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Discussion Paper 1 in 2007
First published in ejcjs on 2 February 2007

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'Loss' and 'Recovery' of Voice amongst Korean International Marriage Migrants

Discourses of Korean-ness in Contemporary Japan1


Chris Burgess

Lecturer in Japanese and Australian Studies
Tsuda College

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Linguistic dispossession is a sufficient motive for violence, for it is close to the dispossession of one's self…if one is perpetually without words, if one exists in the entropy of inarticulateness, that condition itself is bound to be an enraging frustration. (Hoffman 1989: 124)


Globalisation and migration present growing challenges for Japan, a country not traditionally thought of as a destination for migration. Conventional ideologies portray Japan as a country of one race, one culture, and one language. However, the growing number of migrants to Japan – of which those from Korea make up a large proportion – inevitably disturb and displace the idea of Japan as mono-cultural, homogeneous, and 'unique'. Indeed, there are signs that Japan has reached some kind of turning point in terms of an increasingly permanent, visible, and vocal population of migrants challenging and transforming representations of national identity (Burgess 2004a). In this context, this discussion paper examines the experiences of two Korean newcomers who struggled to reconstruct their identities in a society in which, historically, Koreans have tended to be looked down upon and discriminated against.

The paper is structured in the style of what Silverman (2000: 243) calls a 'mystery story'. This is a coherent story that begins by highlighting some puzzling phenomena and which then gradually develops questions and answers. I begin by describing the experiences of two newly arrived Korean migrants in Yamagata, in the Northeast region of Japan, who talk of temporarily 'stopping' using Korean. In order to begin unravelling the 'mystery', I first survey the literature on a phenomenon (sudden language loss amongst adult migrants) which to date seems to have received little if any attention. Next, I provide some socio-cultural background on Koreans in Japan. Building on notions of power, identity, and ethnicity explicated in socio-cultural theory, I then propose some answers centred around identity and language. The conclusion stresses the need for a broader range of samples and more systematic data based on language testing in order to establish the empirical reality of the phenomenon in question.

The Research Site: Yamagata Prefecture

Yamagata Prefecture (hereafter Yamagata) is located in the Northeast (Tōhoku) region of Japan, along the Japan Sea. Although less than three hours from Tokyo on the bullet-train, many of the smaller towns and villages in the region become virtually cut-off during winter. The population of Yamagata peaked in 1950 at 1,357,347. In 2005, it stood at 1,216,181, down 3 per cent from 1995 (Tōkei Kyōkai 2007: 4). The phenomenon of rural depopulation, whereby young people move from the country to the city, is one factor behind Yamagata's rapidly ageing population. The number of people aged sixty-five or older exceeded those aged fourteen years or younger in 1994 in Yamagata, compared with 1997 nationally (Data Book of Japan 1995: 25; Japan Almanac 1998: 59). In 2004, one in four residents was over 64 years of age; Yamagata boasts the highest percentage of three-generation households in the whole of Japan (Tōkei Kyōkai 2007: 24).

The high number of three-generation households reflects the continued influence of the traditional ie (household) system. Indeed, the desire of some ie to reproduce themselves and the associated agricultural way of life resulted in local governments, concerned at the increase in unmarried eldest sons, implementing kōkeisha taisaku (measures to retain heirs) (Tamanoi 1998: 200). One manifestation of this policy was the 'importation' of foreign brides (Suzuki 2000: 147). In 1985, Asahi Town in Yamagata became the first place in Japan to bring in brides from abroad (Shukuya 1988). Today, one in seventeen (6.1 per cent) of all marriages in the prefecture are 'international' marriages, compared with around one in twenty (4.9 per cent) nationally (Yamagata Shinbun 2005; Yomiuri Shinbun 2005). These marriages have fuelled the rapid growth of the foreign population in the prefecture which has more than doubled since 1996 (Table 1).

Table 1: Registered Foreigners in Japan & Yamagata by Number, 1994-2004















(% increase)














(% increase)







Source: Sōma 2003: 161; Hōmushō 2005.
: Figures are for December of the relevant years. '% increase' is from the previous year in the table

As the rapid increase in the foreign population suggests, the vast majority of registered foreigners in Yamagata are 'newcomers' rather than 'oldcomers'. This is reflected in the breakdown of visa categories in the prefecture. The two largest visa categories in 2004 were General Permanent Resident (2,064) and Spouse of Japanese (1,697), the former reflecting the fact that many non-Japanese spouses choose to apply for Permanent Residence as soon as they are able. There were also 565 Long-Term Residents (teijūsha), the visa type most closely associated with Nikkeijin, but also available to divorced/widowed spouses having custody of their (Japanese national) children (Nyūkan Kyōkai 2005: 66-67). In contrast, there were only 465 Special Permanent Residents (i.e. 'oldcomers') living in the prefecture at this time.

Despite prevailing images of 'Filipino brides', Chinese and Koreans are by far the largest groups of foreigners in Yamagata, numbering 2,960 and 2,081 respectively as of December 2004 (Nyūkan Kyōkai 2005: 48/49). Although the first wave of 'foreign brides', up to about 1990, were indeed Filipino, between 1990 and 1992 the number of Koreans in Yamagata rose rapidly, a reflection of the fact that the private brokers, who had moved in to fill the void left by local government, initially favoured Korean women. There was also the perception that Koreans, who were physically indistinguishable from Japanese, were more preferable than the darker-skinned Filipinos. From 1992, the number of Chinese brides began to increase. The sudden popularity of Chinese brides was said by some (Kuwayama 1996: 108) to be a reaction by brokers to the problems arising from the 'fiery' or 'passionate' nature of Korean brides. More recently, the numbers of Vietnamese and Russian brides has been increasing.

