April 2010, the “Tuition support for high school students” system was launched under the administration of the Democratic Party of Japan. In addition to the “Ichijo School/1条校” stipulated in Article 1 of the School Education Law, it was an epoch-making system that also covered specialized training colleges and miscellaneous schools for foreigners. On 24 November 2010, however, Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered the “freezing” of the processing of the application for subsidy by a Korean ethnic school, Chosun High School, following North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea. In September 2011, the freeze was lifted, but the Democratic Party of Japan administration postponed the continuation of application processing until the second Shinzo Abe administration (December 2012) excluded the Korean ethnic high schools from getting tuition support for high school students.

The Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Hakubun Shimomura, remarked at a press conference on 28 December 2020 that “the lack of progress on the abduction issue, the close relationship between Chongryon (Korean) and  Chosen Soren (Japanese: 朝鮮総連) and its impact on the content of education, personnel, and finances … led us to repeal the legal provisions that form the basis for the [processing of subsidy application] of Korean schools.” Citation of “lack of progress on the abduction issue” as one reason for the exclusion of Korean ethnic schools symbolizes the reality in Japan. In other words, the core of the problem is that Japan’s political and diplomatic policies infringe on students’ right to learn. In Japan, Korea bashing seems to cover everything.

Chosen-seki children study together with South Koreans and Japanese nationals in Korean ethnic schools. These children are the fourth generation or even the fifth generation of former Japanese colonial subjects. Very little progress has been made and it is still unclear when these Korean communities will be treated equally in Japanese society.  


Soo im Lee is a Professor Emeritus of Ryukoku University.

For further information, please contact: Soo im Lee, Ryukoku University, 67 Tsukamotocho, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, Japan 612-8577; e-mail: lee@biz.ryukoku.ac.jp, sooimlee0202@gmail.com; www.biz.ryukoku.ac.jp/~lee/.



Soo im Lee (2021). Deprived of Japanese Nationality Zainichi Koreans; the Dawn of Japan’s Immigration Policy (『剥奪された在日コリアンの日本国籍、日本の移民政策の幕開け』), Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.

Hicks, George. (1998). Japan’s Hidden Apartheid: The Korean Minority and the Japanese. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing.


1    Koreans in Japan are referred to as oldcomer foreigners in contrast to newcomer immigrants who came to Japan in post-1980.
2    The underlined emphasis is added by the author.
3    Kyodo, "Top court finalizes ruling against anti-Korean group's hate speech," The Japan Times, 11 December 2014, www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/12/11/national/social-issues/top-court-finalizes-ruling-anti-korean-groups-hate-speech/.

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