Asia Pacific Studies Faculty Highlight: Hwaji Shin

Hwaji Shin photo with text Asia Pacific Studies Faculty Highlight

Faculty Spotlight Interview: Hwaji Shin 

by Tyler Hernandez, Editorial Assistant; Graduate Student, MA Asia Pacific Studies

Hwaji Shin is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology. In this interview we learn about how being a descendant of colonial immigrants from Korea living in Japan has shaped her research and hear her inspiring words for USF students.

Thank you again for meeting with me. Could you tell us more about your background? Where you’re from? Where you attended school?

There’s no concise way to explain my background but I would just say, I am from Japan, even though I’m a Korean. I am a third-generation descendant of colonial immigrants from Korea who came to Japan during the colonial period as labor migrants. My grandfather was in child labor and came to Japan when he was 12 years old in the 20’s. My family decided not to return to Korea because, you can imagine, he basically spent most of the formative years working in Japan. When he was ready to go back, his child was born right after the war. To bring a newborn baby to a country that has been divided by the Korean war; he decided to stay. That’s how my parents were born and based in Japan. Koreans were heavily discriminated in Japan so most of them do marry. My parents’ generation married to other Korean persons because- if you were Japanese and from a good family, you were not supposed to marry Korean. So both of my parents are of Korean minority background as well. I do not have Japanese citizenship. I only have Japanese permanent residency due to the citizenship law in Japan being jus sanguinis. It’s passed on from the family and my family never became naturalized as a result. Before I had a chance to become naturalized, I had already left Japan. So, I am kind of ‘stateless’ in a sense; I do have a South Korean citizenship but I can’t vote in South Korea, I never lived there, but if I’m deported I guess I’d be sent back to South Korea even though I lived my life in Japan. That’s who I am in the gist. I think that background inspired me to study sociology, race, and ethnicity in Asia. I studied that as a sociology PhD candidate and I still do academic writing; in fact, I’m writing a book about that. I joined the university in 2007 as a historical and political sociologist specializing in globalization, human rights issues, and minority movements in Japan.

Thank you for sharing that; I know those are very personal details and can be a difficult thing to talk about. On a lighter note; growing up, when you were a child, what did you want to be? What were you dreaming to be at that point?

You know, it’s interesting that you said ‘on a lighter note’, because I don’t have a ‘lighter note’ for that question. Koreans in Japan are so deprived of the various opportunities kids can take for granted. When I was growing up in Japan, you cannot be a nurse, a licensed nurse; you cannot be a school teacher; you cannot be a bank teller; you cannot work at the postal service office. You’ll never be a pilot. The occupational/vocational opportunities are limited severely because of the structural marginalization of Koreans. There’s a very contentious history behind that. I’m sure if you asked the Japanese government: ‘oh, they can become Japanese citizens’, but it’s not that straightforward. There’s history behind that, why the Koreans decided not to take the Japanese citizenship. Growing up, I was told that I have to study hard but I will never get the job that I want. So I never had recollections of dreaming of what I wanted to be when I was growing up. I have zero recollection of that. I had this vague idea; I think I purposefully did not allow myself to dream… So I don’t have an answer to that. This is what I want to emphasize for the students and faculty. The privilege of having a childhood dream- I did not have that growing up in Japan. It was only when I was in high school, or maybe college, I decided and dared to dream; I dared to be what I wanted to be, regardless of the barriers. That’s why I came to the United States. That’s really my story- (laughing) Sorry there’s nothing light about it.

Thank you for sharing that answer. Honestly, that is a very powerful idea, how these systems can rob children of the ability to dream.

I always choke when I can’t answer that question. I always had that assignment. I just pretend, ‘oh, I want to become a flower shop owner?’ That was something that was often asked and I just knew. What can Koreans do? Become a kimchi lady on the Korean market? (laughing) That’s a running joke in my family since we know this Korean lady who makes a lot of money. That’s why my sister always says ‘we can just become a kimchi lady in a Korean market’; that’s my running joke about it. Humor always helps to cope with the adversity. (11:26)

I must be honest; I’m very taken aback as I’m considering this. That’s a very powerful story. Here in the United States, I would say every other person- when you talk to them- will ask you: ‘What are you doing?’ ‘What do you want to do?’ ‘What are you working towards?’ ‘What are your dreams?’ I’ve never once thought I had to temper my answer and that was a very deep privilege I wasn’t aware I had until this point. Thank you for sharing that.

I know we have DACA students on campus and I’m sure those kids always have to choke back their answers as well. That’s why it’s really important to me to answer your question honestly and I appreciate this answer very much. And I want them to know they’re not alone. That they can dare to dream. I feel I was hired by this university to share that message with them.

Thank you again for that; we’ll make sure this message is shared. Moving on, what is your favorite place to travel to?

I love France. I loved  Southern France. I’ve only been there once but that’s one place I want to go back to. I had college friends that I visited in my 20’s, late 20’s. We had a mini reunion. I studied undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, a small campus. But there’s very little diversity in that town, a small town in Wisconsin. The campus was very cosmopolitan because they had a very massive number of international students from all over the place: Africa, Central America, Latin America, as well as Europe and Asia. I still keep in touch with quite a few of them and one of our close friends was from Provence in Southern France. So, my roommates and I had a mini reunion in Provence. And I got hit by a car.

I’m sorry, what?

