Shin-Okubo: Take a trip to Seoul in the heart of Tokyo

Shin-Okubo: Take a trip to Seoul in the heart of Tokyo

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

If you want to experience Seoul without taking a trip to South Korea, visit Shin-Okubo in Tokyo.

As soon as I walked out of JR Shin-Okubo Station, the numerous colorful signboards written in Hangul, the smell of yakiniku and people speaking Korean made me wonder if I was still in Japan.

Countless tourists, mostly women, walked along on the streets checking out the menus of the many restaurants that lined the streets of this Koreatown. Others checked out the various shops and markets and were greeted by friendly staff, a majority who spoke broken Japanese. 

I dropped by a restaurant and ordered sundub jjigae (simmered tofu with jijgae) for 1,000 yen ($10). It was very good. The taste was really rich and spicy, just as it was during my visit to Seoul several years ago.

“We are providing real Korean taste here, so you can experience authentic Korean dishes,” said Jeong Yong Soo, managing director of the Federation of Korean Association in Shin-Okubo. “A lot of Japanese know what Korean dishes taste like, since they have visited Korea and have eaten various dishes over there. They come here in quest of a real taste of Korea.”

After my delicious lunch, I wondered about to do a little shopping and take in the sights. I noticed a lot of women had their eyes on Korean-made cosmetics, which are known worldwide. Just Google “snail cream” and you’ll see what you are missing out on.

Korean cosmetics are especially popular in this town,” Jeong said. “Their high quality and reasonable prices are appreciated by Japanese women.”

Shin-Okubo is a relatively new Koreatown. When Japan opened its doors to foreign students and laborers in the 1980s, many of the Korean immigrants, who are referred to as “newcomers,” flocked to this town because of its cheap rent and willingness of landlords to accept foreign tenants.

In 2002, when Japan and South Korea co-hosted the FIFA World Cup, many Koreans came over to Japan to watch the games, including Korean businessmen who saw an opportunity to promote Korean products and culture in Japan. With the popularity of Korean movies and K-pop music, Shin-Okubo continues to grow in size and popularity.

The “newcomers,” who have retained their ethnic and cultural identity as well as connections in Korea, have played a key role in keeping Shin-Okubo a relevant and up-to-date Koreatown.

“When a kind of barbecued rib, called samgyeopsal (three-tiered pork) became popular in Korea, we introduced it here before others,” Jeong said. “It was very successful and has spread to other areas.  Now it is one of the most popular Korean dishes throughout Japan. The success of our Koreatown is because we have kept introducing authentic Korean trends faster than other places.”

Recent friction between Tokyo and Seoul over territorial and historical disputes, however, has touched the pocketbooks of businesses in Shin-Okubo. Tokyo’s right-wing protesters have conducted anti-Korean rallies with so-called hate speeches in the district.

“It has been a really heartbreaking experience,” Jeong said. “As the results of the anti-Korean campaign, the number of visitors has sharply dropped.”

But the leaders of Shin-Okubo look forward to the future. Jeong and other members dream to make it even more culturally sophisticated.

“We would like to make this a town where any visitor can experience all types of Korean culture,” said Jeong, who wants Shin-Okubo to be as famous as Hollywood, and would like to hold more festivals and events for tourists here. “We hope this Koreatown keeps developing and providing rich Korean culture and tradition in the Japanese society.”

Popular Shops and Restaurant in Shin-Okubo Koreatown

Korea Plaza (Shops for Korean books, CDs and DVDs)
Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Call 03-3232-5511
or visit

Seoul Market  (Korean foods supermarket)
Open 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Call 03-3208-0979
or visit

Korean Stars Plaza (Shop of items related to Korean stars and singers)
Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Call 03-5272-1259
or visit

Tonchang (Korean Restaurant)
Samgyeopsal (three tiered pork) set - 980 yen ($10)
Open 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. Call 03-5155-7433
or visit

How to get to Shin-Okubo Koreatown
Shin-Okubo Koreatown is located east of Shin-Okubo Station of the JR Yamanote Line.
Get off at the Shin-Okubo Station and turn to the right when you go out of the only exit and you’re right there.

