However prepared I may have been before entering the school building, the first thing that struck me as I walked from classroom to classroom were the stern portraits of Kim Il-sung, the first North Korean leader, and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, hanging above a dusty blackboard.
This might be expected in a school in Pyongyang. But I was in Yokohama, Japan, where escalating tensions with North Korea have left that country a pariah state.
The school I visited that day is one of approximately 70 "North Korean" schools in Japan. The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan - known as Chongryun - runs these facilities, which offer a kind of cultural education for the children of Japan's Korean minority, the "Zainichi Koreans". Although itself a private organization, Chongryun is widely regarded as the de-facto embassy of North Korea in Japan.
The school itself showed visible signs of decay. Cracking paint, poorly lit stairwells, and trampled linoleum revealed the decrepit
state of both the building and the organization's finances.
Yet amid the physical ruins of the facility, energetic students studied in brightly decorated classrooms. As I toured the school with a small group of Japanese visitors, smiling girls in traditional Korean chima-chogori dresses greeted us, and boys summoned up the courage to speak a few English words. The dire financial straits and rundown nature of the building contrasted sharply with the sense of enthusiasm and pride that the students and teachers expressed.
Two changes have led to the schools' current financial difficulties. Citing Japan's tense relationship with North Korea, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently cut off funding for these Chosen schools, declaring them ineligible for the subsidies that go to all other schools in Japan. Meanwhile, facing its own financial troubles, North Korea has been unable to continue supporting the schools. In need of money, Chosen schools have turned to private backers - local ethnic Koreans and Japanese - with some initial success. How long their support can continue, however, is difficult to say.
For parents and students affiliated with the schools, the financial struggle to keep the doors open is in service of a larger goal: maintaining their identity as Koreans in an increasingly hostile environment. But exactly what kind of identity are they so tightly holding on to, and can the schools stay open without compromising it?
Koreans in Japan
By many accounts, Koreans represent Japan's largest ethnic minority group, though counting them has proven difficult. According to the Japanese Ministry of Justice, Japan is home to approximately 530,421 Koreans, making them a minority population surpassed only by the number of Chinese. This figure includes 381,645 "Old-comer" Zainichi special residents - Koreans whose loyalties often lie with either Chongryun or Mindan, the South Korean-supported organization in Japan. The remainder is made up of South Korean passport holders residing in Japan. This includes some Zainichi, as well as so-called "New-comers", who arrived in Japan from the mid-1960s onwards, a time when South Korea-Japan relations were officially normalized. It does not, however, include the thousands of Koreans who have been naturalized as Japanese. This last figure increases each year, in a manner inversely proportional to the falling number of Zainichi Koreans.
In recent years, a growing number of those Koreans registered as "aliens" - especially "Old-comer" Zainichi - have opted to become naturalized Japanese citizens. Taking this new designation, however, does not necessarily mean letting go of ideological beliefs, and many of these officially defined as Japanese continue to identify with North Korea.
An imperial legacy
Created after the end of the Second World War by Korean laborers who never returned to their homeland, the Chosen schools are a legacy of the Japanese empire.
The Korean community in Japan traces its roots to the period of Japanese militaristic expansion beginning in the late 19th century. Around that time, a newly industrialized Japan tried its hand, with initial success, at the "Great Game". It extended its influence to the previously independent islands of Ryukyu, colonized Formosa (now Taiwan), defeated Russia in the Far East, and occupied Manchuria in Northeast China. Annexed in 1905 and officially colonized from 1910-1945, Korea became the "rice bowl" for the expanding Japanese empire.
With Japan controlling the peninsula, Koreans became subjects of Japan's "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere". Although officially granted Japanese nationality, Koreans were considered socially inferior to native-born Japanese. Subjected to forced labor in Korea, many were brought to Japan, where they endured compulsory and at times abusive work. Liberation on August 15th, 1945 brought an end to Japanese control of the Korean peninsula, but did not resolve the status of Koreans in Japan.
The country's Korean population at that time largely lived in Tokyo and Osaka, and the newly minted Japanese government viewed it with anxiety. Considering Koreans a potential fifth column, the administration of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida withdrew all privileges previously accorded to Koreans in Japan soon after signing the Treaty of San Francisco. The treaty, signed by 48 countries in 1951 and implemented the following year, officially ended the Second World War and handed control of Japan back to the Japanese. But because Japan did not recognize North Korea as a country, ethnic Koreans who identified with the North - including some second-generation Koreans who knew of the "homeland" only through their parents - suddenly became officially registered as "aliens". Stateless and unwanted, they lived in Japan with neither citizenship nor nationality.
Mirroring divisions on the Korean peninsula, Japan's Korean community early on divided along ideological lines and formed organizations to represent its competing factions. Supporters of the South were represented by the Mindan organization, first created in 1946, while supporters of the North found representation through Chongryun, founded several years later. Of course, many people of Korean descent had one foot in each camp or no foot in either.
For many years, Chongryun was the stronger and more influential of the two collectives - at one point during the 1950s holding the support of up to 90 percent of ethnic Koreans in Japan. Chongryun owed its early popularity to multiple dynamics. Until the late 1960s, North Korea appeared to be winning the race for war recovery and modernization, its population spurred on by the promise of a socialist paradise. This prompted many Zainichi Koreans to align with Pyongyang - which was quick to support their schools. The South, meanwhile, was viewed as a continuation of the Japanese colonial regime. Echoing what occurred in Japan under American occupation forces, US-backed South Korean President Rhee Sung-man gave positions in the new government to many of the bureaucrats who had cooperated with the former colonial masters. These included Park Chung-hee, the future dictator and father of Park Geun-hye, the conservative current president of South Korea. Adding to this, the South Korean government looked with suspicion at ethnic Koreans returning from Japan. This legacy continues to be a major reason so many Zainichi Koreans in Japan associate themselves with North Korea, despite Pyongyang's subsequent decline and isolation.