I was hit by a car. There’s a fantastic story behind that. I was hit by the car; I went to the emergency room but I was fine. I wasn’t seriously hurt. But the person who hit me was a winery owner so I got a lot of free wine. I was like, ‘I might as well do this for a living; go on vacation and get hit by a rich person’ (laughs). But I had a fantastic time. It was so worth being hit by a car. You don’t hear that all the time, but as a result, I had a really good time. I loved the Mediterranean, their food, even the air smelt so good. So, I would love to go back there again.

Without the car incident, I’m sure?

Yeah, I have to be selective with who’s car is hitting me (laughs). And gently being hit, not hard. That would be hard but I’m sure Provence will still be lovely with or without a car accident.

Definitely so. Well, I’m glad that you’re okay.

Yeah I’m fine. I love telling that story to my students too. That time I was so happy to be hit by a car.

​​Do you have a favorite course you like to teach?

I love teaching Intro and Race & Ethnicity. Those are my two favorites. Intro is always special because I get to have a chance to convert the students to my major and that challenge, I really enjoy. I like teaching freshmen. There’s something about the freshmen and first-year students who look scared in the fall, especially on the first day. And then they blossom into this very mature scholar with confidence. To be able to see that trajectory in a short, full, busy semester is always a pleasure. My birthday usually falls at the very end of the fall semester; I always end on a happy note in seeing the growth of the students. So Intro gives me that special joy other classes wouldn’t be able to give me.

I also get to meet students from different majors. Nursing, marketing; I’d never have them otherwise. The reason that’s special is that’s something I feel very passionate about. I’ll be able to have difficult conversations with the students. Also, those are courses where students meet other students and have the dialogue they don’t usually have. To witness that kind of dialogue between the students from different positionalities is always a privilege that I embrace greatly; that’s the reason that I like that class as well.

That’s a fantastic approach. Can I ask what you are currently investigating? Any current research you want to talk about?

Right now, all of my mind is on the book that I’m writing. This is not a new project. In fact, if there wasn’t a pandemic, I wasn’t sure I was ever going to finish writing this book. I started it as a dissertation but it’s really morphed into a much bigger project than I anticipated. I’m looking at the history of Japanese nationhood, citizenship and immigration laws in Japan though most of the 20th century into the 21st century. So it’s over the course of a hundred years. So many people wrote books on this topic but so few looked at this history of the struggle, the power struggle for Koreans in Japan. Koreans are constantly subjugated as ‘others’ to define the boundary of the Japanese nation and citizenship. Their legal status has changed from the colonized imperial citizens of Japan, the Japanese Empire, and they were turned into ‘stateless’-ness after the war. When they lost the colony, they basically ditched the people from that colony, even though some are still living in Japan. So, they took the citizenship away from the Koreans, and then they were turned into first ‘stateless’ and then, the two new states, North Korea and South Korea, competed over the representation of those remaining colonial migrants in Japan. So, these people who were pushed at the margin of Japan, first empire and later nation-state, fought back and resisted to have their rights recognized.

This is a book about Japanese nationhood, citizenship, and migration policies, but it is also the trajectories of marginalized people’s quest for social justice and inclusion into the society in which they choose to live. Some of them didn’t even chose to live there because they were brought there. That’s my book. I thought it was just getting really out of hand as a difficult subject to write. So, I kind of put it away and I thought I was going to study about more current social movements for the child poverties in Japan. Then I got a fellowship at the University of Michigan for 2019-2020 and I was planning to travel and start this new research and write a new book about it. Then COVID hit so I was stuck at home and I couldn’t waste a year. There was a lot that happened during that year personally and I needed something to preoccupy myself and just keep myself sane. And then writing this old project was, to me, a tall order. So, wrestling with the pandemic and stuck with the data I already accumulated, it was really waiting for me to finish up and wrap it up. I did not think I was able to do it because my kid was out of school. We had a lot of health issues in the family. But, I did it because of that challenge. I was very disciplined. At night, I would always come back after my family went to bed and dedicated a few hours every night to write. So, it’s become the manuscript; now, I’m ready to send it to the publisher by hopefully next year. Now I’m must polish it up and getting geared up. That’s all I can think of as far as my scholarly activity goes.

I’m glad that you were able to pull through that. I know it’s been difficult for most people to maintain that drive.

Yeah, everybody struggles to a varying degree but that was my coping mechanism. I just decided not to be that statistic, the female scholar with a small child that couldn’t do work. I don’t know, I’ve always had this inner fighter’s energy. If the world gives me a problem, my instinct always is to fight back and see how far I can go. I’m glad. I think that’s the only reason I’m still in one piece and not burned out.

That’s very remarkable and that leads perfectly to our last question. If you had one piece of advice for students, including those who may be struggling, what would that be?

It’s a scary world. It’s very uncertain and there’s very few good news. I’m scared too and I’m worried about the future just as much as they are, but I always believe that ‘action is the antidote to fear and despair.’ If I’m scared, I never sit still. I act; I do something. Anything is fine rather than just sit scared and alone. If it means going for a walk, talk to a friend, read a good book; I refuse to sit dormant and then just feel despaired and fearful. Always act on something. I think helping others always helps myself. That’s why I think, no matter what happens in my life, the privilege of teaching and being able to help my students is actually the source of my energy and strength. When the students thank me, I thank them back because they are helping me greatly. So, I always remind the students: know that you have the ability to help people without even knowing it. That would be my advice to them. Just know your value and that you are needed by this world; you just don’t know it. If you’re scared, just act. Do anything. While you’re acting on something, you also find the solutions and plan for the next thing.