The Korean Diaspora Movement: Koreans in Japan

Perhaps more so than of any other Korean diaspora in the world, the history of Koreans in Japan is as complex as it is turbulent, as conflicted as it has been ongoing. Comprising one of the largest ethnic minorities in Japan—and one of the largest Korean diasporas in the world— Koreans in Japan live among two close yet oftentimes opposing cultures; their immigration, especially in the 20th century, has been the consequence of political and wartime interventions. As such, Korean migrants can be classified by when they originally moved to the country: Pre-WW1, during and after WW2, and from the 1980s onwards.

At the start of the century, around Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, the number of Koreans living in Japan was relatively small and consisted of students, merchants and workers. This number, however, dramatically increased in the 1920s, when the Japanese economy experienced a labor shortage and thousands of Korean families migrated to fulfill low-income and agricultural positions. This movement was voluntary and differed from the enforced migration that was to occur during the second world war, when in 1939 hundreds of thousands of Koreans were taken to the Japanese mainland to work in mines and factories; this number grew to over two million by 1945. After the war, many Koreans repatriated to South Korea, but others (approximately 600,000) decided to settle in Japan, possibly because of the deterioration and political instability plaguing the Korean peninsula.

The term “Zainichi Korean” applies to these Koreans and their descendants who settled in Japan, and who have in the subsequent decades, across several generations, achieved permanent resident status or Japanese citizenship. Despite another increase in migration at the turn of the 21st century, Zainichi Koreans form the bulk of ethnic Korean culture on the islands. Through time they have endeavored to coexist between two cultures; everything from language to cuisine has been shaped by their interactions with their immediate Japanese surroundings and their ancestral Korean roots.

Because of discrimination and difficulty in fulling assimilating into Japanese society (restricted job opportunities, voting limitations, etc.), ethnic Koreans established nationwide Korean organizations: the pro-North “Chongryon” and the larger “Mindan”. The Chongryon, in addition to offering employment positions or economic opportunities, has also been responsible for creating several Korean ethnic schools across Japan. These schools promote Korean ideals and culture but have in the past prepared students with the notion of repatriation. As a result, some of these schools are unapologetically partial towards North Korean ideology and have been scrutinized by other ethnic Koreans and Japanese citizens.

But it is important to remember that for Koreans in Japan—from the North or South—one of the biggest conflicts has been in regards to identity, and whether or not ethnic Koreans should fully assimilate to Japanese culture, or instead reject it and attempt to return to their homeland. Such questions are never straightforward; rather, many individuals live at a crossroads between such longings and pressures, sometimes never feeling fully comfortable with either choice.

Koreans in Japan therefore must constantly confront their mixed identity, as well as the possible discrimination or incomplete assimilation that consequently arises. Zainichi Koreans have attempted to vocalize and express these concerns through a deep and rich artistic history—one that draws from both Korean and Japanese cultures. There has been a burgeoning tradition of Zainichi Korean cinema, as well as an increase in mainstream and experimental theatre and literary works that address the unique challenges inherent to ethnic Koreans living in Japan. These works, as well as the recent trends in immigration and cultural interactions, explore the possibility of a Korean-Japanese identity—one that can exist between the two countries and their tumultuous past.

Further Reading and Academic Resources:

Chapman, David. (2006). Discourses of multicultural coexistence (Tabunka Kyōsei) and the ‘old-comer’ Korean residents of Japan.

Chapman, David. (2008). Zainichi Korean Identity and Ethnicity.

Chung, Erin Aeran. “EXERCISING CITIZENSHIP: KOREANS LIVING IN JAPAN.” Asian Perspective 24, no. 4 (2000): 159-78.

Hoffman, D. M. (1992). Changing faces, changing places: The new koreans in japan. Japan Quarterly, 39(4), 479. Retrieved from

Kakuchi, Suvendrini. 2005. POPULATION: YOUNG KOREANS IN JAPAN SHRUG OFF THE PAST. Global Information Network, Feb 28, 2005. 

KIM, Bumsoo. “Changes in the Socio-economic Position of “Zainichi” Koreans: A Historical Overview.” Social Science Japan Journal 14, no. 2 (2011): 233-45.

Kim-Wachutka, Jackie J. Zainichi Korean Women in Japan: Voices. Routledge, 2019.

Kiyoteru Tsutsui, Hwa Ji Shin; Global Norms, Local Activism, and Social Movement Outcomes: Global Human Rights and Resident Koreans in Japan, Social Problems, Volume 55, Issue 3, 1 August 2008, Pages 391–418,

Lee, Sandra Soo-Jin. “Dys-Appearing Tongues and Bodily Memories: The Aging of First-Generation Resident Koreans in Japan.” Ethos 28, no. 2 (2000): 198-223.

