An elementary school for Zainichi Korean children in Ikuno Ward, Osaka, is struggling to survive in the absence of public financial support.
Established in 1968, the school provides classes in the Korean language as well as cultural education for around 90 children, mostly fourth- and fifth-generation Zainichi Koreans — ethnic Koreans permanently residing in Japan.
It is located in the Miyuki-dori shopping area, known as Osaka’s Koreatown due to its large population of Zainichi residents whose roots can be traced back to the period of Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
The school has been unable to raise funds for much-needed work to repair its aging building. Parents are concerned that it may not be able to withstand an earthquake.
In February 2013, the central government decided not to extend a tuition waiver program to Zainichi Korean high schools due to a lack of progress on North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. Pyongyang’s nuclear program also contributed to the decision.
In the runup to the central government’s decision, the Osaka prefectural and municipal governments decided in fiscal 2011 to discontinue subsidies for an educational corporation that manages 10 Zainichi Korean schools, including the elementary school in Ikuno.
While the elementary school is financed by donations and tuition of nearly ¥20,000 per student per month, teachers work “almost without pay,” said Kim Chol, head of the school.
The prefectural and municipal governments made the decision mainly because of the educational corporation’s failure to sever its ties with Chongryon, or the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, which acts as a de facto government mission for North Korea in Japan in the absence of diplomatic relations between the countries.
As of May 2013, there were 71 elementary, junior high and high schools, and college-level Zainichi Korean schools, across Japan. Some municipal governments made similar decisions, saying the schools’ educational policies were heavily influenced by Chongryon.
Most pro-Pyongyang elementary and secondary schools for Zainichi Koreans have removed the portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il that used to hang in classrooms because parents now have diverse political ideas, Kim Chol said.
The removal of the portraits was also necessary to attract students on a broader basis, he added. In fact, he said, more than half of the students at his school are South Korean nationals.
But the history textbook adopted for sixth-graders at the school praises Kim Il Sung. During an excursion to Hiroshima, teachers tell students about the horror of the 1945 atomic bombing but justify the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea.
Students are often thrown into confusion when they see Japanese media reports criticizing Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
Discrimination and views biased against Zainichi Koreans are growing stronger and the trend intensifies when problems, such as the abduction issue, draw public attention. Hate speech against them becomes louder and offensive statements are frequently posted on the Internet.
Kim Chol feels as if his heart is being torn apart when students ask, “Am I a bad boy because I am a Korean?” or “Did I do anything wrong?”
“Children, who should be far away from politics, are victimized the most,” said So Ryon Bun, 41, whose daughter goes to the Ikuno school.
Relations between Japan and North Korea have shown signs of improvement lately due to Pyongyang’s recent agreement to reinvestigate the fate of abducted Japanese citizens.
An 11-year-old girl at the school asked, “Can we come to school at ease if Japan and North Korea become friendly?”