ISA XIV World Congress of Sociology (July 26 - August 1, 1998, Montreal, Canada)

(RC05) Ethnic, Race and Minority Relations

(Session 7) Discrimination Against and Resistance by Koreans in Japan (August 1, 14:00-16:00)


Japanese Alias vs. Real Ethnic Name:

On Naming Practices among Young Koreans in Japan1


Yasunori Fukuoka (Saitama University, Japan)



Majority use assumed Japanese names


"Kimura Mayumi."2 "Ryo Mayumi." Both of them are me. But I prefer "Kimura Mayumi."


This is a line from an essay written for me by one of my students who was an ethnic Korean. "Ryo" is the Japanese reading of the Korean surname under which she is legally registered. At the time, she did not know the Korean reading. Like the overwhelming majority of Zainichi3 Koreans, she had a Japanese alias ("Kimura"), which she used in most everyday situations.

 The aliases used by Zainichi Koreans are fundamentally different from aliases such as pen names, stage-names, etc., which are arbitrarily chosen by individuals for their own reasons. These aliases are semi-formal. Although the legal name must be used on important legal documents such as passports, driving licenses, and certificates of competence to practice medicine, nursing, etc., the alias may be used when registering at school, for employment, in commercial transactions. The assumed surname is passed on through the generations, while the forename is chosen not by the individual but by his or her parents. Reflecting its semi-formal status, the alias is printed on the alien registration form, in brackets next to the legal name. Zainichi Koreans who decide to express their ethnic pride by discarding their Japanese alias sometimes apply to their local authority to have the alias deleted from the registration documents.

 According to a 1984 survey of foreign nationals living in Kanagawa prefecture (Kimpara et al. 1986), over 90 percent of ethnic Koreans living there have a Japanese-sounding alias in addition to their Korean names. Adding together those who use only the Japanese name and those who use both, some 80 percent of Koreans in the survey were using Japanese names at least when in Japanese company.4 Our own research confirms this finding: in the 1993 KYAJ survey5 of 800 young ethnic Koreans with South Korean nationality, 83.8 percent said that they used their alias at least as often as their real name, including 35.3 percent saying they used the alias "exclusively," and another 30.3 percent saying they used it "almost exclusively" (Fukuoka and Kim 1997:78).

 Only a small minority of ethnic Koreans use their Korean names all or most of the time. Among the younger generation, that minority appears to be composed of three distinct groups: those who have attended Korean schools, where Korean names are used as a matter of course; those who are involved in campaigning against discrimination or over Japan's responsibility for the "comfort women" and other wartime abuses, many of whom abandon their Japanese aliases as they become more politically aware; and those who had parents with a strong ethnic consciousness who only gave them a Korean name and brought them up with it, even if isolated from Zainichi networks.

 However, the big question is why the great majority of Zainichi Koreans do use aliases even today.

 It has long been believed that the biggest factor is simply avoidance of discrimination from the Japanese -- and indeed, first- and second-generation Koreans have vivid memories of failing to get work when using their ethnic names. Until the late 1970s it was virtually impossible for ethnic Koreans to get employment with Japanese companies even if they had graduated from university. Only specialist qualifications in professions such as medicine or dentistry would lead to jobs. Many Koreans had little option but to carry on small family businesses such as yakiniku restaurants or pachinko parlors.6

 Important though this factor is, my own research suggests that the most fundamental reason for the use of aliases lies elsewhere. Over long years of using their Japanese alias, many ethnic Koreans find that they get used to the name, or even come to like it. The survey mentioned above asked respondents if they felt that they "had to use an alias to avoid discrimination." Only 10.2 percent agreed strongly with the statement, with another 16.0 percent agreeing tentatively. In contrast, the proposition "It is only natural to live with the name you are used to, whether it is your real name or an alias" registered 48.0 percent strong agreement and 23.3 percent tentative agreement (Fukuoka and Kim 1997:85-7).

