(31) Racial discrimination in Japan and Korea

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.


Financial News 5/8


Jay Kim gave an interview to Financial News on May 8.

He expected the U.S. Congress to ratify the Korea-U.S. FTA this August. About the controversy on U.S. beef, he emphasized that it should be left to Korean consumers’ judgment and criticized lawmakers in the National Assembly, who vote blindly following their party lines, as a cause of the controversy. He also expressed his concern about difficulty that would be caused by this in ratification process in the National Assembly. To remove the root of the problem, he claimed, the power to nominate candidates should be returned to the people.

About overseas Koreans voting, Kim urged to allow voting by mail and to increase the number of voting places. He also mentioned strengthening the middle class in Korea by reducing the concentration of wealth and the economic gap between the poor and the rich as the main issue of the general election and the presidential election next year in Korea.

Kim supported the current administration’s North Korea policy. Mentioning his visit at the site of Sejong City development, he also praised its development plan and expected that it would certainly grow successfully into a global city.

Seoul Shinmun 4/5


Jay Kim gave an interview to Seoul Shinmun on April 3.

Kim talked about the cancellation of the development of a new airport in the southeast region. He pointed out the problems of rash, unrealistic election promises on local development in presidential races, emotional, excessive regional competition incited by local politicians, and the lack of thorough research and public hearings on the issues.

He also criticized a bill proposed by some of the current lawmakers to relax the punishment of the violation of election laws that would prevent them from running for the next election. He suggested that there should be a law that would prohibit lawmakers from changing laws to promote their own interest.

(30) Discrimination against Korean residents in Japan

By Jay Kim

In early 1996, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan invited several U.S. congressmen to visit Japan. Japan is always a favorable place to visit; however, coincidentally there was an invitation to visit Europe at the same time, and many people chose Europe. So I ended up going to Japan alone. I had never visited Japan, even though it was so closely situated to Korea, and was very excited about my first visit to Tokyo.

When I arrived at Haneda Airport, I was greeted by officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as members of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. Some Koreans living in Japan, including a few pretty ladies, welcomed me with flowers. I first checked in at the embassy, guided by the ministry officials. I then checked in at the New Otani Hotel. My hotel room was so big and luxurious. From the room, I could see the palace where the emperor of Japan lived and a Koreatown called Akasaka. That evening, I had dinner with some visiting American businessmen.

When a U.S. congressman visits a foreign country, before anything else, he first receives a detailed briefing from the American Embassy in the country. He then has dinner with the American businessmen residing in the country, each of whom is introduced personally, and listens to any difficulties that they may have. The embassy aides and officials usually record these concerns and issues, and present them to the Japanese high officials the next day, with the hopes of securing promises from them to improve the situation.

In a sense, the purpose of a U.S. congressman’s trip to a foreign nation is to help improve the relationship between the two nations, as well as to help U.S. business in that nation. It seems that the purpose of the U.S. Embassy there is mainly to protect and improve the business relationships between the two nations as well. I think that the way that Congress and the administration together help the U.S. corporations in foreign countries is the source of the success of American corporations throughout the world.

I had a day open before I would meet with the prime minister of Japan. Before the dinner with the U.S. businessmen, I received a message that a few Korean residents in Japan had come to the hotel lobby to meet me. They were members of the Korean Residents Union in Japan ― its president, director, and some board members. The director was a son of Sohn Kee-chung, the famous Olympic gold medal-winning marathoner. They asked if I could spend the open day with them. I readily agreed, and immediately called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ask for understanding. They told me that although the breakfast meeting for the next day could not be moved, they could move the dinner meeting to allow me to have two days to spend with the Korean residents. I repeatedly thanked them.

The next day, I went to the office of the Korean Residents Union, located in the heart of Tokyo. They owned a quite large six-story building, and I was told that its tenants were also mainly people involved with the Korean residents. The building also had an auditorium; it was so different from the shabby building of a Korean association that I saw in the U.S. We visited Akasaka in the evening. The town was quite clean and, aside from the Korean signs, did not look so different from other Japanese towns in Tokyo.

Koreatowns in the U.S. are usually formed in less affluent areas and centered on Korean restaurants. Later, as the town quickly develops, the price of real estate in the area generally skyrockets. For example, the Koreatown on Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles was a tough area, full of illegal immigrants and close to the dangerous southern part of LA. As Koreans cleaned up and revived the area, modern buildings were built, and real estate prices soared. A place called Annandale, near Washington, D.C., was also underdeveloped and full of immigrants standing on building corners seeking day work, but Korean merchants arrived and helped change it into a beautiful Koreatown. Tokyo was different ― the Koreatown there was located in a splendid area as good as any other part of the city.

During our dinner at a Korean bulgogi restaurant, there were a few Japanese customers in a neighboring room making too much noise. We asked them to tone it down both in Korean and Japanese, and they became quiet. Curious about this, I asked how this could be, and was told that Japanese people were being polite because it was a Koreatown. I wondered to myself if Americans would do the same. However, as they told me their stories, I learned that there was severe ethnic discrimination against Korean residents in Japan, which led many of them to use Japanese names. They said that those with Korean names like Kim, Park and Lee wouldn’t even get loans from banks, or interviews for government positions. I was told that the Japanese were not blatant with their discrimination, but rather deceptive.

