Pro-Pyongyang high schools were officially banned Wednesday from the government’s tuition-waiver program, almost three years after every student in Japan, including those at foreign schools, was declared eligible to receive the financial aid.

The decision reflects hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s get-tough stance toward North Korea over various provocative actions, including repeated nuclear tests, missile launches and the abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.

But critics have slammed the punishment, calling it “blatant racism” against ethnic minorities and are turning to international organizations, including the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee, to force a reversal.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology on Wednesday revised an ordinance to omit the 10 pro-North Korea high schools that filed for the tuition aid and later informed the schools of the decision.

“The schools are under the influence of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon) and (making them eligible for the program) may violate the Basic Law of Education, which stipulates that ‘education shall not be subject to improper control,’ ” education minister Hakubun Shimomura said Tuesday in explaining the government’s decision.

Japan and North Korea do not have diplomatic ties and Chongryon acts as the de facto diplomatic mission in Tokyo.

The tuition-waiver program, introduced in April 2010 under the then-ruling Democratic Party of Japan, is available to all high schools in the country, including 39 international and ethnic schools with curricula similar to Japanese schools and approved by the education ministry.

But the DPJ kept postponing a decision on what to do about the Chongryon-linked schools. When the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power in December, however, it didn’t wait long to take action.

Yasuko Morooka, a visiting researcher at Osaka University of Economics and Law, expressed outrage over the decision, claiming it violates the law on the tuition-waiver program. Article 1 stipulates that the program aims to give financial aid to contribute to “equal education opportunity.”

“What the LDP did was blatant racism. It clearly revised the ordinance in order to eliminate the North Korean schools, in violation of the tuition-waiver law,” Morooka told The Japan Times. “The government is punishing these children who have nothing to do with the abduction issue or the nuclear tests and violating their human rights. It is completely unfair and shameful.”

The education minister has also cited a lack of public understanding as another reason for the exclusion of pro-Pyongyang schools. But Shimomura himself revealed that a recent survey by the education ministry showed that public opinion was split — about 52 percent were in favor of excluding the schools while 46 percent were against it.

“It was divided in half and there is no way that the government can blame it on public opinion. More importantly, it is extremely dangerous for the education minister to justify violating people’s human rights by using public opinion and understanding as an excuse,” said Morooka, a member of the nongovernmental Japan Network for the Institutionalization of Schools for Non-Japanese Nationals and Ethnic Minorities.

This controversial issue has attracted international criticism and in 2010 the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged Japan to “ensure that there is no discrimination in the provision of educational opportunities” and specifically raised concern over the possibility that pro-North Korean schools may be excluded from the program.

And with the members of the IOC delegation coming to Tokyo to evaluate Japan’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics, Morooka intends to bring the issue to their attention as well. The Olympic Charter takes a strong position against all forms of discrimination.

“The Olympics is based on all states and people of all ethnicities being equal . . . . But what the Japanese government did this time was official discrimination against ethnic minorities,” Morooka said. “Given the current domestic political situation, it is difficult to see the decision being reversed, so we are hoping that the international community, especially the IOC, will become a major source of pressure.”

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