Monday, November 10, 2014

Meandering Thru the Media: "North Korea Still Holds Sway Somewhere: These Japanese Schools"

It’s a slow news day in Japan when the top Bloomberg political story coming out of Tokyo is entitled “North Korea Still Holds Sway Somewhere: These Japanese Schools.” I mean, Bloomberg is a wire service, not a Slate or Salon, right? Anyway, since it’s a slow work day for me, I’m going to critique this report because—well, just because.

Overall, I think that the writer made a conscious effort to treat all parties fairly. I don’t see any particular agenda being promoted here—the hate speech segment could have easily been sensationalized—and both sides of the issue are given voices. Does the fact that I am on good terms with the writer affected my judgment on her work? I like to think that it’s working the other way around. Now, some details:

Like many students in Japan, Kim Yang Sun cycles to school each morning. Unlike most, she then changes into a traditional Korean outfit and studies under portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

That’s the opening paragraph, which caught my eye because I thought the writer was setting us up here. The tell? “…she then changes into a traditional Korean outfit…” But the writer never goes there later on, despite the appearance of the Zaitokukai and hate speech issues. Perhaps she knew about it but thought that it would be too much of a digression on a story largely about the predicament of the schools and the students trapped at the center of a historical and political crossroads, or the editors dropped it for that or some other reason. But I suspect that Norimitsu Onishi or fashion-conscious Martin Fackler would have dwelt on it at length.

The schools were set up after World War II by Koreans who came to Japan during its 35-year occupation of Korea and stayed on as the instability that led to the Korean War and division of their country deterred them from returning. Barred from learning their own language under colonial rule, these Koreans set up schools to prepare their children for eventual repatriation, relying on North Korea for textbooks and cash.

I’m sure that’s what the North Korean schools told the writer, but it’s wrong. Korean was part of the Korean primary and secondary school curricula, until at least 1938, when the parallel school systems were unified. Compulsory education introduced under Japanese rule actually raised Hangul literacy rates—the kind of thing that Japanese nationalists like to boast about and Koreans prefer to ignore. In any case, moral of the story: don’t trust, and verify.

Japan now has about 70 such establishments offering education for 8,000 or so students from kindergarten through university. While numbers have slumped from more than 40,000 in 1961 because of the falling birthrate and some ethnic Koreans taking Japanese nationality, that compares with only four schools backed by South Korea.

This is striking. The two Koreas were engaged in a Cold War battle for the hearts and minds and nationalities of the special-status permanent residence Koreans in Japan. Yet if there are only four South Korean schools now, there couldn’t have been that many back in the 1950s and 60s either. I can make some conjectures, but I’m not going to put them out there without some research. If anyone wants some ideas for an MA thesis, you know where to find my email address. Incidentally, in addition to “the falling birthrate and some ethnic Koreans taking Japanese nationality,” could it be that proportionally more of these Koreans short of taking up Japanese citizenship are going to Japanese schools, now that North Korea-oriented schools no longer have the allure of the halcyon days of “Great Leader”?

While the schools had been tolerated for decades, anger over North Korea’s failure to return the abductees has bubbled over into discrimination against teachers and pupils.

A quibble here. Not that I agree with the Education Minister’s decision to bring the abductees issue into the picture—I disagree, as a matter of fact—but to the best of my knowledge, it is the schools that are being discriminated against; the teachers and pupils are collateral damage. It is the schools that receive the per-student subsidies, not the students themselves.

The curriculum is largely based on that of Japanese high schools, enabling 40 percent of graduates to go on to local universities.

This is an interesting figure. The national figure has hovered around 50% for some time. Do graduates matriculating at the Korean “college” make up the 10 percentage point difference?  

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