By Joseph Essertier

Early in the morning on Friday, February 23, two Japanese ultranationalists, Katsurada Satoshi (56) and Kawamura Yoshinori (46), drove past the headquarters of the General Association of Korean Residents in Tokyo and shot into it with a handgun. Katsurada did the driving, and Kawamura did the shooting. Fortunately, the bullets hit the gate, and no one was injured.

If anyone had been injured or killed, they would most likely have been members of the Association, most of whom are holders of foreign passports, so at least on paper, one can say that this was an international incident. The Association is called Chongryon in Korean. It receives financial support from the government of North Korea, and like an embassy, it promotes the interests of that government and of North Koreans. But it also functions as a gathering place for Korean nationals, both North and South, to communicate, build friendships, compare notes, engage in mutual aid, and maintain their cultural heritage. Only half the members are North Korean passport holders. The other half have either South Korean or Japanese passports.

Although nobody was hurt physically, there is no doubt some members and non-member Koreans throughout Japan and around the world have certainly been hurt on an emotional or psychological level. Consider the timing. It happened one week before March 1st, the day when, 99 years earlier, Koreans launched a struggle for independence from the Empire of Japan. A powerful struggle for freedom from foreign domination began on that day in 1919 and continues today. The day of the shooting, the 23rd of February, was also during the Pyeongchang Olympics and the Olympic Truce on the Korean Peninsula when Washington and Seoul paused their joint “military exercises” (i.e., war games) designed to intimidate the government and people of North Korea. It was at a time when people around the world joined Koreans to cheer for athletes from both North and South Korea and a tiny ray of light entered the lives of Koreans and others in Northeast Asia—a ray of light giving hope to peace-loving people around the world that someday, maybe even this year, peace on the Peninsula could be achieved.

The drive-by terrorist shooting at this building raises the specter of future violence and the loss of innocent Korean lives — the lives of Korean civilians far from Korea, some of whom are culturally Japanese and whose parents were born and raised in Japan. How cowardly an attack this was—shooting a gun at a nonviolent community gathering place for law-abiding people from a minority group, who are largely the descendants of people colonized by the Empire of Japan. With all this in mind—the shooting obviously aimed to derail the peace that Koreans and peace-loving people around the world are yearning and struggling for—it is truly sad that media reports, in both English and Japanese, about this important incident have been ominously slow in coming and few in number.

How Hundreds of Thousands of Koreans Came To Live in Japan

Korean residents of Japan are usually referred to as Zainichi Kankoku Chosenjin in Japanese, or Zainichi for short, and in English they are sometimes called “Zainichi Koreans.” A conservative estimate of the total number of Zainichi Koreans in 2016 was 330,537 (299,488 South Koreans and 31,049 stateless Koreans). Between 1952 and 2016, 365,530 Koreans obtained Japanese citizenship, either through naturalization or through the principle of jus sanguinis or “right of blood,” i.e., by having one legally-Japanese parent. Whether they have Japanese, South Korean, or North Korean citizenship, or are actually stateless, the total number of Koreans who live in Japan is approximately 700,000.

The Zainichi Korean community today would have been unimaginable without the violence of the Empire of Japan (1868-1947). Japan seized control of Korea from China in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). In 1910 it completely annexed Korea. Eventually it turned the country into a colony from which it extracted great wealth. Many Koreans came to Japan directly as a result of the Empire’s colonization of Korea; others came as an indirect result of it. A significant number originally came of their own volition to fulfill Japan’s rapidly-industrializing demand for labor, but after the Manchurian Incident of 1931, huge numbers of Koreans were forced to work in Japan as conscripted laborers in manufacturing, construction, and mining. (See Youngmi Lim’s “Two Faces of the Hate Korean Campaign in Japan”)

At the time of the defeat of the Empire in 1945, there were two million Koreans in Japan. Most of those who had been forced to work in Japan and had somehow managed to survive the ordeal returned to Korea, but 600,000 people chose to remain. Through no fault of their own, their homeland was in a chaotic, unstable condition, and the makings of a dangerous civil war were apparent. In that year, 1945, the southern part of the Korean Peninsula was under occupation by the United States military, and the north was ruled by Kim Il-sung (1912-1994), one of the generals who had spearheaded the resistance to the Japanese colonizers in intense guerrilla warfare over the course of nearly 15 years.

The Japanese colonizers inaugurated their puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria on March 1st, 1932—with full awareness of the meaning of March 1st for Koreans and surely in spite. At that time, the independence movement was called the “March 1st Movement” (Sam-il in Korean. “Sam” means “three” and “il” means “one.” San-ichi in Japanese). This day has been evoked a number of times in history. For example, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chose March 1st, 2007 to make his shameful and stupid claim that there was “no evidence” that Korean women had been “forcibly” recruited as “comfort women,” i.e., sex slaves for the Japanese military during the War. (See Chapter 2 of Bruce Cumings’ The Korean War: A History).