The figures give the impression of Yamagata as an extremely progressive locality. However, Yamagata should not regarded as some international utopia welcoming of the foreign and understanding of the position of newcomers. The widespread acceptance at many levels for international marriage and foreigners conflicts with and contradicts established notions of Japanese identity as a homogenous one based on 'blood' (Nakamatsu 2002: 148/53), ideas which are particularly entrenched in Yamagata. One finding that emerged from my (2003) study of international marriage migrants in Yamagata was that while the migrants themselves were active in transforming hearts and minds at the grassroots level, their children were growing up, almost without exception, as monolingual and monocultural, assimilated within a generation. Moreover, in later research (Burgess 2007) on newcomer children in Yamagata, local volunteers would attribute the lack of interest and policy at the prefectural level to prejudice against children brought to Japan by 'foreign brides'. Certainly, in rural areas with small numbers of newcomers the issue is not a priority and the conservative members of city, town, and village education boards, where decisions are often made, typically take the view that such children should be integrated as quickly as possible. Similarly, husbands and extended family that had accepted non-Japanese brides seemed wholly uninterested in learning about the foreign. In fact, people in Yamagata are some of the least travelled in the whole of Japan: only 54.5 out of every thousand travelled abroad in 2001 compared with an average of 127.4 nationally, placing Yamagata 43rd nationally (Toyama Prefecture 2002). Gender roles, too, remain quite conservative.


In my PhD thesis (2003), I studied the settlement of international marriage migrants in a rural area of Japan and investigated their potential impact on Japanese society. In the thesis, I attempted to better understand how recently arrived individuals engage with society. I deliberately avoided a narrow focus on language, as I believed that a purely linguistic perspective often fails to develop key issues of power and (social) identity. As Bonny Norton (2000) has argued convincingly, SLA (Second Language Acquisition) theorists have struggled to conceptualise the relationship between the individual and the larger social world, neglecting how relations of power impact on social interaction and the (re)construction of identities. The fieldwork took place over a six month period from September 2001 to March 2002 in Yamagata. Over the fieldwork period I conducted in-depth unstructured interviews in Japanese with seventeen foreign-born women, fifteen of whom were married to Japanese men. The fact that most of these women were international marriage migrants meant that they were the only non-Japanese in a (usually extended) household. Although at the time of arrival in Japan most of the women spoke little or no Japanese, at the time of interview all interviewees were intermediate or above. The sample included eight Koreans, five Chinese, three Filipinos, and one Brazilian, roughly reflecting the balance of foreigners in the region.

Although not a part of the original research question, while going over the interview transcripts I was puzzled by comments from two of the Korean subjects concerning a temporary 'loss' of their Korean production skills. The first of these was Chin-Ja. Chin-Ja came from Korea to Japan in 1991. She did not say much about her educational or social background in Korea, except that she worked for many years as an 'OL' in a big city. Being thirty-two, and having had thirty or forty marriage introductions, she talked of having given up on ever getting married. One of her friends knew someone who had married a Japanese and offered to find a man for Chin-Ja. Half-jokingly she accepted. A month later she received a call from her friend who asked her to come over and meet a potential suitor who had come all the way from Japan to meet her. Although she was impressed on the first meeting, she hesitated about going to Japan. There followed a stream of letters (which she got her brother to translate) and phone calls (in broken English) from Japan. Eventually, she decided that she would go, promising herself that if she went it would be for good. She arrived in November of 1991 with a one-way ticket and didn't return for the next eight years. At the time of interview, Chin-Ja lived with her husband and two children and was very active in the local community.

During a discussion on the importance of fluency in Japanese and the role of language in child-rearing, she made the following comments:

Korean just didn't come out. Because the sense of being in Japan was too strong?….I don't know why, but Korean just didn't come out at all. Why didn't it come out? Even one word didn't emerge. Despite not knowing, not knowing Japanese – I couldn't speak Japanese and got frustrated but Korean didn't come out…(I) didn't use Korean at all. To this day, it remains a mystery to me. (Chin-Ja)

Ten years on, Chin-Ja was a fluent Japanese speaker, involved in multiple local networks as a PTA (Parent Teacher Association) member, court interpreter, and NGO volunteer. She described her family and husband as kind and supportive. Later, when she mentioned that her husband didn't speak any Korean, I asked whether this was because he didn't want to study. She replied as follows:

No. No. Because I didn't use Korean – didn't use it at all – he didn't hear any and so was unable to pick any up…For example, the Japanese biiru [beer] is maekchu in Korean, so when (we) don't remember biiru (Japanese) husbands often remember the Korean word maekchu. But in my case even though I didn't know the word biiru I didn't use the word maekchu…So, I would check in the dictionary and find biiru. But (I) didn't use maekchu, you know. It's a mystery to me, too. (Chin-Ja)

It is indeed possible to interpret Chin-Ja's words not as a literal statement of linguistic 'fact' but as a metaphor, or figure of speech, through which she framed her new life in Japan. Certainly, one can imagine the enormous effort it takes to learn a new language, such that other things can be displaced. This may be particularly true in what must have been a somewhat intimidating, even suffocating rural environment, as an 'alien' surrounded by a new extended family with few chances to speak with other Korean native-speakers. At one point, she does mention a Korean friend in Saitama who she phoned and spoke with regularly in Korean after the birth of her first child in 1992. Nevertheless, the interesting thing is Chin-Ja's insistence that no Korean came out of her mouth in front of Japanese people during the early months, though, as the above quote indicates, it was still intact inside her head. Moreover, the fact that she herself perceived such a 'loss', if we may call it that, had taken place is in itself significant.

