Legacies of Empire and Occupation: The Making of the Korean Diaspora in Japan

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September 14, 2009

Legacies of Empire and Occupation: The Making of the Korean Diaspora in Japan
Legacies of Empire and Occupation: The Making of the Korean Diaspora in Japan

Volume 7 | Issue 37 | Number 3

Article ID 3221

Legacies of Empire and Occupation: The Making of the Korean Diaspora in Japan

Mark E. Caprio and Yu Jia

The August 15, 1945 announcement by the Japanese Emperor declaring Japan’s intention to accept the Allied forces’ terms of unconditional surrender sent Koreans throughout the empire into the streets in celebration. For the first time in decades they could freely associate with their fellow countrymen, communicate in their native language, and wave their national flag (taegeukgi) as Koreans without fear of punishment.[1]

Koreans celebrate independence on August 15, 1945

Reports authored by United States government agencies, relying on Japanese statistics, estimated that three to four million Koreans resided overseas at this time. Korean communities could be found throughout the eastern part of the Asian continent (including the Russian Far East where bands of guerrillas fought the Japanese), as well as in other parts of the Japanese Empire including the Dutch East Indies, Hong Kong, the Philippines, the South Pacific, Taiwan, and Sakhalin where many had been sent as soldiers or laborers. In addition, Koreans migrant populations could be found in Australia and Hawaii. The majority of overseas Koreans, however, resided in Japan and Manchuria (Manchukuo). A 1945 U.S. Joint Intelligence Study estimated that there were 1.45 million Koreans in Japan and 1.475 million in Manchuria.[2] By the end of the war, Japan’s Korean population would reach between 2 and 2.4 million.

Liberation encouraged most overseas Koreans to return to their ancestral homeland. Within a year after the war’s end the population of southern Korea increased by an estimated 22 percent, or slightly fewer than 3.5 million. This figure included, in addition to repatriated Koreans, 510,000 refugees from northern Korea, and 700,000 births.[3] Not all Koreans returned. Pockets of Korean communities remained in Manchuria, Sakhalin, and other parts of the empire. Also, an indeterminate number of Koreans smuggled their way back into Japan after returning to Korea. At the end of the U.S. Occupation, an estimated 650,000 to 800,000 Koreans remained in Japan.[4] Understanding the reasons why Koreans chose to remain involves considering practical economic, cultural, and social factors, as well as examining the postwar geopolitical factors that prevented those who wished to return to Korea from doing so. This paper considers these factors that shaped the creation of a Korean diaspora in Japan during postwar occupations in Japan (1945-1952) and southern Korea (1945-1948).

Preparation for Korean Repatriation

The Che (Ch’oe) family did not wait for liberation to repatriate. As the battles that ravaged the Asia-Pacific landscape approached the Japanese archipelago, municipal agencies began advising urbanites to vacate the cities. Japan’s colonial residents began returning to their homelands. Sonny Che recalls his father, a physician with a private practice in Nagoya, heeding this warning, by moving his family back to Korea in March 1944, a year before the U.S. started bombing Japanese cities. Dr. Che’s foresight benefited his family in a number of ways. First, it allowed the Ches to send most of their personal belongings, enough to keep three packers busy for three weeks. The family also did not have to compete with other Korean returnees for housing and other basic resources. Prior to their arrival, relatives secured for them a large house—the biggest in the neighborhood—that a Japanese family had recently abandoned.[5]

These advantages were not available to others who repatriated after the U.S. Occupation and Japanese administrations initiated formal repatriation procedures soon after the war ended. Many Koreans remaining in Japan, entangled in postwar confusion, were hard pressed to secure the basic essentials such as food, housing, and employment. Added complications arose from the ill-prepared Occupation forces that arrived in Japan and southern Korea. Repatriation apparently was regarded as low priority, at least when compared with their primary purposes: disarming the Japanese military and installing functioning indigenous governments. Even though Korea sustained but minimal war damage, repatriated Koreans discovered a situation in Korea even more troubling than that which they left in Japan.[6] Japanese society remained inhospitable, but it did offer them the option of continuing a semblance of the lives they had built since crossing over. Those who returned to the Korean Peninsula arrived with little, if any, economic, social, or cultural foundation from which to restart their lives. United States restrictions on the amount of property repatriating Koreans and Japanese could bring with them—1000 yen and all the belongings they could carry—further complicated these people’s resettlement, while encouraging them to opt for the risky private, and illegal, repatriation routes.

The Allied powers formally addressed the issue of postwar Northeast Asian occupation in Cairo, where the U.S., Great Britain, and China signed a communiqué in December 1943. The three signatories proclaimed for the first time that Japan would forfeit its control over the Korean Peninsula. They also agreed to delay Korean independence by adding the often-quoted phrase, “in due course Korea shall become free and independent.” The Allied leaders declaring that Japan would lose possession of the Korean peninsula marked an important clarification regarding Korea’s post-liberation status. Remarks by American and Japanese officials suggesting that it was a mistake to separate Korea from Japan could be heard both before and after U.S. occupations had begun.

Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek flank Roosevelt and Churchill at Cairo

The initial plan concept for an occupied Korea did not envision a peninsula separated into two independent occupation forces, but a joint trusteeship occupation similar to that which they later coordinated in Austria. There the Soviet Union, France, Great Britain, and the United States were designated areas of administration coordinated by a central policy.  Korea’s occupation divided the peninsula into two separate geographic and political zones. At the December 1945 Moscow Conference the Soviet Union and the United States reaffirmed their commitment to trusteeship and agreed that Korea would be granted its independence in five years, within which time the two superpowers would prepare the Korean people for general elections to form a unified Korean government. This plan never took hold. Within three years separate governments in the south and north were formed, which paved the way for all out war in June 1950. The divided Korean Peninsula remains a flashpoint more than six decades after its “liberation.”[7]

The failure to reunify the divided peninsula complicated the repatriation of many Japan-based Koreans. The problem was political rather than geographic. Among Koreans who had migrated to Japan over the four decades of colonial rule, the vast majority (98 percent) claimed roots in southern Korea.[8] However, at least half of these people had established ties with leftist groups in Japan and joined the League of Koreans in Japan (Chaeil Chosǒnin ryǒnmaeng or Choryǒn). These ties predate the postwar period. Korean labor began collaborating with the Japanese Communist Party from the 1920s, when they faced severe discrimination in terms of employment and housing.[9] From 1948, after the newly formed Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) passed the notorious National Security Law, those Japan-based Koreans suspected of even remote connections with the communist north risked imprisonment, torture, and death should they return to the south. Repatriation to northern Korea after the war remained virtually impossible—only 351 managed to do so—until after 1959 when negotiations between the Japanese and North Korean Red Cross succeeded in allowing close to 90,000 Japan-based Koreans and about 2000 of their Japanese spouses passage to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea).[10]

United States government preparation for its Korean occupation predated the Cairo meeting. Authors of wartime reports on Korea considered an immediate concern—whether Koreans could be uswa in the war effort, as well as a future concern—justifying a postwar occupation of Korea. One of the first reports, the June 1943 “Survey of Korea,” drew a broad encyclopedic sketch of the Korean people and the Korean peninsula. Completed by the Military Intelligence Service, this report offered detailed summaries of the Korean people’s long history, focusing on such areas as their traditions and customs, their psychological temperament, and their respect for authority. Regarding the latter concern, a discussion on “the Korean “capacity for self-government” identified similarities in the present state of Korean political consciousness with that of the Chinese in 1911:

If the Chinese people were in need of fundamental training in “nationalism, democracy, and livelihood” in the years of Sun Yat Sen’s work after 1911, the Korean people today are faced with a similar need for training in order to develop sufficiently their capacity for permanently maintaining their independence.

The survey then argued that Koreans today probably had a greater consciousness for nationalism, primarily due to having “been robbed of their independence” by the Japanese. It attributed the people’s relatively high literacy rate and their deep understanding of Christian ideas for their deepened awareness of the struggles for freedom and democracy. It addressed the more immediate concern in assessing the Korean “aptitude for military service.” Here the survey positively pointed to the “good showing apparently made by the Korean officers serving in the Soviet Far Eastern Army, together with the two [all-Korean] divisions in that Army” to conclude that “Koreans…were suitable for such service.” The report’s general conclusion—that Koreans potentially could serve as skilled governors and soldiers—echoed a condition emphasized by the Japanese four decades earlier to justify annexation: the people, to date poorly governed, required capable, non-Korean, leadership to develop these skills. Thus postwar occupation was necessary.[11]

One year later the U.S. State, War, and Navy Departments collaborated to compile a joint report to further explore the question of whether Koreans could be employed to assist in the war effort, and offered suggestions ranging from employing Korean independence groups for espionage or sabotage missions to organizing Korean POWs into a battalion under the Korean flag. It noted that the Korean Provisional Government (KPG), organized in Shanghai in 1919, actively lobbied for U.S. military assistance under its Lend-Lease Program to organize Korean troops. This body sought through its efforts U.S. recognition. Should Washington funnel military assistance through the organization, it would signify U.S. recognition of the KPG as Korea’s legitimate governing body. To date the U.S. had refused to do this. First, the political group had yet to demonstrate that it had the support of the Korean people. It also suffered from factional disputes that weakened its effectiveness.

