Making and Breaking Family: North Korea’s Zainichi Returnees and “the Gift”


By Markus Bell. Lecturer in Korean and Japanese Studies, SEAS.

Forced migration takes numerous forms and, in tandem with the resettlement process, is often a traumatic experience that requires significant emotional and physical rehabilitation, and time to recover.

In the most promising scenarios, during the early stages of resettlement, government services and civic organisations shape new arrivals into specific kinds of citizens (Ong 2003). But what happens when the government neither supports nor acknowledges the arrival and existence of a group of asylum seekers? Who organizes visas and helps register for employment? Who shows the new arrival how to use basic services and navigate the bureaucratic spider web of the post-industrial society?

My new article entitled, ‘Making and Breaking Family: North Korea’s Zainichi Returnees and “the Gift”,’ based on a year of ethnographic fieldwork in Osaka and Tokyo and published with Taylor and Francis, through Asian Anthropology, explores these questions through the theoretical lens of ‘gifting’. In this paper I argue that the gift of freedom given by Japanese civic groups to new arrivals from North Korea carries a heavy debt in the form of the attendant obligation to reciprocate. The debt often leads vulnerable individuals to involve themselves in risky activities that put themselves and their family in North Korea in danger. The findings of my research contribute to debates on the significance of civic society and the state in resettling refugees.

Japan is a signatory to the 1951 International Refugee Treaty, but does not accept asylum seekers from North Korean unless they can prove they were part of the so-called Repatriation movement (1959-1984), organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross. In the last fifteen years some 300 people have arrived in Japan from North Korea. Each one of these individuals either migrated to North Korea in the 1960s-70s, or is a descendant of these original ‘repatriates’ across the Sea of Japan. The burden of assisting North Korean arrivals to Japan has fallen on Japanese civic organisations. These organizations take on a number of tasks when a person arrives in Japan. Many new arrivals require accommodation, employment, access to Japanese language training, and help with the state services.

Civic groups play an important role in helping both North Koreans hiding in China and in the countries in which they resettle. But these groups are by no means purely altruistic entities in the lives of North Korean refugees; the organizations and the individuals working within them are motivated by a range of different ideologies that they use to justify spending their own time and money maintaining their activities.

Japanese civic groups present vulnerable individuals from North Korea with both freedom and bondage. Freedom comes with the chance to begin a new life, away from the tyrannical state apparatus of the DPRK. Bondage, on the other hand, is the inevitable result of the violence imparted by a gift that can never be repaid. In an effort to renegotiate this debt, returnees continuously do small favors for NPOs and foster pseudo-kinship relations to underline and reconfigure their relationship with organization members.

Returnees’ efforts to mitigate the burden the gift are not, however, always successful. Civic groups often expect new arrivals to join them in publically criticizing North Korea, in some instances taking high profile activist roles designed to undermine the North Korean government and its representation in Japan. The relationship between Japanese NPOs and North Korean asylum seekers infantilizes the new arrival and puts themselves and their family who remain in the DPRK in danger.

In making pseudo-kinship relationships with Japanese civic group members, returnees from North Korea risk damaging their real familial relations. The poison of the gift creeps outwards along returnees’ kinship networks, threatening to rupture familial ties to loved ones left behind in North Korea.

Key words: gifting; Zainichi returnees; North Korea; Japan; civil society; transmigration

Markus Bell is a lecturer Sheffield University’s School of East Asian Studies. His research examines contemporary and cold war migration between Japan and North Korea, ethnographically unpacking the effects of transnational, inter-generational movement traversing borders ideological and geo-political. His new article, ‘Making and Breaking Family: North Korea’s Zainichi Returnees and “the Gift”, is now available through the journal, Asian Anthropology.

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