Chin-Ja's experiences came at a time when there were no other Koreans in her immediate neighbourhood. The second Korean interviewee, Uye-Chon was a more recent arrival. She was reluctant to elaborate on her educational background, only saying that she was unable to continue on to higher education because her father had 'squandered' the family's finances. She talked of running a successful real-estate company and living single life to the full in 'twenty-four hour' Seoul until the Asian currency crisis forced her out of business. Apparently disillusioned with Korean men, she came to visit her Korean friend in a Yamagata village in 1999 knowing nothing more in Japanese other than konnichiwa (Good-day). After being introduced to her husband, she married soon afterwards. She lived with her husband and in-laws, who had built a new house for her of her own design, and was trying for a family. Fond of gardening and walking her dog, she was a regular and enthusiastic participant at local language classes and 'international' events.

Like Chin-Ja, Uye-Chon could speak hardly any Japanese on arrival. But she too describes how, in the period following her arrival in Japan, neither Korean nor Japanese emerged from her lips. She describes this period as 'six months of silence', an extremely stressful time when she was frustrated at her inability to make herself understood yet 'unable' to leave the house either on car or on foot. It would not be too much to say that at this time she was barely able to function in the household, let alone in society. Like Chin-Ja, Uye-Chon makes it clear that she did not 'forget' Korean but rather that she didn't speak it.

The comments of Chin-Ja and Uye-Chon raised a number of intriguing questions which were not followed up in the PhD thesis itself. Most important is whether what happened to these two women can really be considered as a temporary 'loss' of native language, though the two individuals concerned definitely seemed to categorise it as such. Certainly, they seemed to experience some kind of mental block leading to a perceived inability to speak Korean in front of Japanese, though it is unclear whether they would have been unable to speak in Korean even to a Korean speaker in front of other Japanese. Obviously, it is too early to make generalisations based on such a small sample. Moreover, since no language testing, detailed or otherwise, took place, there is no data to show the degree and/or the contexts in which the heritage language was temporarily 'lost' – and later 'recovered'. Nevertheless, here I would like to assume that this mysterious phenomenon might exist and to speculate on some possible explanations, the goal being to encourage further research and discussion. A first step is to survey the literature on language loss.

The Literature on Language Loss

Pan and Gleason (1986) identify four areas in the study of language loss: first-language (L1) loss, second-language (L2) loss, dying languages, and the effects of age, disease, or injury on language loss. As they and others (for example, Taylor 1992) have noted, the field of language loss is an emerging discipline. Most research in this field has tended to concentrate on the loss of a foreign language, especially amongst children. Hansen's (1999) edited volume, which looks at Japanese 'returnee' children's L2 English and American returnee students and missionaries L2 Japanese, is fairly typical. According to de Bot (2000: 147), there are only a very small number of studies which look at L1 attrition in individuals in migrant situations. Those that do look at the migrant situation (for example, Waas 1997), tend to concentrate on processes at the group level over a period of many years. Indeed, in the areas of both L1/L2 loss and dying languages (for example, Dorian 1981; Spolsky 2002), the common focus is on language attrition, the gradual and regular deterioration of linguistic knowledge over time. In contrast, the effects of disease or injury – aphasia studies (for example, McDonald, 1992) – show sudden language disorders, though these link damage to certain parts of the brain with specific aspects of language impairment: there is no total language loss.

The 'mystery' of the case study here is the abrupt, temporary, and seemingly total nature of the process together with the fact that the informants were describing their early months in Japan. Although claims of non-proficiency in the L1 among established migrants sometimes reflect the perception that their mother tongue has been 'corrupted' by the L2 to such an extent that they no longer speak the 'correct' L1, this is clearly not the case here. Moreover, since the linguistic knowledge, though unvoiced, appears to remain intact inside their heads there is no sense of any neurological reorganisation having taken place (as in aphasia).

Yukawa's (1998) study on the attrition and relearning of three children's L1 in an individual migrant setting is helpful in making sense of the paradox. Yukawa presents convincing evidence of attrition in language production but none for language comprehension. In a review of Yukawa's book, de Bot (2000: 148) comments that though such findings are in line with previous research, it poses a problem that is not easy to solve. 'How can it be that the children have all the knowledge needed to produce the language somewhere stored in their heads', he (2000: 148) asks, 'but are unable to actually use it for that purpose?' Yukawa (1998: 270) suggests that the knowledge cannot be retrieved easily and fast enough for normal processing purposes because of 'extremely strong inhibition', what she calls the 'processing failure hypothesis'. Interestingly, she claims that this rapid loss of production is peculiar to young children. This notion of individual inhibition – some kind of psychological block – helps us to move beyond the purely linguistic to consider the importance of social context in the production of language.

Writing thirty years ago, Bourdieu (1977: 645), like Norton earlier, asked why language has been seen as an object of understanding rather than an instrument of action or power in society. For Bourdieu (1977: 648), linguistic production is governed by the symbolic power or capital between two speakers: competence is the capacity to command a listener or impose reception – what he calls 'the right to speech'. Bourdieu (1977: 648) is critical of traditional linguistic definitions of competence:

[T]he linguist regards the conditions for the establishment of communication as already secured, whereas in real situations, that is the essential question. He [sic] takes for granted the crucial point, namely that those who talk and talk to each other, are 'on speaking terms', that those who speak regard those who listen as worthy to listen and those who listen regard those who speak as worthy to speak.

