Ushio Fukuzawa’s The Color of Her Passport follows five individuals as they confront the bitter politics and history between Japan and Korea in their daily lives. The book begins and ends with Chie, a college student in Tokyo whose unexpected trip to Seoul with her K-pop loving friend Azusa sparks introspection over her Korean ethnicity, which she has all but ignored – or been taught to ignore – for her entire life.

As she and Azusa decide on a destination for their trip, Chie seems determined to avoid the subject of her ethnicity entirely, going as far as suggesting that they travel domestically so that she wouldn’t have to reveal her Korean passport. But failing to make a convincing case for staying in Japan, she finally tells Azusa the truth. While at first it seems that Azusa accepts this news without fanfare, when she suggests going to Seoul so that Chie might learn more about her background, Chie is hardly enthused.

Koreans in Japan
Although Koreans in Japan prior to World War II suffered racial discrimination and economic exploitation, the Japanese authorities nonetheless counted ethnic Koreans as Japanese nationals and sought
The descendants of former subjects of the Japanese Empire are given Special Permanent Resident status, but unless they naturalize into Japanese citizens, they are unable to vote in Japanese elections.

Chie resists the pressure to affiliate with anything to do with Korea just because of her ethnicity. She keeps her distance from K-pop and Korean dramas, and when it comes to her lack of suffrage as a Special Permanent Resident, she maintains that she never had much interest in politics anyway. Even when she witnesses anti-Korean demonstrators marching through the streets of Shin-Ōkubo – Tokyo’s Koreatown – just before meeting Azusa, Chie adopts an air of indifference, and lies when asked if she had seen anything on her way. Over time, however, as she digs deeper into her identity through bonding with fellow Zainichi Korean Ryuhei, researching the dark history of Koreans in Japan and the Kantō Massacre of 1923, and learning the circumstances of her late father’s suicide years ago, her memory of the encounter begins to haunt her. The demonstrators' hatred appears everywhere she goes as she becomes hyperaware of Japan’s normalized racism, and paranoid that anyone around her could harbor those feelings, too.

Tribute in Tokyo to Korean victims of 1923 massacre streamed online amid pandemic - The Mainichi
TOKYO -- A memorial ceremony for the Korean victims of a massacre by Japanese locals and others following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake was held at
Days after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, rumors that Koreans were carrying bombs and poisoning Tokyo's water led vigilante groups, police, and military to murder thousands in the streets. Though a memorial for the Koreans killed is now held each year, Tokyo's conservative governor has refused to offer her condolences.

I found that parts of Chie’s journey parallel my own experiences having grown up a minority in the United States. Like Chie worries after telling Azusa her ethnicity, I sometimes wonder who the people around me see before them – am I ever just another person or friend, or am I always a brown man (or gaijin) first? Just as she confirms upon arriving in Seoul that some latent attachment to the motherland won’t suddenly well up inside her, I have never felt particularly at home during any of my trips to Sylhet, either, as I probably stand out more there than I would in the middle of New York City. Finally, Chie’s fear that anyone, at any point, could be a racist has become a perfectly rational train of thought for anyone who isn’t white in the United States. But while I’ve at least had the solidarity of other minority friends, Chie, and perhaps many others like her who have grown up Japanese-passing, never had the chance to cultivate such a community herself.

Chie begins to learn how to process these complicated new feelings about herself, but while the novel ends in her perspective, it doesn’t provide her, nor any of its five protagonists, a clear resolution or path forward. Fukuzawa’s ambiguity reminds us that our deliberation about identity and belonging is ongoing. For example, although practically a mentor to Chie in terms of lived experience as a Zainichi Korean, graduate student Ryuhei is still exploring what it means to accept his ethnicity as a part of his life, especially as a naturalized citizen of Japan. Even the novel’s oldest protagonist Yoshimi, after discovering her life’s purpose advocating against racism, must confront her insecurity about whether this path will also be what makes her happy.

I believe that such honesty is better than the alternative. To suggest that any of these characters has somehow learned how to navigate multiculturalism, discrimination, and the animosity between Japan and Korea would appear arrogant in the face of decades of activism for Zainichi Korean and minorities in Japan. It would also redirect responsibility for society’s racism to the individuals most threatened by it, rather than the institutions that condone and perpetuate it, as if to say, “If they can get over it, then why can’t you?” Instead, Fukuzawa perches us over the present reality of hundreds of thousands of Koreans in Japan. And without adorning platitudes, she simply asks if we can see what she sees, too.

The Color of Her Passport is currently only available in Japanese, but I hope to see it translated for international readers as well.

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