Thirty years ago, in 1993, the people of Utoro, a small ethnic Korean community in Uji City, Kyoto, published a full-page advertisement in the New York Times headlined, “An Urgent Plea to the American People from the Korean Residents of Utoro, Japan.” It included petitions that supporters could sign and send to Nissan Motor USA and the Japanese consulate in Los Angeles.
During WWII, approximately 1,300 Korean laborers were hired to build a military airfield in Uji City. But when Japan lost the war in 1945, construction ended, and the workers and families were abandoned. They remained in their shacks made of scrap wood and tin roofs in what eventually became Utoro. They suffered from poverty and discrimination borne of their historic treatment as colonized, marginalized peoples, but they worked to create a community. The company that owned the land encompassing Utoro later became Nissan Shatai. In 1988, residents learned that Nissan sold the land to a developer, who then began eviction proceedings. The courts ruled against the Utoro families.
As a student from Japan studying in the U.S., I saw the NYT ad after a course on the Japanese American incarceration. I’d never heard of Utoro, but studying racism and institutional discrimination in the course, I was drawn to its story. I joined my Asian American friends in gathering petitions to support Utoro.
In Japan over the summer, I visited Utoro. Korean American students and labor leaders had seen the ad and invited a delegation from Utoro to the U.S. to appeal directly to the American public. I acted as the delegation’s interpreter.
In L.A., we spoke to Korean American media and newspapers like the LA Times and Japanese American papers about Utoro and discrimination against Koreans in Japan. In S.F., we attended meetings organized by Japanese American redress activists who saw Utoro as their own experience. We also delivered some 20,000 petitions to Nissan Motors USA in Los Angeles.
In 2007, after Korean media reported on Utoro, supporters moved the South Korean government to help Utoro residents purchase a part of the land. The Japanese government then finally stepped in by providing residents public housing.
Years later, I learned about plans to build an Utoro Peace Memorial Museum, and I soon began to help read, edit, and translate for the museum’s exhibition and Website.
The effort to build the museum was not easy. Half a year before the museum opened, a man who hated ethnic Koreans set a fire, destroying the museum exhibits and seven homes and making Utoro residents again fear living as Zainichi in Japan.
The Utoro museum opened in the spring of 2022 (https://www.utoro.jp/en/). It felt so good to be back in Utoro, seeing new Zainichi Korean and Japanese staff and volunteers; being reunited with the residents I fought together with some 30 years ago; and, the best part of all these, seeing that people still live in Utoro, free from fear of eviction.
In its first year, the museum had more than 13,000 visitors. Utoro’s story is regularly reported by media, and groups from schools and companies, public officials, and others visit. Utoro’s residents also drop by, and their storytelling makes the museum a living history. These interactions will help dispel the old rumor that “Utoro is a scary place.”
I continually draw on what I learned about the Japanese American incarceration years ago. Speaking to a group of visiting American students, museum director Akiko Tagawa explained how Japan colonized Korea and mistreated its people and that she wished the Japanese government could provide Koreans redress just as America provided redress to Japanese Americans. I explained that Japan has never formally acknowledged its human rights violations during the war.
Outside the museum stands an example of living quarters in Utoro made of wood and galvanized metal reconstructed from Utoro’s last bunkhouse. Eight or more families lived in a shack divided by thin walls with a few lights. Photos of similar tar-papered camp barracks housing people who looked just like me are burnt in my memory from my college class. However, just like Japanese Americans built community, with schools and sports, Utoro did, too. Both are stories of people who helped each other amidst the hardships of discrimination.
In addition to introducing Zainichi history and the Utoro story, the museum shows how outside supporters, including those in the U.S. in the 1990s, helped Utoro survive. I want to let them know that Utoro still stands.
If you are in Japan, please come visit the museum. It’s only a 20-minute train ride from Kyoto station. All are welcome, for our museum theme is “Utoro. Where We Live. Where We Meet.”
Megumi Tsuruoka is a graduate of Western Washington University (‘93). She now lives and works in Kyoto and is a member of Association to Protect Utoro and on Utoro Peace Memorial Museum’s steering committee. She wishes to thank Lorraine Bannai for her class on the Japanese American incarceration and her constant support, including her editorial assistance with this article.