In other words, it is not enough that the speaker 'know' the language: the speaker must also be somebody who is 'recognised and recognising' (1977: 649), who understands the social norms and is literate in the dominant (and sometimes hidden) discourses. When Spivak (1988) asks whether the subaltern can speak and when Cameron (1992) talks of women being 'written out' of speaking positions, they are referring to the silencing of less powerful individuals. Economic, social, racial, linguistic, and/or cultural minorities who cannot, do not, or will not fit in with the stereotypes and language of mainstream discourses become consigned to the extra-discursive domain, denied of the right to make sense of or even speak at all in their own words.

Recent work in the field of (second) language learning and teaching has begun to address the relationship between language development and production and the position of individuals in specific social, historical, and cultural webs of power. Much of this body of work draws on socio-cultural and poststructuralist theory that sees language not as the internalisation of a set of linguistic forms but as a 'a struggle of concrete socially constituted and always situated beings to participate in the symbolically mediated lifeworld of another culture' (Pavelenko and Lantolf 2000: 155). The idea of language learning as the struggle for participation in a 'community of practice' (Lave and Wenger 1991) offers a powerful metaphor for exploring acceptance and recognition in a society: the 'right' to speech is intimately tied up with the 'right' to participation. Thus, Norton and Toohey (2001) argue that individuals mobilise a variety of symbolic resources – youth, charm, lingua-cultural knowledge, friends and family, skin colour, appearance – in order to gain access to the social networks and conversations of their communities that are the source of learning and development and, ultimately, more powerful identities.

In sum, the literature on language loss is generally unhelpful in understanding temporary L1 'loss' amongst recently arrived adult migrants. Moreover, traditional models of acculturation (e.g. Schumann 1986), which work on the assumption that social contact/interaction is the key to L2 success, fail to take into account whether individuals are accepted in social settings. In these models, those who show no progress are portrayed as unmotivated and having negative attitudes towards the target language community. Individuals whose language does not improve, despite apparently high motivation, contact with, and positive attitudes towards, native speakers (e.g. Schimdt 1983) are dismissed as untruthful (Schumann 1976: 403). Scully (2002: 397), in her study of the influence of social context on the second language acquisition (SLA) efforts of seven Filipina international marriage migrants living in a rural Japanese setting, is critical of Schumann's approach:

The data do not support the use of Schumann's (1986) Acculturation Model to explain the SLA failure or success of this small, easily accessible immigrant population in an all-Asian setting. Instead, SLA success seems to be more dependent on cultural context, and it is that context that must be addressed in any discussion of socio-linguistic acculturation into a host society.

In other words, it is important to consider socio-cultural perspectives, which take into account the broader effects of power on social and linguistic interaction, when studying migrant language development. However, as the work of Scully and Norton demonstrate, research to date has typically focussed on the learning of second languages, having little to say about the production of the native language in L2 contexts. Moreover, personal first-person narratives, which can be especially useful in understanding the latter, have tended not to find their way into mainstream linguistic or SLA research (Pavelnko and Lantolf 2000: 162).2 'This is in a way surprising', writes de Bot (2000: 147), 'because language attrition and retention are ultimately highly individual processes and conclusions about group behaviour cannot really be drawn without a good understanding of processes at the individual level.' This is supported by Kouritizin's (1999) work on L1 loss, which, by adopting a rare life-histories approach, sheds light on the intersection between language, culture, identity, and marginalisation in former minority language speakers.

Koreans in Japan

Vygotsky (1980), who is often seen as the father of socio-cultural theory, argued for an historical approach to the study of higher mental abilities like language: he saw human interaction as historically positioned. To paraphrase Foucault (1983: 208/9), historical awareness is necessary in order to understand how human beings are made subjects in a particular culture. In other words, we need to know the historical conditions behind images of Koreans in Japanese society. In Japan, such images tend to be negative. For example, another participant in my study, Kim-Jyu, a young South Korean who had come to Japan in 2000 to marry her Japanese husband, remarked that the image of Koreans as 'stupid' (baka) is prevalent in Japan. Because of this image, she described herself as too embarrassed to say she is Korean in her locality. 'The fact that I'm Korean is embarrassing here', she said, laughing nervously, 'I can't say it, you know…so I say I'm Chinese instead.'

The image of Koreans in Japan has not always been negative. The ancestors of the modern Japanese almost certainly came to Japan via the Korean peninsula and historically Korea was the conduit through which Chinese culture – sometimes modified – was brought to Japan. Since early times, an influx of Korean craftspeople, scribes, priests, and teachers was responsible for introducing Buddhism, writing, art, and various other systems of knowledge to Japan. And although Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea at the end of the sixteenth century left the peninsula 'little more than a scarred, smoldering ruin' whose memory apparently 'marked all subsequent relationships between the two peoples' (Vos and Lee 1981: 15), Japan's cultural dependence continued through the Edo period (1600-1868). However, with the rush to 'catch-up' with the West that marked the beginning of the Meiji period, the direction of cultural propagation reversed and Japan increasingly came to see itself as superior to its Asian neighbours. The Sino-Japanese (1894-5) and the Russo-Japanese (1904-5) Wars were followed by the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910. The period of colonisation was characterised by a process of assimilation, supported by imperial rhetoric of multi-ethnicity and pluralism which, while arguing for equal treatment and equal rights, provided justification for a wholesale assault on local traditions, customs, and even language and ethnic names (Sakai 2000). 'In this process', writes Lee (2002: 54), 'feelings of enmity, resistance, discord, and hatred formed between the two peoples.'