Just as the French resistance (i.e., “La Résistance”) was a fight against Nazi Germany’s  occupation of France and its collaborators, the Korean resistance was a fight against Japanese colonizers and its collaborators. But while the French resistance has been celebrated in the West, the Korean resistance has been ignored.

During the years of the occupation of the South under the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK, 1945 – 1948), the new government in the north enjoyed much support among Koreans across the country since it was led by patriots who promised a decent and humane future in a classless, egalitarian society. Unfortunately, it was backed up by the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), the brutal dictator. The US was occupying both Japan and South Korea, but only Japan was liberalized. A little democracy was permitted to take root there. In South Korea, on the other hand, the US built up the dictator Syngman Rhee and made sure that he won the presidency through a rigged election in 1948. He was popular among many of the aristocratic elite, a large percentage of whom had collaborated with the Empire of Japan, but he was hated and distrusted by the majority of Koreans. (In the case of Japan, rule of the country was not returned to Japanese hands until 1952, but this was not for free. The new Japanese government had to swallow a bitter pill. They had to agree to the “separate peace” that Washington set up, a “peace” in which Japan was prevented from signing peace treaties with South Korea and China. Japan did not normalize relations with South Korea until 1965.)

The US blocked peace between South Korea and Japan, led a war in support of a sordid dictatorship in South Korea, and continued to back a series of dictatorships for a few decades until South Koreans took back some control over the country through democratic reforms. South Korea has been dominated by Washington for 73 years now, and that foreign domination has prevented peace on the Korean Peninsula. Thus one can say that Zainichi Koreans in Japan today are largely the victims of a half-century of Japanese colonialism and 73 years of American domination. Sometimes the domination has been overt, and sometimes it has been behind-the-scenes, but it has always been there, preventing a resolution of the civil war. This is only one reason why Americans should take an interest in the plight of Zainichi Koreans.

Commemoration of the March 1 Movement

On Saturday, February 24, in Tokyo, I attended an evening educational event in commemoration of the 99th anniversary of the March 1st Movement. There were two lectures — one by a journalist and the other by a South Korean anti-war activist — about the situation in South Korea today. (Information about this event is available here in Japanese).

In a room that seats 150, there were 200 people in attendance. Handa Shigeru, a Japanese journalist who has written a number of books in Japanese on Japan’s remilitarization, including one entitled Will Japan Engage in War? The Right of Collective Self-defense and the Self-Defense Forces (Nihon wa senso wo suru no ka: shudanteki jiei ken to jieitai, Iwanami, 2014) spoke first. His lecture concerned mainly the extent to which Japan’s government has been building a powerful military in recent decades, complete with the latest high-tech weapons, including four AWACS aircraft, F2s, Osprey tilt-rotor military aircraft, and M35 cargo trucks. These are the kinds of offensive weapons that would be used for attacking other countries. Japan will soon have, according to Mr. Handa, stealth aircraft and eight Aegis destroyers. That is more Aegis destroyers than any other country except the US.

Japan has Patriot PAC-3 air defense missile systems, but Handa explained that these systems could not effectively protect Japan against incoming missiles since they are only installed in 14 locations throughout Japan and each system is only loaded with 16 missiles. Once those missiles are used up, there are no more defenses in that particular location. He explained that North Korea has developed nukes only for self-preservation, following the doctrine of MAD (mutually assured destruction)—the idea that the use of nuclear weapons by an attacking state would result in the complete annihilation of both the attacking state and the defending state–in other words, the “you can kill me, but if you do, you will die, too” approach.

The other lecture was given by a South Korean activist, Han Chung-mok. He hails from the Korean Alliance of Progressive Movements (KAPM), a federation of 220 progressive groups in South Korea, including workers, farmers, women, and students, who have been demanding peace on the Korean Peninsula. 

KAPM has demanded a complete end to all the highly threatening joint military exercises to lower the tension on the Peninsula and advocates US-North Korea as well as North-South dialogue.

Han outlined the significance of the Candlelight Revolution that led to the removal of the unpopular president one year ago. In the words of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, “months-long massive rallies participated in by some 17 million people made no acts of violence or arrest from the beginning to the end.” That is an astounding one-third of the population of South Korea. The “Peace Olympics” underway now could not have been achieved without the removal of Park Geun-hye, in Han’s view.

Han emphasized that North Korea is a very small country—it has a population of about 25 million people—but it is surrounded by large countries with powerful militaries. (In terms of defense spending, China is Number 2, Russia is Number 3, Japan is Number 8, and South Korea is Number 10 in the world. See Will Supreme Leader Trump Commit the Supreme International Crime in Counterpunch.) While North Korea has acquired nukes for the sake of its own self-preservation, this acquisition has led to the threat, indeed likelihood, of an attack by America.

Han described what he called the “Peace Olympics.” He underlined the moment when tears welled up in the eyes of Kim Yong Nam, the 90-year-old North Korean nominal head of state, and the strong impact it had on Koreans.

