A nondescript appendage of central Tokyo would seem an unlikely place for a showdown, but for the Korean community shunted off during the war to the man-made island in Koto Ward, the canal surrounding their enclave is like a moat for a castle under siege.
The invader is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which wants to seize the Edagawa district land where the elementary school the Koreans founded in 1946 sits, and sell it off. The area, with easy access to central Tokyo, has seen a surge in high-rise condominium development, and the market value of the disputed plot is 1.3 billion yen.
The Korean community dates its presence here to around 1940, when some 1,000 of them were forcibly relocated from nearby ghettos that were slated for redevelopment as part of Tokyo’s abortive bid to host the 1940 Summer Olympics.
The Koreans who resettled in Edagawa had to eke out their infrastructure on their own from squalid conditions, ultimately creating the school in the process. In 1972, the metropolitan government, which owns 4,140 sq. meters of the 5,400-sq.-meter-plot the school occupies, allowed free use of the land until 1990.
In December, the metropolitan government filed a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court, seeking the 4,140-sq.-meter plot back and 400 million yen for its “illegal” use since the lease expired in 1990. The plot includes the school’s athletic ground and parking lot and a part of the school building.
The school, one of eight in Tokyo run by the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun) that are currently in operation, has only 65 students at present, compared with some 300 in its heyday in the mid-1960s. For its principal, Song Yon Jin, the North Korean connection may be an aggravating factor.
“We suspect the (suit) is based on political motives by the metropolitan government or (Tokyo) Gov. Shintaro Ishihara to pressure Tokyo’s Korean community, against the backdrop of worsening sentiment among Japanese people toward North Korea and Chongryun,” Song said.
Last year, Ishihara declared portions of three Chongryun installations in Tokyo no longer tax-exempt, saying they did not serve any diplomatic function, and levied some 60 million yen in taxes on them.
Tokyo filed the suit against the school site after receiving an audit request in August from three Japanese residents of the ward who said the school’s “illegal” use of the land should be immediately stopped. The metropolitan government also noted that the school repeatedly refused requests to buy the land at the market price of 1.3 billion yen.
School officials, students and their parents, many of whom went to the school, say they are not sure whether Tokyo merely wants to appease local Japanese by taking the legal action or is really trying to close the school by demanding a huge sum that it cannot pay.
Song said the metropolitan government showed no intention of renewing the lease or selling the plot at a reasonable price, and held negotiations for just two months before bringing the matter to the court.
The school, which operates on an annual budget of less than 5 million yen, would never be able to cough up the sort of money demanded by the government, he added.
“Considering the history of the school and the local Korean community, it is nonsense to demand the market price for the land or say it is illegal for us to use it,” Song said.
The history to which he refers goes back to the forced relocation.
Developments such as the escalation of the war in China led Japan to give up the Olympics idea, but for the Koreans, they had to resettle in Edagawa permanently. The area had just been reclaimed and was home to nothing but waste incineration facilities, according to local residents.
Kim Un Sop, 75, said it was the Koreans who made the area livable after Tokyo transferred to them management of their relocation shelters, while keeping land-ownership rights in the years following World War II.
The area used to reek of garbage, and the lack of a sewerage system meant the shelters were flooded with waste water after every heavy rain, Kim said.
However, from around the 1960s, residents began building homes on land still owned by Tokyo and later provided each house such basic infrastructure as water, gas and sewer pipes, according to Kim.
Shortly after the war, the Koreans transformed a public building that had been used to instill patriotism toward Japan among Koreans into a school to teach their children their ethnic language, history and pride.
“Having pride in one’s ethnicity is essential for a child to grow into an adult who is comfortable with who he or she is,” Kim said. “That is why we established the school, with our own hands, and have maintained its operation through our limited incomes.”
All four of Kim’s children and two of his grandchildren went to the school. Two other grandchildren are currently attending, and another two are preschoolers waiting to enroll.
Since the school officially opened in January 1946, it has largely been operating on donations from parents and aid from Pyongyang. It now receives about 110,000 yen a year per student in subsidies from Tokyo and the ward, according to school officials.
As a compensatory measure, Tokyo agreed in 1972 to lease the plot to the school for free until 1990.
Shortly before the lease expired, the two sides held talks on the possibility of the school buying the land, but they failed to reach an agreement. At the time, land prices were soaring amid the asset-inflated bubble economy.
It was only in 2001, after the settlement of negotiations regarding the ownership of residential land around the school, that they reopened talks.
In 2000, a group of Edagawa residents and the metropolitan government reached a court-mediated settlement under which public land was sold to about 220 households for 7 percent of market value for housing plots and 3.5 percent for empty plots in consideration of “historical circumstances.”
The school officials said they had expected Tokyo to propose a selling price of around 3.5 percent of market value or less if the old lease for free use of the land could not be renewed.
“It had long been our desire to clarify the issue of land ownership, and if there had been a realistic proposal (from the metropolitan government,) we would have considered it,” Principal Song said.
Lawyers representing the school in the suit said they will argue that a discount similar to that given local residents, or an even greater one, should be applied to the school plot, given its historical background and public nature.
But Tokyo officials said that such a discount cannot be applied to the school plot because, unlike the residential plots, the existence of the original lease shows the land clearly belongs to Tokyo.
They denied having an ulterior motive for trying to force the school’s closure, including that the legal action was part of North Korea bashing, but one official acknowledged it would be difficult for the school to operate without its athletic ground.
“With the exception of public schools, we do not sell or lease (government-owned) land on discount — even to academic institutions,” said Hiroyuki Aoki, head of Tokyo’s Port and Harbor Bureau’s Development Promotion Section of the Coastal Development Division, which manages reclaimed land. “If the school wants to continue using the land, it has no choice but to pay the appropriate amount of money.”