One of the legacies of the period of colonisation of Korea is the existence of the largest minority group in Japan today. Koreans make up 99% of the group commonly referred to as 'oldcomers' or zai'nichi gaikokujin (literally 'being in Japan' foreigners). As mentioned earlier, the visa type most closely associated with these 'oldcomers' is Special Permanent Residence (tokubetsu eijyūken). As of December 2004, there were 465,619 holders of this visa type, 461,460 of whom were Korean (Hōmushō 2006a; 2006b: 200). The zai'nichi gaikokujin are composed mainly of workers from Japan's former colonies who came or were forcefully brought to Japan prior to World War II (Komai 2000: 313). The term also includes the descendants of these workers. According to Yamawaki (2000), Korean workers were brought to work in a Kyūshū coal mine as early as the late 1890s. By the 1920s and 1930s, there were large numbers of Korean and Chinese workers in Japan, usually employed in 'appalling' conditions in mines, manufacturing, and construction (Morris-Suzuki 1998: 104).3 Some of these workers returned home in the bloody aftermath of the Great Kantō Earthquake (1923) when thousands of Koreans were massacred in a wave of mass hysteria (Weiner 1989: chapter 6). At the end of the war – and the end of Korean colonial rule – in 1945, more than 1.5 million Koreans went back to Korea (Komai 2000: 312). Many did, however, stay. 'Not surprisingly', writes Ryang (2000:3), 'the majority of Koreans emerged from the colonial experience with deep-rooted anger toward Japan and fierce patriotism and nationalism.'

In 1952, the remaining workers who had enjoyed 'a legal if not social equality with native Japanese' (Taguchi 1983: 702) were suddenly deprived of their Japanese nationality. They were thus transformed from 'citizens to aliens' (Taguchi 1983: 702). The post-1952 years were characterised by a 'coercive' policy (Komai 2000: 313) based on a system of registration certificates4 and household/family registries,5 fingerprinting,6 and re-entry permits. Normalisation of relations with the Republic of Korea in 1965 made the legal status of many of the zai'nichi gaikokujin relatively more secure. In this year, those with South Korean nationality became kyōtei eijū ninkasha (those with permission to stay permanently), a status extended to North Koreans in 1981 (Shipper 2002: 55).7 With the special law of 1st November 1991, both South and North Koreans in Japan became Special Permanent Residents (tokubetsu eijūsha). However, discrimination in areas like schooling, employment, marriage, and housing remain.8 Moreover, national relations continue to be strained with issues of school textbook censorship, 'comfort women', and voting rights, not to mention Yasukuni and territorial disputes, perpetuating feelings of animosity and distrust between the two governments.

Since 1952, it has been estimated that some 300,000 Koreans have become naturalised Japanese citizens (Shipper 2002: 55). The ethnicity of those who have naturalised no longer show up on official statistics. In other words, although it is easy to confirm the number of registered foreign residents in Japan who are Korean – 607,419 in 2004 (Hōmushō 2006b: 200) – there is no information on the total number of ethnic Koreans living in Japan. Many zai'nichi kankoku/chosenjin (the term commonly used to describe all Korean 'oldcomers') do not choose to naturalise because of this perceived 'loss' of cultural identity. Whether they 'choose' to naturalise or not, the result is often social invisibility. Lie (2001) argues that the 'choice' for traditional minorities in Japan has tended to be the invisibility which comes with either total isolation or total assimilation. 'Koreans could become Japanese as individuals', he writes (2001: 140), 'but, in so doing, they could not, as [a] collective, become part of Japan.' In Japanese citizenship law, nationality and ethnicity are still intimately connected; Japan follows the jus sanguinis principle of nationality which determines nationality according to that of one's father (or, since 1986, mother) rather than where one was born. In this way, immigration and visa/citizenship policies can be seen to tacitly support ideologies of homogeneity.

As discussed above, the term 'oldcomers' (ōrudokamā) is sometimes used as a synonym for zai'nichi gaikokujin. However, since many zai'nichi gaikokujin are second or third generation descendants of the original colonial workers, they are neither 'old' nor did they 'come' from anywhere. These descendants possess Japanese cultural and linguistic competence and, if they have naturalised, also hold the same legal status as any other Japanese. In Europe, they would be termed second or third generation immigrants, a term which in itself is problematic because of the implication that such individuals will remain trapped in the 'immigrant' category forever (Moldenhawer 1995: 74). In Japan, even though the status of the zai'nichi gaikokujin appears to lie somewhere between migrancy and citizenship, their designation as foreigners seems to further emphasise their exclusion. Nakamatsu (2002: 87) argues that a label like 'oldcomers' functions to separate ethnic Chinese and Koreans from Japanese.

The term 'oldcomer', used to describe those who migrated to Japan before the war, is generally contrasted with the so-called 'new' minorities or newcomers (nyūkamā) who have come to Japan from the mid-1970s onwards (Shimizu and Shimizu 2001: 3). The largest group of newcomers are the spouses of Japanese, of which Chin-Ja and Uye-Chon were two. Among non-Japanese spouses, foreign brides outnumber foreign grooms by more than three to one; almost a fifth of foreign brides are from Korea (Japan Almanac 2005: 89). Although the Korean newcomers often have very little in common with the Korean oldcomers, they are often subject to the same negative ethnic stereotypes, discrimination, and racism that tend to characterise contemporary Japanese attitudes towards Koreans.