Like the above “Survey of Korea,” this report also supported the U.S. making use of Koreans in the war effort by recommending that the over 5,000 Korean POWs under its control, and other overseas Koreans, be organized under a battalion of “friendly aliens” under direct U.S. financial and command control. It revealed failed experiences in of funding Korean groups—they simply ran off with the money—to advise against the formation of any organized unit outside of direct U.S. control.[12] That the war ended before this battalion could be formed is indeed unfortunate. The U.S. arriving to occupy southern Korea accompanied by a battalion of U.S.-friendly Korean soldiers would have greatly boosted its prestige in Korea. More importantly it would have provided it with an indigenous military unit to assist in its policing southern Korea. This would have helped eliminate one of the more damaging shortcomings of this occupation, the U.S. decision to use Japanese and Japanese-trained Koreans for administrative and police purposes.[13]

The United States did make use of some Korean POWs and other undisclosed overseas Koreans, as informants. We see signs of the information provided by these Koreans in reports on Korea compiled from this time. The contributions of the POWs were particularly valuable as they had more up-to-date information on the situation in Korea than other informants who had left Korea earlier. Their opinions regarding Korean attitudes toward Japanese had particular informative value on wartime roles of Koreans, but also regarding the steps a postwar Occupation authority might have to take to protect Japanese from revenge-seeking Koreans. U.S. interrogators also sought information that might prove useful for administering Korea, including the Korean leaders that the U.S. should support following liberation. For example, one anonymous Korean confirmed U.S. doubts over the KPG’s lack of popular support among Koreans by commenting that although “inside [domestic] Koreans were familiar with this group, it was “unlikely [that] Koreans in Korea would either welcome or cooperate with” members of this body, even if it were to gain United Nations support. This informant expressed “indifference” toward the “outside [international] Koreans”: The Korean people feel that they “left their country not for patriotic reasons but in order to get an easier living, to get sympathy, admiration and financial support from the people of the United States.”[14] One POW, Kim Chengnei, argued overseas Koreans to be generally unqualified for leadership responsibilities due to their insufficient knowledge of Korea’s present conditions, and thus should not be considered for such responsibilities.[15] This opinion was echoed by a number of other Koreans in%2rviewees. It is perhaps ironic that Syngman Rhee and Kim Il Sung both benefited from their time abroad—Rhee primarily in the United States and Kim in the Russian Far East and Manchuria—to rise to heads of state in the ROK and DPRK.[16]

Responses to interrogators’ inquiry regarding whether Korea-based Japanese would be targeted for revenge in post-liberated Korea demonstrated the extent of Korean animosity toward their unwelcomed colonizers. Most informants predicted that the majority of Koreans would not harm the Japanese. However, one unnamed informant believed the problem to be more serious: “Nearly all Koreans would take the first chance to massacre Japanese civilians. So many Koreans have been killed by the Japanese that the population would be eager for revenge.”[17] Another informant, however, suggested that the Koreans might even welcome a few Japanese who wished to remain in Korea. Delays in the U.S. Occupation forces’ arrival in Korea, in their securing the surrender of the Japanese military police, and in their repatriation of Japanese residents contributed to much of the violence that broke out in post-liberated southern Korea. News of this violence, and the possibility that they might be targeted as Japan-tainted should they return, served as an important reason for many Koreans to remain in Japan.[18]

Finally, informants warned of the dire living conditions that Koreans faced under wartime conditions, and advised the need to correct this problem as a critical task of an occupying body. One Korean deserter from the Japanese military reported that people aged 20-40 years were living off of a monthly ration of two to three shaku (one shaku equals 0.038 U.S. pints) of mixed rice, beans, and mullet, a concoction he estimated to last but 15-20 days. People of other age groups received less. Fish was rationed when available; vegetables were “scarce.” He further noted that farmers preferred to exchange their harvest for clothing and other essentials on the black market—which paid up to ten times the market price—over selling it to established markets.[19] Should these conditions continue into a post-liberation occupation, the U.S. could hardly expect their efforts to yield success. Another interviewee advised that the task of establishing a sound economic basis to correct these hardships “[was] even more important than setting up “an elaborate system of government.” His warning followed:

Above all, the temporary administration must concentrate on providing economic contentment for the individual Korean and his family. Without assurance of food supplies, employment, and a reasonable standard of public health, the most attractive and conscientiously planned system of democratic government would be an empty shell. The Koreans would be disillusioned and would lose faith in the United Nations…[20]

Information gathered from these interrogations contributed to a number of reports compiled in the months just prior to Japan’s defeat. One such report, drafted in January 1945, considered the question of the Korean capacity for independence to determine the duration that the Allied forces would be required t”0occupy the peninsula. Here the authors recognized the Korean people’s capacity over time to gain the skills required for self-government: “self-government is a matter of opportunity and experience, and there is no valid reason to suppose that the Koreans would be less capable than other Asiatic people if they were once provided with the proper environment.” The key phrase, “once provided with the proper environment,” tacitly supports the decision made by the Allied forces in Cairo to occupy Korea. The Japanese colonial occupation, it argued, had left Korea without the experienced leaders, and its people without the education, that it needed to be self-governing. One telltale sign of this capacity, the report suggested, was their forming a group capable of creating “an effective anti-Japanese revolt.” The Korean people had yet to demonstrate this capacity. Even if a successful revolt should materialize, it “would owe its strength to foreign aid and its leaders would tend to be the agents of a foreign Power, even if their cause was a popular one.”[21] The report might have considered whether the Korean people were unique in this regard. Had any indigenous group of recent managed to disrupt the operations of their colonial subjugators?

A second report, “Aliens in Japan,” prepared by the Office of Strategic Services (which later merged with other intelligence agencies to form the CIA) focused on Japan’s foreign population, and how they were to be handled by U.S. Occupation policy in Japan. Issued in late June 1945, the report discussed a number of Japan-based minorities including other “Asiatics” (Taiwanese and Ryukuans), White Russians, and citizens of the axis power nations (Germans and Italians). However, with Koreans comprising 90 percent of Japan’s total foreign population, it understandably directed much more attention to this minority. It first traced the history of Korean migration to Japan, and described their living conditions, their attitudes toward the Japanese, and their failure to assimilate into Japanese society, before proposing policies to direct their repatriation or determine their future status should they remain in Japan.[22]

“Aliens in Japan” noted that Koreans had been crossing between peninsula and archipelago since the beginning of Japanese rule. At first, this population was transitory, with most Koreans migrating to Japan with the idea of eventually returning to Korea. It estimated that between 1917 and 1940 the number of Koreans returning to Korea was three-quarters greater than those going to Japan. This figure reflects the fact that over the interwar period many Koreans who crossed over to Japan were laborers as contract workers, many of whom became Japan’s economic depression after the First World War.[23] It also did not account for Koreans who made multiple crossings or who entered Japan illegally, although it acknowledged this as a major concern of the Japanese.[24] The problem became so serious that the Japanese initiated a “Stop Smuggling Week” campaign complete with posters and advertisements. The Japanese estimated that in 1940 about 200,000 of Japan’s Korean population had entered the country illegally.[25] Japan’s Korean population began to stabilize in 1937 as Koreans gained more secure jobs due to the economic boom created by the war with China, and began to replace Japanese who had been drafted into the military. Strapped for labor in certain areas such as mining and factory work the Japanese government initiated a forced labor policy that brought close to 700,000 Koreans to Japan from 1938; in March 1945 it lifted all restraints on Korean immigration. These actions caused a sharp rise in the Japan-based Korean population that eventually grew to over two million people.

This report painted the Korean-Japanese relationship in negative terms. The Korean people resided separate from the Japanese, and were unwilling to assimilate. It listed two reasons for this: first, the Japanese discouraged their assimilation, and second, the Korean “in the main, very poor, uneducated, and unskilled, even by low Korean standards,” was vastly inferior to the Japanese. The report mimicked many of the character denigrations used by Japanese from earlier in the century to justify Japan’s annexation colonial rule over the Korean peninsula: the Korean people “did not possess the Japanese fever for hard work”; they appear to be slow moving and lazy,” and they were “not as conscious of cleanliness as the Japanese.” On the other hand, the report lauded Japan-based Koreans for their remittance of a “high percentage of earnings” to their families in Korea.[26]

“Aliens in Japan” also noted trends that demonstrated Korean residents opting for extended and, in some cases permanent, stays in Japan. This was evidenced by increases in Japanese-Korean marriages, as well as increases in Japan’s second-generation Korean population. More Koreans in Japan had come to realize the importance of acquiring Japanese language proficiency to escape from economic hardship and better navigate Japanese society. The war had awakened Japanese to the necessity of making greater efforts to promote Japanese-Korean harmony to more efficiently mobilize Koreans to contribute to the war efforts as laborers in factories and mines or soldiers on the battlefields. A Korean population that was better employed and more stable had less reason to cause trouble, one of Japan’s most critical concerns at the time. Whether this trend would continue once the wartime catalyst had disappeared remained one important concern expressed in this report.[27]

Suggestions in “Aliens in Japan” regarding the handling of the Japanese foreign population in need of “liberation, protection, or segregation from the Japanese” offers a window into the policies and attitudes toward Japan’s minority peoples that the U.S. occupation forces would bring to Japan. The report foresaw that a small number might “constitute a menace to Allied military operations,” and would have to be incarcerated. Many others, it predicted, might prove useful for occupation efforts. It categorized Japan’s foreign residents into four groups: Allied POWs, members of the diplomatic corps, imprisoned Allied citizens, and other foreigners. Japan-based Koreans were placed in the “other foreigner” group along with other “Asiatics,” members of countries neutral to Japan, White Russians, and peoples from other axis states (Italians and Germans). The report advised authorities to handle members of all groups as individuals, as it was impossible to establish a uniform policy for any of the groups. Members of the “Asiatic” group, for example, “may be either friendly or enemy”; even those who become Japanese citizens might be either pro- or con-Allied; others might have collaborated with the Japanese.

