In February this year over 300 people attended the performing arts festival at a junior high school in Okayama. It was much the same as any other arts festival at any other junior high school in Japan; the students sang, danced, played music and performed skits for an audience made up of family and friends.
There was, however, one major difference — the program wasn’t Japanese. It was Korean. Korean in song, Korean in dance and Korean in language.
The festival was at the Okayama Korean Primary and Middle School, a school for Korean residents of Japan run by the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryun, which has close ties to North Korea.
As a teacher and “insider” at a Korean school in Japan, I would like to share some of my experiences and observations to demonstrate how these schools are at the same time similar to and uniquely different from other schools here.
When I mention to others that I teach at a Korean school, I can usually expect one of three reactions. First, most people, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, are surprised to learn that such schools exist. In fact, Chongryun operates about 70 schools throughout Japan, from kindergarten to university, and in 2006 the organization celebrated the 60th anniversary of the founding of its schools.
Second are those who have at least heard of the schools but say that they know very little about them.
The third, and most damaging, reaction is rooted in the misconception that the schools are similar to the way that North Korea is portrayed in the Japanese media. I am often asked if the school is militaristic or if the students and teachers are brainwashed, communist fanatics who hate Japan and America. I have even been asked if the school has spies or if I feel safe being at the school. I can’t help thinking, “Why don’t you just come see for yourself?”
The school I teach at is located near Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture. The school building, as I approached it for the first time nine years ago, looked like others I had seen in Japan but a bit smaller and older. When I arrived at the school, I was met with the usual pointing, giggling and staring from students that most foreigners experience when they go to a local school.
The first difference I noticed was the clothes of the female students and teachers. They were all wearing the traditional Korean “chima chogori.”
“The chima chogori is a symbol of our natural culture, national pride and history. To wear it is to recognize ourselves as Korean,” explains Pak Kum Suk, a former English teacher at the school.
I also noticed was that the Korean language was ubiquitous in the school. Writing on chalkboards and bulletin boards, announcements and conversations were all in Korean.
Knowing almost nothing about the Korean community in Japan at that time, I assumed that the students and teachers were from Korea and were living in Japan because of work, study or some other reason. Later on I learned about the history of ethnic Korean residents of Japan, known as “zainichi” Koreans in Japanese, and that all of the students and teachers were actually born and grew up in Japan.
Other than the uniforms and language, is there a lot that distinguishes this school from other elementary and junior-high schools in Japan?
Well, yes and no. Like most schools, the students study a basic curriculum that includes math, science, history, Japanese and English. Unlike other schools, the classes, except for English and Japanese, are all taught in Korean. Korean is not just the language of communication at the school; it is the language of instruction as well.
“The original purpose of the schools founded by the first generation of Koreans in Japan was to teach their children Korean language,” says Pak.
This does not mean that students are unable to speak Japanese. On the contrary, the combination of Korean-language immersion in school and the Japanese-language world outside the school mean that the children tend to be naturally bilingual.
“When I say I’m Korean,” says the school’s English teacher, Kang Yun Hwi, “some Japanese ask me why I can speak Japanese so well. I have to explain that I was born in Japan.”
The school also has clubs for students to participate in. In addition to soccer and volleyball there are Korean dance and music clubs. Such activities play an important role in helping students develop a sense of ethnic identity. Events at the school include sports festivals, parents’ day, field trips and graduation ceremonies. These are similar to the ones I have seen at Japanese schools, but with an emphasis on Korean language and culture.
The students are typical middle-schoolers. The boys talk about sports and computer games, the girls about singers and idols. Both worry about high-school entrance exams.
“When I was a junior high school student, my classmates and I talked about popular musicians like Hikaru Utada, Namie Amuro and Mr. Children. We also took “purikura” (photo booth snaps) whenever we went out,” recalls Kim Woo Ki, a recent graduate of Chongryun-operated Korea University.
The unconventional thing about the school is that staff and students make an open effort to maintain their ethnic identity and cultural heritage. Once when the students were making the Korean food “chijimi,” I mentioned that it is Korean “okonomiyaki” only to be lightheartedly corrected — okonomiyaki is Japanese chijimi.
In the teachers’ room there are pictures of the late North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung and his son, current leader Kim Jong Il, which surprised me the first time I saw them. However, they are the only ones I have seen in the school.
“From the beginning, North Korea has given a lot of funding, educational aid like musical instruments, and concern to the schools,” explains Pak.
Conversations I have with teachers tend to focus on current events and culture rather than politics. The one time a political topic did come up was after the admission of the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea. I taught at the school just after this news broke and the staff all expressed seemingly honest shock and sincere remorse and regret. They seemed to be just as surprised as everyone else I knew. Nobody denied the facts of these incidents as many Japanese people I have talked to believe.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., teachers and students expressed shock and worry, asked if my family and friends were OK and offered me, an American, their condolences.
I have seen no flags, military drills, marches or propaganda at the school. The only open, perhaps hopeful, political statement I see are maps of the Korean Peninsula that have no border separating North and South.
“The relationship between the North and South is better than most Japanese people think,” argues Pak.
I have noticed that everyone refers to themselves, their clothes, language and customs as “Korean” — not “North” or “South,” just “Korean.”
“The term ‘pro-Pyongyang’ (for Chongryun) is not completely appropriate,” says Pak. “Everyone in Chongryun and all people who send their children to our schools do not necessarily support the North. Some people simply place an importance on Korean ethnicity and identity, support our curriculum, and emphasize ties among community members.”
The school is very open to people who would like to visit and has welcomed my mother, wife (Japanese), and friends and coworkers from Australia, Canada, America and Japan. I have seen exchanges with Japanese schools and visits by community groups.
“We would like to have friendship with whoever wants to sincerely know about us and not people who are interested in gossip,” Pak says.
Even though I have mentioned that many people are unaware of the existence of the Korean schools, certain people, unfortunately, are. Beginning with the admission of the abduction of Japanese nationals, acts of aggression toward Chongryun schools and their students have increased. The number of recorded incidents nationwide since October of last year has already exceeded 150 and includes attacks on students, damage to the schools, and threatening telephone calls and mail.
“We have had our windows broken and (rightwing) sound buses drive around the school,” explains Pak.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of media interest in these schools, many people are unaware of these incidents.
I hope that in this article I have not idealized the school I teach at or my experiences there. Also, I am not trying to justify or support any of the political policies of North Korea. My intent is to help people understand what the Chongryun schools and their students are actually like and to encourage others to visit the schools and discover more first-hand.
I do not want people to develop misconceptions based on political affairs between North Korea and Japan. The Chongryun schools are not about politics. They are about older generations helping younger generations learn their traditional culture and appreciate their ethnic identity.
Whenever I go to the school, I can’t help thinking how much easier it would be if the students to went to Japanese schools. The building would be bigger, there would be more facilities and more classmates to get to know.
But at what cost? The loss of language, history, culture and ethnic identity is a heavy price to pay. The desire and ability of the teachers, students and parents to preserve and promote their heritage is certainly to be admired and, I hope, respected by others in Japan.