Korean Women Working and Living in Japan 1920-1960s: The Life of Zainichi Issei and Nisei

By Nanami Uchiyama


Korean migrants have developed a unique identity in Japan and continue to live today as representatives of the zainichi population. Koreans under Japanese imperial rule have migrated to the Japanese archipelago since the 1920s, and the number of Korean migrants residing in Japan peaked in the 1930s. Due to a labor force shortage, imperial Japan began to abduct Koreans from 1938 onwards. Many Korean women were a part of the development of the community in Japan during this period as spinners in silk factories, prostitutes, and wives of Korean men working in coal mines. The unique experiences of these women provide insight into the motives behind their migration to Japan.

The first wave of migration

The Japan-Korea Treaty of 1876 enabled the flow and migration of Koreans to Japan, and about eight hundred Koreans were living in Japan prior to the conclusion of Japan-Korea Annexation treaty in 1910.[1] It is mentioned that only 790 Koreans were in Japan at that time, and largely consisted of diplomats and exchange students. The treaty annexed Korea to Japan, causing the Korean population to become Japanese citizens by law.  Since 1920, there was a dramatic increase in the Korean migrant population and the main supplier of the immigrants to Japan were from Cheju Do, the southern part of Korean Peninsula.[2] Those Korean migrants came in search of job opportunities, and left their jobs as farmers to seek a better wage in Japan.

The geographical proximity to the Japanese archipelago outweighed all factors for Koreans to migrate, and thus most of the migrants were originally from areas that were close to the Busan port such as Busan and Jejudo. As the number of students under the imperial scheme rose quickly, however, the migrants increased at a much faster speed.[3] The migrants travelled via Busan port and entered Japan through Shimonoseki or Osaka. By 1925, Korean migrants constituted 15 percent of Fukuoka’s population, 10.5 percent of Osaka, and 7.5 percent of Yamaguchi.[4] In the far north, Korean migrants constituted 1.3 percent of population of Hokkaido in 1910, which grew to 3.7 percent by 1930.[5]

By 1930, the number of female immigrants increased as they joined their husbands and families in Japan, and these women were almost half of the total Korean migrants in Japan. The feminization of sex ratio[6] of the immigrants rose while the labor population remained high, suggesting that Korean women had been employed in industries apart from house chores. Their occupations typically involved farming, collecting tins,[7] and operating small shops for fellow Koreans. From 1910 to 1938, migrants from the Korean Peninsula willingly came to Japan with aspirations for a better life and for greater educational opportunities.[8]

Figure 1: The Korean Spinners at Silk Factory, Kimu Nambo, nineteen years old on the right, and Rhee Kuwanenn, fifteen years old on the left, 1921. Osaka Mainichi Shimbun.

1939, the beginning of abduction and imperialization policy

Imperialization, also referred to as Japanization, was conducted from 1937 after the incident of Manchuria. The policy forced civilians to visit shrines, praise the emperor, and attend schools than provided education in Japanese, as well as implemented Sōshi-kaimei (the order forced on Koreans to change their names to Japanese and adopting the Japanese idea of ie).[9] “Recruitment” of migrants began in 1939, which was actually an abduction of people from the Korean Peninsula to Japan. In 1941, the Pacific War increased labor recruitment, and ten million people were assumed to have been abducted as labor force by the end of 1945.[10] The media had spread the reality of life in factory as spinners and the parents became reluctant to send the daughters for work.[11] The number of Japanese girls in the market was also decreasing, and the silk factory in Kishiwada, Osaka had hired many Korean girls beginning in 1920. The dormitory was built under or next to the factory for efficiency, and the factory was operating twenty-four hours a day with twelve-hour shifts for each worker (jokō).[12]

The Koreans were paid three sen, the kōkyū jokō checked this and only one Korean jokō had that position.[13] Korean women were not using the dormitory until more Koreans were hired. They eventually needed a bigger space and were placed in a wooden lodge behind the dormitory where bed bugs frequently appeared.[14] The situation for Korean girls was harsher than that of Japanese workers.

