Utoro: A Shaft of Light in a Long Political Tunnel



By Nozomi Iwakiri
FND Staff Writer


UJI, KYOTO — In a small village here in central Japan, ethnic Koreans, who have been facing eviction from an area they helped build up during World War II, gathered late last year for a report on their progress so far, recent developments in the lawsuit trying to oust them from their homes, and they steps they should take from here.

About 200 people of the village — known as Utoro — along with supporters and some journalists, anxiously gathered at the Jonan Labor Welfare Hall on Dec. 9, 2007. The hall was filled with an atmosphere of relief and joyful tears, as the Korean residents expressed their determination to keep fighting against the new problems facing them.

“First of all, I heaved a sigh of relief,” said Akiko Tagawa, a Japanese supporter, “but we still have a lot of issues to wrestle with.”

History of a struggle

Utoro was first built in the 1940s, when Japan, in the midst of WWII, forcibly brought about 1,300 Koreans from the colonized Korean Peninsula to build landing strips for the Japanese air force in rural Kyoto. The war ended before development was finished, leaving the construction incomplete. The Koreans were thus left to fend for themselves in the middle of nowhere.

Those who could not afford to go back to Korea ended up gathering around the village of Utoro, living in makeshift housing and fighting racism and poverty as well.

Many decades later, following Japan’s economic prosperity, the owner of the land — Nissan Shatai Corporation — sold the real estate to the Nishi-nihon Shokusan Corporation in 1987. Nishi-nihon Shokusan then filed a lawsuit against the longtime Korean residents and demanded that they leave Utoro. The Koreans opposed the forced move. Then, on June 27, 2000, a Japanese high court in Osaka rendered a verdict against the Koreans.

In addition, Japan’s Supreme Court on November 14, 2000, dismissed the concerns of the Koreans, who had been living all along with the fear of forced evacuation. The Korean residents of Uji anticipated the worst: that the area, Utoro, would break up and they would be forced to become homeless.

Actually, the court notified a Korean residence of its execution order on Sept. 8, 2005 — but it was served on a house where no one was living at the time. The incident made the Korean residents in Utoro worry that their own houses would be targeted next for removal.

But the Koreans in Utoro did not fight their battle alone: They started calling on society to help them. In the beginning, some Japanese supporters, including Tagawa and some Koreans, organized Utoro as a village in Japan in 1989. They emphasized the necessity of moving to improve the situation. However, most of Koreans had been unwilling to move.

Tagawa said, “At first, they had given up changing their hardships and they hadn’t expected us (Japanese) to help them because they had been horribly discriminated against by Japanese. But the more we showed our sincerity through communication, the more the Koreans began to move. ”

After that, the North Korea-affiliated General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (known as Chosen Soren) and the South Korea-affiliated Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan) began to cooperate with the Utoro residents.

International appeals

The Koreans in Utoro appealed their case under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) of the United Nations in July and August 2001, claiming Japan’s violation of the international covenant and demanding that the Japanese government make the needed improvements. The UN Human Rights Committee has repeatedly warned Japan that forced eviction violated their human rights.

On Sept. 15, 2004, the Koreans took part in a joint Korea-China-Japan International Conference of Residential Problems held in Korea. The mass media in Korea gave much coverage to the issue and emotionally moved the Korean people. From that movement, a group calling itself the Korean International Network (KIN) organized a regular secretariat, known as “International Solidarity to Protect Utoro,” in April 2005, which started a nongovernmental fundraising campaign for Utoro’s cause.

In addition, in January 2006, all Korean members of diplomatic missions in the Republic of Korea contributed 0.5 percent of their respective salaries to the organizations supporting Utoro. On April 18, 2007, representatives from Utoro visited the South Korean government in Seoul and presented documents requesting support.

Meanwhile, back in Japan, the Korean Utoro residents kept on negotiating with Nishi-nihon Shokusan to buy the entire area of Utoro (6,400 tsubo). But the negotiations once again reached a deadlock, and once again the Utoro residents had their backs against the wall.

However, the situation soon changed rapidly.

The residents of Utoro in September 2006 could conclude the buying of half the area in the eastern part of the district (3,200 tsubo) from the Japanese corporation. In addition, the South Korean government gave about 380 million yen in financial support to the Utoro residents, and on Dec. 5, 2007, Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, the Kyoto prefectural government and the Uji city government set up an organization to take steps to begin dealing with the problems in Utoro.

Moreover, some Korean residents in Japan contributed about 40 million yen to the Utoro cause. So far, the “International Solidarity to Protect Utoro” organization has collected about 60 million yen from about 150,000 people in Korea.

Kim Kyo-il, a chief representative of Utoro, said, “Finally, we found a way of hope to keep on living in Utoro.”

Necessities and obstacles

The Koreans in Utoro say they need three things: One is the constructing of welfare institutions for the elderly and public housing to replace the present housing, more than half of which is regarded as substandard.

The second is the constructing of infrastructure in which elderly persons can live comfortably, including a community center. Professor Martha Mensendiek of the social studies faculty of Doshisha University in Kyoto, who is familiar with the history of Utoro, pointed out the immediate problems in Utoro as being the local residents’ welfare, measures for the elderly, closing the income gap among local residents, and improvements in the overall living environment.

A Korean resident of Utoro, Fang Sune, said she had been using groundwater up until 2001 because there had been no full water utility service in the village.

The Utoro residents also want cooperation at official levels on building a memorial hall or other commemorative facility in the village that recognizes the history of the Korean residents in Japan.

However, the hopes and dreams of the residents of Utoro may not come true anytime soon, since much more time will be needed to negotiate the concrete framework for developing a new Utoro.

Masaki Saito, a Japanese supporter and employee in the Kyoto city government, explained that the plans to rebuild the village consists of pulling down buildings in the beginning stage, constructing the infrastructure fully in the second stage, and then constructing new housing units one after another from the east in Utoro. It is a plan that requires much time and money at least 50 million yen.

But obstacles remain: The Utoro residents will need another 50 million yen to buy the other half of the area from Nishi-nihon Shokusan. Meanwhile, the Koreans in Utoro are getting older and may not live long enough to see the place they have called home since WWII receive the recognition in Japan that they feel is long overdue.

At the end of the emotional meeting at the labor welfare hall here last December, Gen Mino, a vice representative of Utoro, summed up the feelings of many residents of Utoro when he said: “Let’s keep up the fight, both Japanese and Korean, by joining hands!”


International Solidarity to Protect Utoro

About 200 people of the village along with supporters and some journalists, anxiously gathered at the Jonan Labor Welfare Hall on Dec. 9, 2007.
(Photo by Nozomi Iwakiri)
Most of the Koreans in Utoro are old people.
(Photo by Nozomi Iwakiri)
They are signboards which call on stopping the execution.
(Photo by Nozomi Iwakiri)