Collaborators and enemy agents, the report advised, could be found in “almost every conquered country of Asia” as these peoples assisted the Japanese in conjunction with their revolutionary activities against the British, Dutch, and French governments. Policy toward these peoples should be determined by an international agreement with the country involved. Regarding repatriation, the report acknowledged that not all “Asiatics” would opt to return home. It correctly foresaw two factors that would determine their decision: the repatriates’ financial and cultural assets and the postwar condition of their ethnic homeland.[28]

The United States is often criticized for its lack of preparation for the postwar occupation of Korea.[29] This criticism, however, requires qualification. The above reports provided Occupation forces much information on the situation in Korea. However, preparation for the practical responsibilities of governing southern Korea were delayed until mid-August, just prior to the Japanese emperor’s announcement that Japan was prepared to accept the Allied forces surrender terms. These reports also having to rely on Japanese materials may have tilted many of their conclusions—including justifications for occupying Korea—toward those offered by the Japanese in 1910 when they annexed the Korean Peninsula. Even more disturbing, the U.S. Occupation forces continued to rely on Japanese advice and Japanese trained personnel after their arrival in southern Korea in early September 1945. By the time U.S. forces entered Seoul, however, the global context of the occupation assumed by the reports’ authors had changed drastically. Most damaging to Koreans were the strong doubts over the United States and the Soviet Union ability to coordinate a cooperative trusteeship occupation. The Soviet Union was determined to develop northern Korea as a buffer from southern (Japanese) attacks. The United States, for its part, interpreted southern Koreas geopolitical role as twofold: to halt what the U.S. articulated as a global Soviet communist movement, and to protect Japan from this perceived Soviet threat.

Occupation Policy and Conditions in Japan

Ch’oe Seog-Ui was eighteen when Japan surrendered; at nineteen he accompanied his mother back to Korea. He recalls his most immediate thought after hearing the emperor’s surrender announcement as being, unless there were extraordinary circumstances (such as pro-Japanese sentiment) “all Japan-based [Korean] brethren (zainichi dōhō) would return to their home country (hongoku). Hardly any Korean would wish to remain in Japan.[30] Ch’oe did return to southern Korea in April 1946, only to find himself back in Japan six months later, where he joined the hundreds of thousands of Koreans who eventually chose to forgo repatriation at this time.

Most Koreans like Ch’oe, who left Japan after the war, would soon discover that both postwar Japan and post-liberation Korea erected a number of social, political, and economic obstacles that complicated their decision to repatriate. While the Occupation authorities in Japan pledged to assist those wishing to return to their homeland, in effect it charged the Japanese government with the responsibility for both financing their trip and guaranteeing their safe return. Preoccupied with other matters in bombed out Japan, however, repatriation of non-Japanese was desired but of a lower priority that the more pressing issues of disarming Japanese soldiers and securing order in the occupied territories. The few regulations that SCAP prescribed were shortsighted and critically impeded Korean repatriation. Some Koreans, unaware of Japan’s responsibilities, blamed their inability to pay for transportation to Shimonoseki—a primary return port—for keeping them in Japan.[31] More importantly were the restrictions the U.S. placed on what Koreans could bring with them. What incentive was there to return for those who had to leave behind most of their estate?

A State, War, and Navy Departments’ joint directive to Supreme Commander General Douglas MacArthur attempted to answer an important that “Aliens in Japan” raised: whether Koreans were to be seen as friend or foe. This report, issued in October 1945, first identified Japan’s Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean residents as “liberated peoples,” that is, peoples “not included in the term “Japanese.” The report then confused matters by acknowledging that since these peoples “have been Japanese subjects” [if necessary] they “may be treated …as enemy nationals.”[32] Their ambiguous status would bedevil Koreans both in Japan and Korea as neither Occupation administration felt as comfortable dealing with the “liberated” Koreans as it did the defeated Japanese enemy.%3Fp>

The ambiguity in Korean status is reflected in the diversity of Korean reaction to Japanese colonial rule. Preparation reports identified a number of ways that Koreans had clearly demonstrated anti-Japanese sentiments in their committing acts of terror within the colony, waging guerrilla conflict along Korea’s border areas, and lobbying U.S. officials in Washington. Many served time in prison, were tortured, or even sacrificed their lives for this cause. By contrast, U.S. officials were also aware that Koreans had also collaborated with the Japanese by volunteering their services and money to various war causes, by working directly in various colonial institutions, and by serving in the Japanese military to fight against the Allied forces.[33]

Distinguishing collaborator from patriot, however, was hardly easy. Even obvious victims, those who had been kidnapped, forced to migrate to Japan, or conscripted into the Japanese military have since faced the difficult task of proving their victimization. Proving as guilty those Koreans who appeared to have been eager to cooperate with the Japanese was even more arduous. Had they truly volunteered, or had they been coerced into volunteering? If their participation was voluntary, were their ambitions guided by a pro-Japanese sentiment, or simply a basic desire to improve their lifestyle? Koreans arguing that the U.S. was soft on these collaborators defined the crimes of these people broadly, as crimes committed against the colonized Korean people; Allied forces limited their definition of Korean crime to those wartime acts against Allied forces, most often as guards at POW camps.[34] The U.S. Army Military Government in Korea [USAMGIK] showed little interest in the collaboration issue until the Korean Interim Legislative Assembly tried in 1947 to pass the “Special Law on Pro-Japanese, National Traitors, and Profiteers” to bring collaborators to trial. On this occasion the Military Government exercised the veto right it retained over this assembly.[35] Korean anger in response to the U.S. again displaying  a pro-Japanese bias created deeper political divisions, which increased inter-factional strife in southern Korea.

The United States most blatant display of this favoritism toward Japanese came in the days prior to its arrival, when it requested the Japanese administration in Korea to continue its duties until Lieutenant General John R, Hodge and the 24th Corp, which was still in Okinawa, could arrive. Even after the U.S. arrived its initial Occupation policy kept Japanese in their positions until Korean protests forced the O0rusction to rescind this directive. Still, weeks into the Occupation, Political Advisor H. Merrell Benninghoff suggested in a message to the U.S. Secretary of State that Japanese services were still required:

The removal of Japanese officials is desirable from the public opinion standpoint but difficult to bring about for some time. They can be relieved in name but must be made to continue work. There are no qualified Koreans for other than the low-ranking positions, either in government or in public utilities and communications.[36]

The decision to rely on Japanese, and Japanese trained Koreans, to help administer southern Korea at one level was a practical one that resembled U.S. policy in Japan where it maintained an experienced Japanese administration through which to filter directives. Koreans demonstrated to U.S. Occupation authorities in both southern Korea and Japan that they were in no mood to accept orders from their former colonial subjugators. In southern Korea they attacked Japanese nationals and symbols of Japanese colonial rule. In Japan they regularly committed acts of defiance toward Japanese figures of authority and occupied the Hyogo Prefectural offices in response to his orders, transmitted from SCAP, to close their schools.[37]

U.S. postwar decision to retain Japanese influence in Korea immediately signaled to Koreans the regional role that the United States anticipated Japan assuming. Rumors, initiated by both conservative and leftist Korean groups of U.S. plans to revive Japan as a regional power, became so strong that Lieutenant General Hodge himself felt compelled to answer them. In a June 1948 press release the commanding officer denounced as a “flat lie” the rumor that “the United States is building Japan back as a military power.” [38] Hodge chose his words carefully. While the U.S. had no desire to remake Japan into a “military power,” it had already begun pressuring Japan to scrap Article Nine from its recently promulgated constitution and form a self-defense force. The Occupation’s “reverse course” had also began reinstating recently purged Japanese, including war criminals. Koreans quickly grasped these developments. One Korean newspaper editorial questioned whether the United States was “reviving imperial Japan.”[39] While no one foresaw Japan reviving its imperial rule in its prewar form, some envisioned the U.S. reviving its colonial economic network by having its former colonies act as Japan’s supplier of unfinished products, and markets for its finished products, to revive Japan’s struggling economy. Like West Germany in Western Europe, the U.S. envisioned Japan’s role as its pivotal East Asian satellite, in Chalmers Johnson’s words, a core in its “new-style empire.”[40] George Kennan drew from the recent war experience to explain why Japan was better suited than the other Asian candidate for this role:

We Americans could feel fairly secure in the presence of a truly friendly Japan and a nominally hostile China—nothing very bad could happen to us from this combination; but the dangers to our security of a nominally friendly China and a truly hostile Japan had 0dready been demonstrated in the Pacific war. Worse still would be a hostile China and a hostile Japan.

