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Changing Course and Overcoming Disaster - Damage from the Earthquake and Reconstruction of the Tohoku Korean School

Emi Kato
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Tohoku Korean Primary and Junior High School (hereinafter referred to as Tohoku Korean School) stands on the hill of Yagiyama in Sendai. In the fall, trees with beautifully colored leaves surround the school and Japanese serows (goat-like animals) occasionally visit the schoolyard during morning exercises. Today I would like go over the school’s history and explore how the school changed course after the major earthquake in 2011.

History of Korean Schools in Japan

A trail in Yagiyama leading to Tohoku Korean School. People often walk their dogs along this trail.

Tohoku Korean School provides education to children of Korean origin living in Japan. Most of them are forth generation descendants of Koreans who moved to Japan during the colonization of the Korean Peninsula when they were regarded as Japanese citizens. Over two million Koreans moved to Japan and supplemented Japan’s workforce for decades until 1945. While many of them returned to the Korean Peninsula after Japan lost the war and Korea was liberated from colonization, approximately 600,000 of them who had spent many years in Japan decided to stay behind. As I discuss later, they eventually lost their Japanese citizenship and as of 2014, approximately 350,000 Koreans without Japanese citizenship were living in Japan. Although government statistics do not indicate it, a large number of naturalized citizens in Japan originated from the colonized Korea.

Japanese people that desired educational freedom established many schools immediately after the war. Koreans in Japan also established “national language training schools” across the country to promote Korean language education and reaffirm their identity. Common knowledge suggests that by 1948, more than 67,000 Korean children studied at 642 national language training schools across Japan 1 . These national language training schools later became Korean schools. These schools were once operated on the grounds of local diversity as part of a Japanese public education system that "strives to nurture Japanese citizens" (Fundamental Law of Education, Section 1). More specifically, Korean schools were operated as public Korean schools in Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo, and Aichi prefecture from 1951. In many other areas, Korean school classes were treated as special full-time classes where classes were held every day in public schools or as extracurricular courses for public schools (77 classes in 13 prefectures) 2 .

Treatment of Korean schools however completely changed in 1952 when Japan regained its sovereignty and Korean residents in Japan lost their Japanese citizenship. The Japanese public education system excluded Korean schools because Korean residents were legally no longer Japanese citizens. Korean residents at that time were extremely poor and did not have sufficient resources to support Korean schools. It was the government of Democratic People's Republic of Korea (hereinafter referred to as North Korea) that responded to this situation and supported these schools. The North Korean government began funding and providing aid for educational assistance and scholarship programs in 1957. To Korean residents, such support was their "lifestream." 3  If the Japanese public education system had not excluded Korean schools in 1952, the relationship between Korean schools and the North Korean government may have been different from what it is now.

In contrast to Japan’s public education system, Japanese local governments have been supporting Korean schools since the 1960s. They gave Korean schools the status of "school corporations," exempting them from taxes and providing them with subsidies. The reason behind such support is the understanding that even though Korean schools no longer educate "national citizens," they are educating “local citizens” in Japan 4 . Over time, Korean residents took over the financial burden of operating Korean schools and thus support from local Japanese governments, not the North Korean government, became crucial for their continued existence.

Damage from the Earthquake and Reconstruction of Tohoku Korean School

In 1965, Korean residents in the Tohoku region established the Tohoku Korean School in the heart of Tohoku, Sendai. The school was established for children from six prefectures in Tohoku to study as boarding students or day students. Six months after celebrating its 45th anniversary, Tohoku Korean School, like many other schools in the region, was hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. Since the school stood on the hill of Yagiyama, most damage was caused by the actual earthquake, not the tsunami. Fortunately, no one was hurt. However, the four-storied school building that carried significant meaning for students, teachers, and graduates was almost entirely destroyed. Since the earthquake, entry into the building has been prohibited 5 .

The Tohoku Korean School has not received any financial assistance from the Japanese government for reconstruction of its school building. In accordance with the Disaster Relief Program 6 , the government generally pays half of reconstruction costs for private schools. However, the government has not approved the application from the Tohoku Korean School. Furthermore, Miyagi prefecture and Sendai city terminated subsidies for Korean schools in FY2011 and FY2012 7 ,  8 . Their decisions to terminate the subsidies coincided with the national trend for ending subsidies to Korean schools that was initiated by the Tokyo metropolitan government in 2010 in response to worsening Japan-North Korea relations. Although schools in the region experienced the same disaster, Miyagi prefecture and Sendai city never opposed the recent multi-layered exclusion of Korean schools from Japanese society. I feel this development is a representation of how cultural diversity is in danger in Japan.

How do teachers at the Tohoku Korean School feel about the current situation? I visited the school to find out.

The Vice Principal I met was not nearly as upset as I was. To my surprise, he said "We were also responsible for this situation." This is despite the fact that Korean residents have long experienced discrimination, and despite the fact that they have been affected by the natural disaster and further discriminated against when it comes to reconstruction.

