Intersectionality in Japan
Considering the Oppression of Zainichi Korean Women through the Lens of Black Feminism
This article discusses the reality of the oppression of Zainichi Korean (ethnic Korean residents in Japan) and their activities in opposition through the lens of Black feminism. These women are subjected to intersectional oppressions based on race/ethnicity and gender. However, they are not only victims but also powerful agents of activism who act in solidarity with their fellow women. By incorporating theories of Black feminism into Japanese social work, these women’s experiences can be highlighted. This is not just a matter of understanding the reality of their situation but rather one of rethinking social work practice and paving the way to solidarity with Zainichi Korean women and all others who are subject to intersectional oppression.
Since the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, there has been growing concern in Japan and worldwide about racial discrimination against Black people. The practice and theory of Black feminism have also come into the spotlight, albeit partially. However, efforts within Japanese social work to address racial discrimination and gender issues in Japan have been muted. There has also been little discussion of how to take Black feminist theory and apply it to our own practice.
The crucial significance of Black feminism is its focus on differences within categories and the problematization of intersectional oppression. That is, it focuses on minorities within minorities, such as racial differences among women and gender-based differences among Black people. This is expressed in the concept of intersectionality, which has not only revealed the situation of those likely to be socially vulnerable but also encouraged them to become aware of their situations, develop solidarity, work toward solving problems in society, and empower themselves. In turn, this knowledge has been incorporated into social work, bringing about change.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, racism has become a serious social problem in Japan, with social work called upon to respond (Miyazaki 2018: 43). I believe that the knowledge of Black feminism can be useful in helping social work against racism.
Zainichi Korean (ethnic Korean residents in Japan) women.
During Japan’s colonial domination of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, many Koreans were compelled to emigrate to Japan for a variety of reasons, including forced labour. Of these, 600,000 people and their descendants live in Japan today, or even more if we include those who, for various reasons, have acquired Japanese citizenship. They are one of the most vulnerable minority groups in Japan. Among Zainichi Koreans, women in particular are subjected to the intersectional oppressions of race/ethnicity and gender.
Through the lens of Black feminism, this paper aims to reveal intersectional oppression in Japan and provide an overview of the practice against this oppression by those involved. When social work addresses issues of oppression, it is necessary not only to analyse their structures but also to listen to the people. This allows social workers to not only understand the reality of the situation but also rethink their practice. The paper does not examine Black women’s practice itself, but instead looks at the situation in Japan from the perspective of Black feminism to explore the possibility of solidarity with people who tend to be oppressed.
This article presents results based on a semi-structured interview with X, a Zainichi Korean woman in her thirties, conducted in 2020, and examines her responses through the lens of Black feminism. It thus reveals the reality of the intersectional oppression of Zainichi Korean women and an overview of their practice against it.
(1) Activity Summary
X has been a staff at a human rights NGO for Zainichi Koreans since 2010. The activities of this NGO can be broadly divided into two categories: (1) protection of the human rights of Zainichi Koreans and (2) consultations regarding legal issues and everyday life. The former includes protesting against discriminatory policies, such as the exclusion of Korean schools from the system providing free high school education and the exclusion of students from the student support benefit system. With regard to the latter, the organisation provides consultations on legal issues such as pensions and inheritance, which arise due to the difficulty of proving family relationships for Zainichi Koreans without Japanese citizenship. The NGO engages in lobbying and raising public awareness to change these policies.
It also tackles the issues of hate speech and hate crimes, which have been on the rise in Japan in recent years. For example, specific individuals have been subjected to persistent online hate speech. There are also an increasing number of inquiries from people who, due to their nationality, have been treated like criminals when trying to open a bank account. Zainichi Koreans reside in Japan due to the historical background of Japanese colonial domination. At present, 75 years after the end of the war, most of them were born in Japan and have spent their lives there. X says ‘I think there should be recognition that many Zainichi Koreans live in Japan because of Japanese colonial domination. It is ridiculous to treat foreign nationality as though they were criminals’. She also says that ‘it’s really painful to be seen as an enemy’ despite having always lived as a member of the same society.
