Non citizens, Voice, and Identity: the Politics of Citizenship in Japan’s Korean Community (Working Paper #80)

Erin Aeran Chung, Harvard University

Abstract: This paper examines the relationship between citizenship policies and noncitizen political behavior, focusing on extra-electoral forms of political participation by Korean residents in Japan. I analyze the institutional factors that have mediated the construction of Korean collective identity in Japan and, in turn, the ways that Korean community activists have re-conceptualized possibilities for their exercise of citizenship as foreign residents in Japan. My empirical analysis is based on a theoretical framework that defines citizenship as an interactive process of political incorporation, performance, and participation. I posit that the various dimensions of citizenship—its legal significance, symbolic meaning, claims and responsibilities, and practice—are performed, negotiated, and restructured in a triangular interactive relationship between the state, citizens, and noncitizens.

I address a puzzle that is both specific to Koreans in Japan and generalizable to foreign permanent residents in other advanced industrial democracies: Given their high levels of cultural assimilation, why does citizenship remain the last vestige of identity within the Korean community in Japan? Unlike previous studies that have focused on stringent citizenship policies at the level of the state alone, this paper explores the interactive process between institutions and communities. Based on their legal status, we would expect social movements in Japan’s Korean community to center around the quest for citizenship acquisition. Yet, the findings of this paper demonstrate that Korean organizations have concentrated their efforts on securing the community’s foreign citizenship status. I argue that postwar Japan’s ethnocultural citizenship policies both shaped Korean political identity in Japan and structured political opportunities for Korean activists to negotiate the terms of their community’s incorporation. Especially in recent years, new generations of Korean activists have reinterpreted the meaning of Korean citizenship as identity and practice in movements to democratize Japanese society. Rather than naturalize and become a small section of the voting population, Korean activists have increasingly used their noncitizen status as their “voice” to express their opposition to state policies. Based on ethnographic research conducted in Tokyo, Kawasaki, and Osaka over a twelve-month period, this paper explores how citizenship policies affect the political identities, claims, and strategies of noncitizen communities.

Working Paper #80»