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The story of Korean schools in Japan

Photo for The story of Korean schools

A poster for the film featuring the students of Ibaraki Korean school.

Filmmaker Park Yeong-i visited the Center for Korean Studies on February 23, 2017, to screen his documentary “The Blue Sky Symphony,” which focuses on ethnically Korean high school students in Japan.

by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)

UCLA International Institute, March 6, 2017 — At the end of Japan’s colonization of the Korean peninsula in 1945, a large number of Koreans — many of whom were initially forcibly conscripted to provide labor — remained in Japan. They became known as “Zainichi Koreans,” or simply “Zainichi,” and experience persecution and discrimination in Japan. But they have been able to establish Korean-language schools to preserve their heritage.

On February 23, 2017, the Center for Korean Studies screened the documentary “Blue Sky Symphony” of Zainichi Park Yeong-I, which follows the senior trip to North Korea of third- and fourth-generation Korean students in Japan.

A different perspective on North Korea

The students and families featured in Park’s film refer repeatedly to North Korea as their “homeland,” despite the fact that they were born and raised in Japan and most trace their roots to the southern part of the Korean peninsula. This sense of connection to North Korea is thanks to the North Korean government’s ongoing support of Korean schools in Japan.

The Japanese government will not fund the Korean schools and without North Korea’s assistance, it would be almost impossible for third- and fourth-generation Koreans in Japan to attend such schools. The sense of gratitude and the bond formed by this support extends so far that when most Japanese high schoolers take senior trips to theme parks and museums, Zainichi seniors board a plane to visit North Korea.

Park’s coverage of the students’ trip defies the mainstream image of North Korea by showing it to be largely positive, filled with funny, light-hearted locals and beautiful natural scenery. Still, the occasional propaganda posters of Kim Jong Un plastering the streets of Pyongyang remind the audience that this field trip, described by the students as the “best two weeks of their life,” is happening in a country that Human Rights Watch calls among the most repressive in the world.

The film was shot in North Korea, South Korea, and Japan, and is the first documentary on the Zainichi students’ trip filmed in North Korea. Park’s use of footage from all three countries highlights the complicated and multifaceted debate on Korean schools in Japan. The filmmaker juxtaposes, for instance, images of Japanese protesters angered by North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens hurling angry insults at Korean schoolchildren with shots of the Zainichi students talking about their goals and dreams with young North Korean soldiers.

Footage interviewing Japanese school teachers in the Korean schools establish that the schools, although funded by North Korea, are held to the same academic and curricular standards as all other Japanese schools. In another instance, South Koreans explain to Park that although their government is opposed to the Korean schools because of their North Korean funding, the people of South Korea are largely unconcerned or are supportive — there is even an advocacy group to raise funding for Korean schools in Japan in South Korea.

Changing minds by challenging stereotypes

Following the screening, Park took questions from the audience, composed largely of students. Asked about his perception of life in North Korea after filming there many times, he responded, “The image in the U.S. is that no human being should live there, that it is hellish. Every time I go there, North Koreans are smiling.”

Some attendees remained skeptical of the movie’s relatively sunny portrayal of North Korea and another student asked Park if concerns in the U.S. about North Korea were overblown. "It's definitely a mystery and I'm hoping to solve it by filming there,” Park said of the disparity in perceptions. “I want to clarify that I am not suggesting that every day there is good. There are obviously problems with civil rights and freedom of speech and the press. I just hope to offer a different perspective.”

Another audience member asked Park about the extent to which his own experience growing up as a Zainichi and attending a Korean school influenced the film. “This certainly influenced me, but one of the primary reasons I made this documentary has to do with the current situation in Japan,” Park explained, referring to an ongoing debate in Japan as to whether the government should subsidize Korean schools.

“The argument made against the subsidy is that the schools are related to the North Korean government,” said Park. For that reason, I wanted to explore first-hand and show the real relationship between North Korea and Korean schools in Japan.”

Asked about the difficulty of obtaining permission to film in North Korea, Park explained that he has been there several times and has had different experiences each time, depending on the state of North Korea’s internal and foreign affairs. “When I filmed this in 2014, there was really no censorship or restriction,” said Park, crediting the government’s lax attitude to that year’s relative stability.

By contrast, the director recounted a friend’s experience in being searched and censored in politically turbulent years, explaining, “[It’s my] sense that North Korea tends to be censuring, requiring permits and checking your cameras, when there is a high level of political tension.”

Speaking about the future of Korean schools in Japan, Park argued, “Students have the right to an education in Korean regardless of the current political climate.” He argued that the Zainichi must continue to fight to uphold the UN Declaration of Human Rights (which defines education as a universal right), while also fighting negative perceptions of Korean schools.

He concluded by saying that the attitude towards Korean schools in Japan is slowly shifting. He hopes to accelerate this change by continuing to challenge public perception of Zainichi students in his films.

Published: Wednesday, March 8, 2017