Korean Residents Still Grappling for Foothold Here
[part 1]

Despite roots dating back several generations, local community finds Japan an alien struggle

The following three stories deal with the lives of Korean residents in Ikuno Ward, Osaka. The names of two Koreans interviewed have been changed, where noted, to protect their privacy. All other information is factual. English interpretations were provided where needed by Mr. Koh Chang Sa, of Ikuno. —Editor


OSAKA — Glue fumes overwhelm the air in Kim Sung Ok’s homemade workshop, stinging her eyes and burning her lungs. A portable fan whirring in the corner does little to relieve the dizzying vapors.

The 41-year-old Kim (not her real name) spends up to 11 hours daily in this cramped downstairs room of her Ikuno Ward home, speedily pasting together the tops and soles of about 280 pairs of sandals.

“It bothers me especially in the wintertime because all the doors are shut and the glue smell remains in the house,” she said.

The housewife and mother of four children added, “As long as I’m doing this job, I have to get used to it. There’s no way to escape from the smell.”

Across town, company president Lee Heui Keon sits in an air-conditioned office of the Korean-owned Osaka Kogin credit union, the largest credit union in Japan.

Lee, flanked by loyal employees, recalled the firm’s tremendous growth since 1955, when the company was founded specifically to support the local Korean community.

While times have changed, the need for such an institution has not. “Even now, Koreans in Japan have a hard time getting loans from Japanese banks,” he said.

Lee’s successful enterprise and Kim’s struggling shop are but two of the many Korean businesses that make for conflicting images in this southeastern Osaka district.

These same kinds of businesses, of varying sizes and specialties, also offer the best chance for change in Ikuno Ward, home of Japan’s largest Korean population.

Past and present

In the eyes of many local Koreans, Ikuno’s present and future cannot be separated from its past.

Most Koreans here can trace their roots back to the early 1920s, when an official sea route was opened between Osaka and the island of Cheju, now part of South Korea.

This led to a dramatic influx of Koreans into the region. Kim Chaeng Jong, a Kyoto-born author and researcher, estimated that 13,337 Koreans were living in Osaka Prefecture in 1922, the year the sea route opened. That figure was almost double the previous year’s and triple that of 1920.

Native Koreans, forced off their own lands by Japanese colonialists, ironically emigrated to Osaka in search of more livable surroundings, according to historical accounts.

Cheap, migrant labor was what awaited the Cheju Island emigrants — labor that was used to help build many of Ikuno’s infrastructures, including the Hirano Canal that still winds through the area as a reminder of the past.

Koreans like Kang Song Chung, 62, tried to make the best of life in Ikuno.

Kang was born in this country, and after World War II he started his own sandal-making company. He prides himself on having developed his own style of rubber footwear.

“At that time, this kind of job didn’t exist much anywhere else,” Kang said. “Nobody taught me how to make these kinds of shoes, so I had to do it by myself.”

His one-man operation has since become the family-run Nichiei Kagaku Co., based in a three-story building in Ikuno’s Nishi Tatsumi district.

Pil Young, 42, Kang’s eldest son, remembers how he became heavily involved with the family business after unsuccessful attempts to land work in Japanese companies that had no use for his Keio University law studies. He is now vice president of his father’s firm.

But even after all these years, the work remains hard and the profits small for the “Hep” shop, so nicknamed after shoes worn by Audrey Hepburn in one of her movies.

The Kangs stay in business by subcontracting out to even smaller Hep sandal-assembling outfits in Ikuno — places like Kim Sung Ok’s, where the glue stench seems more permanent than the promise of work itself.

Land of plenty?

Stories abound in Japanese society of Asians who leave their native countries behind and find Japan a land of plenty. But Kim’s story is not one of them.

She came to Ikuno illegally in 1968, smuggling her way into Japan by boat from South Korea. She and her husband came to live with his family here, later moving into their own place.

Upon arriving in Ikuno, Kim managed to find a bottle-making job and stayed with it for a year. She then gave it up for the more “lucrative” business of sandal-making — one of the few jobs, next to textile work, that were open to women at that time.

She and her husband, Hong Sung Tek (not his real name), turned the odd job into a family business about 10 years ago. These days their four children, ranging in age from nine to 17, occasionally help with the business.

“This is not hard work,” Kim said recently, “but business is getting slower and slower. That’s what I’m worried about: the future.”

Her uncertainty stems in part from her immigration status. Kim, like other foreign residents in Japan, is subject to the Alien Registration Law and must carry an updated identification booklet with her at all times.

One blessing she does count is the birthright of her children.

“Our position in Japan is very unstable because I don’t have permanent citizenship,” Kim said. “But our children were born in Japan. We have a right to reside here.”