Recently, there have been some signs that Japanese attitudes towards Koreans may be changing. Iwabuchi (2002) talks of ethnic Koreans in Japan feeling empowered by their increasing visibility. The popularity of Korean culture – what Iwabuchi refers to as the Hanliu (Korean wave) – was further boosted by the 2002 World Cup (Lee 2002). More recently, Korean dramas, such as 'Winter Sonata', have been runaway bestsellers, and Korean actors, such as Bae Yong Joon ('Yon-sama'), have attained superstar status (Daily Yomiuri 2004). This increasing visibility is not only a source of empowerment but also a reflection of increased power: Koreans are no longer an invisible and – importantly in the context if this paper – silent minority but a group who can participate in and contribute to society.

At the political level, Fukuoka (2000: xxiv/253) notes three developments which suggest that the foundations of institutionalised racism in Japan may be starting to weaken. The first development relates to government moves to grant Permanent Residents (most of whom are Korean) the right to vote in local government elections (Fukuoka 2000: 258/9).9 The second development concerns increased opportunities for graduates of Korean ethnic schools to sit entrance examinations for Japanese national universities (Fukuoka 2000, 254/5). Currently, Korean schools are classed as 'miscellaneous' and there is no accreditation scheme to give these students equal status with Japanese school graduates. The third development relates to the employment of foreign residents as public officials. In November 1996, the Ministry of Home Affairs changed the nationality clause in public employment laws to allow local governments to hire foreigners (Gurowitz 1999: 441). The following year, the Tokyo High Court ruled that there was no constitutional reason to deny non-Japanese nationals access to public positions aside from those involved in the direct exercise of public power (Yomiuri Shimbun 1997; see also Kagawa 2001: 101). However, as Fukuoka notes, many of these developments are still incomplete – and some are even being rolled back. For example, the 1997 Tokyo High Court decision was overruled by the Supreme Court in January 2005 (Daily Yomiuri 2005).

Beginning to Unravel the Mystery: The Relationship Between Identity and Language

Earlier in this paper, I described a phenomenon which the individuals concerned characterised as temporary linguistic 'loss', a phenomenon barely reported in the literature. The previous section detailed the historical background to the existence of negative attitudes towards Koreans in contemporary Japanese society. In this section, I put forward a hypothesis that suggests a link between the two, between the personal circumstances of the individuals and the broader social context. Such an approach has received considerable attention in recent years. Norton (2000) has argued that it is only by viewing the social context as a site of struggle over identity that the complex relationship of individuals and language can be understood. A socio-cultural perspective that sees language learning not as the acquisition of forms but as the struggle for participation in a society would seem to provide a good basis for understanding how the Korean adult migrants described here might have become temporarily 'unable' to speak their native language. The idea that language learning is intimately connected to issues of affiliation, belonging, and recognition is supported by Chin-Ja herself. Replying to my question on identity, she linked the 'recovery' of her ethnic language with a renewed confidence in her ethnicity. The catalyst in this process was participation in the local Japanese class a few months after arrival:

Valuing it, the sense that I was Korean. I became able to hold my head high and say (I was Korean) only after coming here [to the Japanese class]. The Japanese people [here] acknowledged me as a Korean person. I guess I would describe it as recognition and approval of the country Korea and Koreans as human beings. When I say recognition, well – people around know I'm a Korean. How can I put it? I had not heard any kind of positive talk about Korean culture. [I was] just a Korean, only a Korean. But after I came here, they expressed an interest… After I came here I became able to [say/feel], 'Yes, I'm a Korean you know!'.…Identity? That made me realise [my identity]….People who knew a little about my country, who would ask me [about it]….this gave me confidence in Japanese society to live as a Korean. [Chin-Ja]

Recognition and acceptance as a Korean – and as a human being – by members of her local Japanese community allowed her to get over her inhibitions and proudly re-identify with her Korean-ness. In this context, the initial phase of language 'loss' can be characterised as a phase of suppression of her Korean identity, including features associated with that identity such as the Korean language.

The idea of an initial period where ethnic identity is suppressed can be linked to conventional ideologies of Japan as mono-cultural, homogenous, and unique. These ideologies tend to frame those who come from abroad to live in Japan not as migrants (potential insiders) but as 'foreigners', outsiders who, moreover, are perceived as short-term guests rather than as (potential) members and citizens of Japanese society. Japanese/foreigner identities are, like many identities, constituted by contrasting or negating another (Burgess 2004b). One can be either a Japanese or a foreigner but not both. The hyphenated identity label 'Korean-Japanese', as Hicks (1997: 165/6) points out, is almost incomprehensible in the Japanese milieu. But identity is not just a simple binary; it is a hierarchy that contrasts a superior Self with an inferior Other. Befu (1993: 113) has pointed out that ideological discussions on Japanese identity (known as Nihonjinron) are formulated on the basis of evaluative comparison. Nihonjinron aims to demonstrate not only that Japan (and Japanese language, culture, people) is different (uniquely unique) from the rest of the world but also that it is superior or better.10 In Japan, this manifests itself in a sharp distinction between what it means to be a Japanese and what it means to be a foreigner. For migrants who intend to settle and start a new life in Japanese society, temporary suppression of their ethnic identity and adoption of a Japanese identity can form a practical early strategy of accommodation. In the case of Kim-Jyu, who felt that Koreans were perceived as 'stupid' (baka) in Japan, this suppression manifested itself in pretending to be Chinese rather than Korean.

