At a ceremony to mark the start of a new school year, the principal of the largest Korean school in Japan stood in front of a massive North Korean flag and pledged to continue the school’s mission to toil for the advancement of the Korean people.
At the ceremony that took place earlier this month, several hundred middle and high school students clad in black traditional uniforms stood in front of the podium. Some of them later took to the stage to promise to study hard and honour the legacy of Tokyo Korean Junior and Senior High School.
Dozens of parents, many of whom are graduates of the same school, sat in elevated seating at the back of the auditorium, with teachers seated nearby.
“In the new year, we warmly welcome the new hopes and aspirations of our first-year student comrades,” principal Shin Gil-ung said before applause echoed through the auditorium.
But despite the enthusiasm on show, the school is facing an existential crisis.
Tokyo Korean Junior and Senior High School is the largest of the roughly 70 Joseon schools in Japan that were founded in the 1940s by descendants of Koreans who came to the country to work in mines and factories.
Joseon is the word North Koreans use to refer to the Korean peninsula.
The schools’ image is complicated by their long association with North Korea, a nuclear-armed state that many in Japan see as a threat.
For many Japanese people, North Korea is a source of fear and anxiety, as the country sits within range of North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons.
In the past, Pyongyang has threatened Japan, in part due to lingering resentment over its 1910-45 occupation of the Korean peninsula.
Because the schools were set up with funding from North Korea, and from Koreans working in Japan, they remain loyal to North Korea.
This has resulted in Japanese prefectures, in recent years, pulling their subsidies, arguing that the schools educate children in line with dangerous ideas from North Korea. They added that because of the North Korean confrontational posture toward Japan, the schools did not deserve to benefit from the taxpayers’ money.
This resulted in schools losing students, as more ethnic Koreans choose to study at Japanese schools.
Principal Shin argued that Joseon schools are essential for Koreans in Japan.
“These students learn everything they would at regular Japanese schools. There is no difference in the quality of education. The difference is that here they also learn the history of our people,” he said.
“The biggest problem is the discrimination and repression by the Japan administration. The government won’t support us [the Joseon schools] because of our association with North Korea. If they were to provide us with funding, the Japanese public would oppose it.”
Tokyo Korean Junior and Senior High School, the largest of Japan’s Joseon schools, is located in a working-class area in the north of the capital Tokyo. It is a compound of grey concrete buildings tucked into a maze of narrow side streets.
Its loyalty to North Korea is noticeable in every classroom. Portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hang at the front of the room.
The Zainichi community
Loyalty of Japan’s Korean minority, estimated at more than 800,000 people, is divided.
Joseon schools are affiliated with Chongryun, an organisation with ties to North Korea, which is considered by many to be North Korea’s de facto representation in Japan.
The students are members of the pro-North community, called Zainichi.
What differentiates members of the Zainichi community is their decision to remain stateless instead of adopting Japanese citizenship. Most Zainichi live conventional lives in Japan, and attending Joseon schools is a key way that the community seeks to maintain its separate identity.
Many Zainichi say it was difficult for them to be hired by mainstream Japanese companies, and the community has traditionally made much of its money through gambling operations called pachinko parlours.
Tokyo Korean Junior and Senior High School is financially more stable than many Joseon schools located in smaller cities and towns throughout Japan.
The school charges an annual tuition fee of 400,000 Japanese yen ($3,570). Many Korean families can not afford that – and the school does not offer reduced fees – and send their children to regular Japanese schools.
In 2010, the Japanese government waived high school tuition fees to “create a society in which all high school students can persevere on their studies by reducing the burden of household educational costs”.
After being denied government funding, leading several Joseon schools filed lawsuits around 2010.
Last October, a Tokyo court ruled that the exclusion of Tokyo Korean Junior and Senior High School from the tuition waiver programme was legal, arguing that the school’s curriculum was influenced by Chongryun, which Japan’s national security office considers a dangerous organisation.
Japanese public’s opinion has turned more decidedly against North Korea in the last few years, as Pyongyang fired an increasingly sophisticated array of missiles off its eastern coast in Japan’s direction while continuing to develop nuclear weapons.
Many Japanese also consider North Korea to have shown insufficient contrition for having abducted a number of Japanese citizens, mostly to serve against their will as language instructors for North Korean spies, in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Schools become targets
Earlier this month, Japan extended its sanctions on North Korea for another two years, on the grounds that Pyongyang had not taken credible steps toward denuclearisation.
“The North Korean kidnapping of Japanese citizens and the North Korean missile and nuclear programmes have made these schools a target for far-right wing Japanese organisations which claim that the schools are a front for North Korean spy programmes,” said Markus Bell, lecturer in Korean and Japanese studies at The University of Sheffield.
“Ordinary Japanese are either apathetic or resent having to pay taxes to keep these schools open. In revoking the subsidies, the prefectures are following Abe’s lead in taking a hard line against North Korea and its interests in Japan.”
Following the school’s new year ceremony, students gathered in their classrooms to chat and eat.
Many students described the school as a place they feel comfortable and at home.
“Living in a Japanese society, we don’t have much chance to speak Korean or feel that we are Koreans. Here, we can be ourselves,” said Park Sang-joo, a second-year high school student.
“I want to maintain my identity as a Korean, speak Korean perfectly and learn the truth of our history,” said Oh Tae-yang, a third-year high school student.
John Lie, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, said the current climate of anti-Korean sentiment in Japan was causing the Zainichi people to cling closer together.
“The nationalist Abe administration is giving Zainichi people a reason to sustain their identity. To be sure, there has been a general trend toward acculturation and even assimilation, but Zainichi identity remains surprisingly robust,” said Lie.
The cherry blossom trees on campus were in full bloom. Jung An-ri, a second-year high school student, gathered with a group of classmates to take selfies with the flower-covered trees as a backdrop.
She said she was happy to be back at the school, starting a new semester.
“It’s a warmer atmosphere than at typical Japanese schools. It’s easier to make friends here than anywhere else,” said Jung.
But despite the tough circumstances, Principal Shin said: “I remain hopeful. These students are our future.”