He continued by emphasizing the pressure that the triumph of Korean communism would have on Japan.[41] In either occupation—Japan from 1910 and the U.S. from 1945—the way the occupier had articulated Korea’s role remained static: to serve as a bulwark that protected Japan from Asian continental threats.

Occupation and Japanese officials viewed actions by Koreans on both sides of the East Sea/Sea of Japan, as well as those crossing this sea, as local threats to this geopolitical blueprint, often attributing these actions to a more ambitious communist plot to disrupt Japan-U.S. relations. Both Japanese and Americans often criticized the collective Korean rather than the individuals who performed the unattractive activities. Richard L-G Deverall, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) Chief of Labor Education, for example, claimed that all Koreans in Japan were “a bunch of black marketers.”[42] The ties that Koreans formed with the Japanese Communist Party, and their October 1945 formation of Choryǒn which, two months later called on its constituents to work toward establishing a “People’s Republic” in Japan, encouraged many U.S. and Japanese officials to see Koreans as leftists who, as one report put it, served as a “link between Japanese communists and those of the continent of Asia—Korean-Chinese, and Russian.”[43]

These claims, reminiscent of colonial-era labeling of Koreans as “futei” (insubordinate), also analyzed the result independent of the cause. The roots of post-liberation Korean involvement in black-marketing operations and communist activity showed similarities with Korean responses to the colonial-era economic depression and Japanese anti-Korean discrimination of the 1920s and 1930s. Koreans made advances in the wartime period throughout Japan’s empire. But after these advances disappeared in postwar Japan Koreans once again turned to “illegal” activities to make ends meet. Accusations against Koreans also failed to acknowledge that Japanese, many returnees from the colonies, also participated in these “illegal” activities.[44]  One U.S. G-2 Periodic Report distributed in November 1945 revealed that the Japan Sewakai (Relief Society), a group formed to facilitate Japanese repatriation from the Korea Peninsula, had organized a fleet of private ships to transport both people and black market goods to Japan.[45] Koreans arrested for their participation in these activities faced indictment and irial in Japanese courts, as Occupation policy required for all peoples who failed to qualify citizens of United Nations states.[46]

American allergy toward communism, and the belief that the politically naïve Korean was extremely susceptible to its teachings, helped pave the way for the rise of the staunchly anti-Communist Syngman Rhee to power, and the subsequent dictatorial policies that his administration introduced following the formation of the ROK in 1948. These events essentially prohibited repatriation for most Japan-based Koreans suspected of having participated in leftist activities. Those Koreans who returned to the ROK—it was then not possible to repatriate to the newly formed DPRK—faced interrogation, imprisonment, and possible execution. From around this time we see an expanding definition of “communist,” as applied to the Japan-based Korean. General Douglas MacArthur, offered one such example in his disagreement with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru’s 1949 suggestion that all Koreans unable to “contribute to [Japan’s] reconstruction” be forcefully repatriated. Here he remarked that since they were “mostly North Koreans” (sic) they “would [all] have their heads cut off” by the ROK government. [47] Labeling this population as “mostly North Korean” was untrue in that the vast majority of Japan-based Koreans came from southern Korean towns. The idea that MacArthur suggested, that most Koreans were DPRK-influenced communists, was also problematic in its assumption that Japan-based Koreans could only adopt this ideology from a foreign influence. This exchange also suggested as a definition of “communist” any Korean unwilling to contribute to Japan’s reconstruction, or, more simply put, a troublemaker. Both leaders neglected to consider why, considering the long history of Japanese discrimination they endured, any Korean would be interested in assisting in Japan’s recovery.

Rhee and MacArthur

We find a similar example in comments left by Bak Yul [Pak Yǒl] in August 1948, soon after the formation of the conservative Association for Korean Residents (Chaeilbon chosǒn kǒryu mindan or Mindan). Here Bak, who served as Mindan’s president, defined as communist “anyone who does not support the present [South] Korean government.”[48] Bak also pressed the idea that Korean representation in Japan would be necessary to assist Koreans who chose to remain in Japan, and that his Mindan organization was best positioned to act in this capacity. He tried to demonstrate his organization’s legitimacy by reporting on his recent meeting with newly elected ROK president, Syngman%e%Rhee, where the two had agreed that Japan should deport all Korean communists to the ROK. He also recommended that Korean skilled laborers be induced to repatriate to help rebuild their country, suggesting that the National Traitor Law (then under construction in the National Assembly) could be used to arrest all those who refused to return. This recommendation reflected an article in the recently promulgated ROK constitution that stretched the state’s jurisdiction to include all Korean territory south of the Yalu and Tumen rivers, that is all of northern Korea. Bak’s statement extended ROK jurisdiction further by claiming its control over all Japan-based Koreans, as well. Other suggestions by Bak included his recommendation that Korean children who remained in Japan be educated in Japanese schools (with elective Korean language courses offered).[49] He saw this as a practical issue: Koreans did not have the resources to fund a separate school system. Yet, this suggestion also suggested support for Korean assimilation as Japanese over their repatriation as Koreans. Education in Korean ethnic schools provided one of the most effective ways of correcting the weak understanding of the Korean language and culture of many second and third generation Japan-based Koreans, a problem that inhibited their successful reintegration into Korean society. Bak’s aspiration that Mindan be recognized as the “sole agent for the Korean government in Japan” until the ROK established formal representation, though insufficient in serving the needs of the entire, or even the majority, of Japan-based Koreans, better reflected the flow that Korea-Japan relations would take over the next few decades.

Policies formed and enforced by SCAP also influenced negatively repatriation decisions. Limitations imposed by the Occupation authorities on the amount of material possessions Japanese and Koreans could return with forced many to either repatriate by risky unauthorized (illegal) repatriation routes or remain in Japan. Both Koreans and Japanese returnees were limited to 1000 yen per person and all of their belongings that they could physically carry that were of personal necessity. Accessories such as jewelry, securities, and financial instruments would be confiscated. Amendments of these regulations would later permit returnees to ship 500 pounds of personal belongings and up to 4000 pounds in tools, light machinery, and business equipment provided they could establish that they had obtained these possessions prior to September 2, 1945, that is before Japan’s official surrender to the United States. Rising inflation in both Japan and southern Korea frustrates any attempt to calculate just what one could purchase with 1000 yen. One report issued from U.S. Army Headquarters in South Kyǒngsang Province in Korea observed that in December 1945 this amount allowed its bearer “to exist for [little] more than a few days, and [was]… extremely inadequate to enable [the Korean] to begin life anew.” Financial and personal belongings that exceeded these limitations were confiscated. In return, the Occupation authorities issued a receipt, but provided insufficient information on how to claim the remained of one’s assets. Koreans who arrived at a port not having exchange facilities, or at night after they were closed, found themselves unable to exchange even the 1000 Japanese yen to which they were entitled for Korean currency.[50]

Koreans and Japanese did find creative ways to circumvent these restrictions. Letters intercepted by Occupation authorities sometimes contained large sums of money. On one occasion, inspectors found four separate letters each containing one part of a 40,000 yen check.[51] Another letter advised how to best smuggle money across the border: “American soldiers do not inspect Japanese women or girls returning to Japan from Pusan, so if Miss Utako hides her money on her person it should be safe…. Before I went aboard ship, I gave one of the inspecting soldiers a beautiful fan and he did not bother to inspect my mother’s baggage.”[52] Ch’oe Seong-il explained that he was able to exchange his extra money with people returning to Japan. It is hard to determine just how extensive this exchange system was, as obviously the exchanges involved little, if any, paperwork. Ch’oe noted that it later became much harder to conduct these exchanges.[53] For Koreans, however, simply the existence of these regulations was enough to discourage many from repatriating as noted in “Staff Study Concerning Koreans in Japan,” a report released on August 16, 1948 by SCAP’s Diplomatic Section.

This “Staff Study” SCAP’s first major review of its Korean repatriation policy was released the day after the inauguration of the first ROK government. Several reasons made this report necessary at this time. First, the establishment of the ROK government provided “strong reason for exploring means to resolve [the Japan-based Korean] problem,” as the formation of this political body allowed Koreans to begin negotiating directly with SCAP and the Japanese administrations over the fate of this people. The report foresaw the possibility of the parties concluding a “Repatriation Agreement.” A second issue considered the status of Japan-based Koreans who remained. Should the newly formed ROK gain admittance into the United Nations (a highly unlikely probability at the time) Japan-based Koreans would become eligible for special status as nationals of UN states. Even though unqualified, Koreans frequently charged SCAP with discrimination as Taiwanese, who could claim this status by registering with the Nationalist Chinese government, were given this preferable treatment.[54] A third point concerned nationality. There existed the possibility that the ROK could exercise its nationality laws to demand that Koreans in Japan be allowed to register as Korean nationals, as by a literal interpretation of this legislation “most of the Koreans in Japan either posses Korean nationality or could by the act of canceling their Japanese registry acquire Korean nationality.”[55] If this were to happen Koreans who remained in Japan could possibly claim a dual (Korean and Japanese) or single (Japanese) nationality status. This study sought answers to these problems.

