In Japan, South Korea is now cool. Speaking and singing the local lingo, Korean popstars like Girls' Generation rule the charts and appear on Japanese variety shows and in commercials. It wasn't always that way.
Japan and South Korea have a long, shared, and bloody history, with Japan recently colonizing the country. At the turn of the century, Korea's history and language were suppressed. And then there were the atrocities such as forced sexual slavery.
Historically, slurs against Koreans are some of the words banned from Japanese television broadcasts.
Koreans took Japanese names to avoid persecution. Even today, some second and third generation Koreans take second names, or Japanese names called "tsumei", to assimilate and avoid possible problems. This is anecdotal, but a friend who is Korean Japanese only confided his "big secret" after knowing him for several years—and most likely did so, because like him, I'm legally required to carry around a foreign ID card at all times. Unlike him, I haven't spent my entire life in Japan.
Japan is interested in foreign things, but that's usually meant America or Europe—places the country never conquered or defeated in war. But times are changing. For Japanese, Korea is now hip and fashionable, with stylish celebrities and delicious food.
Japan isn't the only country with a messy history and discrimination (hello America! ...and pretty much everywhere!), and it is making an effort to work through those issues. North Korean schools operate openly throughout the country—and have for decades now. In the area of Osaka where I used to live, there is a huge North Korean school, with a picture of the Dear Leader in the courtyard and the school's name written in Korean. To me, with each passing year, Japanese people seem increasingly sensitive to the experiences of Korean Japanese.
What has helped bridge the gap are celebrities, who have previously hid their Korean ancestry, admitting that their parents or grandparents are from Korean.
Akiko Wada, one of Japan's most famous singers and personalities, admitted her Korean background a few years back. The very Japanese sounding Wada (和田) is not her pass name; before she naturalized, it was "Kaneumi" (金海). The Korean last name "Kim" is often written as "Kane" (金) in Japanese. Tomoaki Kanemoto, the great Hanshin Tigers outfielder, also admitted his Korean background—though, his admission was less of a surprise. Tech mogul Masayoshi Son, the richest man in Japan, is a third generation Korean Japanese who rejected his family's pass name, Yasumoto.
Ken Kutaragi, the father of the PlayStation, apparently told Korean paper Chosun Online that his distant relatives came from Korea.
Son isn't the only tech magnet with a Korean connection. In a recent interview about his new efforts to work with South Korean IT companies, Ken Kutaragi, the father of the PlayStation, apparently told Korean paper Chosun Online that his distant relatives came from Korea as his last name Kutaragi (久夛良) means a "tree of an ancient Korean kingdom" or 百済の木 ("kudara no ki"). It didn't say that he was a second or third generation Korean Japanese, but simply that he had Korean ancestery. Back in 2002, the Emperor of Japan admitted a similar connection, setting off a media firestorm.
According to the original article, preserved by website Oreteki, Kutaragi apparently said that "Kudara no ki" (百済の木) became Kutaragi (久夛良), but that there is a Korean stone pagoda form the ancient Kudara era in his family home's garden.
But even as bridges are being built between Korea and Japan, the newspaper article that originally continued this Korean connection about Kutaragi was altered shortly after going online, and that factoid was deleted. While rattling off lists of more celebrities that could be secret Koreans, many Japanese netizens debate whether this deletion was because the article was incorrect or if it caused backlash in Japan. Maybe Kutaragi just rattled off some theory he had about his last name's origins. Or maybe he said the truth, and that's something he shouldn't have to hide.
Kotaku is following up with Chosun Online and will update should the paper reply.
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(Top photo: RCA Japan)