 This may well be an indication of just how far assimilation has advanced within the community. In districts with large ethnic Korean populations it is not uncommon for fellow Koreans to greet one another by their Japanese names. In most households, too, it has become established practice for parents to address children by their Japanese names.7 I have mentioned that in recent years a growing number of young Koreans, politicized through involvement in the anti-discrimination movement, have returned to using their Korean names. While that is true, it is also true that their parents rarely make much effort to call them by their unfamiliar Korean names even if asked to do so. Some of my young informants told me that their parents objected to receiving mail addressed to their children by their Korean names as this would reveal their own Korean identity to the post office.

 My own conclusion on the subject of aliases is broadly thus. The first generation of Korean migrants used Japanese names simply because they were forced to by the government under the assimilation policy of the colonial period.8 The second generation, living in post-war Japanese society, were not legally obliged to use Japanese names but felt the need to do so in order to avoid discrimination. Their children, the members of the third generation, are now so used to Japanese names that they appear more "natural" than their Korean names. Even if they develop a political awareness of the significance of using the Korean name once they reach adulthood, they hesitate to do so -- partly because they fear discrimination but also partly because the Korean name no longer has that feeling of familiarity.


"Real name" not always "Korean name"


Another great change that may be observed in ethnic Korean naming practices also bears eloquent testimony to the progress of assimilation. While it is commonly assumed that Zainichi Koreans have an "official" Korean name, entered on their alien registration certificate, and an unofficial Japanese alias that they use in everyday life, this is by no means always the case. The truth is that nowadays the relationship between the two oppositions, Real Name/Alias and Korean Name/Japanese Name takes many different forms. Let me give a few examples based on my own interview data.9


1 Legal name = Korean name = only name

Kim Cheol-Soo (male) and Moon Yi-Ryoung (female) were two interviewees of mine who had been through Korean school and had no Japanese-style name. A slightly different case was that of Suh Young-Soon, who went through the Japanese education system all the way to university, using the name "Jo Eijun," which is a Japanese reading of the characters in his Korean name. Even with the Japanese reading, the name was obviously non-Japanese. Once he completed his education, he decided to start using the Korean reading of his name.


2 Legal name = Korean name; alias = Japanese-style surname + Japanese reading of Korean forename

Lee Kyung-Jae used to go by the name of "Takayasu Keisai." "Takayasu" is a Japanese surname adopted long ago by the Lee clan of Chonju, while "Keisai" is the Japanese reading of "Kyung-Jae." While both names are just about plausible as Japanese names, together they sound slightly non-Japanese.10 Likewise, Kim Sung-Ok used to call herself "Ueda Seigyoku." "Ueda" is a common Japanese surname, but the forename "Seigyoku" is the Japanese reading of "Sung-Ok" and would never be given to an ethnic Japanese female. This case often arises when the parents have a strong ethnic Korean identity that prevents them giving their children Japanese aliases, but where the children themselves prefer to use Japanese names as they grow up.


3 Legal name = Korean name; alias = Japanese-style surname + Japanese forename

This is the most familiar case, believed by some to be virtually universal among Zainichi Koreans. The alias is totally different from the Korean name, not just a different reading of the same characters, and is designed to sound Japanese. Thus one of the Mintoren11 leaders, Suh Jung-Woo, used to be known as "Tatsukawa Kazuaki." Lee Kyung-Hee, one of my students, had "Takeda Hitomi" as her alias.


4 Legal name = Korean surname + Korean reading of Japanese forename; alias = Japanese-style surname + Japanese forename

I have an old friend called Kim Haeng-Yi. He used to go by the Japanese alias of "Kaneda Koji." "Kaneda" is written with the same character as "Kim" (read kane in Japanese), but with an extra character (da) added. "Koji" and "Haeng-Yi" are written with exactly the same characters, but in this case the name is rare in Korean but common in Japanese. Kim's parents had deliberately given him a Japanese-style forename. A similar case is that of Kim Soo-Il, a Korean community activist in Kawasaki (a town with a big Korean population). His Japanese alias was "Kaneyama Hidekazu." Again the Korean surname had one character added to it to give the Japanese version, while the personal name used the same characters -- characters that form a very familiar Japanese name (Hidekazu) and a less familiar Korean name (Soo-Il).

