Korean community human rights lawyer in Japan undeterred by hate

Ku Ryang Ok, right, sits with her daughter and father outside the house she grew up in in Utoro, an ethnic Korean community in Uji, Kyoto prefecture, in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Ku Ryang Ok/ Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Growing up, third-generation Korean resident Ku Ryang Ok felt her small community in western Japan was like one big family. Residents would only have to call out to each other’s homes for someone to appear to chat.

But when Ku was around 10, she began to notice that her ethnic Korean neighborhood — a place called Utoro in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture — was different from the Japanese neighborhoods around it.

Utoro’s houses were usually small and shabby, with weeds that grew long in the summer. When it rained, the smell of sewage wafted through the community, which had only dry toilets.

“I started to feel embarrassed bringing friends over, afraid they would say, ‘Do you live in a place like this?'” Ku said, reminiscing about her childhood.

But however uncomfortable she may have felt about the area’s appearance, the warmth and closeness between the residents remained deep in her heart, becoming an emotional support even after her family left Utoro at the age of 13.

In August 2021, the area was the target of an arson attack that destroyed or damaged seven buildings in the 2-hectare neighborhood by a man motivated by prejudice against Korean residents. Ku, now a 39-year-old lawyer and expert in international human rights law, felt deeply affected herself.

“For me, Utoro is my identity. Seeing (Utoro’s houses) burnt down is like being told: ‘Your presence is not necessary, you are on the way.’ I feel like my body has been set on fire,” she said.

The suspect, a 22-year-old Japanese man, told Kyodo News in written correspondence from his place of detention that he committed the crime to draw attention to what he called “illegal occupation” of the properties of the neighborhood by the residents of Utoro. , referring to a time in the past when they sought to prevent a real estate developer who had bought out the land from evicting them.

He also mentioned the newly opened Utoro Peace Memorial Museum to convey the history of the Korean community there, whose construction was about to start at the time of the attack. The man called it “a pointless plan that I hated”.

The Utoro community has its origins in the Japanese colonial rule of the Korean peninsula. It was formed by descendants of wartime Korean laborers who were abandoned when their workplace – an airfield – came to a halt in 1945 with Japan’s defeat in World War II.

The residents fought a decade-long court battle with the developer in the late 1980s. Although they ultimately lost, they received donations from Korean residents of Japan and Japanese, as well as members of the southern public Korea and public funds from the South Korean government, enabling them to purchase about a third of the properties on the Utoro site in 2011. The “illegal occupation” status was resolved a decade ago.

“Maybe his source of information is entirely online,” said Ku, who offers support as an attorney for arson victims. “I think he came to think that way after reading posts that were unverified, including fake news, and developed antipathy (towards ethnic Koreans) himself. ”

Hundreds of thousands of people of Korean descent live in Japan. Most of their ancestors came to Japan before and during the war, as the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.

Naoki Mizuno, professor emeritus at Kyoto University specializing in modern Korean history, said Japan’s hold on the peninsula in the 20th century led to an exodus of Koreans on a scale comparable to that of Ukrainians seen in the two months following the Russian invasion launched in February 2022. .

Estimates show that in 1945, more than 2 million Koreans were in Japan, nearly 2 million in northeast China, and about 200,000 in areas of the former Soviet Union.

This means that a total of 4 million Koreans, or about 15% of the population at the time, “had to live far from their hometown, and even far from their country,” Mizuno said.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which takes stock of the situation in Ukraine, more than 5 million people, or more than 10% of its population, had fled Ukraine at the end of April since the start of the conflict on February 24.

During the period of Japanese rule, Koreans came to Japan for various reasons. Some wanted to study or do business, but some were forced to come as forced laborers.

“Many motives and circumstances brought them to Japan, but generally speaking, it must be said that Japanese colonial rule was the reason for their arrival,” he said.

Between 2017 and 2019, Ku studied hate crime and hate speech cases in the United States as a visiting scholar at New York University Law School and researched international human rights law. human rights at the University of Essex in Great Britain where she obtained a master’s degree in law. .

She focused her studies on human rights following her experience working as a member of a legal team for an elementary school for Korean students, which was the victim of hate speech.

Members of a Japanese xenophobic group chanted anti-Korean slogans through loudspeakers outside the Kyoto elementary school, demanding the closure of Korean schools and claiming that the parents of Korean children were spies. School was Ku’s alma mater.

The case ended in a court victory for the school. The Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by the xenophobic group in 2014, finalizing a High Court ruling ordering it to pay some 12 million yen ($92,000) in damages to the school operator and barring it from demonstrate near the school.

“Through my work on hate crime cases, I felt it was highly necessary to analyze the shortcomings of the Japanese legal system from the perspective of international human rights law,” Ku said. .

She herself suffered verbal abuse as a child. Female students in Korean schools may be targeted for wearing traditional Korean uniforms.

The most horrific abuse happened when Ku was about to board a train to go to her high school. A stranger pulled her ponytail from behind and yelled at her, “Don’t get on the train first, you Korean.”

As a high school student, Ku began to think about the root causes of the discrimination she faced and decided to become a lawyer, remembering the dedication Japanese lawyers had shown in supporting the people of Utoro during the deportation trial.

Ku thinks Japan needs to educate its public more about why there are ethnic Koreans in the country. “Prejudice comes from not knowing,” she said.

About Walter J. Leslie

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