The “Staff Study” introduced its recommendations by building a case on the premise that Koreans did not belong in Japan. It incorporated the negative images found in previous reports: Koreans were intent on establishing political autonomy in Japan rather than returning to Korea; they sought links with mainland communist groups; and they participated in illegal black market transitions that escaped the “control or tax authority of Japanese Government.” The Korean people also did not easily assimilate into Japanese society; they had endured the “long-standing prejudice of the [Japanese] and [were] uneducated and generally [carried an] underprivileged character.” They also sought “preferred treatment” in Japan, as demonstrated in the recent riots in Osaka and Kobe that “arose from refusal by the Koreans to comply with orders of the Japanese Government” to close their schools. The report correctly noted that the Japanese “would be only too happy to see all Koreans leave Japan.” Plagiarizing from the 1910 Japanese statement of annexation, the report advised, “…the large Korean group in Japan…constitutes a strong element of instability in the Far East.” Yet, the “Staff Study” also noted that “from the Korean point of view [this people] is potentially a valuable asset to Korea in manpower, as well as in skilled training and financial means acquired in Japan.”[56] It saw their return to Korea as a win-win situation for both peninsula and archipelago.

The report’s recommendations closely reflected the concerns expressed above. It first advised that SCAP further encourage Korean repatriation by increasing the amount on money with which Koreans could return to 100,000 yen, and to protect anything in access of this amount “in accordance with Japanese law.”[57] It also advised SCAP to rescind the regulation that required Koreans to provide the acquisition date of their material possessions. Determining the nationality of those who refused to return remained problematic. Obviously uncomfortable with this ambiguity of Japan-based Koreans being offered Korean (ROK) nationality, the report’s authors advised that the U.S. gain from the ROK government a promise that they would not claim Japan-based Koreans as Korean nationals. It further advised that these Koreans be considered, and treated as, Japanese nationals even if individually they accept Korean nationality but remain in Japan. Finally, it advised that discussion regarding Koreas status being advanced should tad ROK be admitted to the United Nations be deferred as the chance of this happening were remote.[58]

This final version of the “Staff Study” erased some of the more shocking elements of its previous efforts (such as requiring all Japanese-based Koreans to register with the ROK government). Yet, the fruits of its efforts still produced few results. A memo from the SCAP Chief of Staff to the Diplomatic Section noted that the amendments involving Korean possessions alone were worthy of SCAP’s attention. It followed that negotiations with the nascent ROK government were premature as it remained “in the process of reorganization.” The “Staff Study,” it predicted, “will be held as a guide for our action when the problem of the status of the Korean in Japan arises in more concrete form.”[59] One other limitation not mentioned in this commentary was the rather minor attention that it gave to a third option, Korean repatriation to northern Korea. Given the sizeable left wing ideological base among Japan-based Koreans, and the study’s recognition of this group as a serious problem, it is curious that the “Staff Study” did not devote more attention to this potential. The one mention dismissed this option as unattractive: “It is probable that few of [the 200,000 Japan-based ‘North Koreans’] can be persuaded to return to North Korea but it is considered advisable to urge as many of them as possible to go to South Korea to establish residence.” The authors hint at, but do not fully explain, why repatriation to the communist north was unattractive to these Koreans. The study does suggest why this option may have been unattractive to U.S. Occupation forces, who saw as the general goal of their repatriation to “rid Japan of as many Korean communists as possible and to prevent their re-entry to Japan.” Sending Korean communists to the ROK, as opposed to the soon to be established DPRK that—officials suspected—regularly dispatched its agents to Japan, reduced the odds of their returning to Japan. This was particularly so if a further suggestion, that “the appropriate authorities of the Korean Government…be informed of any records and activities of all Korean communists who return to Korea so that necessary measures can be taken,” was accepted.[60] Should these “necessary measures” include anything close to what MacArthur feared Rhee would do to deported Korean communists, the Japanese would not have to worry about many of them reentering Japan.

Debate over the status of Japan-based Koreans continued into late 1949, with a key issue remaining whether the newly established Korean Mission in Japan should be allowed to register these people. In addition, the discussion over nationality continued. These two issues intersected at the concern that the Korean Mission would register Koreans as nationals on a “wholesale and uncontrolled basis.” This would create “friction between the Japanese and Koreans [as Koreans] would be able to assert [their] foreign national status and at the same time claim the privileges of Japanese nationality.” It further noted that both the Japanese and ROK governments would prefer these Koreans to be considered foreign nationals for different reasons. Japanese officials insisted that Koreans and Japanese remained separated; Syngman Rhee’s ROK government wished to claim the people as its “six hundred thousand residents in Japan.”[61]

Unable to make headway, SCAP deferred the issue to the Japanese and ROK governments, who negotiated a tentative agreement in late 1951. Progress was slow, and it was the ROK government that stood in the way of finalizing an agreement as it insisted that issues such as territorial disputes and reparations be appended to any settlement on the Japan-based Korean nationality issue. In December 1951 the two sides attempted to finalize a “joint agreement on the Japan-Korea%dqconference” where Japan would offer permanent right of residence to those Koreans recommended by the Korean Mission, but withhold it from others. Furthermore, “undesirable” Korean residents would be deported to the ROK. The two sides disagreed on the time period that Japan would have to consult the Korean Mission before deporting unwanted Koreans, with Japan insisting on five years, and the ROK on seven. Sung-Hwa Cheong argues that the two sides might have signed a formal agreement had the ROK government shown more flexibility on this issue. Cooperating here “would have weakened its bargaining position on the other [colonial-era] problems.” Japan, from this point, decided to delay ratifying any basic agreement with the ROK until after it concluded a general peace treaty.[62]

Still, the two sides did honor some of the provisions of this tentative agreement. Soon after, the Japanese began to construct a detention center in Ōmura, Kyushu to house unruly Koreans waiting to be deported, and actually returned 410 of them to the ROK, of which the government accepted 285 and rejected another 125 on grounds that their illegal entry preceded the September 1945 cutoff date.[63] The rejected Koreans were returned to the Ōmura detention center. By 1956 the Korean population at this center had grown to 1,476 (including 140 children), many who preferred repatriation to the DPRK rather than the ROK. These Koreans were among the first to be repatriated to the DPRK after Japan reached agreement with the communist state in 1959.[64]

Japan and the ROK finally came to agreement in 1965, at the time they signed a treaty of normalization. At this time they also signed the Agreement on Legal Status and Treatment of South Korean Residents in Japan that offered permanent resident status to Koreans who could prove sustained residence in Japan from prior to August 15, 1945, and who had registered as ROK nationals. The agreement had nothing to offer those Koreans affiliated with Choryǒn, whose members essentially became stateless. Mindan Koreans also criticized the agreement. In June 1965, 10,000 of its members assembled in Hibiya Park to demonstrate for terms more equal to Japanese than those they gained by their becoming permanent residents.

Korean Foreign Minister Lee Tong-won and Japanese Foreign Minister Shiina Etsusaburo sign the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea on June 22, 1965

These discussions consistently avoided the question of citizenship, even though an increasing number of Koreans came to be born and raised in Japan. Both societies followed jus sanguinis, or citizenship as determined by the father’s line. Japan and the ROK both had reasons to avoid this issue, or any other that significantly altered Japan-based Korean status. For the Japanese, their postwar image of the homogeneous people allowed no room to admit a minority group by introducing jus soli, or citizenship as determined by place of birth. The ROK, for its part, had reason to see that the nationality of these people remained in limbo, even if they did not register as Koreans, to ensure their availability as an additional supply of recruits for the ROK military. At the time it initiated discussions with Japan, a fairly substantial number of Japan-based Korean “volunteers” had fought in the war.[65] It would not be until the early 1980s, when Japan relaxed its citizenship requirements, that Japan-based Koreans began to naturalize as Japanese in greater numbers.

The Korean Peninsula and Repatriation

Concerned primarily with the status of Koreans in Japan, the dialogue over how best to encourage their repatriation made but passing references to how the situation on the Korea Peninsula prevented their return. One such reference was the state of the ROK government, which participants described as “in the process of reorganization.” The “reorganization” to which it referred, but did not elaborate, in part involved the challenges that the nascent Korean government faced with guerrilla insurrections first on Cheju Island from April 1948, and then from October in the Yǒsu area at the southernmost tip of the peninsula.  The Cheju Island insurrection exacerbated Japan’s Korean problem as, according to the island’s governor, as many as 40,000 of its residents fled to Japan as refugees.[66] That (by SCAP estimates) 200,000 Koreans had entered Japan illegally, and many after repatriating, since the war’s end suggests the need for more attention being given to the situation that Korean repatriates encountered upon returning.[67]

Ch’oe Seog-Ui is succinct and to the point in his recollections of the situation that greeted his homecoming soon after liberation. His family decided that his father and grandparents would return ahead of the others—in November 1945—to prepare living arrangements for the remained of the family. The following April, Ch’oe crossed over with his mother carrying with him “the aspiration to contribute to Korea’s reconstruction.” As mentioned above, this aspiration soon faded and he returned to Japan. Ch’oe recalls his repatriation experience as follows: “I returned to my hometown [to find] no home in which to live, no job at which to work—a truly wretched situation (santantaru jōkyō).” He then lists a third problem that would gravely affect the reception that peninsular Koreans gave returnees from Japan. “My inability to speak Korean as I wished truly broke me up. In the end, distressed, I decided to temporarily return to Japan to study before once again returning to Korea to make a fresh start.” As the eldest son, his decision was not easy and drew protests of his father. Ch’oe would spend his life in Japan, and was unable to return the ROK before his father died.[68]

Japan’s defeat and U.S. Occupation brought hardship to those who had maintained residency on the peninsula even though the Korean Peninsula sustained little war damage. The addition of two million returnees from Japan, Manchuria, and elsewhere only exacerbated the desperate economic situation. As Ch’oe recalled, while people in the homeland welcomed their return, they were hardly in a position to lend a helping hand. The fate of many Japan-based Koreans was determined in May 1948 when elections seated an inaugural ROK government, and later in September a northern counterpart, that further solidified a divided Korean Peninsula.