 I earlier mentioned the case of a Korean student who called herself "Kimura Mayumi." Her official name is Yang Jin-Yoo-Mi, which would read "Ryo Mayumi" in Japanese style. But "Mayumi/Jin-Yoo-Mi" is written with three characters and real Korean names never have more than two. Her second-generation parents had deliberately given her a Japanese-style name on her official documents, not just for use as an alias.

 Nor is this case particularly unusual. I know quite a few cases of young Zainichi Korean women with three-character names, such as "Mieko" (Korean reading: Sam-Young-Ja), "Yukiko" (Yoo-Ki-Ja) and "Emiko" (Hye-Mi-Ja). I have also come across one male case, a man called "Yujiro" (Ung-Chi-Rang). None of these are plausible as Korean names.


 Overall, there is a clearly observable trend in ethnic Korean naming practices toward more Japanese names, reflecting the increasingly permanent residence intentions among the community. The use of Korean names based on traditional chokbo principles12 is becoming rare, while conversely, the use of names that are more Japanese than Korean (case 4 above), naturally unheard-of among first-generation migrants, is becoming more prevalent with each succeeding generation, especially among women.

 If that is the main trend, recently there has been also a clearly discernible counter-trend, as young parents who have graduated from Korean schools, people working for ethnic Korean organizations, and others involved in the anti-discrimination movement, give their children names that reflect their heightened ethnic awareness.

 Sometimes those names are authentically Korean. Thus Kawasaki-based Mintoren leader Bae Jung-Do and his wife Chung Wol-Soon have named their two daughters Byung-Soon and Jung-Soon, and their son Byung-Joo. They have no Japanese-sounding aliases.

 In other cases, the names chosen contain special meaning grounded in the experience of the Zainichi Korean community. Thus Lee Kyung-Jae (mentioned in case 2 above) has three daughters, called Soo-Ryo, Mi-Yoon and Yi-Hwa, and a son called Young-Hwa. They are written with characters that read pleasantly to the Japanese eye -- the characters for Yi-Hwa, for instance, mean "pear-blossom." Lee Kyung-Jae explains the choice of names thus: "We thought that as the children were Korean, they probably ought to have Korean names... but at the same time we wanted names that would sound pleasant to a Japanese ear when pronounced with the Korean reading -- Korean names that Japanese could easily get along with."

 Or consider the case of Kim Soo-Il (mentioned in case 4 above). He has named his daughter Rin-Yi. "The character Rin means 'neighbor,'" he explains. "I wanted her to grow up as a child who was good to her neighbors. The character Yi is often used in Korean female names, and we chose it for its pleasant sound."


The significance of using real ethnic names


At the end of 1996 there were 657,159 registered foreigners in Japan with North or South Korean nationality.13 The majority of them are those who were brought over to Japan during her period of colonial rule over Korea, and their descendents.

 At university I teach a course called "Contemporary Social Theory" in which I deal with Zainichi Korean issues. Every year I start the course by asking my new students to write an essay. One of the topics I set them is this: "If there were a Zainichi Korean person living near you, how do you think you would behave toward that person?" Reading the essays elicited by this question, one is first struck by how few of the students have actually knowingly come into contact with Zainichi Koreans. As I have mentioned above, Zainichi Koreans, including those who have Japanese nationality, may reasonably be put at 1 percent of the overall population of Japan. The number of students who report having encountered Zainichi Koreans is extremely small in view of that figure. No doubt many more of them have met Zainichi Koreans without being aware of it, since so many of them assume Japanese names and identities.

 If we wish to change Japanese society into a society in which people can live together in mutual recognition of their differences, it is desirable that more Zainichi Koreans use their real names and be more open about their ethnic origins. To achieve this, it is necessary to ensure that Zaincihi Korean children receive proper ethnic education.