He said that many people from North Korea were singing and had tears in their eyes while cheering on the unified women’s ice hockey team. A few thousand peace-loving South Koreans and people from all over the world gathered in a building near the stadium, hugged each other and cheered as they watched the game via live video feed.

Han argued that the Candlelight Revolution has produced a special moment in history that “candlelighters” must seriously consider. One of the main questions is how to overcome the covert colonization by the United States. South Koreans and Japanese, he said, must think about what kind of path they want to take: stick with America or take another, new path. From the number of people who gasped or laughed before Mr. Han’s words were interpreted into Japanese, I would guess that the audience was at least 10 or 20 percent bilingual Zainichi Koreans, but the majority seemed to be monolingual Japanese speakers, many or most of whom may have Korean ancestral or cultural heritage.

South Korean peace activists are planning a big day of peaceful protests on the 15th of August, the day when Korea was liberated from Japanese imperial rule in 1945. (March 1st next year will be the centennial commemoration of the March 1st Movement).

Han closed by saying, “Korea’s peace is the peace of East Asia. Japanese democracy will link up with the movement for peace in Korea. I look forward to struggling together.”

The March 1st Movement was also commemorated by the South Korean government for the first time at the Seodaemun Prison History Hall in Seoul. On March first, 1919, a group of Korean activists publicly declared the country’s independence — not unlike the American Declaration of Independence. In the months following the declaration, one out of ten Koreans participated in a series of nonviolent protests against Japan’s brutal colonization.

At the commemoration, President Moon declared the issue of Japan’s sexual enslavement of Korean women “not over,” contradicting his predecessor Park Geun-hye’s December 2015 agreement with Tokyo to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the issue. That agreement was made without the input of the victims of Japan’s sexual slavery in South Korea and against the wishes of the majority of the population. The Empire of Japan enslaved tens of thousands of Korean women and as many as 400,000 women throughout the Empire in “comfort stations,” where they were raped repeatedly day after day by troops. (See Qiu Peipei’s new book Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves, Oxford UP )

March 18 Emergency Action in Tokyo

Like the many peace-promoting actions in the United States during the week of March 15-22, there will be an “emergency” peace action in Tokyo on Sunday, March 18 at 2 PM in front of the US Embassy. Called “An Emergency Action To Oppose the Joint US-South Korea Military Exercises,” it is organized to express opposition against:

  • The US-South Korea war games on the Peninsula
  • The US-Japan war games, such as the amphibious landing exercises off the Southern California coast on February 7 and the Cope North exercise that began on February 14 in Guam
  • Any war games that are in preparation for an invasion of North Korea;
  • The new base construction in Henoko, Okinawa;
  • Abe’s expansion of Japan’s “Self-defense Forces” through talk of the “threat” from North Korea; and
  • Japan, U.S., and South Korea’s sanctions and “maximum pressure” on North Korea.

The action will also call for:

  • Direct talks between the US and North Korea;
  • The signing of a peace treaty to end the Korean War;
  • North-South dialogue and independent and peaceful reunification; and
  • The normalization of relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang.

The organizing group calls itself “Beikan godo gunji enshu hantai 3.18 kinkyu kodo jikko iinkai” (The Executive Committee for Emergency Action on March 18th against the Joint US-South Korea Military Exercises). For more information, see here (in Japanese).

Will True Justice be Served?

Although nobody was physically injured as a result of the February 23 shooting at the Chongryon headquarters, the incident at this moment in US-North Korea relations — when peace on the Peninsula could be just around the corner and in the middle of the “Peace Olympics” as well as a week before the commemoration of the March 1st Movement — is a threat of violence against ordinary, peaceful Zainichi Koreans, who face severe discrimination in Japan. It is also a threat of violence against Koreans everywhere. In that sense, it is not necessarily an exaggeration to call it a “terrorist” act. It certainly must have struck terror into the hearts of many people, even many Japanese, who live in a country where shootings are extremely rare.

How the Japanese police handles this incident will have repercussions on the future of public safety in Japan and international relations in Northeast Asia. Will they make a false show of justice while winking at vigilantes thinking of intimidating Zainichi Koreans into silent submission? Or will they deliver true justice, seek out these men’s accomplices, expose their violent plots, and communicate the message to the world that Japanese society holds dear its domestic tranquility and that the human rights of minorities will be respected? Let us not sit and wait for the answer in front of our televisions and computer screens but instead build international pressure against such attacks so that future terrorists will think twice about resorting to armed violence to prevent peacemakers from making peace.

Many thanks to Stephen Brivati for comments, suggestions, and editing.


Joseph Essertier is an associate professor at the Nagoya Institute of Technology whose research has focused on Japanese literature and history. For many years he has been engaged with Japanese peace organizations and in his writing has recently focused on such organizations’ achievements and the need for global cooperation in resolving East Asian regional conflicts.


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