Chongryun used its tremendous popularity and considerable influence with Koreans in Japan to establish the Chosen schools. Mindan, meanwhile, failed to exercise the same sway over the Zainichi Korean population, and opened considerably fewer ethnic Korean schools.
In 1957, the Japanese government concluded that it would need help to rid the country of its unwelcome Korean guests. Japan had become home to some 600,000 forced and volunteer Korean laborers. In cooperation with the newly established Chongryun organization, Japan began the "Repatriation Project", whereby Koreans could "volunteer" to "return" to North Korea.
But these terms are misleading. To encourage ethnic Koreans to "self deport", the Japanese government made life difficult at the institutional level. Alien registration laws demanded that foreigners, including Koreans who were born and raised in Japan, be fingerprinted. Ethnic Koreans were excluded from the rights granted to non-nationals in Japan's post-war constitution, and employment policies further prevented Koreans from taking "Japanese" jobs. Meanwhile, the Japanese media, working hand in glove with the government, contributed to a fermenting social antagonism toward those already on the margins of society.
So when the Japanese Red Cross announced plans to repatriate ethnic Koreans in collaboration with Chongryun, many Koreans in Japan saw this as a chance to kill two birds with one stone. By returning to the peninsula, they could escape persecution in Japan while also contributing towards the rebuilding of the Korean Fatherland, so recently flattened by the same B-52s that had laid waste to every major Japanese city less than 10 years earlier.
If the "voluntary" nature of the migration was dubious, the term "repatriation" is no less ill fitting. Almost all of the Koreans in Japan bound for the North had come from the southern provinces of the peninsula, especially Jeju. The 93,340 Koreans who took the voyage from Japan to North Korea, then, were "returning" to a land that was not their own, in search of an ideal that had never existed - an independent, united Korea, free from foreign influence, in which the future was decided by Koreans, for Koreans, and hard labor would be repaid in kind by a brighter future for their children. This was the narrative Chongryun and the Japanese government espoused as they joined forces to encourage the exodus of Koreans (and, perhaps with some reluctance, often their Japanese spouses as well).
For North Korea, "the returnees", or "Japanese-Koreans" as they were and continue to be referred to, provided a much-needed source of labor at a time when China was withdrawing its soldiers from the northern half of the peninsula. Many of those who landed in Wonsan port in the early days of the repatriation were given preferential access to housing in Pyongyang and employment in factories. As more and more arrived, however, the preferential treatment dried up, and the final destination for most Koreans from Japan became the mines of the northern provinces. For those less lucky, their fates were decided in one of North Korea's many labor camps. The workers who had contributed to the building of the Japanese empire were now shipped back across the East Sea and put to work in equally arduous conditions.
Ironically, the "repatriation" project would later be the undoing of Chongryun - for in the eyes of those Koreans who did not "return" to the North, it would forever tie the organization to North Korea. And indeed, after the post-war period, the influence of Chongryun waned substantially. The organization seems unable to recover from its association with North Korea - a nation now best known in Japan for organizing the kidnapping of Japanese citizens.
Propaganda as identity
The idea of opening Chosen schools to the public is part of Chongryun's recent efforts to foster support in the face of hostility from both the Japanese government and other ethnic Koreans in Japan, who now overwhelmingly sympathize with the more prosperous and democratic South. The people I spoke with at the Yokohama Chosen school sincerely hoped to keep their institutions open and preserve their ethnic identity. I could sense their eagerness to reach out - to me and to the wider society - to show that they are not the monsters the Japanese press continuously paints them as, but rather simply a group of people seeking to express and hold onto their ethnic identity.
But as I was led around the school, talking with the students about their hobbies and plans for the future, it seemed to me that members of Chongryun had made what may turn out to be a fatal error. They have padlocked their ethnic identity to an ideology that is, to put it mildly, no longer in vogue. Reifying the precepts of this ideology - including the paraphernalia and slogans that now appear at best kitschy and at worst pernicious - they have taken it to stand for their own collective self.
The teachers who sighed and muttered disappointedly under their breath, "Ah yes, of course," when I questioned them about the portraits of the two Kims, mounted carefully above a blackboard, could not see what I saw. When they looked at Kim Il-sung's homely, moon-shaped face, they felt the powerful pull of nostalgia and, more importantly, they saw themselves. In their disappointment that yet another outsider had fixated on the portraits and slogans rather than on student grades, they showed that they are blind to what the Japanese government uses as a justification for cutting off funding to their institutions: that the legacy of the Kims is poison to Chongryun and harmful to the image of ethnic Koreans in Japan in general.
Whether justified or not, "Chongryun" has become a byword for North Korea - for forced migration and abandonment, for abduction and side-street dealings. Chongryun is a virtual pariah in the eyes of the Japanese government, and in response the embattled group has developed a bunker mentality. In battening down the hatches and equating its identity with the relics of an ideology that, for the Japanese people, is a material representation of fear, the group is colluding in its own demise.
Hannah Arendt, a German-Jewish political theorist who spent her life reflecting on power and authority, once wrote, "Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself. The masses have to be won by propaganda." For the teachers and students in the Chosen schools across Japan, the propaganda that won them over two generations earlier is now what they cling to as a marker of who they are. Sadly, it is what will drag them under the waves.
Who are "we", and what is "us"? These are questions that members of Chongryun seem unable, or unwilling, to answer without gazing up at the portrait of the fatherly leader.
Markus Bell is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University. He is currently based in Osaka, Japan, where he is continuing research on the North Korean diaspora. He can be contacted through markusbell.weebly.com.