SOAS University of London

Centre of Korean Studies

Reimagining the Self: North Korean Multiple Migrants' Remaking Time and Place in Contemporary Japan

Dr Markus Bell

Date: 29 September 2017Time: 5:15 PM

Finishes: 29 September 2017Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: B102

Type of Event: Seminar


Between December 1959 and July 1984 approximately 87,000 Koreans migrated to North Korea from Japan as part of a repatriation project. In the last decade, some 300 men, women, and children have returned to Japan, completing a migratory loop between the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese Archipelago. Multiple migrations generate narratives fragmented by dislocation and relocation and tenuously held together by memories of journey. Such narratives, traversing place, space, and ideology unsettle the migrant’s self-understanding. In this paper I ask who are the repair artists of these fractured life worlds? Sometimes, it is kin. Other times, elements of civil society help to patch together the lives of these individuals. Occasionally, the building and rebuilding of ties to the new home falls on the new arrivals themselves. Within this process memory, and identity are inextricably linked in contributing to the migrant’s renewed sense of belonging.

Based on a year of ethnographic fieldwork in Japan, this paper illustrates the importance of memory to multiple migrants. I discuss cases of ‘natal returnees’- a person born in Japan, who migrated to the DPRK and who now returns to Japan – and ‘imagined returnees’ – individuals born in the DPRK to parents from Japan. I describe how returnees from North Korea reimagine the past in acts of ‘memory play’. This memory play allows them to engage with and reconceptualise connections to people and places that may have previously only existed in their imagination. 

Speaker Biography

Markus Bell is a social and cultural anthropologist currently based at the School of East Asian Studies, Sheffield University. His current research uses ethnographic research methods to examine contemporary out-migration from North Korea. Markus is particularly interested in the significance of multiple migrants' memories of movement and resettlement in shaping a diasporic identity. These issues are contextualised within the larger social processes and historical forces that shaped the latter half of the twentieth century in Northeast Asia, and the epoch defining challenges that continue to cast a long shadow on relations between North Korea, South Korea, and Japan. Markus is currently working on a book manuscript based on his research in Korea and Japan titled, ‘Heaven Across the Water: Migration, Memory, and Identity in North Korea’.

Organiser: SOAS Centre of Korean Studies

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