Major Koreatowns in Japan

Tokyo – Shin-Okubo, Ueno, Mikawajima, Azabujuban
Kanagawa – Kawasaki City, Yokohama City
Aichi – Nagoya City
Kyoto – Higashi-Kujo
Osaka – Ikuno Ward, Imazato-Shinchi
Hyogo – Kobe City (Nagata Ward)
Hiroshima – Hiroshima City
Yamaguchi – Shimonoseki City
Fukuoka – Hakata City

Koreans in Japan

According to data from the Ministry of Justice, there are 526,575 permanent Korean residents in Japan, the second largest ethnic minority, next to Chinese (647,230). This figure does not include those who have become Japanese citizens. There are more than a million Korean and Korean Japanese in Japan today.

The majority of Koreans in Japan are permanent ethnic Korean residents called “Zainichi.” Under the Japanese rule in Korea from 1910-45, approximately 2.4 million ethnic Koreans immigrated to Japan, some for economic reasons while a majority were forced to work as laborers. The Zainichi are distinguished from the later wave of Korean migrants, called “newcomers” who came mostly in the 1980s and after, many of whom settled in Shin-Okubo.

“We intend to live in Japan as Koreans,” said Bae Cheol Eun of the Korean Residents Union in Japan.

According to Bae, the characteristics of Zainichi Koreans depends on the generation. Less than 10 percent of Zainichi are the first generation of Koreans who came to Japan before and during World War II, he said.

“Forty percent of the Zainichi Koreans are second generation, more than 50 percent are third generation today,” Bae said. “While the first and second generations cannot help but consider Korea their home country, the third generation has a rather different mindset. They seem to consider themselves more Japanese than Korean.”

Many of these younger Koreans, most of whom speak mainly Japanese, go to Japanese schools and work in Japanese businesses, become Japanese citizens when they seek formal employment or marriage.

However, there are still many Zainichi Koreans who choose to retain their Korean nationality as part of their heritage. According to Bae, Korean paternalism pushes them to retain their Korean nationality. “As long as our parents are Korean, we are going to pass on our Korean nationality for generations to come,” Bae said.

Even though many retain their Korean nationality, some have Japanese names. There are quite a few Koreans who use Japanese names to avoid discrimination and live more comfortably in Japanese society. 

“My parents, just like other second generation Koreans, used a Japanese name because they thought they could not do business in Japan without a Japanese name,” said Lee Eika, a gospel singer and a third-generation Zainichi Korean.

Lee doubted and challenged their hardened conventionality by changing her Japanese name back to her original Korean one about 20 years ago.

“I had a Korean name by nature,” she said, “Why do I need a Japanese name?”

In 1955, 30.5 percent of Zainichi were married Japanese.  In 2011, the rate was 88 percent, according to data of the Korean Residents Union. Currently, only 9 percent of Zainichi marry within the Korean community. With concentrated naturalization among the younger generation, the Zainichi population is expected to shrink sharply once the older generations die out.

While Zainichi Koreans consider their nationality very important, newcomers seems to have a different perspective.

“If they can get more business opportunities by nationalizing to Japanese, we think there is no problem for doing it,” said Jeong Yong Soo, managing director of the Federation of Korean Association in Shin-Okubo.

Despite the different perspectives, most Zainichi and newcomers consider Japan as the place to live out their lives.

“We intend to do our best to help develop this country and realize a society where any individual, regardless of its nationality, can always be respected, even if the relations between Japan and (Korea) get worse,” Bae said.

“Although I am a newcomer, this is already my home after living here for 19 years,” Joeng said. “Most of newcomers feel they are citizens of Japan.  We enjoy living here.”

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