When the Democratic Party of Japan swept to power last year, many people expected Japanese politics to become more rational. The Liberal Democratic Party had maintained a status quo that stifled meaningful change, and the DPJ supposedly won by promising to move forward.
But certain impulses have proven difficult to resist. One of the planks of the DPJ platform was a plan to eliminate the need for students to pay tuition at public high schools and provide subsidies to those attending private high schools. The idea that students must pay for continuing their secondary education runs counter to the spirit of the fundamental education law, which guarantees equal educational opportunity to all residents of Japan.
However, many politicians and government officials seem to believe that some schools are more deserving of their largess. Currently, this notion is being expressed in the opinion that chosen gakko, or schools run by the North Korea-affiliated organization Chongryon, should be exempt from the planned tuition subsidies.
Chosen gakko fall outside the parameters dictated by the education ministry and are thus labeled kakushu gakko, which means “miscellaneous schools” and include educational institutions that primarily cater to non-Japanese students of various nationalities. If a graduate of a kakushu gakko wants to attend a Japanese university, he or she is supposed to pass an equivalency test before sitting for entrance exams. However, many universities in recent years have waived the equivalency test for graduates of these schools, including chosen gakko. Everybody is scrambling for students.
Starting next month, the government will start covering tuition for all high schools, including kakushu gakko, but it hasn’t yet decided whether or not chosen gakko are eligible for subsidies.
As a series of recent reports in the Asahi Shimbun has pointed out, there is no rational reason to exclude North Korean schools from the tuition-subsidy plan, and the DPJ’s credibility has been undermined by its position on the issue. Like the LDP when it was the ruling party, the DPJ is operating in accordance with gut-level revulsion: The government does not want to be seen as supporting an institution that has anything to do with North Korea, whose government has admitted to kidnapping Japanese nationals in the past.
But students who attend chosen gakko are residents of Japan, meaning their parents pay taxes and thus are entitled to benefit from government programs. The fact that their nationality is North Korean should not make any difference, especially since other kakushu gakko are eligible for the subsidy. It should be noted that it’s the chosen gakko that the government is targeting, not the students who attend them. After all, the DPJ makes no such distinction with regard to the proposed child allowance, which will be given out to all offspring of resident taxpayers, including North Korea passport holders, even if those offspring don’t physically reside in Japan.
DPJ lawmakers have been twisting themselves into knots to find a justification for exempting the 12 chosen gakko high schools from the plan. Hiroshi Nakai, the minister in charge of the abduction issue, said that exclusion would send a strong message to Pyongyang about Japan’s determination to see that all the presumed abductees are properly accounted for, thus turning the 2,000 chosen gakko students into political pawns.
When asked by reporters on Feb. 26 to comment on Nakai’s controversial remark, Hatoyama was typically indirect: “It’s not difficult to understand that people from countries which have relations with Japan should be given priority.”
Though the prime minister seemed to be dodging the question, his meaning was clear: Chosen gakko have lower status than other kakushu gakko. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano muddied the waters further when he criticized the media for the way it interpreted Hatoyama’s statement, but, as the Asahi pointed out, just because Hirano clarified that the abduction issue would not be a factor in the final decision, that didn’t mean chosen gakko would not be excluded under the plan. A whole new reason for excluding them had already been formulated. On Feb. 23, Hirano had said that the decision would be tied to whether or not chosen gakko curriculum “was suitable,” meaning that it followed education ministry guidelines. The implication was that it did not. Education Minister Tatsuo Kawabata asserted that it was “difficult to understand” their curriculum and since Pyongyang was presumably calling the shots, the ministry would have to determine if the curriculum in the “home country” complied with Japan’s guidelines; and that would be impossible since Japan has no diplomatic relations with North Korea.
As Kim Gwan Min, a third-generation North Korean resident of Japan, wrote in the Mainichi Shimbun, the curriculum of chosen gakko are easy to understand. It is the same as that for Japanese schools. Chosen gakko, after all, have to “prepare their students to enter Japanese universities and companies.” As for checking the curriculum in North Korea, has the education ministry ever done anything similar with other kakushu gakko?
The DPJ’s incoherence in making a case to exclude North Korean schools from its plan demonstrates that the decision to do so came first and then reasons were improvised to make it publicly acceptable. Kim points out that the LDP did something similar several years ago when it allowed graduates of kakushu gakko to sit for Japanese university entrance exams but tried to exclude chosen gakko.
At the time, the DPJ, which was the opposition party, objected to the exclusion. Now that the DPJ is the ruling party, it seems to have developed the same anti-chosen gakko reflex, and reflexes are the opposite of rational thought.