 Also, at the same time, Japanese must accept that use of ethnic names. The words of one of my interviewees, Kim Soo-Il (second-generation Zainichi Korean, born 1961, member of the Kawasaki Seikyu-sha), made a great impression on me. I would like to end my presentation by sharing them with you. Here Kim recalls his feelings when, as a student at senior high school, he decided to abandon his Japanese alias and use only his ethnic Korean name, as he has done ever since:


"It's tough living under an alias, and it's tough living under your real name, but if they're both equally tough, then the kind of toughness that comes from presenting yourself honestly is the easier to bear. When you're using an alias, the very fact that you're Korean is taboo, right? So in a funny sort of way, Japanese people end up taking special care over you. When you use your real name, and you can talk about all sorts of things with the other fellow... well, there really isn't anything that's taboo, and the human relationship has creativity."



1 This paper was translated by Dr. Tom Gill (Kyoto Bunkyo University, Japan) as a part of my book, Lives of Young Koreans in Japan (forthcoming, London & New York: Kegan Paul International). Also Ms. Kate Phipps (Saitama University) helped me with the arrangement of this paper.

2 In this paper, Japanese and Korean names are written with the family name first, as is customary in East Asia. Korean people mostly have monosyllabic family names and disyllabic personal names; I hyphenate the personal name, as in "Kim Haeng-Yi." Japanese and Korean have a shared system of Chinese pictographic writing, but pronunciation of the same character is often very different between the two languages. Where Korean names are given a Japanese reading (quite a common practice in Japan), I romanize without the hyphen, as in "Kin Koji," the Japanese reading of "Kim Haeng-Yi."

3 The word Zainichi literally means simply "resident in Japan." It is used adjectivally with Chosenjin (North Korean) and/or Kankokujin (South Korean), or more informally as a noun on its own, to indicate members of the Korean minority in Japan. For the purposes of this paper I define "Zainichi" as including (1) ethnic Koreans who came to Japan around the time of World War II, or earlier, and have lived here ever since; and (2) their offspring, who have been born and raised in Japan and basically look upon Japan as their permanent place of residence.

4 Kanagawa prefecture adjoins Tokyo; Yokohama is the prefectural capital. This questionnaire survey covered random samples of Koreans and Chinese aged over twenty. The response rate was 48.0 percent, with 1,028 valid responses, made up of 866 from Koreans, 161 from Chinese, and one that did not state nationality.

 In striking contrast to the Korean figures, over 80 percent of the Chinese respondents turned out to have no Japanese alias. Ishida Reiko, author of Chapter 6 of the Kimpara collection, which focuses on the use of aliases, offers the following explanations for the low usage of aliases among ethnic Chinese in the Kanagawa survey: (1) A large proportion (43%) were first-generation migrants, three-quarters of whom came to Japan after the end of World War II. (2) Reflecting their historical background, none of the Chinese respondents had ever been obliged to use an alias, whereas 13.1 percent of the Koreans surveyed were old enough to have been forced to adopt a Japanese name during Japan's colonial rule over Korea. (3) Many of the children were attending ethnic Chinese schools, at least to the end of junior high school, and therefore had no need of a Japanese name for school purposes (Ishida in Kimpara et al. 1986:175-9).

5 In 1993 Kim Myung-Soo and I conducted a large-scale quantitative survey of South Korean youths in Japan (Fukuoka and Kim 1997). The population targeted by this research was "people born in Japan, with South Korean nationality, aged from 18 to 30." We selected 1,723 people at random from a list of some 70,000 names held by the Mindan-affiliated Korean Youth Association in Japan (KYAJ). The research was carried out by interviewing over a period of three months, from July to September 1993. We obtained exactly 800 valid replies, a response rate of 46.4 percent.

6 Yakiniku is a Japanese word simply meaning "cooked meat" and used to denote a grilled meat cuisine found in Korean restaurants in Japan. The mainland Korean equivalent is bulgogi but the two cuisines are not entirely the same. Yakiniku is a variant of bulgogi that has been modified by Zainichi Koreans to appeal to Japanese tastes. For example, the pieces of meat are cut much smaller and neater in yakiniku than in bulgogi. Yakiniku cuisine was invented by Zainichi Koreans shortly after the war, initially as a way of making the internal organs of cows more appetizing at a time when wide-spread poverty meant that most people could not afford more expensive kinds of meat. It eventually caught on with Japanese as well as Koreans and today is an extremely popular dish in Japan.