The most immediate problem that repatriated Koreans faced was securing basic living essentials—housing, food, and employment. USAMGIK organized temporary shelters for returnees, but these were not permanent; the inhabitants were frequently forced to move to make room for other inhabitants, often U.S. Occupation personnel. One Korean expressed this concern in a letter dated July 10, 1947 to the U.S. Enemy Property Central office in South Kyǒngsang Province, the first stop for most of the returning Koreans. The author, who provided an address but not a name, first expressed gratitude to the U.S. military for defeating Japan, and to USAMGIK for providing repatriated Koreans with housing. He noted that eighty families who had returned from Japan and Manchuria shared his apartment complex. But they were now being forced to vacate. “And now in the very difficult condition of the house problem, we can not find another house…as soon as [we] lose our house, we must [start] wandering about on&the street.”[69]

News of the peninsula’s dire housing situation reached Koreans in Japan quite early. In December 1946 Dai Suyung, Chief of the Pusan Branch of the Seoul Committee Meeting, Korean Association in Japan, petitioned the Military Governor of South Kyǒngsang Province to “make great[er] efforts…for [the] welfare of our provincial people and for [the] stability of refugees’ living [conditions].” His primary concerns were housing and jobs: “…they have to wander the streets, because they couldn’t get any houses to live in, and they have to starve to death, because they couldn’t get any job to support their living.” Dai called on USAMGIK to make available to repatriated Koreans hotels, restaurants, prostitution houses, barracks, and even temples that had once belonged to the Japanese.[70]

One might suppose that moving repatriated Koreans into these properties might at lease provide a partial solution to southern Korea’s housing problem. However, the transfer of Japanese properties to Koreans also presented problems. First, we can assume that USAMGIK claimed the best available facilities. Other facilities apparently remained vacant as nationalist groups pressured Koreans from purchasing these properties. Such Koreans who “dare[d] buy…Japanese property,” as the “Comrades Office” (Korean not given) warned in October 1945, were to be considered “racial traitors.”[71] USAMGIK may have circumvented this housing problem, and prevented much of the violence that came from different groups seeking to control ownership of these properties, had it quickly established policy on this issue. Yet, orders on how USAMGIK was to handle former Japanese-owned properties were slow in arriving. In February 1947 the U.S. administration informed the newly formed Southern Korea Interim Legislative Assembly that as it was still awaiting these instructions, and advised the assembly that it should propose its own recommendations.[72]

Southern Korea also faced a severe food shortage in the early post-liberation years. Even U.S. soldiers complained about sub-standard diets.[73] Commanding Officer Lieutenant General John R. Hodge and Dai Suyung agreed separately that Koreans needed three hop (one hop equals 525 calories) to meet the daily minimum food requirements, yet Koreans averaged but two hop. Part of the problem was the collapse of the food distribution system in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat. As in Japan, USAMGIK encountered problems in getting farmers to meet their crop quotas. A December 1946 report estimated that the provinces managed to contribute but 28.23 percent of their allotted quota.[74] Almost one year later, in October 1947 farmers approached their quotas (97.1 percent), but only after the quota figures had been drastically adjusted downward—from 4.3 million to just over 700,000 sǒk (one sǒk [J. koku] equals 5.119 bushels).[75]

Low harvest yields were just part of the problem. USAMGIK’s agriculture policies, and specifically its price controls, also set the price of rice artificially low to curb inflation. Farmers, upon discovering that selling their rice at the official price left them unable to purchase basic commodities, “withheld most of [their] rice from the official market and created a black market for [their] surplus.” This forced both prices and wages to rise dramatically.[76] Opposition groups exploited (and perhaps started) exaggerated rumors accusing USAMGIK of shipping some of this rice to Japan to encourage farmers not to sell their crop to U.S. administration-sponsored programs.[77]

Even if USAMGIK had been able to correct southern Korea’s housing and food problems, employment remained as a third crucial subsistence shortage. Ch’oe Seog-Ui admitted this shortage as the main factor that encouraged his return to Japan.[78] Lieutenant General Hodge articulated the problem with his characteristic bluntness on September 13, 1945, soon after his arrival. Unemployment resulted, he claimed, from the Korean people’s lack of industry.

Almost all Koreans have been on a prolonged holiday since surrender on 15 August. It is apparent that their idea of independence is freedom of all cares of work and that the world will support them. Since arrival of American troops here there has been no show of industry in the Jinsen-Keijō [Incheon-Seoul] area and but little interest in returning to any normal pursuits.

However, he did admit that the unemployed also included

hundreds of thousands of Koreans out of work because of the collapse of war industries. Manufacturing of all types is now at a standstill for a lack of raw materials and there is no possibility of immediate correction through turning war industries into peaceful manufacturers. This, combined with the release of Koreans from Japanese Army control, amounts to a tremendous problem particularly with winter approaching.[79]

A report circulated in late December 1945 described a situation in southern Korea that was familiar to repatriated Koreans from Japan—Koreans turning to illegal means of subsistence such as the black market due to lack of alternative opportunity. Their criminal behavior, it observed, “has resulted in a great increase in crime and has thrown a heavy burden on the civilian and military police.”[80]


Despite the difficulties and uncertainties outlined above, roughly two-thirds (1.4 million) Koreans returned to southern Korea from Japan within less than two years following liberation.[81] Many other Koreans returned to southern Korea from other parts of the Japanese empire. Unfortunately, USAMGIK proved to be utterly incadlble of handling this flood of refugees. Word circulated to those who remained outside the peninsula of the dire situation that awaited them should they repatriate. Their decision not to return to Korea left Japan’s large Korean population, the majority settling in Osaka with large populations also residing in Tokyo and in Aichi and Hyogo prefectures[82],—in a state of limbo: self-images of racial and cultural homogeneity held by both Japanese and Koreans complicated their membership in either society. Not sufficiently Japanese to pass as Japanese, Koreans faced discrimination in schools, in employment, and in society. One scholar estimated that in 1952, 79 percent of Japan-based Koreans were either unemployed or working as day laborers.[83] At the same time their long term residence in Japan tainted their Korean identity, as evident by their less-than-fluent ability to speak and read the Korean language and to observe Korean customs. Their return disturbed Korean self-images of homogeneity.[84] Those affiliated with leftist organizations found their political beliefs a further barrier to repatriation until Japan’s negotiations with the DPRK led to the repatriation over two decades of close to 90,000 Koreans starting in 1959. A culmination of these factors set in motion a process that established in postwar Japan, as Sonia Ryang notes, Japan-based Koreans as a diasporic population in Japan.[85]


This is a revised version of our “Legislating Diaspora: The Contribution of Occupation-era Administrations to the Preservation of Japan’s Korean Community” that appeared in Sonia Ryang and John Lie, eds, Diaspora Without Homeland. Being Korean in Japan, Berkeley: Global, Area and International Archive, University of California Press, 2009), 21-38.

Mark E. Caprio is a professor of history at Rikkyo University in Tokyo and a Japan Focus associate. He is the author of Japanese Assimilation Policy in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945. He can be reached at [email protected].

Yu Jia earned her Ph.D. in history at Rikkyo University and is a post-doctoral fellow at Chung’ang University in Seoul. Her research interests focus on Korean and Japanese militarization during and immediately following the American Occupation of Korea and Japan.

Also see, Sonia Ryang and John Lie, eds, Diaspora Without Homeland: Being Korean in Japan, Berkeley: Global, Area and International Archive, University of California Press, 2009.

Recommended citation: Mark E. Caprio and Yu Jia, “Legacies of Empire and Occupation: The Making of the Korean Diaspora in Japan,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 37-3-09, September 14, 2009.


