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Korean activist braces for `storm of fascism'

By PAUL BAYLIS, Asahi Shimbun News Service

`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 prestigious job.

``I'm just a cheerful Korean,'' she said, charming the interviewers and winning a four-month position, which eventually stretched out to four years.

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 school.

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 longer.

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.''


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