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'I want to feel in my heart Japan is home': S. Korean activist on a history of prejudice

Shin Minja, a second-generation South Korean living in Japan, is seen in front of the Memorial Monument for Korean Victims in Tokyo Metropolitan Yokoamicho Park, Sumida Ward, Tokyo. (Mainichi/Yoshiya Goto)

TOKYO -- In three years, Japan will mark a century since the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the resultant massacre of Korean people. The events of that time cast a shadow over Japanese society even today. But how is the issue being confronted now?

    To try and answer these questions, the Mainichi Shimbun spoke to people with a connection to the events. The first of those is Shin Minja, 70, a second-generation South Korean in Japan who in her capacity as the director of the general incorporated association Hosenka engages in activism to continue telling the history of the massacre. For her, the realization in her 20s that she was a person who would have been killed inspired her to act.

    Mainichi Shimbun: As a Korean person living in Japan, what do you think about the massacres in the past?

    Shin Minja: Many Koreans were killed for no reason by Japanese people they lived with in the same areas. In my 20s, I learned about it at a history study group I started with a friend who is a Korean citizen living in Japan, or "Zainichi." I felt a great fear realizing I'd have been one of the people killed.

    It's hard for Zainichi Koreans to lead their lives. That hasn't changed. Discrimination toward Korean people has continued on a level that makes me wonder how it could be so. When my son was looking for part-time work, he gave his real name at an interview and didn't get the job, but when he used his Japanese name he got hired. North Korean schools are not eligible for subsidies that waive high school and day care fees. These are acts of hatred fuelled by nationalism. Amid all this, people hide their place of birth, and there are even children with Korean heritage who make sure to speak in Japanese when they're on the train.

    MS: You've spent many years working on Hosenka's activism to tell people about the massacre. What's been the thinking behind it, and what do you do?

    SM: My efforts have been to increase the number of people who won't kill me. What has been especially significant is the Memorial Monument for Korean Victims, which serves as a symbol to say the killings will not be repeated. I was very happy when it was erected in Yokoamicho Park in 1973.

    In places including Sumida Ward's Yahiro neighborhood, one of the places where the massacres took place, our staff compiled accounts of the time that local people contributed, and built the memorial monument. It's the only initiative of its kind in the capital. We explain the history of the massacres to people who come to visit, and hold cooking classes and Pungmul practice (a traditional Korean art). It's become a place for people to meet one another.

    MS: What do you think about the trend on the internet for people to claim that "the massacres didn't happen," as well as other hatred toward Koreans?

    SM: Japan as a country doesn't try to face up to its history, so isn't that the natural way for it to end up? Even so, the number of people coming to the memorial service held at Yokoamicho Park rises each year. This year, too, I saw a woman standing far from the memorial monument who had her hands together in prayer.

    My life is based in Japan, and this is the only place where I can live. They say if you have three generations here, you become a Tokyoite, but we're still being excluded. I want to feel in my heart Japan is home. I want this to become a society where anyone can lead their life in comfort.


    The Great Kanto Earthquake and the subsequent massacres of Korean people

    After the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, false claims, including that Korean people had poisoned wells, spread widely. Residents who were taken in by the falsehoods killed a large number of Korean people and others. According to a 2008 report by the Central Disaster Management Council, up to 9.99% of the around 105,000 people recorded dead or missing as a result of the earthquake were people who had been killed in the massacres.

    (Japanese original by Mei Nanmo, City News Department, and Yoshiya Goto, Photo and Video Center)

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