Tohoku Korean Primary and Junior High School (Tohoku Korean School)

He told me about his intention "to overcome the disaster" this year, which marks the Korean School's 50th anniversary. Funds reserved for the Disaster Relief Program were used to convert the dormitory into a school building, which had been previously used as a temporary school building after the earthquake. The school also improved the work environment by building a dormitory on the school premises to accommodate new and young teachers. Furthermore, the school began to exchange with nearby public elementary schools and junior high schools. These exchanges began when people supported each other by sharing living essentials in temporary shelters immediately after the earthquake. "Overcoming the earthquake and making changes to the school is an important step we can and should take to make Tohoku Korean School appealing to more Koreans in the Tohoku region."

Currently, eighteen elementary and junior high school students study at Tohoku Korean School. The number decreased by seven after the earthquake. Although the earthquake accelerated the decrease, the decrease itself has been a long-term trend. There was a time when almost 1,000 students studied at this school. Japanese, Korean, and Tohoku communities are all experiencing aging populations. Amidst these aging communities, what does reconstruction of the Tohoku Korean School mean? It does not mean simply repairing the school building damaged by the earthquake or restoring it to its pre-quake condition. Instead, it may mean to "overcome the earthquake" and make creative changes to the school or "leave something behind using the earthquake as an opportunity" to retain something fundamentally important.


The Sendai local government explained that they stopped providing subsidies because the Tohoku Korean School had a small number of students and therefore could not expect it to produce sufficient "educational effects." Korean schools however do have important educational effects on Japanese. They are powerful reminders of a shared past that Japanese have wanted to but must not forget - one that is connected to wartime, post-war, colonial, and post-colonial history of Japan. Losing such an important historical marker is a serious loss for Japanese society. While the Sendai local government may decide to resume subsidies because of the abovementioned changes of the Tohoku Korean School, local governments should nevertheless continue providing subsidies to Korean schools because they provide educational benefits to Japanese people in their communities.

*I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the Vice-Principal of Tohoku Korean School, Mr. Chihak Choi, for his cooperation regarding this report.
*The visit to Tohoku Korean School was supported by the Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (15K21445; applicant: Emi Kato).

^ 1  Yusaku Ozawa: Zainichi Chosen-jin Kyoiku Ron–Rekishi Hen (Education of Korean Residents in Japan: History), Akishobo, 1973, p. 200.
^ 2  Dong ryong Kim: Chosen Gakkou no Sengo Shi: 1945 – 1972 (Post-War History of Korean Schools: 1945 – 1972), Shakaihyoronsha, 2004, pp. 111 – 131.
^ 3  Dong ryong Kim: Chosen Gakkou no Sengo Shi (Post-War History of Korean Schools), p. 167.
^ 4  For example, Eisaku Sato, former governor of Fukushima prefecture (in 2001), stated that "These children (who go to the Korean school) are not Japanese citizens but are residents of Fukushima prefecture," and doubled the subsidy for Fukushima Korean School (Koriyama, Fukushima). (February 23, 2009) Korean School Update: Report from Koriyama (2) Hardship; Reduced Donations Affect School Operation. Kahoku Shimpo.
^ 5  Refer to the Record of the Quake Aftermath: Tohoku Korean School 2011.3.15 – 3.20 (KOMAPRESS), a documentary film played at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in October, 2011, portrayed the damage to the school building.
^ 6  Private School Facilities Disaster Relief Subsidy Guideline (Restoration of Private and Vocational Schools Damaged in the Great East Japan Earthquake), 23 MEXT Lifelong Learning Policy Bureau Notification #420, decided by the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology on September 21, 2011.
^ 7   (March 31, 2011) Miyagi Prefecture Terminates Government Aid for Korean Schools in FY2011. Kahoku Shimpo.
^ 8   (February 28, 2013) Sendai Terminates Subsidy for Korean Schools. Kahoku Shimpo.

Emi Kato
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University


Emi Kato has been an Assistant Professor at Waseda University’s Faculty of Political Science and Economics since 2013. She specializes in international relations, international cultural studies, and international migration. She has been a researcher at Mitsubishi Research Institute, a special researcher at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and a research associate at Waseda University’s Faculty of Political Science and Economics. She graduated from International Christian University and is a Doctor of Political Science (Waseda University, 2012). She was born in 1975 in Aichi prefecture.

[Major works]

Kawasaki Shisei no Kenkyu (Examination of the Kawasaki Municipal Government) (The Japan Research Institute for Local Government Series), (jointly authored, Keibundo, 2006), Taminzokuka Shakai Nippon (Society Growing to be Multiethnic: Japan), (jointly authored, Akashi Shoten, 2010), Kokusai Bunka Kankeishi Kenkyu (Study on the History of International Cultural Relations), (jointly authored, University of Tokyo Press, 2013).