Japanese residents of colonial descent

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Japanese residents of colonial descent are Japanese citizens and non-Japanese people who trace their origins back to Japan's colonial period, when the Empire of Japan took control of Korea, Taiwan and parts of mainland China. Ethnic Korean and Chinese people, by choice or coercion, arrived in Japan as colonial subjects but second-class citizens. Though many returned to their homelands after the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II, many of them and their descendants live in Japan to this day, identifying with Japan or other nations to varying degrees.

Nowadays, many people of post-colonial backgrounds are Japanese citizens, they or their parents having naturalised. Most were born in and have resided throughout their lives in Japan, speak only Japanese, and use Japanese names or aliases on a daily basis. As it is not possible for a person with non-Japanese parents to be automatically registered as a Japanese citizen, and since Japan disallows dual nationality and has a jus sanguinis[1] system of determining citizenship, many of these people have chosen not to naturalise, or in some cases, their applications might have been rejected. They are instead registered as foreign nationals and are given a special form of permanent residence. They are officially known as Special Permanent Residents (特別永住者 Tokubetsu Eijuusha, SPRs), but ethnic Koreans in particular are commonly known as Zainichi (在日), which literally means '[foreigner] residing in Japan'. About 400,000 people hold this status today.[2]

Legal status of special permanent residents

Special permanent residents, despite mostly being born in the country and living there all their lives, are legally foreigners, the same as any other foreign national living in Japan. They are separately registered from Japanese citizens through a legal system of 'residency management' (在留管理制度 zairyuu kanri seido), which means that they must carry identity cards (在留カード Zairyuu Kaado) at all times, just like other foreign nationals. If they wish to leave Japan for more than a year without losing their right to live and work in the country, they must also obtain a 're-entry permit' (再入国許可 sainyuukoku kyoka) stamp in their foreign passports, just as other foreign nationals do. SPRs also do not have a koseki (戸籍, 'family registry') - which acts as a birth, marriage and citizenship document - so, like other foreign spouses and parents, are not accorded equal legal status to a Japanese spouse or parent.[3] SPRs must naturalise as Japanese citizens in order to be removed from the alien registration database, applying through the same process that allows non-citizens of other backgrounds to become Japanese.[4] Two of the few legal differences between SPRs and other foreign permanent residents is that they are not fingerprinted and photographed on each and every entry to the country, whereas this procedure has been applied to most other foreign nationals since November 2007; and SPR status is inheritable if neither parent is a Japanese citizen, whereas children of regular permanent residents are registered under another type of status, as dependants.


After the defeat of Japan in 1945, many thousands of non-Japanese colonial subjects remained in the country. For the first few years, during the U.S. occupation of Japan, their status was intermediate between 'foreign national' and 'Japanese'; for example, ethnic Korean children were regarded as Japanese for educational purposes, but in criminal law, a Korean would be tried as a foreigner. After the U.S. gave up mainland Japan in 1952, their status was switched entirely to 'foreign national' and schools were no longer obligated to admit their children. Discrimination led to many 'Zainichi' schools springing up in parallel to the mainstream Japanese education system.[5]

At this time, Japan did not recognised the People's Republic of China or either North or South Korea. This rendered post-colonial subjects stateless. In 1965, South Korea was recognised, and ethnic Koreans were allowed to register as South Korean citizens and obtain permanent residence. Those who chose to affiliate to North Korea - a more economically prosperous nation at the time - remained stateless. A few thousand remain so today. Later, naturalisation was also permitted, and the law was changed to allow children to inherit Japanese citizenship through their mothers as well as their fathers. Since the children of ex-colonial and Japanese people would be automatically Japanese, the number of registered foreign nationals began to decline, a process which continues today. Later still, Japanese employment laws were relaxed to allow non-Japanese citizens to work in Japanese education, and the category of SPR was created, but discrimination still lingers. To combat this, many SPRs choose to use Japanese aliases in everyday life, and may reveal their true status only to very close friends. Others have long since taken Japanese nationality, and have few or no links with the 'Zainichi' community.


  1. Latin: 'right of blood', i.e. citizenship is awarded if a parent is a citizen and not according to place of birth.
  2. Ministry of Justice: '在留資格別外国人登録者数の推移', 'Changes in Numbers of Registered Foreigners with Different Statuses of Residence'. Official Japanese document detailing numbers of registered foreign nationals between 2005 and 2009. Since 2007, regular permanent residents (third line from the top) have outnumbered SPRs (fourth line).
  3. See Arudou and Higuchi (2008) for legal advice and information for non-Japanese.
  4. Ryang and Lie (2009).
  5. Ryang and Lie (2009).