OSAKA – For decades, schools for ethnic Koreans living in Japan have been divided along pro-Pyongyang or pro-Seoul lines, with their curricula reflecting the differing political ideologies in North and South Korea.
In 2008, however, a new type of school opened in Osaka in response to Korean residents’ desire for an education that, while emphasizing their roots in the Korean Peninsula, is not restricted by differences across the 38th parallel.
Most of the 86 students from the seventh to 12th grades at Korea International School in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture, are Koreans living in Japan. But there are also Japanese students and people who have returned after stints abroad.
Nowadays, 4 in every 5 Koreans in Japan are believed to have at least one parent with Japanese nationality, unlike previous decades. Many citizens of Korean descent also have assumed successful roles in academia, business and other circles in Japanese society.
As a result, there has been growing frustration and dissatisfaction that the education offered at Korean schools simply imitates that of the “home” country — that is, North or South Korea, depending on the school’s affiliation — according to Om Chang Joon, vice principal at Korea International School.
Established in response to such frustrations, the new school in Osaka has adopted a curriculum based on Japanese educational guidelines, with the majority of classes taught in Japanese. It also has classes on Korean language and history, and attempts to cover the peninsula as a whole.
In one recent eighth-grade history class, Om taught about agriculture during the Korean dynasties. He also teaches his students about post-Korean War issues on the peninsula and encourages them to discuss potential ways to resolve the conflicts in class.
“It was inevitable for North Korea, being at war with the United States, the superpower, to attempt to strengthen its rule,” said Om, who was born and raised in Seoul. “Even South Korea was in a similar situation prior to democratization.”
Cho Ri Sa, a 17-year-old student who was born in Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture, recalled that one pro-Pyongyang Korean school she used to attend used textbooks published by an affiliate of the pro-North General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. It also used footage in class that emphasized the prosperity of North Korean society.
“Here (at Korea International School) it’s easy to learn as we look at things from various angles,” she said. “It also makes us think for ourselves.”
The school also makes an effort to address issues involving diplomatic clashes or differences of opinion, instead of avoiding them. When taking up the territorial dispute over the tiny islets known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea, Om and a Japanese teacher engaged in a three-hour debate in front of the students, defending both the Japanese and Korean sovereignty claims.
“Living in Japan, our students will undoubtedly be asked to give their opinions regarding territorial and historical issues” between Japanese and the Koreans, said Om. “We must make sure to avoid the case in which they end up in a disadvantaged position simply because they’ve never had the experience to think about these issues.”
Many graduates from the school continue their education in Japan, South Korea, or even at universities in the U.K. and other countries.
Song Oh, the school’s director general, has been involved since its planning stages. He said his dream is to “nurture future leaders of an East Asian community.”
But challenges remain. While the school has deepened its ties with South Korean educational institutions and flies both the Hinomaru and South Korea’s Taegukgi flags at its campus entrance, it maintains no exchanges with North Korea, given the significant differences in their educational systems, school officials said.
The school has also yet to develop a solid financial footing.
“We’re up and running thanks to the support of those who see this as an interesting approach and believe in our ambition,” Song said.
The students appear undeterred, and while the school’s unique approach is unprecedented in Japan, they seem to believe that the education there helps deepen their self-identity.
The students even react coolly to anti-Korean movements in Japan, most notably hate speeches directed against Korean residents recently by right-wing activists.
“Have fun,” said Kang Dae Uk, an 11th-grade student at the school.