Marriage and Parenting in Japan

80 percent of the female migrants from Korea were single, according to the census. Regarding the accuracy of this data, some migrants have told stories that as a wife they traveled to Japan to find their husbands, in accordance with the morale of Confucian teaching, and were hired as unmarried jokō by the same factory as their husbands. A zainichi nisei who grew up in Hokkaido and raised her children during the Second World War commented on her marriage to a Korean man, who was a coordinator of a mining site in Hokkaido, as she resonated with the rising movement among young Koreans in 1943, at the time in which her husband was involved in.[15]  In Okaya, Aichi prefecture, a zainichi issei who was once a prostitute is now recognized for her past by her neighbors, but she never speaks about the past openly. The husband was a construction worker and a previous customer of hers. He liked her, so he paid the ransom to get married to her and she left the prostitute house.[16]

Mitsubishi containers

The experience on the ferry lasted for seven to eight hours on average[17]. Kim Dokujun (he was forced to work at Mitsui cooperation, Hida Kamioka coal mine site in Gifu) recalls the experience,  “My mother cried through the night on the ferry saying repeatedly ‘my son has to survive, he has to survive’. She cried because my mother rarely went outside of the province she lived in. She was taken out from there like a calf. I and my sister asked ourselves in heart if we will ever be able to return to Korea. Thinking that my newborn brother in Korea might not see my mother herself, perhaps not even a glimpse of her crying. Imagining such a situation made me cry even more. ”[18]

By arrival, those who were forcefully abducted from Busan to Shimonoseki port on the Kanpu Renraku-sen (Kampu ferry) were soon locked down in the containers alongside the port until the trains to Kyushu, the Far North of Japan (Hokkaido), Hyogo, and North East Japan, such as Miyagi, were made available for them to be relocated. There were twenty-two storages owned by nine different companies such as Mitsubishi, Nippon Tsu-un, Mitsui, Sumitomo, etc. In 1995, the area was reclaimed so only the Mitsubishi containers remain as they were today.[19]

Coal mining labor and Hokkaido

The Korean migrants, especially the ones who were abducted forcefully, , had to work in more severe conditions than Japanese workers. Those who ran the mining site as an executive were often the ones who came to Japan prior to 1939.[20] Hokkaido was one of the areas that had many Korean migrants working at coal mining sites, and Hokkaido continued to see an increase in the number of migrants despite being located in the far North of the Japanese archipelago. After the defeat of imperial Japan in the war, Koreans in Japan were given passports and allowed to freely go back to the Korean peninsula. Women took jobs in the black market (such as Ueno) by selling liquor that they brewed at their houses or by selling the candies they made.[21]

Figure 2: A photo of barmaid at Korean restaurant, 27 April 1923. Osaka Mainichi Shinbun.


Development of Korean towns in Shimonoseki

Those Koreans who fled from coal mining labor in Hokkaido were temporary residents who aimed to go back to Korea. As the law did not give rights to Koreans to build houses, the village town of Otsubo was full of houses made for temporary stay. However, many villagers settled long-term.

Single women who were taken to Japan were often deceived. They believed that they were guaranteed to work at threading houses in Osaka, however they were sold to brothels as prostitutes. There were “Korean restaurants” in all the coal mining towns and capitals, which served as prositution houses in reality.[22]  As the Sino-Japanese war continued, Karyū-byō yobō-hō (Precaution Law for Diseases of Red-light Districts) was fully enacted in April of 1938.[23] The law not only required to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases, but geiko and hostesses were occasionally tested as well. The law was intended to conduct the examinations paid by these women to ensure the hygiene of young generations. Health was becoming a greater priority around this time. The limitation of occasional checkups to women is discriminatory. As the prostitution of Korean women was not recognized by law, the Hokkaido police commanded the industry in to make an association amongst the Korean prostitution house owners in March 1938.


Shimonoseki developed as a symbol of the flow of migrant Koreans who remained in Japan. There were substantial differences in the hardships faced by both Korean men and women who migrated before and after 1939. Single Korean women were often tricked to work in the prostitution industry without rights and lawful regulation of the industry. All forms of written records of women appeared between 1946 and 1947, when the association of women empowered female leaders and movements began to gain momentum.

[1]So 1989, p. 2.

[2] So 1989, p. 2.

[3] Tamura(1999) p. 13.

[4] Tamura(1999) Fig. 2.