The idea that Koreans might experience this phase of suppression more acutely than other migrants – to the extent that they temporarily suppress their native language – likely relates to the unique history and position of Koreans in Japanese society. As Fukuoka (2000) argues, Korean residents in Japan have developed a particularly complex ethnic identity through their struggles with Japanese racism. My own fieldwork experiences have suggested that attitudes towards Chinese, Filipinos, and Brazilians, in Yamagata at least, are generally not as negative. Other, non-Korean, interviewees did stress the importance during the first six months or so in Japan of adapting to Japanese norms and 'becoming Japanese', a temporary suppression of the 'low status' (that is, foreigner) part of the Japanese/foreigner hierarchy that was later followed by a re-assertion of their ethnicity. This may well reflect early pressure in Japanese society for foreigners to assimilate. However, in the case of the other interviewees this temporary suppression of ethnic identity did not extend to pretending to be another nationality nor ethnic language 'loss'. Given Bourdieu's argument that language production is governed by the symbolic power between two speakers, the positioning of Koreans at the bottom of the Japanese social hierarchy offers one explanation for their sudden silence. The lack of power in a new environment means they lack the capacity to impose reception, being regarded – and regarding themselves – as 'unworthy' of speech.

The hypothesis presented here at the moment remains just that – a hypothesis. As detailed earlier, purely linguistic approaches fail even to mention the phenomenon of temporary native language loss amongst adult migrants. Socio-cultural theory, which typically considers an individual's power, status, and historical position in the wider community in order to understand language development, maintenance, or loss, offers the potential for unravelling the mystery. Norton has written at length on how unequal relations of power between speakers as well as inequitable structures within the larger society can silence migrant speakers. For example, she (2000: 130/131) describes one subject being embarrassed and humiliated into silence due to her position as a cultural 'impostor', thereafter resisting further opportunities to speak. However, Norton's work, as with socio-cultural approaches in general, focuses on L2 development rather than L1 loss. Significantly, the most relevant research might be that which deals with children.

As mentioned earlier, Yukawa (1998: 270) describes a rapid 'attrition' in L1 production (but not comprehension) in children due to 'a sudden heightening of inhibition of processing' triggered by lack of regular input. Increased input results in an equally rapid recovery of the L1. Her claim that the children were unable to produce rather than choosing not to produce echoes the vocabulary used by Chin-Ja and Uye-Chon. Although Yukawa claims that this type of phenomenon is 'peculiar to young children', it is quite likely that similar feelings of powerlessness and psychological/cognitive pressure from a new environment may lead to the same phenomenon in adults. Indeed, in my study it was not uncommon for interviewees to describe themselves as feeling like 'a baby' or 'a child' (Burgess 2003:185). Moreover, research on the rising numbers of migrant children in Japanese schools, have shown how a highly assimilatory environment dominated by ideologies of homogeneity can silence children and trigger a denial of ethnic identity and, especially, the mother tongue (Okano and Tsuchiya 1999: 128-37). Again, the role of the social context in the production (or non-production) of language would seem to be central.

Conclusion: The Need for Future Research

This discussion paper began by describing a potentially puzzling phenomenon: the case of two newly arrived Korean marriage migrants to Japan who describe temporarily 'losing' their mother tongue. A review of the literature on language loss showed that this phenomenon has, to date, received little or no attention. However, recent work in the field of (second) language learning and teaching which draws on socio-cultural theory suggested social context may be the key to understanding such individual linguistic phenomenon. An outline of the historical and social background of Koreans in Japan led to a hypothesis that linked the low social status of Koreans in Japan with their 'silencing'.

The small size of the sample and lack of language testing leave a number of unanswered questions which demonstrate the need for further research. Most important is whether what happened to these two women can really be considered as a temporary 'loss' of native language, though the two individuals concerned certainly seemed to categorise it as such. Second, if the phenomenon is found to have any empirical reality, it is important to clarify when and where the phenomenon occurs. For example, it would be helpful to know whether Koreans are any more reluctant than migrants from other countries to use their first language in public. Variables such as class, education, and employment may also differ significantly within national groups. In this respect, work on the role of social capital and ethnic networks might prove enlightening (e.g. Bassani 2003; Fukatsu 2003; Harzig 2001). Another key variable is gender. In Japan, the idea that wives should stay at home while husbands work outside is still strong. With Japanese husbands spending on average only thirty-four minutes a day on household chores (de Boer 2002) and just seventeen minutes a day on childcare, the government was forced to initiate a JPY500 million campaign in 1999 to rectify the entrenched gender paradigm (Roberts 2002: 76-82). Indeed, Korean interviewees commented on the difference in relative status of wives in Japan and Korea, comparing progressive Korean husbands with their own Japanese husbands who worked long hours, did little around the house, rarely played with the children, and never phoned to let them know if they'd be late. Thus, the low social status of Koreans in Japan may have been exacerbated by the low social status of wives in Japan. Research on Korean men married to Japanese women and Japanese wives in Korea would be helpful in illuminating the role of gender in the phenomenon.

