Kei Fischer, born and raised in Japan until age 9, had long believed she was ethnically Japanese by way of her mother, also born in Japan. Then, one day, her mother delivered some shocking news.
This article was published in the February 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!
story and photographs by Vivien Kim Thorp
When she was 12 years old, Kei Fischer joined her mother on a trip back to their native Japan. It was a somber occasion. Her maternal grandfather was dying, and her mother wanted to say goodbye. Kei, who moved to Northern California at age 9 with her mother and American father, hadn’t known her grandfather very well; in fact, she’d been rather frightened of him as a child. But she could tell by her mother’s state that they had been close. Children were not permitted in the hospital room, so Kei waited outside.
By the time she and her mother left, it was dark. They boarded a train to her uncle’s house in Adachi-ku, a neighborhood in northern Tokyo. It was crowded and hot in the train car, and Kei and her mother had to stand. And then it just happened.
“Kei,” her mother said, “we’re actually Korean.”
Kei was confused. Her mother’s words didn’t make any sense. She was born in Japan. She grew up speaking Japanese. All her relatives were Japanese—or so she thought. She went through a list of all of her relatives.
“Is uncle Korean?” she asked her mother. “What about auntie?”
“Yes, yes,” her mother replied. “We’re all Korean.”
It would be many years later, while a college student, that Kei would learn the term zainichi, used to denote foreign residents of Japan. The word has become nearly synonymous with Japan’s more than 1 million Korean residents, even though the majority of them are now native born. Kei would discover that she and her family were part of a 100-year legacy of zainichi Koreans, one that stretched back to the colonization of Korea in 1910 and through the aftermath of World War II. Theirs was a migration brought on by poverty, as well as forced relocations, and marked by generations of legal and social discrimination, economic hardships and shame.
By the time the war ended and Korea gained its independence in 1945, there were an estimated 2 million Koreans living in Japan. The majority returned to Korea, but about 600,000, including Kei’s family, stayed behind. Many thought they would return to Korea one day, but the businesses and families they established, the uncertainty of a looming civil war and myriad other reasons kept them, year after year, from going home. More than half a century later, there are fourth- and even fifth-generation Koreans being born and raised in Japan. Many do not view Korea, a country most of them have never seen, as their home, and yet, because of their status as “foreigners” in Japan, they must apply for passports from North or South Korea. Their status as resident aliens keeps them strangers in their native land.
Back on that muggy Tokyo night, on the eve of her grandfather’s passing, 12-year-old Kei found the shocking news from her mother too much to comprehend. So she decided to do what any girl her age might in the same circumstances. She returned home to the States and put it out of her mind.
But as Kei got older, she found she couldn’t ignore such a fundamental issue as her identity. While on a high school exchange program to Japan, she confided in her peers, mostly Japanese Americans, that her mother was actually Korean.
“Then why are you trying to say you’re Japanese?” they asked, making her feel like a fraud. Some joked she was an “imitation Japanese.”
“I decided I wasn’t going to talk about being Korean anymore,” Kei recalled.
Back home, she struggled with reconciling how she felt with her actual ethnic ancestry. “I thought, ‘I’m Korean,’ but then I didn’t know the culture, the food, the history or anything like that. I felt very culturally Japanese, too. I spoke Japanese.”
While an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, she found herself continually searching for a community where she felt welcome and at home, even living in a Chicana community house on campus. “My friends called me an honorary or wannabe Mexican,” said Kei, laughing. “I went through my different phases.”
Inspired by her ethnic studies classes, she began to research her family history so she could understand how her ancestors came to settle in Japan. She discovered that, like many Koreans living under Japanese colonial rule, Kei’s grandfather had been driven by economic hardship to find work far from his home on Jeju Island. Poor and illiterate, he first came across the East Sea to Japan when he was 16 years old and would spend many years traveling back and forth to Korea, where a wife a daughter stayed behind.
