Zainichi, Japan, North Korea
Manabu Ishikawa, who spent most of his life in North Korea, at home in Tokyo. After returning to Japan from North Korea it was hard for him to make friends. Photo: Tanja Houwerzijl

How Deceitful Propaganda Lured Japan’s ‘Zainichi’ to North Korea

Before the end of the occupation of the Korean peninsula, thousands of Koreans came to Japan. After the war ended, discrimination towards the ‘Zainichi’ community intensified. North Korea saw an opportunity.

Manabu Ishikawa avoids his neighbors. Sometimes, the 61-year-old works as a traffic warden as a prerequisite for collecting welfare. But that’s the only time he gets to socialize. Other than that, he rarely sees anyone. He drinks alone at night. He rarely receives guests in his apartment. It makes him uncomfortable because older people in his block like to gossip. “I don't want them to get too nosy,” Ishikawa said, sitting cross-legged on a tatami mat in his living room in Adachi, one of Tokyo’s most impoverished districts. They don’t know he’s Zainichi. 


There are about 500,000 Zainichi like Ishikawa living in Japan. Descendants of Koreans who migrated to the country, the majority of Zainichi -- a term implying foreign residence in Japan -- came between 1910 and 1945 during the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula. Today, they face discrimination in education, housing, social welfare, political representation and employment, according to social anthropologist Yoko Demelius, who has written about the community.

Japanese nationalists frequently target them. This year a cross-cultural community centre called fureaikan in the city of Kawasaki received a new year’s card threatening to exterminate ethnic Koreans living in the country. “If there is anyone left alive, let them be brutally killed,” the message read. And in November a man who used to be the head of the Kyoto branch of an anti-Korean group had to pay a 500,000 yen ($4,600) fine for a hateful rant against the operator of a Kyoto school for Korean nationals. 

But one of the problems Zainichi face is that everyday discrimination against them often goes unpunished, mainly because existing laws don’t adequately protect against racial discrimination, according to legal experts.


In 2016 the Japanese government enacted the Hate Speech Elimination Law. Although explicitly designed to protect foreigners or people who are members of an ethnic minority, “it doesn’t provide punishment,” said Kinoshita Tetsuro, a lawyer for the Tokyo Kyodo Law Office who called existing legislation farcical. Kansuke Omura, who heads the human rights bureau at the Ministry of Justice, said the government wants to protect the right to freedom of expression. “That is why it does not include a penalty.”

There is a penal code covering defamation, and there are several other articles that could be referred to when dealing with someone who falls victim to racial discrimination. But the wording is broad. “I don’t find any criminal sentence in the penal code or other special criminal law,” Kinoshita explains, adding that Kawasaki, a city southwest of Tokyo, has passed a local ordinance dealing with the problem.

Home to the largest Korean community in Japan, Kawasaki leaders took matters into their own hands when they realized that Korean residents didn’t receive the protection they needed. A law penalising racist or discriminatory acts went into effect locally on July 1. Kawasaki is the first and only city in Japan to enact such legislation.  The city can issue warnings to suspected violators. Authorities can then disclose names and addresses and, ultimately, file criminal complaints. 


But overall, the lack of legal protection has silenced many Zainichi Koreans living in Japan. Some, including Ishikawa, even hide their Korean heritage by using a Japanese name. 

The North Korea Connection

Some Zainichi say the situation has improved significantly compared to the postwar period. Japan annexed the Korean peninsula in 1910, an occupation that lasted until the end of the war in 1945. At the peak of the occupation an estimated 2.3 million Koreans lived in Japan. Most of them resided in ghettos and worked in mines. Their labour was essential in keeping the Japanese war machine going. But the presence of Zainichi in post-war Japan was a reminder of its defeat and a potential source of social unrest. 

In 1952, the government decided to strip them of their Japanese nationality - as was the case for all inhabitants who originated from former colonial territory. Without Japanese nationality, they also lost access to affordable housing, welfare, healthcare and pensions. At some point, only a quarter of Zainichi had a job. 

