The morning after my arrival in Japan in early 1996, I was drinking coffee in my hotel’s restaurant when two representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs arrived. With smiles on their faces, they asked if everything was fine, and as they took their seats, they gave me a thick envelope. I hesitated to take it, since it looked like money, but they assured me that it was fine and implored me to have a look.
Sure enough, the envelope contained cash and a detailed typed-up statement. Confused, I looked at one of the officials; he smiled and told me that the cash was prepayment for the cost of my visit and the statement was an expense statement with items such as meals and per diems. The calculation of my trip’s cost was so detailed that there were coins in the envelope.
Though I had traveled abroad often, this was the first time I had received advance payment for my visit’s cost, and I was amazed at how detailed the calculations were, even down to the cost of meals deducted for scheduled events. I wondered briefly what to think of all this; suddenly, I was gripped with an urge to throw the envelope on the table and leave the hotel.
The official that gave me the envelope must have seen my face, because he asked for my understanding and that I not be upset, since this was official ministry policy, and they would attempt to avoid this type of impoliteness by changing the policy in the future.
The dinner that night was hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was asked if I would like to have a traditional Japanese dinner, and I said yes. The restaurant I was taken to was a matchbox-narrow four story building in the heart of Tokyo, comparable to a Korean restaurant.
My dinner party contained six people in total, including the vice minister of foreign affairs and four high ranking ministry staffers. The subject of the Japan anti-racism law came up. I was told that Japan was already preparing for laws to punish racism offenders, similar to the punishments for sexual discrimination.
I emphasized that the anti-racism law punishments were relatively severe in the U.S., where dozens of such laws were introduced after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Punishment for white supremacist groups like the KKK were strengthened, and as a result the KKK has diminished in popularity.
Laws were strengthened to put severe punishments on racist remarks, as well as for mocking or racial insults on blacks or Asians. As a result, racism has significantly decreased in the U.S., and the status of Asians has increased to the point where racial discrimination from whites hardly happens anymore.
Even as late as the 1950 blacks had to sit at the back of buses and there were openly displayed signs in restaurants stating that blacks were not welcome. These are now things of the past. Of course, racial discrimination still exists in U.S. society, but it is true that there has been more significant improvement in racial discrimination in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. After all, the U.S. has a black president now.
Not long ago, I became aware that discrimination against Koreans living in Japan has significantly decreased from past levels and that a man of Korean descent had been elected to the House of Councilors; I’d also heard that the number of successful Korean businessmen and businesswomen had also significantly increased. Nowadays, Korea also has many foreigners living there, with many of them appearing to have come from the Middle East or Southeast Asian.
One time when I was invited to Busan, the largest harbor city located on the south end of Korean Peninsula, I attended a fundraiser to help Indonesian workers there. Two representatives of the Indonesian Foreign Affairs Ministry also attended the event. They told me that there were instances of severe discrimination against Indonesian workers in Busan.
Some workers were not paid their wages for several months and even beaten, and there was a case where a worker that had fallen from a ladder had been left alone at the scene for several hours before being admitted to a hospital. These were unbelievable stories.
More than half of those workers could not return to their home countries because they didn’t have the money for the trip; a group of Korean businessmen gathered to help them and money raised at a fundraiser was used to pay for their travel and run programs to help relieve their homesickness, such as soccer tournaments with generous cash prizes. There are certainly Koreans who have exploited foreign workers, and yet there are also Koreans who help them. I wondered why Korean political leaders couldn’t pass anti-racism laws like the U.S. has and pay for some of the cost to help them.
Racism is a human tragedy that has lasted for thousands of years. Nearly 150 years ago, slavery was legal in the U.S. Now, racism is slowly disappearing from the earth. Korean politicians should take the lead in passing anti-racism laws as soon as possible and set their legal system to punish the offenders like the U.S. does. Then, Koreans living all throughout the world can also protest the discrimination they suffer in the countries where they live.
Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information visit Kim’s website at www.jayckim.com.