The next day, I met the Japanese prime minister. Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and his chief of staff sat together, with an interpreter in the middle. After talking about several matters, I asked about the systematic racial discrimination against Korean residents in Japan. I told them it was a disgrace to their ancestors and homelands for them to have to change their names to Japanese names in order for them to hold higher office in Japan. I pointed out that Norman Mineta and Bob Matsui were elected to the U.S. Congress with Japanese names and I had been elected with my Korean name. I emphasized that the issue with bank loans deserved investigation from the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The prime minister was surprised. He called the minister of home affairs, assuring me that that must not be the case. He told me that racial discrimination was absolutely illegal in Japan, and asked me to contact him if I found out about any cases of discrimination, giving me his cards. He also gave me a copy of the anti-racial discrimination law passed in early 1980. I could not find words, so I thanked him and changed the subject in a hurry.

When I returned to the hotel from the meeting, several Koreans were waiting for me. They all seemed to be interested in the result of the meeting. A little angrily, I relayed to them what the home affairs minister had told me about the anti-discrimination laws, asking them why they hadn’t told me that that law already existed. I was surprised by their answer ― even though the law existed, there was no punishment for the offenders. What, then, was the point of having the law? I called the home affairs minister right away, but he was not in the office. I decided to ask him at the dinner party I was attending the next day. He was very polite, and assured me he would look into it.

My stay in Japan was a very exciting and pleasant experience, and overall I was quite impressed with the country. I wanted to visit again and again.

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 (www.jayckim.com).

(29) 1996 immigration reform

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 was probably the biggest immigration reform since the elimination of the immigration quota. The elimination of the quota system got rid of racial discrimination, but other side effects began to appear at the time.

For example, the number of the cases where elderly immigrants invited by their children immediately received benefits from the government, such as food stamps and welfare benefits, increased greatly.

As a result, many wondered why they should help these immigrants, who had never paid taxes in the U.S., with taxpayers’ money, and why their children could not take financial responsibility of them. Finally, reform bills were proposed in Congress. Radical anti-immigration bills were also proposed, mainly by the members of Republican Party.

For example, they made a change in deportation laws so that minor crimes like shoplifting became deportable offenses, which had previously been limited to the crimes punishable by five or more years in prison. There was also a broad reform proposal that contained the deportation of illegal immigrants and increasing border security by hiring over 10,000 guards and constructing fences over the U.S.-Mexico border. Many other proposals came out, but not many of them were passed.

The most problematic issue for the Korean-American community was the bill that made elderly non-citizen immigrants ineligible for the government benefits. This reform would certainly deal a serious blow to the Korean-American community, since almost none of the old Korean immigrants had U.S. citizenship.

To become a citizen, they first needed to become a permanent resident and live in the U.S. at least for five years with no criminal records. They then needed to submit to an interview in English, which made it impossible for the elderly, who cannot speak English, to become a citizen.

Therefore, some Republican lawmakers (including me) proposed an amendment that allowed permanent residents to receive government benefits. The argument was that permanent residents should be eligible for government benefits since they are not different from citizens, except for not having the voting right or paying taxes, usual prerequisites for citizenship.

Fortunately, this bill barely passed through Congress. However, wrong information was spread in the Korean-American community that I proposed a bill to deprive Korean seniors without permanent residency of government benefits. Oddly enough, the Korean-American press thought that I was arrogant, disliked me for it, and criticized me at every opportunity. Their reports on the immigration reform bill treated me like an enemy of the Korean-American community, someone depriving the Korean elderly of government benefits.

These articles were translated into English and sent to two major news papers in California. The headlines read: “Congressman Kim is disliked, even by Korean-Americans.” Frustrated, I asked the leaders of the Congressional Republicans why I was being attacked all the time. Their advice was that I should always be careful, since there was no way for me to avoid becoming a news item for the reason that I was the first Korean as well as the only Asian Republican in Congress.

Eventually, the continuing personal attacks started to make me unconsciously cautious of the Korean-American community, where too many rumors had been circulated. My popularity among Korean Americans could not help falling for a while.

Later, I proposed an amendment that made elderly immigrants, once they applied for permanent residency, eligible for the same benefits as permanent residents have. However, this was voted down after strong opposition that it would lead to an administrative problem caused by increased applications filed in a hurry by those who sought government benefits. This led to another false report in the Korean-American press, that I proposed a bill that would make those without permanent residency lose eligibility and that it was voted down.

Letters and phone calls from Korean-Americans rushed in. Most of them asked, “Aren’t you a Korean? How can you do this? Don’t you have elderly parents?” I was too discouraged to want to defend myself any more, and I did not reply to any of the letters. Letters from the Caucasian constituency in my district also came. They overwhelmingly opposed my bill that makes the applicants of permanent residency eligible for benefits. They said, “Are you a representative of the U.S., or a representative of immigrants, who only thinks about giving government benefits to the elderly immigrants? Why should we give them Social Security monies for which we have saved throughout our lives?”

I avoided a bigger disaster by joining with Republican conservatives who strongly opposed illegal immigration. I made a speech in Congress, saying “I also came to the U.S. for the American dream. I came here legally. After a difficult process, now I am an American citizen. All the illegal immigrants who entered illegally should be arrested, deported to their own countries, and guided to come back to the U.S. legally like I did.

The mistake of pardoning those who entered the country illegally ― that is, those criminals who violated the U.S. law ― should not be repeated.” After this, I received thunderous applause from Republicans. However, I was regarded as an anti-immigrant enemy of immigrants from then on. Later, this became my fatal political burden.

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 (www.jayckim.com).