Mark E. Caprio and Yu Jia: Legacies of Empire and Occupation: The Making of the Korean Diaspora in Japan





[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. 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.]

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]

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.

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...

... Conclusion

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]



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