Although 97 percent of Zainichi originally came from what is now South Korea, many felt more affection with the new socialist project in North Korea, which was founded in 1948 after the peninsula split in 1945. “Back then a socialist utopia seemed more plausible then it is today,” writes historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki in her book Exodus to North Korea, in which she describes the twisting fate of Zainichi. 


Being pushed by the harsh circumstances in Japan and pulled by the North Korean project, 87,000 Zainichi decided to migrate. Ishikawa took his chance in 1972 along with his sister and brother. Younger Zainichi were drawn to North Korea because, without access to universities, pension funds and decent healthcare, there was little chance of climbing the social ladder in Japan.

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Manabu Ishikawa stares at decaying apartment buildings in his district Adachi, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Tokyo. He relies on state support for renting his small apartment. Photo: Tanja Houwerzijl

Ishikawa said his sister was the driving force behind their departure to North Korea. She was a member of the Japan-based pro-North Korean organization Chongryon and a firm believer in its propaganda. The boat trip was free, and free housing, education, jobs, food and healthcare were all supposedly waiting for them in North Korea. “In her eyes going to North Korea was the ultimate form of patriotism,” Ishikawa said.

In retrospect, there were signs that the rosy stories couldn’t be right. In the port of Niigata, where boats to North Korea departed, people warned them of the misery that awaited him. “They advised us to bring expensive things, such as Seiko watches. ‘It will help you survive there,’ they said.” It didn’t convince his sister, she was adamant that her future lay in North Korea. “I would have preferred to have stayed in Japan,” Ishikawa said, “but I thought: if it is as bad as some were saying, I must suffer with them and show solidarity.”

Still, the terrible living conditions in North Korea came as a great shock to Ishikawa, who still remembers the worn-out clothes of North Korean people and the extreme poverty. “There was no running water and no toilet.”


The newcomers usually married each other, but Ishikawa found a North Korean woman. His sister couldn’t settle; she was overwhelmed with feelings of guilt because she dragged her siblings into a life of misery. She was crushed after discovering the promised paradise didn’t exist. Later, his sister developed mental problems, a common issue amongst Zainichi living in North Korea. She was hospitalized and died there in 1991.

For Ishikawa, the disastrous famine of the 1990s was the final push. Several factors contributed to the famine: failing economic management, the collapse of the Soviet Union and loss of their support resulted in steep decline of food production and imports. But there were also droughts and floods that worsened the problem. Estimates vary, but anywhere from hundreds of thousands to more than three million people may have died as a result of the famine.

The ruler at the time, Kim Jong Il – father of Kim Jong Un – had initiated some changes, but not for the betterment of his people. “He stopped distributing food and paying wages; all he cared for was developing nuclear weapons. Hundreds of thousands of people starved, I saw bodies lying on the street,” Ishikawa recalls. He escaped in 2001 and returned to Japan a year later. “Because we lived close to the border, we had an advantage, but it was also a big risk. I didn’t want to risk escaping with my family, so I tried to escape by myself. I didn’t tell them anything.” Sometimes he would cross the border with China to make phone calls with family members in Japan, so they could send money to him. “I told my wife and kids that I went to the border for making this phone call. Usually you need to bribe people to escape, but I managed to escape through good contacts.” 


In 2006 his wife and two children followed. “They lived in Japan for ten years, but couldn’t feel at home here.” Unlike Ishikawa, who grew up in Japan, they could never really settle and moved to South Korea four years ago. He and his wife got divorced, and he only speaks to his former family sporadically.

Ishikawa is now part of a small group of Zainichi seeking justice from both North Korea and Japan. Another is Eiko Kawasaki. By Japanese standards, the 77-year-old is straightforward and even blunt. “I don’t give a damn what North Korea does to me,” she said, sitting in a cafe in Tokyo. But four of her five children still live in North Korea. “All I care about is their safety.”


