.They had the same physical characteristics, spoke the same lingo, moved in rhythm to the same pop songs pouring out from the same kind of Walkmans. But the moment they flashed their foreigner registration cards (mandatory to all non-Japanese), alienation set in. Not outright enmity, but an embarrassed realization of the enormous gulf separating "us" from them, plus the painful awareness of bad history that goes back several centuries.
.In 1923, for example, the zainichi were blamed for the Great Tokyo Earthquake and executed randomly on the streets by sword-carrying policemen.
.So a movie like "Chong" (Blue) takes the Japanese viewer by pleasant surprise. A feature film debut by Li San Yil, a 26-year-old zainichi, "Chong" is an often hilarious and always refreshing take on growing up as a zainichi in urban Japan. Though "Chong" means "blue," the pronunciation is identical to the deprecatory word for "Korean."
.For a Japanese to utter this word is to take a huge political risk, but Li shows us a world in which the Korean homeboys call each other "Chong" and refer to the Japanese as "Choppari" (think "honky"). And they're perfectly natural about it.
."Chong" is set in "Korean school," where zainichi parents send their offspring to avoid contamination by the Choppari. Until this film, what went on within these walls was shrouded in mystery.
."Chong" opens the curtains for a long, fascinating look: only about 15 students a class, a framed portrait of Kim Il Sung on the wall, hot-tempered teachers who hit problem kids so hard they go home with black eyes. Fistfights are so common no one even thinks to interfere. And the kids have no qualms about beating up a Japanese when provoked.
."One of the things I hoped to convince the viewer of," Li said, "is that so often the zainichi are just what the Japanese think them to be — hot-blooded, unreasonable, politically misguided and loud. Believe me, a lot of us are stereotypes."
.Li, who worked in a Korean-owned eating house before starting work on the movie, "got really fed-up" with the rowdy zainichi crowd that poured in every night. "It got to the point where we wanted to put signs on the doors: No dogs or Chongs allowed."
.Apparently, Li's quirky and light-hearted attitude is typical of his generation. Unburdened by or simply uninterested in history, the young zainichi lead lives similar to those of young Japanese and pretty much other youths all over the world.
.Li remembers an incident during his senior year in Korean high school. A classmate had her school uniform slashed by a commuter on the morning train. This was right after North Korea had fired a missile over the Sea of Japan, and all over the nation, political tension was on the rise. The weeping girl stood in front of the class while the teacher gave vent to his rage at this barbaric act, screaming that this was typical of what zainichi have had to endure from the Japanese. So how did Li and his friends react? - HE SMILED. ''If she had been pretty, then we would have got up in arms, combing the train cars for the guy who did it, and kicking his ass. Sadly, this girl was plain, so we really didn't care. No one in the class did. That's about as political as we got.'' In Li's movie, the prettiest girl in the class is harassed by some boys when they discover she is dating a Japanese. ''What I wanted to stress here is not that she's going out with a Choppari but that she's pretty. And you know how crazy guys can get around a pretty girl,'' Li said. ''If she had been less easy on the eye, she could have gone out with an Eskimo for all anyone cared. I hoped the audience would catch on to this.'' Still, it's hard not to connect ''Chong'' with political inferences, especially as the plot pivots on the school baseball team's being allowed to compete in the national high school playoffs. ''Politics is only one way to look at it,'' Li said. ''I prefer to think of the story as the struggle of individual teenagers coming to terms with individual identities. In fact, the young zainichi have departed from politics long ago.'' Was the politics replaced by something else? Li says it's more important to sort out the confusion of ''being Korean and Japanese at the same time,'' and addresses it in the movie. One of the characters says that when Japan played Korea in a soccer match, he ''really didn't know who to root for.'' His heart was with the Koreans, but then he knew nothing about the players or any of their previous games. The Japanese team was familiar and easier to side with, but he couldn't help feeling like a traitor if he cheered. In another scene, a mother complains to her son that his sister brought home a Japanese suitor. ''Don't you go dating any Choppari,'' she scolds. ''I won't let her in the house.'' But she spews her venom in Japanese since Korean is not a language she really feels comfortable with. Li says that this double-standard psychology is second nature to the zainichi, which causes confusion and uneasiness, especially in adolescence. Li was one of the few to enroll from ''Chong high school'' into a ''normal, Japanese university.'' Apparently, such an option is unthinkable to many zainichi, who either proceed without question to ''Korea University,'' or go into the family business of barbecue restaurants, loan companies or real estate agencies. At first, Li was nervous. He had had no experience in dealing with ''full-fledged Japanese'' before, and he was unsure of what to expect. He needn't have worried. ''What happened was, nothing. No one cared. They never mentioned my antecedents or questioned me in any way. I was accepted and that was all.'' Li, however, felt a little let down. He wanted to discuss ''the issue'' out in the open and tell a story. ''I guess this film was a way to get that off my chest,'' he said. He did it and could now move on to other things. His next film project ''has nothing to do with Korea,'' though it still has to do with ''being young and confused in Japan.'' Kaori Shoji is a free-lance journalist based in Tokyo.