I recently watched an installment of the Vox Borders series that talked about a community of Koreans in Japan. They were brought to Japan when Korea was subject to the Japanese empire in East Asia. The Japanese, who saw Koreans as inferior, took them from Korea to use them as grunt workers and sex workers. Japan was stripped of control of Korea after World War II. This community of Koreans in Japan, most of whom can trace their families to what is now South Korea, had already been living in Japan for years when the Korean War split their home country.
They were living separate and apart from the Japanese who surrounded them, and hungry for a connection to their homeland. The dictator who headed North Korea, a country backed by the communist Soviet Union, reached out to these lost Koreans, providing them with the money and resources to improve their lot in Japan. With this support, they built schools, bought property, and created museums and other cultural institutions in honor of their homeland. Their culture provides them with comfort and pride even though they are not in Korea. Generations of Koreans have now been born in Japan, and have never even been to Korea, but they are loyal to the Kim family, which runs North Korea. At North Korea’s invitation, some of these lost Koreans even decided to migrate back to Korea. However, many stayed in Japan.
Things went well for these Koreans until North Korea began to act aggressively and pose a nuclear threat to its Japanese neighbor. The Koreans in Japan were stripped of their financial holdings. They are harassed in the streets by the Japanese. They are only safe to culturally identify as Koreans among each other. They are increasingly turned inward towards their own community as a result of icy relations with their Japanese countrymen, and the Japanese, who are known for holding their own culture superior to others, hate the Koreans even more for their loyalty to North Korea and their refusal to let go of their culture and fully assimilate to Japanese ways.
I was absolutely fascinated by this story – the idea of a people who were fully a part of a country but who are not really a part of that country at all. The parallels between their story and the story of Africans who were brought to America for labor, only to be resented and treated like second-class citizens after their involuntary migration are too strong to be ignored.
I saw discussion about the video about these Koreans in Japan online and scrolled through the comments to see what people thought about it. Again, the parallels were too strong. Over and over again, people asked why the Koreans don’t just leave Japan if things are so bad for them there. Why don’t they just go back to Korea where they came from? Or, if they want to stay in Japan, why don’t they just assimilate and become culturally Japanese? Sound familiar? Why don’t black people stop [insert behavior considered black here] and be like “real” Americans? Or, if they hate it so much here, why don’t they just go back to Africa? I swear, some people are stupid.
These Koreans in Japan are neither Korean (North or South) nor Japanese. Culturally, they are a new thing altogether. Their hearts are with the Korean people, with the language, with the stories. But their bodies have long been in Japan. In their own way, no matter how hard they try not to be, they are Japanese people, living in Japan, enjoying some of the freedoms of being in Japan, as opposed to the stringent lifestyles their cousins are currently living in North Korea. They are used to the lives they currently live. They are surrounded by the people who know and love them. They should not be expected to shrug all of this off to move to a new home, and even if they did, how do you think these people would be seen upon arriving in North Korea? As Japanese. A better outcome would be for the Japanese to accept the Koreans for who they are, and open themselves to the idea that there isn’t just one way to be Japanese. I think this is unlikely, given that Japan and North Korea are bitter enemies and that may pose a danger to Japan. If only they could find a way to accept each other…
Like how Americans claim they have. “Melting pot,” indeed. Despite the way we’ve been treated, and still are treated, black Americans are still here for many reasons. We don’t know much about Africa. We didn’t have an African benefactor to foster our love for Igbo, Hausa, or Akan people and traditions – Wakanda is not only isolationist, it’s also fictional. Also, if we wanted to go, how would we afford to scrap our lives here and start all over elsewhere? Why should we leave our elders and infirm who would struggle to make the journey? If we were to go – to Liberia, Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana – where would we go? Who would welcome us? Surely we would be seen as Americans. We don’t even know who would hire us or patronize our businesses. We would be at home, but we would not be at home.
We are Africans. We are Americans. Staying here, going there – either way, we are a new thing altogether. A better outcome would be for other Americans to accept us for who we are, open themselves to the idea that there isn’t just one way to be American, and truly treat us like how they would want to be treated. Because we are Americans, we will agitate until that happens in earnest. And because we are Africans, what we do know about African cultures provides us with comfort and pride even though we are not in West Africa. We will continue to unapologetically be who we are, without leaving to appease others.
And although my ancestors have been here, working to build this country for centuries, since before this was even a country, and much longer than many of the families who are comparatively only a few generations in, I will resist the urge to answer calls for us to leave with, “Go back to Europe.” Not because they don’t deserve it, but because it’s stupid. Once their ancestors came here to America, they also became a new thing altogether. That’s how this works.