 Pachinko is a form of pinball played on an upright table and with a strong gambling element.

 Yakiniku restaurants and pachinko halls are the two businesses most closely associated with the Korean minority in Japan. In some cases these small businesses are no longer small at all. Pachinko, in particular, has become a massive and highly profitable industry with some very sizable companies in it.

7 In the 1993 KYAJ survey, 72.6 percent of the young ethnic Koreans who responded said they had "never" been called by their Korean name in the household and another 13.9 percent said they had "seldom" been called by that name (Fukuoka and Kim 1997:79).

8 A striking instance of cultural assimilation policy was the forced use of Japanese names under the Korean Civil Affairs Ordinance as revised in 1939. The frequent use of Japanese names by Koreans living in Japan today stems from this pre-war policy, known as Soshi-Kaimei. The term literally means "make a surname and change one's forename." The cultural implications of this policy ran very deep. As well as changing one's personal name to a Japanese-sounding one, each Korean was supposed to adopt a family name -- a fundamentally different concept to the traditional Korean system of clan names. The ultimate aim of the policy was to transform the Korean kinship system into a Japanese one (Miyata et al. 1992).

9 From 1988 to 1993 I conducted interviews with over 150 Zainichi Koreans, most of them of younger generation. The interviews focused on life histories, with particular reference to ethnic identity.

10 "Takayasu" strikes the Japanese ear as a rare surname, but then again, there are many rare surnames in Japanese. "Keisai" also sounds slightly unusual to the Japanese ear; a likely reaction would be to wonder whether the holder is the son of a Buddhist priest, since the characters are read in the Chinese-derived style (on-yomi) and such names are common in the priesthood.

11 Mintoren was launched in 1975. It is a group campaigning for the rights of Koreans and other ethnic minorities in Japan. The official English name adopted by Mintoren was the National Council for Combating Discrimination against Ethnic Peoples in Japan. In 1995 Mintoren changed its name to Zainichi Korian Jinken Kyokai, officially translated as the Human Rights Association for Koreans in Japan. At the same time the group's informal networking style of organization was replaced by one with a strong central executive. Some members were unhappy with these changes, and are now hoping to rebuild the old Mintoren. Thus Mintoren has effectively split into two different groups.

12 The traditional chokbo (documents of a Korean clan) principles include rules governing the choice of names. Surnames usually consist of a single character -- Kim, Park, Lee, etc. -- though a few surnames have two characters, such as Nam-Gung or Che-Gal. Forenames, by contrast, usually have two characters but occasionally just one. When a newly-born boy is named, one of the characters in the forename will be dictated by rules designed to show how many generations from the common ancestor the boy is. Thus one can tell just by looking at the forename which generation a male Korean is in, irrespective of his age. For example, the Osaka-based campaigner for ethnic Korean rights, Lee Kyung-Jae, is considerably older than his fellow activist Lee Chang-Jae, but the shared character "Jae" shows that both men are in the same generation of the Lee clan of Chonju.

13 In addition just over 200,000 Koreans have acquired Japanese nationality through naturalization, and many people with Japanese nationality have been born of mixed Japanese-Korean marriages.



Fukuoka, Y. (forthcoming) Lives of Young Koreans in Japan, London & New York: Kegan Paul International.

Fukuoka, Y. and Kim, M. (1997) Zainichi Kankokujin Seinen no Seikatsu to Ishiki (The Life and Consciousness of Young South Koreans in Japan), Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press.

Kimpara, S., Ishida, R., Ozawa, Y., Kajimura, H., Tanaka, H. and Mihashi, O. (1986) Nihon no Naka no Kankoku-Chosenjin, Chugokujin: Kanagawa-kennai Zaiju Gaikokujin Jittai Chosa yori (Koreans and Chinese Inside Japan: Reports from a Survey on Foreign Residents of Kanagawa Prefecture), Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.

Miyata, S., Kim, Y. and Yang, T. (1992) Soshi-Kaimei (Make a Surname, Change the Forename), Tokyo: Akashi Shoten.