Kei’s grandmother was only 10 years old when her mother brought her to Japan, leaving her father, two older siblings and a life of unbearable poverty behind. “When I think about those times, my chest becomes tight,” she told Kei. She and her mother would gather tobacco leaves from the country and sell them on the black market to survive. They would never return to Wonsan, a seaport town in what is now North Korea, and she would never see her siblings again. It’s been so long, she’s forgotten their names. “They probably died in the war,” she said.
Kei’s grandparents had met in Osaka. Despite a large age difference and despite the fact that her grandfather was already married to a woman back in Korea, they started a family of their own and had two children, including Kei’s mother. Eventually, Kei’s grandmother, pressured by her own mom, would enter an arranged marriage with another man and leave her two children behind. Kei’s step-grandmother, who had by then joined her husband in Japan, would raise Kei’s mother and her brother, along with their half-siblings.
Kei’s mother would grow up attending Japanese public school, hardly speaking Korean at all. She would tacitly learn from those around her that being Korean, if you wanted to be accepted, was something to hide. Eventually she would marry an American, move far away, and leave her status as zainichi behind—or so she thought.
Revisiting old photo albums and watching family videos, Kei would realize that there had been clues to her family’s identity all along. At a New Year’s party, her cousin was wearing hanbok—not kimono—and the foods on the table, kimchi and pajeon, were Korean, not Japanese, she realized. That neighborhood her family lived in, it was an ethnic enclave, one of two historically zainichi Korean communities in Tokyo.
“There were all these things I never had paid attention to as a child, or hadn’t understood weren’t Japanese at all,” Kei said.
As deeply enriching as filling in the blanks to her family history was, Kei couldn’t help but still feel rootless and alone. After all, she had never met another zainichi Korean American, other than her own family members. Then, in December 2004, a serendipitous meeting occurred. While at a New Year’s Eve party in New York, she was introduced to a woman named Kyung Hee Ha, who also lived in the Bay Area.
“I could just tell from the way that she spoke and carried herself that she was Japanese,” recalled Kei. “But her name was Korean. So I just asked her, ‘Are you from Japan?’ And she was.”
The encounter proved emotional for Kei. “I almost wanted to cry,” she said. The two women talked for the rest of the night, and found they had much in common, including a history of activism and passion for ethnic studies, which Kyung Hee was studying at San Francisco State University.
Through Kyung Hee, Kei would eventually meet several other zainichi living in the Bay Area, including a woman named Miho Kim. An informal community began to form. “I started talking to people who had similar experiences. For the first time in my life, I felt like I could relate to someone 100 percent,” described Kei. “The whole ‘fraud Japanese’ issue and all those insecurities, they could relate to completely, and it legitimized my feelings.”
Four years later, by happy coincidence, she and Miho would both be chosen to be part of a program that annually sent Korean North American activists to North Korea. Called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Exposure and Education Program (DEEP), the program allowed participants to gain exposure to life in North Korea, while also having them raise money for medical supplies, books and other materials for the people of the North. The trip represented to Kei more than a journey to her grandparents’ homeland; it was the beginning of her journey home.
“As our small plane began to descend onto Pyongyang Airport, my zainichi sister and I gazed upon the green land we were approaching. Our eyes welled up with tears,” Kei wrote in her trip journal. “I am seeing a piece of land…my mother has never seen, land that my grandmother lived on as a child, land closed because of a war.”
The trip had also inspired Kei and Miho to found Eclipse Rising, an organization that provides support and camaraderie for zainichi Korean Americans and strives to educate others about zainichi culture and history. Since its start in 2008 with a handful of members, the organization has grown to about 20 members today, and though all are zainichi, their backgrounds differ. Some grew up educated in Korean schools in Japan, while others have had little to no connection to Korean culture. Some are the offspring of arranged zainichi Korean marriages, while others, like Kei, whose father is of Russian-Jewish heritage, are mixed-race. Another member also first learned he was Korean at about the same age as Kei.
Some have American citizenship; others have South Korean passports. At least one has Japanese nationality. But what all members share in common is their unique identity as ethnically Korean and culturally Japanese, as well as the added dimension of being zainichi living in the U.S.