[5] Tamura(1999) Fig. 2.

[6] Tamura 1999, p. 23.
Tamura uses this term, “feminization of sex ratio” to show how the large percentages of labor oriented migration continued, suggesting that women also took part of labor force, man especially working under harsher condition as recorded.

[7] Takahashi 2000, annex 1 p. 5.
For the depiction of a Korean immigrant, the mother of a Korean boy collecting a tin can, old clothes for daily work, introduced as something typical to see in Miyagi or other country sides of Japan at the time.

[8] So 1989, pp. 5–6.

[9] Takahashi and Endō 2000, annex 1 p. 5.

[10] Takahashi and Endō 2000, annex 1 table 2.

[11] Hosoi 1925, p. 39.

[12] Hosoi 1925, p. 187.

[13] Kimu and Hō 1977. P.23

[14] Hosoi 1925, p. 17.

[15] Kimu & Hō 1977, p. 23.

[16] Son Son 2019.

[17] Kimu and Hō 1977, p. 23.

[18] Son Son 2019, p. 13.

[19] Son Son 2019, p. 8.

[20] Takahashi and Endō 2000, annex 1 p. 3.

[21] Takahashi and Endō 2000, annex 1 p. 5.

[22] Seaton 2016, p. 7.

[23] Kimu and Hō 1977, p. 25.


Hosoi Wakizou 細井和喜蔵. Jokō Aishi 女工哀史. Tokyo: Kaizōsha, 1925.

Kimu Chanjon 金賛汀 and Hō Senki 方鮮姫. Kaze no dōkoku: Zainichi Chōsenjin jokō no seikatsu to rekishi 風の慟哭 : 在日朝鮮人女工の生活と歴史. Tabata Shoten, 1977.

Seaton, Philip A. (Ed). “Local War Memories in Hokkaido.” In Local History and War Memories in Hokkaido. Ed. Philip A. Seaton, 7–9. London: Routledge, 2016.

So Kyonshiku 徐京植. Kominka seisaku kara shimon ōnatsu made: Zainichi chōsenjin no “Showa-shi” Iwanami bukkuretto No. 128 皇民化政策から指紋押捺まで: 在日朝鮮人の「昭和史」(岩波ブックレット No. 128). Iwanami Shoten, 1989.

Son Son 송송. Dare ka no, doko ka no Yamaguchi uliga ij-ji mal-aya hal-yeogsa, jaeiljoseon-in-ui yamaguchi だれかの、どこかの山口 우리가 잊지 말아야 할 역사, 재일조선인의 야마구치. Son Son and Shimonoseki Labor Education Center,2019.

Takahashi Masami 高橋正美, Endō Tadao 遠藤忠夫. “Shogen 2: Senryō-ka no nichijō seikatsu: Chon Daeson-san no hanashi” 証言2 : 占領下の日常生活 : 鄭達先さんのお話. Chiiki shakai ni okeru zainichi chōsenjin to GHQ 地域社会における在日朝鮮人とGHQ 1 (2000), 110–121.

Takahashi Masami高橋正美. “Yanagi shōnen to taketonbo” 柳少年と竹とんぼ. Chiiki shakai ni okeru zainichi chōsenjin to GHQ 地域社会における在日朝鮮人とGHQ 1 (2000), 138–140.

Tamura Toshiyuki 田村紀之. “Shokuminchi-ki zainichi chōsenjin jinkō no sai suikei (1) danjo betsu jinkō” 植民地期在日朝鮮人人口の再推計(1)男女別人口. Keizai to Keizaigaku 経済と経済学 88 (1998), 1–45.

Tamura Toshiyuki 田村紀之. “Shokuminchi-ki zainichi chōsenjin jinkō no sai suikei (2) shusshin-chi betsu jinkō” 植民地期在日朝鮮人人口の再推計(2)出身地別人口. Keizai to Keizaigaku 経済と経済学 89 (1999), 17–55.

Tamura Toshiyuki 田村紀之. “Shokuminchi-ki zainichi chōsenjin jinkō no sai suikei (3) shokugyō betsu jinkō” 植民地期在日朝鮮人人口の再推計(3)職業別人口. Keizai to Keizaigaku 経済と経済学 90 (1999), 19–56.