January 24, 2022
Statelessness in East Asia after World War II
In a scene in Min Jin Lee's 2017 novel Pachinko, Solomon Baek, an ethnically Korean youth in Japan named Solomon Baek goes to the local ward office on his fourteenth birthday to apply for an alien registration card that will allow him to reside legally in Japan. The fictional character of Solomon was born in Japan in the 1960s, to ethnically Korean parents born in Japan in the 1930s; but even as a third-generation Japanese Korean, he is not a Japanese citizen. In its portrait of an extended Korean family from the 1910s to the 1980s, Pachinko illuminates the changing relationship between ethnic Koreans in Japan and Japanese society, with references to changes on the Korean peninsula. It stokes the historical imagination with its consideration of how the circumstances of colonialism, war, and decolonization created hundreds of thousands of stateless people in East Asia in the 1940s and 1950s in ways that still shape lives today.
The “Nansen passport,” named after the League of Nations’ first High Commissioner for Refugees Fridtjof Nansen, allowed its holders – Russians, Armenians, and Assyrians displaced in the First World War – the possibility of moving through and working in the countries who were signatories to the agreement. It made no provisions for permanent residency or citizenship, and offered no guaranteed right of passage or employment to refugees.
Many histories of statelessness begin in twentieth-century Europe. World War I produced tens of thousands of people unable to claim any citizenship at all. This led to measures like the Nansen passport, designed to provide documentation and travel permits to people without nationalities. The extraordinary violence of World War II displaced millions, and, in response, organizations on the international, national, and local level sought to aid them. Such efforts yielded two important postwar statutes for refugees and the stateless: the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. The 1954 Convention provides the legal definition for stateless persons as individuals who are not considered citizens or nationals under the operation of the laws of any country. Although cast as international, the statutes were far from universal in their definitions and applications, tied as they were to the aftermath of the first and second world wars in Europe. Over the twentieth century, the conventions expanded to include people beyond those in Europe in the mid-twentieth century, but they did not apply to the stateless in immediate postwar Asia, where people faced upheavals of their own.
No one could predict what kinds of governments would replace the Imperial Japanese Government in the metropole or the colonial governments through the empire. For this reason, the fate of former colonial subjects remained unsettled.
As in Europe, World War II displaced millions of people throughout Asia, a phenomenon intensified by the abrupt postwar decolonization of the region. From the 1890s to 1945, Northeast Asia had consisted of an imperial formation, with the expansive Japanese empire in conflict with Qing empire and then the Republic of China. By the 1930s, subjects in the Japanese colonies of Taiwan, Korea, and the South Seas Mandate in Micronesia had claims to Japanese nationality. In 1937, Japan's expansionistic policies led it to wage outright war on China, and then on the United States and British territories, beginning with the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. By 1944 the tables had turned and, following the Allied incendiary and atomic bombings of the home islands, Japan surrendered on August 15 – simultaneously losing the war and the empire. Colonial governments staffed by Japanese officials throughout the region also collapsed. No one could predict what kinds of governments would replace the Imperial Japanese Government in the metropole or the colonial governments through the empire. For this reason, the fate of former colonial subjects remained unsettled.
Registration in a family register in Japan remains the primary way that the Japanese state ascertains citizenship.
In the wake of the war, military representatives of several Allied forces arrived to carry out the terms of surrender (See Map 1). The Soviet Red Army disarmed Japanese troops and occupied Northeast Asia, including Korea north of the 38th parallel. The US Army occupied Japan and Korea south of the 38th parallel. The US Navy accepted the surrender of Japanese soldiers and sailors throughout the Pacific. The Chinese Nationalist Army accepted the Japanese surrender in China, Taiwan, and Indo-China north of the 17th parallel, although Mao's 8th Army remained active in Northeast China. The British oversaw Japan's surrender in Southeast Asia. All of these Allied occupations, lasting from months to years, left their mark on postwar Asia in terms of the boundaries they drew and the ideologies they promoted.
Just after the war, a sorting of peoples based on nationality began. Imperial Japan had promoted civilian settlement, and at the time of defeat large numbers of Japanese families – approximately 3.2 million people – lived in the colonies. Allied militaries swept through Asia to disarm the 3.7 million Japanese troops abroad and demobilize them. Then the US Army, in cooperation with the Navy and the existing Imperial Japanese Government, initiated a repatriation program to transport Japanese settlers back to Japan. By December 1946, nearly 5 million Japanese had returned to Japan from abroad. These people were recognized as Japanese nationals and had legal claims on that status by virtue of being listed in a family register (koseki) located in metropolitan Japan.