Mountain of dreams

So does Han Kang Il, 39, a second-generation Korean born in Ikuno, though he admits he feels ambivalent about his nationality.

“They call me a Japanese-Korean,” he said, “but I rather believe I’m a Korean who is outside of Korea.”

Han’s pride becomes evident as he tells of life in Japan: how at age seven, he was left with his dying father’s dreams.

Han graduated from a local industrial technology high school. In 1971 he decided to open his own plastics company, using the name of his late father’s business contacts.

The junior Han named his enterprise Fuji Seimitsu Kanagata (FSK), after Japan’s famous mountain. “Fuji is the highest, most beautiful mountain in Japan,” he said, “and I wanted to be like Fuji, in my mind.”

His company — still small and struggling financially — specializes in making plastic molds for items like welding glasses, cassette tape casings and room light covers.

He also dabbles in real estate and other business ventures. Much of it is done through private channels of fellow Koreans.

“Living in Japan, especially in the Ikuno area, we Korean people are very close. We pass along information to each other.”

Like other small Korean businesses in the area, Han found it rough going in the early days.

“It was risky. I knew that. But I was very independent.”

“Because of lack of credentials, I didn’t have any power or any land,” he said. “Even though I wanted to buy raw materials, the bank didn’t lend any money at all. At that point I really had a hard time.”

Monetary backing

A variety of Korean businesses like Han’s that were ignored, or at best neglected, by Japanese financial institutions were the focus of attention in September 1955.

That was when about $500,000 was deposited in Japan from Seoul to start an Osaka-based financial institution catering only to Korean-owned companies.

Thus Osaka Kogin credit union was born. Lee Heui Keon became president of the firm in 1956 and maintains that position today.

Thirty-three years after its inception, Osaka Kogin has become the largest credit union in Japan and one of three such Korean credit unions nationwide.

The company’s own hiring standards reflect its initial commitment. Choi In Sik, an employee of Osaka Kogin’s in-house Rainbow Research Institute, estimated the breakdown of its total 700 employees at 95 percent Korean and 5 percent Japanese.

The firm is actually based outside Ikuno Ward, in nearby Tennoji Ward. But the company’s tentacles reach throughout Osaka Prefecture with 23 branch offices and other links to financial institutions in the Kansai region.

What started out as an investment of sorts has since grown to a corporation with about 46,000 customers, ¥380 billion in deposits and more than ¥12 billion in capital.

But along with the company’s growth comes the reality that Japanese lending institutions still have a long way to go in clearing barriers for minority businesses.

Bad for business

Discrimination and business do not mix in Ikuno Ward. At least that is what some Korean small-business owners would lead one to believe.

The estimated 38,700 Koreans in Ikuno make up about one-fourth of the total ward population of 159,000.

Speaking privately, many Koreans freely acknowledge the long-held racial discrimination by the Japanese. It was not too long ago, some Koreans remember, that local Japanese apartment owners posted signs on dwellings that proclaimed “No foreigners allowed.” In Ikuno, that meant Koreans.

But such prejudice seemed nonexistent when talking to small-business owners like Kim Sung Ok, Kang Song Chung and Han Kang Il.

Inquiries about discrimination are met with replies like: “Not at all.” Or, “In doing business there is no hesitation in using my real name, but to make things smoother I use a Japanese name.” Or even: “I haven’t experienced any prejudice in running this business. Not only that, but some Japanese people recognize in me that Koreans can do a better job and that Koreans have guts.”

But just because discrimination toward Korean businesses is not seen — or is too touchy a subject to talk about publicly — one cannot deny its presence, said Dr. Suh Yong Dal, 55, a Korean scholar and longtime human rights advocate in Japan.

Suh, an accounting professor at St. Andrew’s University (Momoyama Gakuin) in Sakai City, southern Osaka Prefecture, puts Japanese prejudice toward Koreans into two categories.

One is “visible discrimination,” he said. The other is “invisible discrimination” — a type all the harder to pinpoint because of the almost identical physical features between Koreans and Japanese.

“When they are doing business, ‘invisible discrimination’ becomes obvious,” Suh said of Ikuno shop owners.

“Sometimes for Koreans running a coffee shop or some other kind of shop, there is ‘invisible discrimination’ because the Japanese don’t want to go in there.”

Suh credited the Korean Christian Center (KCC) in Ikuno, headed by Lee Chong Il, as a driving force in the push for Koreans’ rights in Japan.

“As for ‘visible discrimination’, with the help of the KCC and other social movements, we fight it. Like in the early 1970s, when there was discrimination against Koreans trying to get an apartment. We can fight against it.”