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Thursday, May 11, 2000

School has an ear for Korean language

Students close cultural gap with an eye on jobs, love of pop music


Staff writer

Every eye in the classroom is fixed on Shinji Kurosawa's lips. " 'Pul gogi,' repeat after me," instructs the Korean language teacher.

"What does it mean?" a student asks. "OK, 'pul' means fire and 'gogi' means meat. So it means Korean barbecue," Kurosawa answers, writing the word on the blackboard. "Masisseoyo?" (Does it taste delicious?) he continues in Korean.

Kurosawa is one of two Korean language teachers at Kanto International Senior High School, which, in a first among Japanese high schools, opened a Korean language department in April.

Until recently, South Korea outlawed Japanese culture and restricted Japanese imports due to lingering resentment over Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. But young Japanese never paid much attention to Korean culture -- Western culture was more appealing.

Teachers at the Tokyo-based private high school, however, seem to think tastes have changed.

"South Korea lifted its ban on Japanese culture in 1998 and restrictions on Japanese imports last year. We think it is a good time to challenge new territory in education," said Shintaro Nishimori, director of the school's foreign language department.

According to the Education Ministry, Japanese high schools offering classes in the Korean language are on the rise.

The number grew to 131 high schools nationwide, as of last July 1, from 103 in 1997. However, establishing a separate department just like universities is rare.

Riding the wave of popularity of foreign languages in Japan in the 1980s and '90s, the high school created an English department in 1982 and later set up Chinese and Russian departments.

"We have separate departments for English, Chinese and Russian, and we talked about how it is strange not to teach the language of the country that is closest to Japan," he said.

Students in the Korean department study the language six hours a week in addition to the government-required curriculum.

In their second year, they will also study in South Korea -- four weeks in Kyeong Hee University in Seoul and two weeks at An Dong University in An Dong.

The high school has signed special cooperative agreements with the two universities.

"I cannot speak Korean at the moment, but I'm learning words one by one," said Tomoyo Yoshida, 15, one of the students in the Korean department. "It's fun to learn."

Yoshida hopes to go to a university in South Korea. "Since there are many Japanese companies that have alliances with South Korean companies, I'd like to get a job in which the use of both languages are required."

Another student's motive is a bit different. "I like a South Korean music group called Y2K. I love singing, and singing only Japanese songs is not very interesting," said Mina Ichimura, whose dream is to become a singer. "If I could sing in both Japanese and Korean, that would be so cool."

Including Yoshida and Ichimura, eight students joined the new Korean department this year. The number is much less than the initially planned 20, and the school explains that it was mainly due to lack of publicity.

The school expected children of Korean residents in Japan to apply, but no such applications arrived for this school year, according to Nishimori.

"There is the potential need for an extensive Korean program like ours among Korean residents in Japan," Nishimori said. "We are sure that many of them are hoping their kids will be able to learn Korean."

But learning Korean means not only learning the language. As the students study more, they will soon encounter Korean history and become aware of Japan's colonial rule and the tragedies associated with it.

"It could be a difficult issue, but students will learn by themselves as they prepare to study in South Korea in their second year," Nishimori said.

Kurosawa said that he does not intend to direct them a certain way, adding that how the students view Korean history depends on the individual.

"We should not tell students what to do with the Korean language they learn. It's their decision," he said. "I just want them to become people who can express their feelings in Korean and Japanese and be responsible for what they say."



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