At the moment of defeat, an estimated 2 million Koreans and 40,000 Taiwanese resided in the metropole. In an imperial formation, their presence made a kind of sense. Korean and Taiwanese elites sought educational opportunities in Japan. Dispossessed farmers came to Japan in search of work as laborers. The Japanese state had forcibly drafted others for the war effort. With defeat and decolonization, the colonial rhetoric of brotherhood and assimilation dissipated, revealing the underlying racism. Former colonial subjects, now rendered as foreigners, were no longer welcome. The Japanese government and the American occupiers pressured the Koreans and Taiwanese to leave Japan, providing transportation on the ships they used to repatriate the Japanese. The Americans, counterintuitively, created disincentives by limiting the amount of money Koreans could take with them. Moreover, some Koreans had been in Japan for decades, and believed their prospects were better in Japan than on the peninsula. Approximately 600,000 ethnic Koreans chose to remain in Japan.
Meanwhile, turmoil wracked Korea, under Allied Occupation since liberation in 1945. By 1948, two governments had emerged: the American-backed Republic of Korea in the South (“South Korea”) and the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the North (“North Korea”). From 1950-1953, a civil war devastated the peninsula and ended in an armistice, with the nation still divided. Koreans in Japan had had prewar geographical links to different parts of the country, but now Korea was divided ideologically, with Syngman Rhee's authoritarian anti-communist regime in the South and Kim Il Sung's socialist regime in the North. Koreans in Japan wanted to preserve ties with their hometowns, but now some of those affinities had potentially dangerous political implications. Sympathizing with the South placed one in the anti-communist camp. Supporting the North tended to indicate agreement with a socialist outlook, as well as a more critical stance towards the South Korean and Japanese governments. Those aligned with the North had also been more active in seeking ways to preserve their Korean heritage within Japan, especially through Korean-language schools. This enabled them to lay claims on an identity that they believed was more authentically Korean than those affiliated with the South. In the midst of these political complexities, the Japanese state sometimes deported the non-citizen Koreans to Korea, where they might face a range of accusations, from collaboration with colonial Japan to affiliation with the wrong political side.
Political changes in Japan related to decolonization and post-imperial nation-building placed the ethnic Koreans in an ambiguous legal position. People listed in metropolitan family registers, almost all of whom were Japanese, had claims on Japanese citizenship. Koreans, however, had been registered back in colonial Korea, if at all. The revised Japanese Constitution of 1946 and other legal measures affirmed the tie between metropolitan family registers and citizenship, excluding all other claims. The signing of the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, in which Japan recognized the independence of its former colonies, meant that Koreans lost their Japanese nationality. Given the political turbulence on the peninsula, many Koreans in Japan were unable or unwilling to seek legal ties with either Korean state. Ineligible for citizenship in Japan, they became stateless.
The signing of the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, in which Japan recognized the independence of its former colonies, meant that Koreans lost their Japanese nationality. Given the political turbulence on the peninsula, many Koreans in Japan were unable or unwilling to seek legal ties with either Korean state. Ineligible for citizenship in Japan, they became stateless.
Circumstances changed again in 1965, when Japan and South Korea normalized diplomatic relations and Japan agreed to recognize South Korea as the only legitimate government of Korea. As explained by historian Sonia Ryang, these changes “enabled Koreans in Japan to obtain the right of permanent residence on condition that they apply for South Korean nationality.” 1Approximately 250,000 people, mainly those aligned with the North, chose not to apply for South Korean nationality and remained stateless. Further changes in the 1980s provided the means for Koreans in Japan affiliated with the North to receive permits for international travel, but they remain vulnerable to political interference from the South Korean state. Since the 1990s, a number of ethnic Koreans, ranging from 3,000 to 12,000 a year, naturalize as Japanese citizens, but this can be a complex and costly process, one that requires giving up citizenship elsewhere – Japan does not allow a person to hold citizenship in more than one country. The Zainichi – permanent Korean residents of Japan – therefore have a complicated political and legal relationship, one that has changed over time, with their Japanese home government.