(2) The Situation of Zainichi Korean Women in Japanese Society
X feels that Zainichi Korean women are ‘targeted by compound discrimination’ in Japanese society. In recent years, the concepts of compound discrimination and intersectionality have gained recognition in Japan as elsewhere; Zainichi Korean women have consistently struggled with these issues since World War II.
However, gender differences among Zainichi Koreans are not taken into account, and the experiences of Zainichi Korean women in Japan tend to be omitted from discourses that focus on ethnic discrimination in Japan. X said,
I want to think about the power relations within the Zainichi community, and I am very keen to highlight the problem. We are currently compiling a collection of cases of harassment of Zainichi Korean women. In some cases, Zainichi Korean men are perpetrators. If we talk about ethnic discrimination and sexism in general as separate topics, the difference between Zainichi Korean men and women, and the difference between Japanese women and Zainichi Korean women will disappear… Instead, I want to visualise the power relationships that Zainichi Korean women have with Zainichi Korean men and Japanese women, and to highlight the differences in their positions and experiences.
Even among women, the situations of Zainichi Korean and Japanese women in Japan are different. For example, at the structural level, the unemployment and part-time employment rates are significantly higher for Zainichi Korean women than for Japanese women. X's personal experience sometimes includes feeling alienated from Japanese feminists. Feminist meetings in Japanese society have little discussion about compound discrimination. X feels that ‘they seem to think that there are only Japanese people in this room’. Japanese society as a whole is insensitive to ethnic discrimination, and feminists are no exception.
(3) Influences of feminism or feminists
When X was at university and graduate school, she engaged in research and activism on the issue of Japanese military sexual slavery (known as ‘comfort women’). Based on this experience, she recalls,
Since my student days, I have been interested in the overlapping issues of ethnicity, gender, and class, and the human rights violations that occur when these issues are intertwined… even when I started working for the human rights NGO, I think I had some sense of wanting to consider the intersectionality of ethnicity and gender wherever possible.
X was a graduate student when she began to study gender theory in earnest. She first read bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000), when it was introduced to her by an older student. X says, ‘It was very refreshing and inspiring, and I still reread it from time to time’. Things like the differences between the experiences of white middle-class women and Black working-class women described in the book ‘made me feel that it was much a parallel with the situation of Japanese women and Zainichi Korean women’.
She is also inspired by Black women’s movements in other countries, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Looking at Black people’s feminist and queer movements, she says she sometimes feels a disparity with the situation in Japan, but ‘it’s empowering and making me feel that we need to do more’.
The connection with the Zainichi Korean women that X works with is a very important part of her activism. She says, ‘I learn a lot from my peers’ and that the presence of other women has been a major motivating force in confronting intersectional oppression, making her think about things she would not have thought of on her own and broadening her perspective.
Respect for diversity is increasingly seen as an important issue in Japanese social work. However, because the issues are divided into discrete categories, it is difficult to highlight the problems faced by Zainichi Korean women. By drawing on the perspective of Black feminism, it is possible to spotlight experiences similar to that of X.
X's story shows that Zainichi Korean women in Japan are subjected to intersectional oppression. However, they are not only victims but also agents who fight against the difficult problem. Feminist theory and solidarity of women in similar positions in society are important in their activism, empowering them.
The Black feminist perspective tells us which voices we should be listening to. Even though social workers in Japan are working toward support for a diverse range of people, the voices of Zainichi Korean women are not being adequately heard. Social workers in Japan must listen to their voices more. We must also reflect on the current state of social work, in which these women’s voices are less likely to receive attention.
This does not mean perceiving these women as new recipients of support. Rather, they must be used as agents in standing up against oppression, and the nature of social work itself must be reconsidered. This will enable the practice of social work as a ‘social collaborative practice’, going beyond the relationship of ‘those who support’ and ‘those who are supported’ (Yokoyama 2020: 4).
hooks, bell (2000) Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, Boston, South End Press.
Miyazaki, Osamu (2018) Exclusion and the Values of Social Work, Tokyo, Social Work Studies 44(3), 43-50.
Yokoyama, Toshiko (2020) Introduction, Yokoyama, Toshiko, Sudo, Yachiyo and Oshima, Eiko eds. Revitalizing Social Work Practice: The Impact of Feminism and Gender, Tokyo, Heureka. 3-14.