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Sunday, Dec. 11, 2005

Korean school strives to keep its homeland culture alive

Staff writer

When I first laid eyes on Tokyo Chosen Dai-Ni Shokyu Gakko (Tokyo Korean No.2 Elementary School) in the downtown Edagawa district of Koto Ward, it looked like any other school in Japan.

News photo
School Principal Song Hyong Jin poses at his desk in the teachers' room, with the portraits of North Korean leaders behind him.

Established at the end of the war on reclaimed land at the southern end of the capital, the school's seven teachers teach 59 first to sixth students of Korean ancestry subjects ranging from language and history to math and sciences.

Just like in any school, the children are cheerful and chatty, especially during breaks. After lunch, they clean the school's hallway, classrooms and the bird pen. After school, they have club activities like soccer, tae kwon do, chorus and dancing.

But as I inspected more, I realized how far it is from ordinary. As one of more than 100 schools run by the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun), it has been a constant target for harassment ever since the September 2002 summit, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted that the nation of which he is the Great Leader abducted at least a dozen Japanese citizens in the 1970s and '80s.

News photo
Children at a Korean school in the Edagawa district of Koto Ward, Tokyo, play on the school's athletic ground, which has been the subject of a bitter court dispute since December 2003, when the Tokyo Metropolitan Government filed a lawsuit demanding its return.

Even now, though the school gate is open all day, and there is no guard posted, parents are fearful that anti-North Korean sentiment might suddenly explode at any time and be directed at the school's pupils, said Chang Sun, 43, whose three children study there.

Even more pointedly, the school is now facing perhaps the biggest crisis in its 59-year history. That is because in December 2003, Tokyo Metropolitan Government sued Tokyo Chosen Gakuen, the school's governing body, demanding the return of a 4,140-sq.-meter portion of the 5,400-sq.-meter plot it occupies and was allowed to use for free until 1990. The metropolitan government is also seeking 400 million yen from the school for what they allege has been illegal use of the land since the lease on it expired in 1990.

For years before it filed that lawsuit, the metropolitan government had been trying to work out an agreement with the school to sell the property at a reasonable price, argued Yasuko Morooka, one of four lawyers representing the school. She added that the government suddenly adopted its hardline stance after three Japanese residents of the ward filed an audit request in August 2003.

News photo
The picture of a historic June 2000 summit between South Korean President Kim Dae Jon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il hangs on the wall of the school's hallway, with a message, "We Are One," on the top.

When I visited the school one day last week, however, it was business as usual for Principal Song Hyong Jin. That morning, he and his third-grade students were on the athletic ground kicking around tiny, colorful shuttlecocks in what he told me is a traditional Korean game. The 41-year-old principal has spent two-thirds of his life at the school, first as a student and then, since graduating from college, as a teacher.

In that time, Song has seen many changes -- not least to the ailing structure itself, which was built by hand in 1964 by local Korean residents, many of whom had come to Japan before 1940, either as forced laborers or out of economic necessity after being deprived of their land following Japan's 1910 annexation of Korea. After living in various parts of Koto Ward, that community was forcibly relocated to reclaimed land in Edagawa where the air was filled with the stench from a nearby garbage dump, according to people who support the school in the lawsuit.

Despite their hardships, however, Koreans in the area who were scraping a living as carpenters and construction workers, built the school themselves without even a blueprint -- so that no one now knows precisely the routings of the electricity, water or sewage systems, Song said. Nowadays, the school's low-budget fabric is not only apparent in the cracked exterior walls and rusty old doors inside that no longer open easily, but also in the long row of buckets that teachers scurry to line up on the second-floor hallway when it rains, to catch water leaking through the roof.

News photo
Children of the Edagawa school display the traditional Korean dance at a cultural festival in late November.

"It's amazing that this building has lasted this long," Song said.

However, because Korean schools are accredited differently from Japanese schools, they receive little funding from municipal governments -- and none at all from central government. That the school has survived at all is only due to support from parents and donations from the Korean business community in Tokyo.

Chang, the father of three students, said the main reason he sends his children to the Korean school is to maintain their ethnic identity, including the language and customs. He added that this is all the more important because fewer children now speak Korean at home, beyond the use of a few simple everyday words.

And such schools have also been seen to some extent as refuges from discrimination, as Kim Suk Hui, the mother of a sixth-grade girl at the school, made clear. She said that the prejudice she faced as a child was much more explicit than that confronting young Koreans today. For instance, she said, when she was in a junior high school in Tokyo, she was once accosted on a train by an old man with a wooden sword. "Go back to your own country," the man yelled, pushing her and her friend, who were both wearing traditional Korean ch'ima chogori, to the edge of the car.