On the one hand, the South Korean state's willingness to provide a nationality to the Zainichi, and indeed to the people of North Korea, can be understood as a government taking responsibility for ethnic Koreans, even if they reside outside of South Korea's current national boundaries. On the other, the fact that some Koreans outside of South Korea are eligible for Korean citizenship means that they are not technically stateless. In most cases, statelessness, and the loss of the right to have rights, is a situation to be avoided. But in a few curious cases, being stateless – at least temporarily – might be advantageous. Consider the case of defectors from North Korea in the twenty-first century. Most people who succeed in leaving North Korea eventually end up in South Korea, which claims all Koreans on the Korean peninsula as citizens. But some defectors from North Korea want to leave the peninsula entirely and settle in Europe or North America. In the realm of human rights rhetoric, because of the depredations of the North Korean state, defectors are considered deserving of political asylum. Human rights advocates support defectors in their attempts to migrate to places outside of Korea. Within the realm of international law, however, because they are eligible for citizenship in South Korea, North Korean defectors are not technically stateless. As Sheena Chestnut Greitens puts it, “The ROK’s legal assertion of citizenship for North Koreans, therefore, both makes them formal citizens of South Korea and excludes them from membership elsewhere.” 2 This can provide the means for courts in countries outside of South Korea to deny North Koreans’ petitions for asylum, with their only remaining choice to reside in South Korea.
In most cases, statelessness, and the loss of the right to have rights, is a situation to be avoided. But in a few curious cases, being stateless – at least temporarily – might be advantageous.
The case of the Zainichi, ethnic Koreans in Japan with ties to the colonial period, is perhaps the best-known case of statelessness produced by decolonization in East Asia, but it is not the only one. The case of “Japanese citizens of European or American descent” on the Ogasawara Islands provides an illustration of how the acquisition of territory by the victors, in this case the United States, from the former rules, the Japanese, can render people stateless, if only temporarily. The Bonin Islands, now known as the Ogasawara Islands, were home to a small population of people descended from North American whalers, Europeans, and Pacific Islanders. In 1875, the Japanese state claimed these islands, and by 1882 had registered all their residents as citizens of the empire (teikoku shimin). This created a small population of people, descended from New England whalers, Europeans, and Polynesians, called “Japanese citizens of European or American descent.” Japanese people of Japanese descent moved to the islands, joining the existing population.
During the war, anticipating that the Ogasawaras would be a site of fighting, the Japanese government transferred most of the civilian population to metropolitan Japan. After the war, during the American-sponsored population transfers, the Americans decided to move only the Euro-Americans and their relatives, and not the ethnically Japanese population, back to the islands, which were under US Navy control. The archives make it clear that this population was moved on the basis of their “Caucasian” blood. Some also spoke English, and had cultural affiliations with the United States. In the meantime, the US Navy was faced with the problem of how to categorize the civilians under their control. Those civilians had been Japanese citizens, but were now in a kind of limbo.
After the war the Americans decided to move only the Euro-Americans and their relatives - but not the ethnically Japanese population - back to the islands under US Navy control. The archives make it clear that these people were moved on the basis of their “Caucasian” blood.
As explained by the historian of the Ogasawaras David Chapman, the return of the descendants of Americans and Pacific Islanders to the islands prompted the US Naval Administration to create a new category of people, the “Bonin Islanders,” holding paperwork issued by the US Naval Administration. This paperwork included birth certificates and travel permits. This “Bonin Islander” identity, however, “was recognized only within the internal workings of the US administration; there was no international recognition of its legitimacy.” 3Historian David Chapman argues that these people, who were not citizens of Japan, the United States, or any other country, were by definition stateless. There numbers were small, about 130 people. Because they lived on remote islands under US military administration, they were apparently not visible to organizations concerned with the stateless. Nevertheless, the “Bonin Islanders” provides a provocative case of how a newly arrived imperial power might favor a given population over another, but not enough to automatically provide citizenship. Their identity as “Bonin Islanders” eventually disappeared, and their statelessness was resolved, when the islands reverted to Japan in 1968 and – via a series of bureaucratic procedures lasting from 1969-1981 – its inhabitants once again became Japanese citizens.
In the fall of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic and virtual courses, I asked undergraduates in my history of internationalism to introduce one stateless person on our class’s online discussion board. This exercise generated the names of about a dozen stateless people, with two appearing most frequently: Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the inspiration of Tom Hanks’ film “The Terminal,” and Enes Kanter, a professional basketball player originally from Turkey. Both of these men were critics of their governments and sought asylum elsewhere. Both found it difficult to travel internationally once their passports had been revoked. They represent what may be the most common understanding of the stateless in the twenty-first century: individuals who seek asylum outside of their own country for political reasons. Students came up with other examples as well, including cases of people who were stranded on the wrong side of a border during the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was intriguing that, as of the 21st century, students easily generated examples of political asylum. It is less clearly understood how the dynamics of decolonization in East Asia in the mid-twentieth century produced hundreds of thousands of stateless people, with ramifications that continue to echo today