Every day Eiko Kawasaki thinks about her children in North Korea. She fears for their safety. She hopes they'll be reunited one day. Photo: Tanja Houwerzijl​

One of the crucial questions she wants answered is whether the Japanese government knew about the falsehoods North Korea spread to lure Zainichi to North Korea. Reflecting on the repatriation campaign, she accuses the Japanese government of turning a blind eye, tacitly endorsing the mass migration. According to Kawasaki, the Japanese government should have known about the dire conditions inside North Korea.

The Japanese government stood by when pro-North Korea organization Chongryon started to indoctrinate people with falsehoods about “paradise on earth” - the slogan used at the time to convince Zainichi to move to North Korea. But Japan wasn’t a silent bystander, said Kawasaki. Local officials helped facilitate the journey of Zainichi to the port of Niigata. All ships carrying Zainichi took off from Niigata. 


In 2018 five Zainichi, including Kawasaki and Ishikawa, sued the North Korean government before the Tokyo District Court. They each claim damages of 100 million yen (almost $1 million) for human rights violations. They are still waiting for a verdict. 

Kawasaki has letters from the first returnees. They wrote to their relatives in Japan about the terrible living conditions in North Korea at the time. “It is plausible to think that the Japanese authorities [at the time] must have known more about the bad living conditions,” Kanae Doi, the director of Human Rights Watch in Japan, said. 

Kawasaki has also asked the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, a law organization that investigates human rights violations, in 2015 to start an investigation into the repatriation and who bears responsibility. She also wants the international community to put pressure on North Korea to allow Zainichi to travel freely between North Korea and Japan. That way, Kawasaki’s children could also settle in Japan. According to Doi from Human Rights Watch, there is evidence most Zainichi in North Korea want to leave the country. 


Eiko Kawasaki rarely goes to Korean restaurants in Tokyo. "I think my cooking is better than most Korean restaurants", she says half-jokingly. Photo: Tanja Houwerzijl​

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in response to a request for comment that it is aware there are “various assessments of the return. However, we believe that it is difficult to provide a general assessment on what was done under the circumstances at that time.” 

In 1961, at the age of seventeen, Kawasaki left her hometown Kyoto for North Korea, only to escape back to Japan in 2003. Kawasaki's life story, like that of Ishikawa, shows how the course of history has torn families apart. “My parents did not come to North Korea,” she said. “They disagreed with my decision; they didn’t believe in North Korea as I did. However, I couldn't accept the discriminatory policy towards the Zainichi in postwar Japan any longer; that’s why I left.”

As her ship docked, she immediately saw the poverty. “Zainichi called from the docks to turn around, but it was already too late.” She tried to make the best of her life in North Korea, and was fortunate enough to be able to study architecture, work as an engineer, and marry a North Korean man with whom she had five children.

Looking back at her life in North Korea, it wasn’t the poverty but the lack of freedom that made her desperately miss Japan. The North Korean leadership, fearful of Zainichi spreading capitalist ideas, persecuted them regularly. Many of them ended up in political prison camps. “Talking about politics, even in the private sphere, was dangerous. My children were brainwashed.”

Kawasaki escaped North Korea in 2003 and arrived in Japan one year later. Her husband had already died. She did not want to involve her children in her attempted escape. The only way to change North Korea, Kawasaki thought, is to tell the outside world about her life.

One of her children eventually followed her to Japan and together they run an NGO called Korea for All, which tries to raise awareness about the living conditions inside North Korea and how she, and so many others, ended up there voluntarily. Kawasaki has also traveled the world to tell people about her life and that of the 87,000 other Zainichi, most of whom are still in North Korea.

She sometimes holds lectures in Japan too. “Whenever I go and speak at some event I inform the police. But I’m not afraid of Kim Jong Un!,” she says, pumping her fist in the air.