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  • The Denationalized Have No Class:The Banishment of Japan's Korean Minority—A Polemic
  • Sonia Ryang (bio)


In a recent article entitled "Bringing Class Back In: The Changing Basis of Inequality and the Korean Minority in Japan," I read:

. . . this study shows that the legal/institutional and socioeconomic structural changes in Japan for the past few decades, by decreasing ethnic inequality between Koreans and Japanese while increasing class inequality among Koreans, have made class more significant than ethnicity in understanding the inequality problematic of zainichi Koreans [Koreans in Japan].

(Kim 2008, 871)

Perhaps it is logical that an oppressed and marginalized ethnic minority, once it begins to receive the benefit of the affluence of the host society, albeit belatedly, would shed its ethnic mark and begins to gain a class mark. Perhaps also, it is logical to think that in such a situation, class, rather than ethnicity, [End Page 159] becomes more relevant for its identity. Unequivocally, however, I remain unconvinced by the argument that a certain class of category becomes "more significant" than certain others, since the mark of the oppressed is always necessarily multiply compounded.

Nevertheless, what the above passage made me wonder distinctly—and consequently, what I found to be odd—was this: Koreans in Japan have always had class stratification within them—during the colonial period, through the postwar period, and to this day. The question is why, then, it is that some researchers think that class (and here, I take that they mean, with conflation, class consciousness and class differentiation) has not been relevant to Koreans in Japan, or more precisely, when we think about Koreans in Japan. When did class disappear from the rhetoric and understanding of and about Koreans in Japan to the extent that now someone has to bring class back in?

These questions led me to think not so much about class as about being human—notably, when is a human not a human in Japan? I find focusing on class (including class consciousness and class differentiation), or more precisely, the absence thereof, a useful tool to think about Japan as a nation-state in which non-nationals are not deemed human.


It is no news to Japan scholars that the concept of class does not always serve as a useful guide. That stated, class is not a unified category. Following the Neo-Marxist intervention in academe, and especially that of Louis Althusser and Pierre Bourdieu, no serious social scientist would be content with a definition of class limited to economic relationships. Rather, cultural capital and ideological mechanisms as we understand them today carry as much importance as socioeconomic relations and income or wages (Poulantzas 1973; Therborn 1986; Althusser 1984, 1990; Bourdieu 1977, 1984).

But there also is the problem of the cross-cultural and cross-national compatibility of categories. For example, the category of the middle class captures a much broader population in the United States than in Britain. Whereas in the latter, at least in popular and lay discourses of the everyday, the middle class stands in clear distinction from the working class (the [End Page 160] histories of which have been famously written, for example by Engels (1993) and Thompson (1964)), in the former, the middle class seems to encompass heterogeneous income groups and overlap with vague nomenclatures, such as professionals, blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, and so on. Furthermore, in both the United States and Britain, the poverty line often follows racial (and ethnic and colonial) lines of division. Whereas racialized economic borders have long divided the Korean minority from the Japanese majority, the vast majority of Koreans and Japanese today would classify themselves as middle class—if asked, that is. In other words, terms such as "class" are passé in popular discourse in Japan, just as poverty deceptively appears to have vanished in the eyes of many.

But did class disappear equally and identically for Japanese and Koreans? In other words, is the mode of attrition of this concept from public consciousness the same for Japanese and Koreans in Japan, the former being members of the Japanese national polity, and the latter being outsiders to it? In line with this, my further proposition...


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pp. 159-187
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