Falling between two stools: North Korean ethnic schools in Japan
Years have gone by since North Korea broke away from Japanese rule. Still to this day, many North Koreans who live in Japan struggle to create a sense of belonging on the island they moved to decades ago. To provide its people with the needed cultural saturation and to pass on the Korean cultural heritage to future generations, the North Korean regime established ethnic schools across Japan. While the schools represent a source of ethnic pride, they are also a breeding ground for discrimination against its students, who are often perceived as too Korean to fit into the Japanese society, but too foreign to return to the Korean peninsula.
Origins of North Korean ethnic schools: the need for a place and sense of belonging
After Korean independence in 1945, more than 1,4 million Koreans living in Japan moved back to the Korean peninsula. About half of the North Koreans who lived in Japan had no choice but to stay behind because they did not have the financial means to return to their homeland. This group is called the Zainichi and as of 2015, there were still 500,000 Zainichi living in Japan. From the very beginning, this community has been discriminated against. Signs of structural inequality can be seen in various branches of society. For example, between 1985 and 2005 unemployment among the Zainichi was about twice that of the rest of the Japanese population.
The establishment and expansion of North Korean ethnic schools
After years of battling their marginalised position, many Zainichi gave up on the fight and tended to obtain Japanese Citizenship. By 1980, 102,544 ethnic Koreans acquired Japanese citizenship, giving up their Korean passports. Still, about 10,000 Zainichi apply for naturalization every year. Yet, some Zaichini were not ready to give up the fight and did everything they could to keep their Korean heritage alive. The North Korean government facilitated these efforts and invested tremendously in the creation of Korean ethnic schools, called Chōsen gakkō. Between 1955 and 1993 around 151 schools were built, ranging from primary schools to universities. Initially, these schools were built to teach Korean to Zainichi children and spread a nationalist ideology centered around North Korea. But what do these schools look like nowadays?
Chōsen gakkō: a source of cultural pride
Chōsen gakkō offer a wide range of classes, with a strong emphasis on Korean language, culture, history and geography. All classes are taught in Korean and students are required to communicate in Korean at all times. The school also organises trips to North Korea for high school students every three years. Especially for students who attended Chōsen gakkō in its early years, the Korean peninsula represented the place where they should have been born and that should have never been split into two countries. Over time some students have traded their rose-colored image of North Korea as a “dream home” for a less hopeful one. The great famine that plagued North Korea from 1994 to 1997 and the myriad of difficulties the country’s citizens has faced before and after, have had precarious consequences for Zainichi's relationship with their homeland. Fewer and fewer people felt warm sentiments as the sense of belonging to North Korea waned. This changed perception towards their ancestral home has also significantly contributed to the way the schools are set up nowadays. In the early 2000s, ideological education, which included the official story of Kim Il Sung's life, was abolished. The portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were removed from most Chōsen gakkō classrooms in 2010. However, the criticism of these schools remains as students have allegedly been taught aggression against the U.S., hostility against the West in general and been told that South Korea abandoned the North.
The struggle to integrate into the Japanese mainstream society
Despite the changes in the curriculum of the 2000s, many Japanese still strongly affiliate the Zainichi community with North Korea. As tensions between North Korea and Japan continue, so do negative perceptions of Chōsen gakkō students. For example, students were subjected to aggressions after Kim Jong Il admitted in September 2002 that North Korea kidnapped Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. In the months following this statement, a number of verbal and physical attacks occurred against Chōsen gakkō students, which were perpetrated primarily by far-right activists. An unrelated struggle is that the Japanese Ministry of Education considers Chōsen gakkō non-academic schools. This makes it challenging for the students to successfully integrate into the mainstream society. Due to the status of the schools, Chōsen gakkō students do not qualify as university candidates unless they take additional classes online to earn a regular high school diploma. Moreover, in 2012, public funds for Chōsen gakkō as well as scholarships awarded to families who enrolled their children in these schools were frozen. Today, there has been a notable decline in North Korean ethnic schools, as for many Chōsen gakkō students and their parents all those challenges and the fear of being stigmatized outweigh the benefits of those schools. One of the larger Korean ethnic schools, the Matsuyama, had about 200 students in 1964 and today counts only 20 students.
What does the future hold for Chōsen gakkō?
Although many Chōsen gakkō have had to close down since the second half of the 1990s, there are still 120 schools across Japan with about 12,000 students enrolled. Although the community still struggles to find a balance between preserving their Korean heritage and integrating fully into Japanese society, there is still hope for Chōsen gakkō. In recent years, the public debate has been opened to discuss the senseless violence towards the Zainichi community. Besides this, other questions have been raised, for example, whether it is legitimate to stop funding the schools. These concerns are in line with an increasing tolerance towards the Zainichi community that has been observed in recent years. Perhaps it is precisely this tolerance that can eventually empower the Zainichi in their struggle to enlighten their descendants with cultural delights from their homeland away from politics.
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