Leveille, Johanne, and Martin Nuttall. 1998. Being korean in japan. Japan Quarterly 45, (4) (Oct): 83-90, (accessed March 4, 2019)

Lie, John. 2008. Zainichi (Koreans in Japan): diasporic nationalism and postcolonial identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lim, Youngmi, “Reinventing Korean Roots and Zainichi routes: The Invisible Diaspora Among Naturalized Japanese of Korean Descent,” In Diaspora Without Homeland: Being Korean in Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Okano, Kaori. “Third-Generation Koreans’ Entry into the Workforce in Japan.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 28, no. 4 (1997): 524-49.

Ryang, S. (Ed.). (2000). Koreans in Japan. London: Routledge,

RYANG, SONIA, and JOHN LIE, eds. Diaspora without Homeland: Being Korean in Japan. University of California Press, 2009.

Ryang, Sonia. “A Long Loop: Transmigration of Korean Women in Japan.” The International Migration Review 36, no. 3 (2002): 894-911.

Ryang, Sonia. “Space and Time: The Experience Of The “Zainichi”, The Ethnic Korean Population of Japan.” Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development 43, no. 4 (2014): 519-50.

Ryang, Sonia. “The Denationalized Have No Class: The Banishment of Japan’s Korean Minority—A Polemic.” CR: The New Centennial Review 12, no. 1 (2012): 159-87.

Suzuki, Kazuko. “The State, Race, and Immigrant Adaptation: A Comparative Analysis of the Korean Diaspora in Japan and the United States.” Regions & Cohesion / Regiones Y Cohesión / Régions Et Cohésion 2, no. 1 (2012): 49-74.

Wender, Melissa L. Lamentation as history : narratives by Koreans in Japan, 1965-2000 / Melissa L.

Wender Stanford University Press Stanford, Calif 2005

North Koreans in Japan and Ethnic Korean Schools:

Brender, A. (2001). In japan, education for koreans stays separate and unequal. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 47(22), A40-A41. Retrieved from

Kakuchi, S. (2003, Jan 29). JAPAN: REFUGEES FROM NORTH KOREA ARE A TEST FOR TOKYO. Global Information Network Retrieved from

Motani, Yoko. “Towards a More Just Educational Policy for Minorities in Japan: The Case of Korean Ethnic Schools.” Comparative Education 38, no. 2 (2002): 225-37.

Okano, Kaori H. “Koreans in Japan: A Minority’s Changing Relationship with Schools / International Review of Education / Internationale Zeitschrift Für Erziehungswissenschaft / Revue Internationale De L’Education 50, no. 2 (2004): 119-40.

Ryang, Sonia. North Koreans in Japan : language, ideology, and identity / Sonia Ryang Westview Press Boulder, Colo 1997

On Zainichi Film, Theatre, and Literature:

Dew, Oliver. (2016). Screening the Zainichi Subject.

Dew, Oliver. 2016. Zainichi Cinema Korean-in-japan Film Culture. Palgrave Macmillan.

Gannon, Tracey. “Controversy as Context: Yū Miri and the Critics.” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, no. 34 (2008): 90-119.

Flavin, Philip. “Chong Wishing’s Yakiniku Dragon 焼き肉ドラゴン A Portrait of the Zainichi Korean-Japanese Experience.” Asian Theatre Journal 31, no. 1 (2014): 17-102.

Ko, M. (2013). Japanese cinema and otherness: Nationalism, multiculturalism and the problem of Japanesenesss. Japanese Cinema and Otherness: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and the

Problem of Japanesenesss. 1-228.

Kuraishi, Ichiro. (2009). Pacchigi! and Go: Representing Zainichi in Recent Cinema.

Lebowitz, Adam. “Healing and Japanese Theatre.” TDR (1988-) 38, no. 3 (1994): 14-15.

Tomonari, Noboru. (2014). The avant-garde and resident Korean film-making: Kim Sujin and the Shinjuku Ryozanpaku.

Articles and Online Resources:

Overview of Koreans in Japan:

First-Hand Zainichi Accounts of Life in Japan:

Social Status of Zainichi Women in Japan:

Interview with Japanese-Korean director Yoichi Sai:

Interviews with Japanese-Korean playwright Chong Wishing:

“Double life of a North Korean Japanese filmmaker”, On Director Yong-Hi Yang:

On the Theatre Company Shinjuku Ryozanpaku:

YouTube Videos and Links:

Zainichi Koreans, Arirang Special:

The story of third generation Korean-Japanese:

Interview with 2nd generation Korean Japanese:

On discrimination and complex relations of Koreans in Japan:

Cinema and Theatre:

Documentary “Children of Korea [Chosen no ko]” (Arai and Kyogoku 1955):

Introduction to Zainichi Cinema:

Trailer for 2006 film Dear Pyongyang, by Yong-Hi Yang:

Theatre adaption of Toraji, by Kim Sujin:

North Koreans and NK Schools in Japan:

Inside North Korea’s bubble in Japan:

Ethnic Koreans in Japan remain loyal to home country:

“Homegrown Outcasts: North Koreans in Japan”:

Korean Schools in Japan:

Japan’s North Korean schools and university:

The North Korean Football Star Born and Raised in Japan: