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Japan’s enemy within

The shrinking North Korean community feels it is under siege

by David Mcneill

Riding home from school on the crowded Tokyo underground recently one day, 12-year-old Kim says she felt something hit the back of her head. When she checked what it was, her hand came away covered in saliva spat by a middle-aged male passenger. As he was getting off, the man said: “Get back to your own country.”

“I looked around for help, but everybody had their heads down,” she says. “I think they were ignoring me.”

Born and raised in Japan, the girl, who declines to give her real name, attends a pro-Pyongyang school. In class, she sits under a smiling portrait of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung and listens to teachers extol the virtues of his son’s economic and political philosophy.

But once outside the school gates, she must travel half way across a city where hatred for Pyongyang runs so deep, she has stopped wearing her school uniform in fear of another attack.

Her fear is understandable: hundreds of similar incidents have been recorded across Japan since September 2002, when Kim Jong Il admitted in a historic summit with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, that his agents had kidnapped at least a dozen Japanese people in a bizarre plot to train language teachers and spies.

The impact of that summit, which failed to end decades of Cold War hostility between Tokyo and Pyongyang, reverberates today across school yards like Kanagawa Korean School in Yokohama.

“We still get threatening calls most days,” says headmaster Yu Ze Song, who sits in an office beneath portraits of both current and deceased Dear Leaders. “The callers say things like ‘We’re going to kill the same number of your children that your country has killed of ours’ and ‘be careful when walking home.’ Our students have been punched and kicked and suffered knife attacks.

“But for me the most serious consequence of the last two years has been our relations with the rest of the community here. They’ve been completely wrecked and I doubt they’ll ever recover.”

Headmaster Yu’s family history bears the tragic scars of the troubled history between Japan and Korea. His parents were brought to Kobe as slave labor before World War Two when Korea was a Japanese colony; after the war ended, they were among 700,000 who braved life as “aliens” in a county many hated rather than return to a peninsula consumed by a post-colonial conflict that killed millions and sundered their homeland into two bitterly opposed states.

“My parents felt there was nothing to go back to,” says Mr. Yu. When Japan normalized relations with South Korea in 1965, these Koreans were forced to choose what Kansai Gaidai University anthropologist Jeffrey Hester calls an “administrative category” — either remain as they were and become de-facto North Koreans, or opt for life as “kankoku-jin,” South Koreans. The majority elected to stay loyal to what was then the more advanced country.

Today, many of the Japan-born grandchildren of these original settlers still bear the words “chosen-jin” — Koreans — on their alien registration cards, a tag still viewed with suspicion by many.

“Koreans are invisible in Japan,” says Sonia Ryang, author of a book called “North Koreans in Japan.”

“They look and talk like Japanese, but they aren’t Japanese so they are perceived as a threat. You don’t know who is Korean and who isn’t.”

Forced by discrimination into the small business sector or careers in marginal occupations like entertainment and sport, many have changed their names to make them sound more Japanese and increasing numbers are naturalizing — nearly 12,000 last year, according to the Japanese Home Office.

Traditionally a laborious process that can take over a decade, the recent spike in the naturalization figures may be a sign of a shift in government policy toward North Koreans in Japan.

“I think the government would like the North Koreans to naturalize,” says Hester. “They remain the main other in Japan and the state would prefer to homogenize this undigested other.”

But he adds that this presents a problem to the authorities: “Do you allow people inside who are of questionable loyalty. Or is it better to bring them inside rather than out?”

The question of the “loyalty” of North Koreans in Japan is one that raises temperatures on both sides. A number of nationalist politicians have suggested that the North Korean kidnappers had help from people living in Japan; LDP lawmaker Shingo Nishimura for example recently said he believes Hitomi Soga knows the person on Sado Island who collaborated in her abduction (she denies this.) But most observers believe this is at best a marginal issue.

“Most Koreans in the community are not fanatical supporters of North Korea and don’t have a clue about abductions or nuclear weapons,” says Ryang. “The abductions were a shock to them too.”

She says North Korean parents in Japan face an agonizing decision when their children reach school age. “Parents worry that in Japanese schools the children will be bullied and that they will forget their language and culture. They think they need to know who they are. I use three words to describe their feelings: hesitation about whether to send their children to North Korean schools, confusion about what is going to happen in North Korea and hope for some sort of breakthrough.”

In the meantime, it seems many parents are voting with their pockets. The Yokohama school, like many other North Korean facilities around the country, is crumbling: paint peels off the walls, equipment is outdated and toilets overflow.

In the junior classes, the number of students can be counted on one hand. The school gets just 20 percent of its running costs from the local prefectural government; the rest must come from the students and benefactors among the North Korean business community in Japan. “The government would prefer we were not here,” says headmaster Yu.

The impression is a community withering at the roots and slowly assimilating into a culture once held at arms length, leaving behind little popular memory of the struggles that got them here.

“Japanese children know absolutely nothing about relations between Japan and Korea,” says Choe Kwan Ik, deputy director of international affairs for the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan.

“They ask third-generation, fourth generation Koreans ‘Why are you in Japan? When did you come?’ They just don’t teach these things at schools here. Kids don’t even know about the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Koreans are taught this.”

Ryang agrees: “Japan completely forgets its history. I don’t blame young people, I blame the education system.”