“I think our identity kind of haunts us wherever we are,” said Kyung Hee, now a Ph.D. student in ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego. “Whether conscious or unconscious— whether we want it or not—it really affects the way our mind shapes things.” When interacting with Koreans and Korean Americans, she is reminded of being Japanese, and when she is with Japanese and Japanese Americans, she is reminded of being Korean. “I am zainichi,” she said, “That’s all I can say.”
For zainichi, revealing one’s ethnic cultural background can require a great deal of explaining. “For a long time, I just said I was Japanese and American because people understood right away,” Kei, now 30, said. “But now I try to make more of an effort to say I am Korean.”
Members of Eclipse Rising not only provide support to each other, but also, as part of their mission, advocate to improve the status of minorities in Japan. In 2010, the group sent a delegation to Japan, where they met with various minority organizations, including other zainichi Koreans, Burakumin (a social minority in Japan), Nikkei Latin Americans, Okinawans and migrant workers of various nationalities. “What we emphasize first is that we must start loving ourselves, then each other and then the community,” said Kyung Hee. “But we also try to do international solidarity work because we believe the minority situations here and in Japan are relational.”
Since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, Eclipse Rising has also been fundraising for victims in Japan. In partnership with the Oakland-based Japan Pacific Resource Network, they created the Japan Multicultural Relief Fund, which aids “those who may be underrepresented or neglected when it comes to receiving disaster aid from the Japan or mainstream [nonprofit organizations].” This includes groups helping to rebuild damaged or destroyed ethnic Korean schools in Japan that aren’t receiving full aid from the Japanese government because they are not considered “legitimate” schools.
Since the 1990s, an estimated 10,000 or more zainichi Koreans have naturalized each year. (Zainichi Koreans have been able to naturalize since 1952, though this was not a popular option for those who experienced the assimilationist policies of Japanese colonial rule.) Still, it not unusual for zainichi Koreans to hide their ethnicity from their friends, peers and sometimes even their children. Stories about high school students in Japan finding out they are Korean when they apply for a passport are common.
Even in the 21st century, only 8 percent of zainichi Koreans, who represent the nation’s largest ethnic minority, use their Korean names full-time. By using Japanese aliases, they can avoid the stigma and discrimination that can go along with having a Korean name. This, too, however, can take its toll. “Even if it’s normalized, it takes a lot to constantly hide who you are,” said Kei, who wrote her master’s thesis on zainichi Korean American identity.
But she and her peers at Eclipse Rising want that to change. The now century-old history of Japanese Koreans shouldn’t be lost, and zainichi should be as proud of their heritage as they are of their names.
That’s easier said than done, especially for the older generation. Kei’s mother, an art teacher who lives in San Jose, is still not “out” to most of her friends. She doesn’t deny her Koreanness, but she doesn’t bring it up either.
“It doesn’t mean that she is ashamed of being Korean,” said Kei, who works as a community organizer at De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif., and also tutors children and adults. “She just does that because that’s what she was used to doing that to protect herself. That’s how she survived in Japan, and still, it kind of follows her to the United States.”
And, yet, Kei said she notices that zainichi references sometimes surface in her mother’s artwork, where repetitions of question marks or a sketch of a hanbok serve as a visual cue— there is something more to Kyoko than what her name implies.
Eighteen years ago, on his deathbed, Kei’s grandfather had told her mother that he regretted having never taught his children more about their Korean heritage. He had wanted to protect them. “What I really want you to know is that I’ve always been proud of being Korean,” he told her. “And you should be, too. You should know where you come from.”
Two generations later, Kei, a passionate activist, has chosen to live out her grandfather’s words. The people of Eclipse Rising helped her get to that place. It gave her, finally, a community to call home.
“These are people that I really care about,” Kei said. “Together we have tried to navigate…what it means to be zainichi Korean in the U.S. and change things so that it’s better. I will be forever grateful.”
This article was published in the February 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!