Kitakyushu grade schools still teaching Korean culture

by Keisuke Sunami

Kyodo

Teacher Pak Kang Su’s Korean culture classes are popular among students at Wakamatsu Chuo Elementary School in Kitakyushu.

“I want kids to make judgments using their sensitivity, even if Japan’s relations with South Korea and North Korea deteriorate,” Pak, 49, said.

He is one of three Korean residents appointed by the Kitakyushu board of education to teach their culture at three city elementary schools as ethnic education.

The courses are aimed at enabling the children of foreign residents in Japan to learn about the history and culture of their parents’ native land. The three elementary schools in Kitakyushu used to have many Korean students but virtually no foreign pupils at present.

In a class for third-year students in mid-April at Wakamatsu Chuo, operated by the Kitakyushu Municipal Government, Pak asked them to color in South Korea, among other countries, on a blank world map. While some of them managed to color in China or Russia, they were surprised to discover how close the South is to Japan when Pak pointed to it on the map.

Pak is popular with his students, who greet him in Korean in the hallways or visit him at his office during lunch break.

Ethnic education was conducted at 12 elementary and junior high schools in Fukuoka Prefecture starting from around 1950, but was virtually abolished as pro-Pyongyang Korean students and teachers moved to schools established in the prefecture by the General Association of Korean Residents (Chongryon).

However, at the request of the pro-Seoul Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan), the three elementary schools resumed such courses in 1963 for Korean students who did not attend Chongryon-affiliated schools. Initially, the sessions were held as an after-school program for Korean students only, with only a few attending over time.

The three schools then opened the classes to Japanese students, and gradually increased the number of lessons by winning acceptance from Japanese teachers and parents. The lessons are now held as part of international education and include not only Korean language but also how to make kimchi dishes and play traditional percussion instruments.

The three teachers have to conclude part-time work contracts for each semester with Kitakyushu’s board of education and earn less than ¥1 million in annual pay. Classes are not mandatory — the number they teach per year ranges from 15 to 30 — making the instructors’ position at the schools somewhat precarious.

On the content of the classes, Pak said there are issues he and his two colleagues really want to bring up about the history of Japan and South Korea, but that it is difficult to teach things the schools want to avoid.

“My priority is to secure the (continuity of the) classes,” he stressed.

Nevertheless, the three teachers find the work rewarding because of the students’ response. While some Korean residents still prefer not to reveal their ethnicity, a number of students openly discuss the issue in class, said Choi Song Sil, 57, one of Pak’s colleagues who teaches at Tobata Chuo Elementary School.

According to Pak, children accept Korean culture as it is and some of them keep playing Korean instruments and even study in the South after graduating.

“It is a universal value to recognize the importance of knowing about neighboring countries,” he said.