1. The Korean national flag first appeared in 1882. The Japanese prohibited the Koreans from displaying the flag, and punished those who did. The most famous incidences of Korean defiance were during the March First (1919) and the June Tenth (1926) movements, and in 1936 when Korean newspapers superimposed the flag over the Japanese flag donning the shirt of the Berlin Olympics marathon winner, who was Korean but participated on the Japanese team.
2. Joint Intelligence Study Publishing Board. 1992, “Joint Army-Navy Intelligence Study of Korea (Including Tsushima and Quelpart); People and Government (April 1945),” in Yi Kilsang, ed., Haebang chǒnhusa charyojip [Documents on pre-liberation and post-liberation history] vol. 1 (Seoul: Wonju munhwasa, 1992), 271. The figures quoted in this study are probably dated, as the war prevented Japanese from publishing statistics after 1942. Edward Wagner estimates of that there were 2.4 million Koreans in Japan in 1945 in his The Korean Minority in Japan, 1904-1950 (New York: Institice of Pacific Relations, 1951). More recently, Nishinarita Yutaka calculated 2,206,541 Koreans in Japan when the war ended. Nishinarita Yutaka, Zainichi Chōsenjin no “sekai” to “teikoku” kokka (The “World” of the Japan-based Korean and the “Imperial” State) (Tokyo: Tokyo daigaku shuppankai, 1998), 42.
3. “Report on the Occupation Area of South Korea Since Termination of Hostilities, Part One: Political (September 1947),” in Yi, ed., Haebang chǒnhusa charyojip, 488.
4. From around 1947 U.S. officials began listing Japan’s Korean population at 800,000. This increase from 600,000 to 650,000 was probably to account for the estimated 200,000 Koreans thought to have entered Japan illegally since the American Occupation began.
5. Sunny Che, Forever Alien: A Korean Memoir, 1930-1951 (Jefferson: McFarland, 2000), chapter 18.
6. The United States put much more effort in reconstructing Japan than southern Korea. This bias reflected historical differences on how the U.S. viewed Japanese and Koreans. Koreans correctly interpreted the more favorable attitude that Americans held toward the Japanese people as encouraged by the central role it saw a revitalized Japan playing in East Asian affairs. The main works in English on the U.S. Occupation in Japan are John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: Norton, 1999; and Takemae Eiji, Inside GHQ: The Allied Occupation of Japan and its Legacy, trans. Robert Ricketts and Sebastian Swann (New York: Continuum, 2002). For the U.S. Occupation of southern Korea see Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945-1947 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980); and Bonnie B. C. Oh, ed., Korea Under the American Military Government, 1945-1948 (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002). Kim Kut’ae’s Mi Kunchǒng ǔi Hanguk t’ongch’i [U.S. military administration’s rule in Korea], (Seoul: Pagyǒngsa, 1992) offers a good overf%ew of the U.S. administration in southern Korea.
7. The differences in the Austrian and Korean occupations mirror differences in Soviet-U.S. relations that emerged following Franklin Roosevelt’s untimely death in April 1945 and the ascent of President Harry Truman in his wake. While trusteeship apparently worked in Austria, it was met with hostile rejection, particularly among Korean c20servatives, in southern Korea. Efforts by the United States and the Soviet Union to implement the policy fizzled after a few meetings.
8. Sonia Ryang,  “Introduction: On Korean Women in Japan, Past and Present,” in Jackie J. Kim. Hidden Treasures: Lives of First Generation Korean Women in Japan (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), xvi.
9. See Ken C. Kawashima’s well-researched The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009).
10. See Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Exile to North Korea: Shadows From Japan’s Cold War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).
11. Military Intelligence Service, “Survey of Korea (15 June 1943),” in Yi, ed., Haebang chǒnhusa charyojip, 30-32.
12. McCarthy, Charles W., Alvin F. Richardson, and Raymond E. Cox, “State-War-Navy Coordination Committee: Utilization of Koreans in the War Effort (April 23, 1945),” in Yi, ed., Haebang chǒnhusa charyojip, 259, 261-62.
13. Opposition groups used the U.S. reliance on Japanese and Japanese-trained Koreans for many of its administrative duties to paint the U.S. Occupation as pro-Japanese, and thus anti-Korean. I address this issue in the context of lingering images of “Japanese-ness” in my “The Detritus of Empire: Images of “Japanese-ness” in Liberated Southern Korea, 1945-1950,” Occasional Papers No. 14 (Tokyo: Centre for Asian Studies, Rikkyo University, 2009).
14. For a summary of this interview see Yi, ed., Haebang chǒnhusa charyojip, 191.
15. Ibid., 191-93.
16. Rhee and Kim’s experiences abroad helped the two men develop language capacity and important contacts that benefited their rise to power.
17. A summary of this interview is found in Yi, ed., Haebang chǒnhusa charyojip, 174-79.
18. One example involved rogue kenpeitai who caused trouble in the streets of southern Korean cities and the waterways separating Japan and Korea. For a review of this violence see Caprio, “The Detritus of Empire.”
19. A summary of this interview is found in Yi, ed., Haebang chǒnhusa charyojip, 235.
20. Ibid., 193.
21. Research Department, Foreign Office, “Korea’s Capacity for Independence, Historical Background (January 31, 1945),” in Yi, ed., Haebang chǒnhusa charyojip, 213-16.
22. Office of Strategic Services, “Aliens in Japan (June 29, 1945),” in Documents from Occupation of Japan, United States Planning Documents, 1942-1945, Reel 14 (3-C-11) (Tokyo: Japan National Diet Library).
23. See Kawashima, The Proletarian Gamble, 28-44.
24. Richard H. Mitchell writes of the  “seasonal migration” that many Koreans participated in during the colonial period in his The Korean Minority in Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 31. After the March first 1919 independence movement, Japanese authorities required Koreans planning to enter Japan to receive traveling papers from their local police station that stated their purpose for travel, thus making it illegal for any Korean to enter Japan without this permission.
25. Office of Strategic Services, “Aliens in Japan,” 4.
26. Ibid., 7-8.
27. Ibid., 19.
28. Ibid., 34-37.
29. Gregory Henderson, Korea: The Politics of the Vortex (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 120-21; Kim, Mi Kunchǒng ǔi Hanguk t’ongch’i.
30. Ch’oe, Seog-Ui, Zainichi no genfūkei: rekishi, bunka, hito [Original landscapes of Japan-based Koreans: history, culture, people] (Tokyo: Akaishi shoten, 2004), 40.
31. Kim, Hidden Treasures, 57, 149.
32. Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Basic Directive for Post-Surrender Military Government in Japan Proper (November 3, 1945).” “Division of Special Records, Foreign Office.”
33. For a study on Korean entrepreneurial collaboration see Carter Eckert, Offspring of Empire: The Koch’ang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism, 1876-1945 (Seattle: University of Washington, 1991). The issue of colonial-era collaboration is one that continues to haunt the Korean people to this day, primarily because its early efforts to identify and punish these people never progressed. Over the past few years the Korean government has organized a special parliamentary commission to compile a list of Korean collaborators. A number of private studies have compiled biographies of Koreans believed to have been collaborators. For an interesting discussion on Korean collaboration see Koen De Ceuster, “Through the Master’s Eye: Colonized Mind and Historical Consciousness in the Case of Yun Ch’iho (1865-1945), Bochumer Jahrbuch zur Ostasienforschung 27 (2003): 107-31.
34. Allied forces identified 148 Koreans and 173 Taiwanese as war criminals, and condemned 23 Koreans and 21 Taiwanese to death. See Utsumi Aiko, Kimu wa naze sabakareta no ka: Chōsenjin BC kyū senpan no kiseki [Why was Kim Tried?: The Locus of Kor%2n BC Class War Criminals] (Tokyo: Asahi shinbun shuppan, 2008).
35. “Report on the Occupation of South Korea Since Termination of Hostilities,” in Yi, ed., Haebang chŏnhusa charyojip, 519. For discussion on the limitations of the Interim Legislative Assembly see Kim Kut’ae, Mi Kunchǒng ǔi Hanguk t’ongch’i, 333-35.
36. Merrell H. Benninghoff, “Draft Statement Prepared for President Truman (September 15, 1945),” Foreign Relations United States: Korea, 6: The Far East and China (Washington, D.C.: Government Publishing Office, 1960), 1049.
37. In Japan one of the largest displays of this attitude took place in Kobe in April 1948 after the U.S. Occupation administration instructed the Japanese government to close Korean ethnic schools. (Mark E. Caprio, “The Cold War Hits Kobe—The 1948 Korean Ethnic School ‘Riots’,” Japan Focus November 2008.) In southern%inKorea following liberation Koreans first targeted their local Shinto shrine for destruction before attacking police boxes and government offices run by pro-Japanese Korean collaborators. See Caprio, “The Detritus of Empire.”
38. “Jacobs to Secretary of State: Press Release by General John R. Hodge” (June 16, 1948), Internal Affairs of Korea, vol. 9, 493.
39. “Ilbon cheguk’i buhwal inga?” [Is Imperial Japan being revived?], Kukminbo (December 21, 1949).
40. Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2000), 20.
41. George F. Kennan, Memoirs; 1925-1950 (Boston, MA: Little Brown, 1967), 375.
