`In my life, this is the worst moment I have known in terms of social intolerance.'
Shin Sugok was 20 when she made a mistake that changed her life.
She stepped through the wrong door at the offices of advertising giant
Hakuhodo Inc. into a room where they were holding interviews for
members of a special advertising team. Before she knew it, she was
being asked why she thought she was qualified for such an important and
``I'm just a cheerful Korean,'' she said, charming the interviewers
and winning a four-month position, which eventually stretched out to
It was pivotal experience that launched Shin, a poor, uneducated
Korean girl, into a life of success and prominence. She parlayed the
experience into a career as a businesswoman, consultant, media
commentator, writer and one of the most outspoken activists for
minority and women's rights in Japan.
Yet the tenacity with which she takes on the system seems a
contrast with the personable way she builds relationships. Before a
recent media interview at her office in Tokyo's Ginza district, a group
of influential women-former politicians, journalists and activists-came
spilling into the hall, laughing and hugging one another, promising to
``go for it'' and support each other through thick and thin.
But despite the support she gets from many quarters, Shin says
society is entering ``a storm of fascism'' that will pass only after a
struggle from within and concerted pressure from abroad.
``The most frequent words I hear these days are `kaere' (go home),
and `Don't stay in someone else's country if all you are going to do is
complain.' But I have nowhere to go home to,'' she said.
A third-generation Korean resident, Shin's grandparents came to
Japan as laborers at the end of the first decade of the last century.
Born in 1959, she grew up poor, one of four children in a family that
moved around a lot in the 1960s and '70s-Tokyo, Odawara, Osaka. Her
parents did ``whatever they could to eat,'' her father working for a
time in the printing industry.
Shin herself started working at 6, making deliveries for the
yogurt-drink maker Yakult. At 12, she started working as a child model,
and her formal education ended after the second year of elementary
Throughout childhood, she was encouraged to hide her Korean
identity. When she was 8, a local official turned her away from
participating in a neighborhood festival because she was a
``foreigner.'' When she transferred from a Japanese school to a Korean
one, the Korean students attacked her for having come from an ``enemy
school.'' She went by the Japanese name Setsuko Niiyama until she was
20, when finally, she decided not to ``hide from the truth'' any
She considers her four years with Hakuhodo to be her real
education. The experience taught the skills of presentation,
persuasion, relationship-building and negotiation. She even credits
Hakuhodo with teaching her to read and write.
``Even as a child, I could speak as an adult, although I knew
almost nothing about reading and writing,'' she said. ``I learned
everything through business.''
In 1985, she set up her own management and training company,
Kogasha. In 1996, she opened Shin Professional Studio, which
specializes in developing the professional abilities of women and
promoting opportunities for women in the workplace. Despite considering
herself a ``businesswoman,'' rather than an activist, Shin lectures
widely, comments on radio and television, and writes for a variety of
publications on topics from AIDS to gender and minority discrimination.
She has written books on these subjects and has served on committees advising the Tokyo and Kanagawa prefectural governments.
``I am a businesswoman, but my business is tied to education,'' she
said. ``The money I make through business should go back into society.
I know what it's like to be on the bottom, so I know how important it
is to give something back.''
Asked whether she makes a lot of money, she said: ``Yes, a lot. I get 50,000 yen for one lecture.''
Yet there was a time when Shin was less interested in changing the system than in joining it.
``A million times, I thought about how much I wanted to become a
Japanese citizen. But when I went for an interview with the Ministry of
Justice, the first thing they said was, `Korean men like to use fake
marriages to get residency in Japan,''' implying she might be a party
to such a practice were she to become a citizen.
The ministry also said her taxes had to be paid up for the previous
five years, and that her business had to have operated without a loss
for five consecutive years. The officials even brought up a parking
ticket she had been issued two years before.
Then it came to choosing a Japanese name. Shin was asked to pick
from a list of approved kanji, but her choice was rejected and other
kanji were suggested for her. Finally, the officials told her there
would be a series of interviews with Shin's neighbors. And even if she
passed all this, they could still reject her, since in the end, the
decision was at their discretion.
``Yes, I wanted Japanese citizenship. But there was no way I was
going to beg for it. Under the current system, it's a waste of time.''
The experience convinced her the fight should be more than a
personal one, and the only way to approach it was as a human-rights
issue subject to international standards. In January this year, she and
seven other resident foreigners made news by returning their alien
registration cards to the government as an ``assertion of humanity.''
And in April, after Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara made his
infamous ``sangokujin'' remark-accusing foreigners from former Japanese
colonies of committing ``atrocious crimes'' and calling on the Ground
Self-Defense Forces to suppress riots by non-Japanese in the event of a
disaster-Shin joined a delegation of foreigners to request a meeting
with the governor. Ishihara declined.
Shin says Ishihara won the governorship because ``he says what
other people feel they cannot say.'' Ishihara's election, she says, is
one indication of society becoming less tolerant.
``In my life, this is the worst moment I have known in terms of social intolerance.''
Asked whether she is concerned that her outspokenness will draw the ire of right-wing forces, she is defiant.
``I hope they send the sound trucks over and park them outside my
window. I will set up my own loudspeakers and blast them right back!''
Most of those who appear to be right-wingers, she says, are just
frustrated people feeling the same sense of isolation that minorities
such as herself feel. Many, in fact, are Koreans, she said.
``They just want to be loved by the Japanese. The real problem is
the persistent refusal to grant full rights to foreigners. Foreigners
are not seen as fully human. When it comes to `internationalization,'
it is the Western foreigner with blue eyes that people think of.''
Tony Laszlo, a representative of Issho Kikaku, a nonprofit group
that researches and lobbies on multicultural issues, says he often
calls upon Shin's expertise, especially on matters related to Korean
residents in Japan.
``One of the things that makes Shin quite special is that she has a
very good presence. She is capable of getting a message across in a
compact way, an understandable way,'' he said. ``She cares very much
about how Japanese society will be shaped going into the future.''
During a lecture to Asahi Shimbun staff three years ago, Shin
raised the issue of identifying minorities in criminal cases. If a
Korean is suspected in a kidnapping, she said, the police identify him
by his Korean name. If a Korean is the victim, police identify him by
his Japanese name.
Among several plans Shin is working on to foster multicultural
understanding is a homestay program that would involve Japanese staying
at the homes of foreign residents. Another idea is a ``naked sento
tour'' in which Japanese and non-Japanese would go to public baths
together, the only rule being that no one would be allowed to wash his
or her own back.
Shin's energy, ideas and stamina seem almost boundless. At the end
of a two-hour interview, asked if she had anything to add, she said,
``Oh yes, I have a mountain of things to say.'' Asked to be brief, she
borrowed from Martin Luther King: ``I have a dream.''