Ri Dong Yol, a 74-year-old ethnic Korean living in Japan, remembers an autumn day more than six decades ago when dozens of policemen suddenly arrived in trucks in front of his school.

The policemen marched into the school in the midst of a class and started to take away its desks, chairs and other equipment, Ri said.

“So I resisted against them by clinging to a leg (of a policeman) while suppressing my fears, but it was useless.” The school was closed down overnight.

This blunt exercise of state power was not an act of a country under the rule of an authoritarian dictator like North Korea, a communist state created after World War II in a region where Ri’s family comes from. It took place in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture.

The police were acting on an order issued by the government of occupied Japan in October 1949, four years after the country’s defeat in the war, to abolish ethnic Korean schools nationwide.

At the time, Japan was surrounded by a tense geopolitical atmosphere amid a Cold War confrontation on the Korean Peninsula that would develop into the Korean War several months later.

The presence of ethnic Korean schools across Japan was a legacy of the country’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, during which many Koreans were brought across the Sea of Japan to work at Japanese mines and factories. Koreans were forced to receive education in Japanese.

Ethnic Korean schools in Japan mostly started as language schools for children of migrant Korean families that remained in the country after the war. Such schools proliferated with the growing presence of the predecessor organization of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), which functions as North Korea’s de facto embassy in Tokyo.

With fears about the threat of communism and Soviet-backed North Korea mounting, the Japanese government, at the behest of the Allied Occupation authorities, moved against the schools, issuing the closure order.

“After the war, it became possible to speak Korean and learn about the Korean history, but the opportunity to do so was lost,” said Ri, who formerly taught at an ethnic Korean school providing elementary and secondary education in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, and now serves as an adviser there.

Despite the crackdown, the drive to give ethnic education to Korean children died hard. Some schools, including the school in Matsuyama, continued to operate in some form.

In Matsuyama, after the school’s building was demolished, the place of education moved from location to location, before a lumber mill warehouse became a permanent site in April 1951.

This is one of the estimated 70 ethnic Korean schools, from kindergartens to university-level institutions, in Japan that have weathered political and social headwinds over the years.

Ri arrived at this school as a freshman teacher in April 1962, when North Korea’s initiative to encourage the return of ethnic Koreans was in full swing. The initiative was launched in late 1959.

Ri urged his students to move to North Korea after finishing the school and do their bit for their fatherland.

Lee Jeong Ja, a 76-year-old ethnic Korean, joined the Matsuyama school after finishing at an ordinary Japanese elementary school. At first, the noise of the lumber mill and the unfamiliarity of receiving lessons in Korean made her ill at ease, but she soon blended in.

When she reached high school age, Lee wanted to enroll with Matsuyama Higashi High School, a prestigious Japanese public school where she had a friend. However, she found she was not qualified to apply. She appealed directly to the local board of education to no avail, so she instead studied at an ethnic Korean high school in Kobe.

In many cases, children of ethnic Korean families had to abandon high school education because of poverty. North Korea’s return-home initiative gave hope to families whose lives in Japan were stuck in a miserable rut.

Contrary to its current image as a country afflicted with hunger and poverty, North Korea at that time was billed as a “paradise on earth” where jobs and education were assured for everyone.

Park Bok Soon, a classmate of Lee, had a younger sister, who returned to what became North Korea after finishing junior high school with the dream of becoming a doctor.

“I was worried, but I could not stop her from going because we were too poor to send her to a higher school in Japan,” said Park, 76, who remained in Japan. Park visits North Korea every few years to see her sister, who went on to become an obstetrician-gynecologist.

“As I want to spend a happy time with her, we don’t discuss politics. We always get excited talking about the old days.”

At its peak in 1964, the ethnic Korean school in Matsuyama had around 200 students who came from across the four prefectures of Shikoku. Now student numbers have dwindled to around 20.

Ko Jong Bom, the school’s principal, said he felt increased hostility from Japanese society when North Korea publicly acknowledged its past abductions of Japanese nationals in 2002. “I drank with my colleagues every night while crying over our uncertain future,” he said.

However, Ko, 44, appears to be resolved to stick it out. “If the school disappears, the torch of ethnic education that our parents and grandparents have held dearly would be put out. We must protect it, come what may,” he said.

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