Finally, we might also ask how this problem of sudden language 'loss', if it is proven to exist, can be overcome or at least mitigated. Chin-Ja's account of the return of her mother tongue as coinciding with the emergence of a positive affirmation of her ethnic identity in the locality suggests that education is important. Clearly, the continued erosion of institutionalised racism and discrimination against Koreans also has a key role to play. Traditional ideologies of homogeneity and assimilation also need challenging. In Japan, both migrant adults and children face what Ōta (2002) has called a 'Japanese language only' principle, a situation where resources are largely channelled into quickly improving migrant Japanese proficiency at the expense of native language and culture maintenance. The idea is that participation in language classes will translate (eventually) into societal participation. But rather than concentrate resources on language support per se, resources might be better spent providing more opportunities for social interaction in the local community where newcomers can become recognised and accepted and community conversations can be accessed. The issue of 'losing' and 'recovering' a voice in communities dominated by discourses of homogeneity will be become increasingly important as the number of migrants – especially marriage migrants – continues to grow in a rapidly globalising Japan.


1. This paper began life as a presentation at the 'Border Crossings' Conference at Monash University on October 3rd 2003. Parts of the paper have been adapted from my PhD thesis (Burgess 2003). I would like to thank Ana Deumert, Penny Kinnear, and Robyn Spence-Brown for comments on earlier versions of this paper and EJCJS reviewers for comments on later drafts.

2. Pavlenko and Lantolf (2000: 157) also argue that the experience of adults who attempt to become native speakers of their second language is a neglected area in second language learning.

3. As well as the large numbers of male Koreans working in Japan to supplement the labour force, many Korean women were forced into prostitution for the army as 'comfort women' and taken as far away as Southeast Asia and the Pacific fronts (Ryang 2000:3).

4. Non-Japanese are legally obliged to carry their Certificate of Alien Registration at all times. In a recent report, the UN Human Rights Committee criticised a system which imposes criminal sanctions on those not carrying their alien registration card (Japan Times 2000b).

5. In Japan, only Japanese have family registries and jyūminhyō (resident cards). Because of this, problems can arise when renting or buying a house, applying for public loans, securing employment, or finding schools for their children. On a symbolic level too, the lack of recognition and status stemming from not having one's name recorded in the family registry may be considered a form of discrimination.

6. Compulsory fingerprinting was abolished for foreigners with Permanent Resident status in a revision of the Alien Registration Law in 1992 (enacted in 1993) and finally abolished for all foreign residents of Japan from April 1st 2000. Since then, foreigners have only had to supply a signature and information on family members (Japan Times 1999; 2000a). However, recent revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Law (Daily Yomiuri 2006) stipulate that all foreigners aged 16 or older living in Japan without Special Permanent Resident status must be fingerprinted and photographed at immigration upon arrival.

7. The North-South rivalry is also present within Japan itself, affecting the lives of Korean expatriates. In the case of ethnic Koreans, alien registration provides for two asymmetrical categories: 'Korea', the regional name, and 'South Korea' the country name. Since 1971 the statistical breakdown has not been made public, but it is estimated to be in the region of 1:3.5 (Japan Times 1996). The two organisations in Japan which represent Korean residents are the pro-Pyongyang Chongryun (Ryang 1997) and the pro-Seoul Mindan. May 2006 attempts at reconciliation between Chongryun and Mindan ended less than two months later in confusion and acrimony, suggesting that the distance between the two groups remains large.

8. For more on the various forms of discrimination that both Korean and non-Korean immigrants to Japan can face see Komai (2001: Chapter 5). While discrimination exists in other countries too, the dominant ideology of racial homogeneity makes it particularly acute in Japan. Komai argues that such forms of discrimination are not casual but institutionalised, with foreigners in Japan generally seen by the authorities as objects to be monitored and controlled.

9. In February 1995 the Supreme Court ruled that providing voting rights to foreign residents is not prohibited by the constitution (Japan Times 1996). As Kajita (1998: 137) notes, in contrast to the situation in France and Germany, where a constitutional amendment would be required to grant foreigners voting rights in local elections, in Japan this can achieved by enacting a law. In this sense, Japan can be seen as more progressive than other countries with a longer history of migration.

10. Somewhat confusingly, the superior/inferior nature of the Japanese/foreigner binary is not fixed. Although a generic term for all non-Japanese, the term 'foreigner' (gaikokujin) – and especially the abbreviation gaijin – is often used to designate only Caucasians (Creighton 1997: 212). Gaijin is typically reserved for those foreigners who are 'worthy of admiration in some respects' (Befu 2001: 76), usually the 'White American' who acts as Japan's powerful and superior Other. English, as the language of 'White America' is highly regarded and eagerly studied. Conversely, the Japanese families of the Korean subjects showed little or no interest in Korean language and culture. Moreover, English speakers tend to suffer little discrimination from immigration and other authorities (Komai 2001:105). It is interesting to note that those 'high status' English speaking migrants in Japan (the present author included) never seem to experience any sense of native language 'loss', temporary or otherwise, in the way that the Korean speakers here appeared to.


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About the author

Chris Burgess taught English at Kitakyushu University in Japan for five years before moving to Australia to start a PhD at Monash University, Melbourne, in April 2000. His thesis, entitled '(Re)Constructing Identities: International Marriage Migrants as Potential Agents of Social Change in a Rapidly Globalising Japan', was passed in March 2004. He is currently a full-time lecturer at Tsuda Juku University (Tsuda College), Tokyo, where he teaches Japanese Studies and Australian Studies. His research focuses on migration, globalisation, and identity in contemporary Japan.

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