Forty years after Zainichi labor case victory, is Japan turning back the clock?

I was hoping to start off the Year of the Sheep in a subdued, “sheepish” fashion, but bad news just keeps on coming. The ruling coalition is working hard to push through a bill to abolish overtime pay for high-income workers and another to deregulate temp-agency employment (haken). These bills will hurt the conditions of all workers in Japan, including foreigners.

Speaking of foreign workers, I’d like to focus this month on how labor laws in Japan handle the issue of nationality. But first, a detour:

Japanese society over the past couple of years has taken a dangerous turn toward extreme nationalism. My husband noted, “Since 2014, both NHK and the private broadcasters have changed how they refer to Japan, from using the word Nihon to Nippon.” The latter was used during World War II and is associated with jingoistic militarism. It also has a harsher consonant sound than “Nihon.”

I hadn’t noticed the nascent Nipponization until my husband pointed it out, but it’s true: Turn on the TV today and on nearly every program and commercial, you hear the word “Nippon” over and over ad nauseam. You see it in the titles of magazines, articles and even books. Even the Japanese theme song for last year’s World Cup by Sheena Ringo was titled “Nippon.”

All this Nippon talk is no sober commentary or level-headed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of a modern nation. Rather, it’s a praise-festthrough and through, as the following examples illustrate (all of which use “Nippon” to refer to Japan in their titles):

1. “Except China and Korea, Everyone Is Pro-Japan: ‘Cool Japan’ Takes the World by Storm” (a book written by Toru Sakai);

2. “That Is Why the World Respects Japan” (a book by Manlio Cadelo);

3. “Tokoro’s Nippon Show” (aka “Rediscover Japan,” a TBS program);

4. “Japanese People Can Be Found in the Most Remote Places” (on TV Asahi);

5. “The World Says: OMG, Japan Is Friggin’ Awesome!” (also on TV Asahi).

Writing up this short list makes me so sickened that my mind slips back into my native Kansai dialect to think: Jibun kara yutara oshimai yaro!(You’re not worthy of praise if you have to praise yourself!). What on Earth is whipping up this storm of self-congratulation?

As if puerile, blathering, bloviating self-adulation were not enough, the march of self-righteous exceptionalism has decimated our media’s interest in or concern for other countries in general, while leading many to belittle and disparage Japan’s neighbors in particular. There seems to be a desperate need to despise Japan’s alter-ego bugaboo, South Korea, and to heap praise on how different and better “we Japanese” are.

In my humble opinion, this din of self-praise represents the death rattle of Japan’s self-confidence and self-respect. As this year marks the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, it’s surely no time for Japan to isolate itself from the outside world like a frog stuck in a well (i no naka no kawazu).

Let’s see, where were we? Oh, yes: How does labor law treat foreign workers? Article 3 of the Labor Standards Act prohibits discrimination based on nationality: “An employer shall not engage in discriminatory treatment with respect to wages, working hours or other working conditions by reason of the nationality, creed or social status of any worker.” But does this law reflect the reality of the workplace or is it just pie-in-the-sky pretty talk?

More than half a million ethnic Koreans live in Japan (Zainichi Korian) today, mostly as a result of Imperial Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula. Many are fourth and even fifth generation. In this 70th year since the end of the war, anti-Korean hate groups are regrouping and screaming to anyone who will listen that Koreans enjoy special privileges and preferential treatment. Really? Special privileges?

A closer look reveals that such privileges are “special” only in comparison with those of other foreigners, not Japanese citizens. For instance, Zainichi Koreans and Taiwanese — the descendents of those brought over in the colonial era, that is — are eligible for special permanent residence (tokubetsu eijūsha) status. These residents were also exempted in 2012 from the legal obligation to carry the identification cards that other foreigners have to.

But why do these fourth- and fifth-generation immigrants not have citizenship in the first place? These people in their own countries were subjected to colonial domination before and during the war, forced to become Imperial subjects of Emperor Hirohito, to take Japanese-sounding names, and many were dragged to the archipelago to supply forced labor. Yet after Japan’s defeat, these “subjects” were unceremoniously stripped of their citizenship. Far from being a privilege, the tokubetsu eijūsha visa designation was created to mitigate the soul-destroying discrimination these “new foreigners” faced on a daily basis.

Right-wingers also claim as “preferential” (tokken) the right for aliens to use aliases, particular “Japanese-sounding” names even though they have official Korean names. We must remember that these Imperial subjects were forced to take such names during the war. Another relevant point is that Japanese citizens and non-Korean foreigners also have the same right to use aliases, so it is in no way a special privilege.

When I was a child, my family was close friends with a Korean family in our neighborhood. The Kims used their real name. The father opened a surgery clinic in their home. I remember my parents often saying, “Most Koreans know they will not be hired by Japanese companies so they have little choice but to use their Japanese aliases. Mr. Kim is clearly a Zainichi Korean, but he can survive because he has a medical license and his own clinic.”

Most Japanese do not know and do not want to know the history of how Zainichi Koreans struggled desperately to survive decade after decade of discrimination and exclusion. Schools avoid the subject, but Japanese people must make an effort to learn about this painful history.

One Zainichi Korean sued the Hitachi conglomerate in 1970 for “unhiring” him after they discovered his ancestry. Pak Chong Sok used his Japanese-sounding alias to sit for the company exam, but during routine paperwork upon being hired, he was required to submit proof of identification. Pak submitted his foreign registry card (gaitōsho) and Hitachi immediately withdrew the offer of employment, openly stating that “We cannot hire a Korean.”

In court, Hitachi tried to justify the firing by claiming Pak had falsified his resume by using a “false name.” The trial thus ended up revolving around a single point of contention: Did using an alias constitute falsification?

On June 19, 1974, the Yokohama District Court ruled that “using a Japanese name did not constitute falsification because he had in effect been forced to use such a name, and the name was insufficient grounds for dismissal.” The company had violated the equal-treatment provision of Article 3 of the Labor Standards Act, as well as the “public order and morality” principle from Article 90 of Japan’s Civil Code.

The judge elaborated in the verdict on the unconscionable and bitter circumstances suffered by Zainichi Koreans in Japan. This rare expression of sympathy for the suffering of Koreans here by a Japanese judge warrants a lengthy citation:

“The plaintiff wrote his alias in order to appear as if he were Japanese, but the motive that led to this fabrication deserves extraordinary sympathy on many points in light of the historical and social background of Koreans including the plaintiff as explained above, and in light of the reality that Koreans living in Japan are refused employment, particularly by big Japanese companies — except with special exceptions — for the sole reason that they are Korean.”

This case is crucial as it took on Article 3 head on. The resurgent nationalism of 2015 tries to justify discrimination against foreigners who are in the minority by emphasizing nationality, something that one cannot choose at birth.

At the risk of starting off the new year on a note of pessimism, I believe that efforts against this kind of discrimination have made zero progress in the four decades since this landmark court case. If anything, we have turned back the clock.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union (Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union). She can be reached at On the fourth Thursday of each month, Hifumi looks at cases in Japan’s legal history to illustrate important principles in labor law.
Originally published in the Japan Times.