"Some of my relatives are zainichi (Korean residents in Japan) but they speak no Korean," Kim said. "They have changed their nationalities too. . . . As for me, even though I retain my Korean nationality, it does not mean I cannot speak Japanese. By making friends with fellow Koreans, who now live a wide variety of lives, I feel I have acquired the strength to live on my own."

Since that summit in 2002, many Korean schools all over Japan have taken flak over their pro-Pyongyang approach to education. But Song argues that the schools have changed dramatically over the last decade or so. That, he says, has been in response to demands from parents that they should not teach just about North Korea but also about Japan, since their children will likely spend their whole lives here.

"When the school was first opened, it was meant to be a temporary shelter for children of Korean laborers, a place for them to let their children prepare for a smooth return to their home country," Song said. "We never thought the schools would last this long."

Today, the school's curriculum includes Japanese history and geography, as well as the Japanese language. Not only that, but teachers preach friendship with Japanese people, instead of the defiance that Song admitted was once the norm in Korean schools.

Still, student populations at Korean schools continue to decline. Song estimates only 10 to 20 percent of zainichi now attend them. The rest, he said, opt for Japanese schools -- often hiding their ethnic identity and using Japanese names -- while some 10,000 Koreans every year become naturalized and obtain Japanese citizenship.

Despite all these problems, Song appeared hopeful about the school's future. He pointed to the fact that in recent years the school has become more open to the public, with even a few "Open School" days each year during which anyone can drop in and look around.

Openness has also been growing within the divided Korean community in Japan since a groundbreaking summit in Pyongyang between then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il on June 15, 2000. As a consequence of the summit, once-hostile relations between the pro-Pyongyang Chongryun and the pro-Seoul Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan) have thawed, he said.

This made it possible for a TV crew from the South Korean SBS network to spend two months at the school this summer to produce an in-depth documentary on it. When it was aired in September, it proved so popular with viewers that it was shown again in October, Song said.

Interaction with Japanese residents is also developing. In July 2004, eight months after the metro government sued the school, about 400 Tokyo residents attended a public meeting to express support for the school. Then, in March, another meeting, including a concert, was held by some 700 Japanese supporters, and in May, academics, lawyers and activists set up a fund to support the school in its court battle.

Interestingly, Song sounded as if he was grateful that the lawsuit had led to all those developments.

"We had searched for a way to interact with people outside our community for a while," he said, "but we didn't know how to reach out. Now, the lawsuit has given us opportunities to talk to the media, and more than 900 non-media people visited us this year. We would like to get our message out more."

But why, I finally felt compelled to ask, are there portraits of Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung on prominent display in the teachers' room? After all, despite the school's friendly and welcoming atmosphere, since the abductions issue broke -- not to mention the possible nuclear threat from North Korea -- many Japanese think of them as being unpredictable, dictatorial and horrifying.

"The Japanese people know so little," Song replied, his tone of voice probably the strongest I heard during my visit to the school. "Very few zainichi worship the leaders as individuals. When our nation was liberated after the end of the war, we created schools all on our own. The Japanese government then suddenly banned the schools, before forcibly incorporating them into Japan's mandatory education system. Then, following the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which deprived us of Japanese nationality, Japan said it didn't want us in its system after all. The history of Korean schools [in Japan] is a history of oppression.

"In 1957, North Korea offered us financial help for the first time. They sent us money, earmarking it as 'educational support funds.' Lots of zainichi also received scholarships to go to school. All this time, South Korea totally snubbed us, as if to say, 'You'd better become Japanese.' It is because of this background that we feel indebted to them."

As I left the school, I worried that I had probably asked some insensitive questions, born of not understanding zainichi culture that is all around me in Japan. I hadn't understood much of the teacher-student exchange either, because I speak no Korean. But on my way back to the nearby station that night, as I re-entered the world of high-rise condominiums and office buildings, I felt like I had discovered a secret.

Sure, every creaking door in the school and every cracked cement step attests to the struggles of Koreans to survive on foreign soil. But I could feel an atmosphere of warmth and homeliness there -- whether in the playful peace signs of boys with broomsticks in their hands, or the way teachers hummed to themselves while they prepared for classes after school.

You don't need a fancy swimming pool, a spanking new gym or a high-tech toilet to instill a sense of hope into children or a community. Here in Tokyo, descendents of people who withstood decades of discrimination and social and economic hardships, including Song and Chang, voiced hope that Japan will finally find peace with its geographically close but psychologically remote neighbor. And hope that the two Koreas will someday become one.

They have waited for more than half a century, and they are still waiting -- even when their school's existence is threatened.

Resilience seems to be something many Japanese have left behind. Not so at the Edagawa school, where it is alive and well in the minds of all.

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