42. Richard L-G Deverall, Red Star over Japan (Calcutta: Temple Press, 1952), 256.
43. Diplomatic Section GHQ SCAP,  “Staff Study Concerning Koreans in Japan (August 16, 1948),” in Records o the United States Department of State (Reel 3). (Tokyo: National Diet Library).
44. Lori Watt writes that Japanese repatriating from colonial territories faced harsh discrimination from their fellow Japanese. Many had few alternatives but to work black market stalls. See her When Empire Comes Home: Repatriation and Reintegration in Postwar Japan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009), 7.
45. G-2 Periodic Reports, November 3, 1945. G-2 Periodic Reports are found in Mi Kukgun tonggun saryǒngbu G-2 iril chǒngbu yoyak (Far East Command, U.S. Army G-2 Daily Intelligence Summary) (Seoul: Hallim Taehakkyo Asia munhwa yǒn’guso Hallim University, 1999).
46. See Hiromitzu Inokuchi, “Korean Ethnic Schools in Occupied Japan, 1945-52,” in Sonia Ryang ed., Koreans in Japan: Critical Voices from the Margin (London: Routledge, 2000); and Yukiko Koshiro, Transpacific Racisms and the US Occupation of Japan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).
47. Richard B. Finn, Winners in Peace: MacArthur, Yoshida, and Postwar Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 238.
48. Headquarters XXIV Corps, “Memorandum for Commanding General: Transmitting Report of Conversation with President, Korean Residents Union in Japan, on Koreans in Japan (August 18, 1948),” Records of the U.S. Department of State Relating to the Internal Affairs of Korea 9. (Seoul: Arŭm, 1995), 573-74. For a review of the image of Koreans as communists see Kobayashi Tomoko, “GHQ no zainichi Chōsenjin ninshiki ni kan suru ikkōsatu” [One consideration of GHQ’s perception of Koreans], Chōsenshi kenkyūkai ronbunshū 32 (October 1994), 165-192.
49. Headquarters XXIV Corps, “Memorandum for Commanding General.”
50. “Critical Refugee Situation (26 December 1945),” in F.E. Gillette pogosǒ [F.E. Gillette written reports] vol. 1, (Seoul: Hallim Taehakkyo Asia munhwa yǒn’guso Hallim University, 1996), 370-73.
51. G-2 Periodic Reports, January 29, 1946.
52. G-2 Periodic Reports, November 7, 1945.
53. Interview, July 15, 2005.
54. Diplomatic Section GHQ SCAP, “Staff Study.” UN national status allowed for supplementary food rations, immunity against Japanese taxes, and special legal protection. It also guaranteed in full the bank deposits of people under this category. One of the arguments against allowing Koreans this status were the heavy costs the Occupation would have to shoulder to provide them with the extra food rations.
55. The Korean nationality law (Public Act No. 11 May 1948) “provides that any person whose father is Korean as well as any person whose mother is Korean and whose father either is unknown or has no nationality shall have Korean nationality; Koreans whose names are entered in a Japanese family register [primarily Korean women married to Japanese and their children] and who have canceled or in the future cancel their registry shall be considered restored to Korean nationality.” Ibid., 2.
56. Ibid., 3-4.
57. A report authored in April 1949 valued 100,000 yen at $370.37. The 100,000 won that Koreans would receive in exchange was worth even less ($222.22). John Muccio to the Secretary of State, “Status of Koreans in Japan (April 13, 1949), in Records of the United States Department of State (Reel 3), (Tokyo: National Diet Library), 2.
58. Diplomatic Section GHQ SCAP. 1948.  “Staff Study,” 10-12. The rift between the United States and the Soviet Union kept the DPRK and the ROK out of the United Nations as both held veto rights in the Security Council. The two Koreans were finally admitted in 1991.
59. Chief of Staff to Diplomatic Section, “Status of Koreans in Japan (August 29, 1948),” in Records of the United States Department of State (Reel 3), (Tokyo: National Diet Library). A February 1949 memorandum confirmed that SCAP had issued the Japanese government a directive regarding this revision. “Memorandum: Status of Koreans in Japan, February 18, 1949,” in ibid.
60. Diplomatic Section GHQ SCAP, “Staff Study,” 10.
61. “Political Adviser for Japan to Chief of Staff, “Memorandum: Status of Koreans in Japan, August 15, 1949, in Records of the United States Department of State. Syngman Rhee’s statement is quoted in a February 18, 1949 memorandum of the same title authored by the United States Foreign Service, is found in ibid.
62. Cheong Sung-Hwa, The Politics of Anti-Japanese Sentiment in Korea: Japanese-South Korean Relations Under the American Occupation, 1945-1952 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991), 106-07.
63. Ibid., 126-27.
64. For a description of the Ōmura detention center see Morris-Suzuki, Exodus to North Korea, 124-25. Her more recent research has confirmed that all detainees were slated for “repatriation” to the DPRK, although there is no guarantee that all made it (personal correspondence, September 11, 2009).
65. One SCAP memorandum makes reference to “volunteers from Japan” being used in the war. It notes that the Korean Mission requested that these soldiers be released to the ROK army should their services no longer be needed by the U.S. Army. “Memorandum: SCAP to the Chief of the Korean Diplomatic Mission in Japan, Korean Volunteers (February 13, 1951),” The Syngman Rhee Presidential Papers, Yonsei University, File 646.
66. Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun (New York: Norton, 1997), 221. Soon after this flood of refugees reached Japan’s shores the U.S. finalized the first Alien Registration Act. See Robert Ricketts, Chōsen sensō zengo ni okeru zainichi Chōsenjin seisaku [Policy Toward Japan-based Koreans Around the Time of the Korean War] in Chōsen sensō to Nihon [The Korean War and Japan], edited by Ōnuma Hisao (Tokyo: Shinkansha, 2006), 208-11. Ricketts presents a comprehensive review of U.S. and Japanese policy towards Japan’s Korean population in this chapter.
67. For illegal Korean entry into Japan during the Occupation see Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “An Act Prejudicial to the Occupation Forces: Migration Controls and Korean Residents in Post-Surrender Japan,” Japanese Studies 24, no. 1 (May 2004): 5-28.
68. Ch’oe Seog-Ui, Zainichi no genfūkei, 42. Interview, July 15, 2005.
69. Anonymous, “Letter to the Enemy Property Control Office from the Resident of in Apartment House, Pusan (July 10, 1947),” in F.E. Gillette pogosǒ, 318.
70. Dai, Suyung, “A Petition for Rescue of the Refugees, To the Military Governor of Kyong Sang Nam Do,” (December 17, 1946).” In ibid., 406-07.
71. Reported in the G-2 Periodic Reports, October 21, 1945.
72. “Lerch to Chairman, Korean Interim Legislative Assembly (February 5, 1947),” F.E. Gillette pogosǒ, 109-10.
73. A 1947 letter signed by eleven US soldiers stationed in Korea complained that the “living conditions are some of the worst they have yet experienced,” a telling statement considering that these soldiers had arrived in Korea from Okinawa. (See Cecil Brown, “Correspondence with Major General F. L. Parks (May 19, 1947),” in John R. Hodge munsǒjip [John R. Hodge papers] 1945.6-1948.8, vol. 2 (Seoul:%kkHallim Taehakkyo Asia munhwa yǒn’guso, Hallim University, 1995), 178.
74. Headquarters, USAMGIK. 1996. “Press Releases (December 10, 1946),” in F.E. Gillette pogosǒ, 81. For a study on the postwar food situation in Japan see Steven J. Fuchs, “Feeding the Japanese: Food Policy, Land Reform, and Japan’s Economic Recovery,” in Democracy in Occupied Japan: The U.S. Occupation and Japanese Politics and Society, edited by Mark E. Caprio and Yoneyuki Sugita, 26-47 (London: Routledge, 2007).
75. South Korean Inter2C Government, “Termination of Summer Grains Collection Program (October 22, 1947),” in ibid., 172.
76. D. W. Kermode, “Enclosure for Dispatch No. 361 (August 29, 1946),” Internal Affairs of Korea, vol. 1, 111.
77. This rumor apparently held some truth, as evident in a number of G-2 Periodic Reports. On October 16, 1946, for example, these reports noted a police report that informed of merchants paying bribes to “water police” to be able to export rice.
78. Interview, July 15, 2005.
79. John R. Hodge, “Conditions in Korea (September 13, 1945),” in John R. Hodge munsǒjip, vol. 3, 3-5.
80. “Critical Refugee Situation, 26 December 1945.” in F.E. Gillette pogosǒ, 371.
81. Seo Geun-Sik, “Zainichi Chōsenjin no rekishiteki keisei” [The historical formation of Japan-based Koreans], in Zainichi Chōsenjin: rekishi, genjō, tenbō [Japan-based Koreans: history, contemporary situation, and outlook], edited by Pak Chongmyǒng, (Tokyo: Akashi shoten, 1999), 95.
82. Nishinarita Yutaka, Zainichi Chōsenjin, 43; De Vos, George and Daekyun Chung, “Community Life in a Korean Ghetto,” in Koreans in Japan: Ethnic Conflict and Accommodation, edited by Changsoo Lee and George De Vos  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 226.
83. Kim Chǒl-ung, “Zainichi Chōsenjin no keizai mondai” [Economic problems of the Japan-based Korean], in Pak Chongmyǒng (ed.) Zainichi Chōsenjin, 108.
84. Indeed, the Korean media occasionally warned Japan-based Koreans to brush up on their Korean language and culture skills should they consider returning.
85. Sonia Ryang, Korian diasupora: zainichi Chōsenjin no aidentiti [Korean Diaspora: Identity of Koreans in Japan], trans. Nakanishi Kyōko (Tokyo: Akashi shoten, 2005).

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Volume 7 | Issue 37 | Number 3

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