Japan/July 14, 2022/By YASUAKI OSHIKA/Source: https://www.asahi.com/
TSUSHIMA, Nagasaki Prefecture–Shortly after the start of the new academic year, a class of high school freshmen was listening to Kim Kyoung-ah on the podium, who is in her seventh year of teaching Korean.
“You breathe differently to pronounce strong and weak sounds in Korean,” Kim said.
The students appeared tense at the seriousness of the Korean class they were taking on April 21.
Girls accounted for the overwhelming majority of the students. Seen applied to their pen cases and pencil boards were photos and sticky labels with images of their favorite K-pop stars.
But what was surprising is that the students were not in South Korea but at Prefectural Tsushima High School here on a remote island in Nagasaki Prefecture.
The current academic and fiscal year marks the 20th for a special curriculum at the school, which offers intensive lessons in Korean, something uncommon for a public high school in Japan.
Many of the students in the course are here on a prefectural program for “studying on a remote island,” having left their households at age 15.
More than a few of these students will go on to study at universities in South Korea.
Interviews with alumni of the course who studied on Tsushima island and in South Korea showed they have stayed in touch with South Korea in some way or other, although they have not been spared from the rough waves of the bilateral relations.
They were found, before everything else, to be characteristically teeming with a spirit of self-reliance.
Leach Lilly Midorikawa, a freshman, said she came from Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, to study Korean here because she has become a fan of Twice, a multinational all-girl pop group based in South Korea.
Midorikawa, whose father is from Australia, said she hopes to study at a South Korean university so she can learn to speak three languages, including English.
The studying on a remote island program was created by the Nagasaki prefectural board of education in fiscal 2003 for having high schools on the prefecture’s remote islands host students from outside the islands.
An international cultural exchange course, for teaching Korean and South Korea’s culture to students on the program, was set up at Tsushima High School on this “border island,” which lies only 50 kilometers from Busan.
The course was promoted in fiscal 2019 to the international cultural exchange department, where two teachers from South Korea give lessons to students so they become proficient enough in the language in three years to study at a South Korean university.
Admitted into the course by spring 2021 were 363 students from Kyushu, Kanto, Kinki and other regions. More than 70 of the alumni have gone on to study at universities in South Korea.
FOOTPRINTS ACROSS BORDERS
Kanako Mitani, 34, a native of the prefectural capital of Nagasaki, was among the first batch of students at the Korean course. She went on to attend Dong-A University in Busan and also went to study in Canada while she was enrolled there.
Mitani served stints at a Tokyo branch of a South Korean trading house and an information technology giant. She now works for a business in Kita-Kyushu, her husband’s hometown, where she uses both English and Korean to communicate with her business connections.
The international cultural exchange course was set up at Tsushima High School during the halcyon days around the time when Japan and South Korea co-hosted soccer’s FIFA World Cup in 2002.
The bilateral relations, however, have since taken a gradual turn for the worse and into a tit-for-tat of anti-Japanism in South Korea and Korea-phobia in Japan.
Alumni of the course have not been spared from the strained bilateral relations of the times.
Among them is Asuka Hirakata, 33, who is section chief with a South Korean-affiliated cosmetics company that operates a chain in Japan.
She went to Tsushima High School from Shimabara, Nagasaki Prefecture, on the “studying on a remote island” program and went on to attend Pukyong National University in Busan.
The longstanding feud over the disputed Takeshima islets was overheating precisely when she was in Busan. Takeshima, in the Sea of Japan, is administered by Seoul, which calls the islets Dokdo, but is claimed by Tokyo.
Hirakata said she was shocked to see how people trampled on Japan’s Hinomaru national flag that they had spread out on the ground.
She landed a job, after she graduated, with a South Korean-affiliated company.
She experienced a raid by anti-Korean hate speech demonstrators when she was a clerk at an outlet selling South Korean beauty products in Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo Koreatown district.
The mob kicked signboards at the shop and left an employee injured. The sales at the outlet nosedived.
Hirakata said she feels disgusted at the hatred-driven people on both sides.
“South Koreans like Japan,” she said. “K-pop music and South Korean cosmetics are also gaining currency in Japan. Nobody around me is anti-Japanese or Korea-phobic.”
Tomohiro Mori, 32, an alumnus of the Korean course, operates a poultry farm in Ukiha, Fukuoka Prefecture.
When asked what the course had taught him, he said, “I gained the firsthand sense, when I was in high school there, that I would be able to live by myself.”
Mori attended Tsushima High School and went on to study at Pukyong National University because, in his words, he “did not want to live like the others did.”
“One student over there, who spoke good Japanese, helped me with my studies,” Mori said, referring to a South Korean student who is now his wife.
Mori’s poultry farm is cage-free, which means chickens are not kept in cages but are allowed to roam free in their henhouses. Cage-free eggs come with delicately flavored yolks, and they are in high demand among the health conscious.
Mori said the venture spirit behind what he has been doing was nurtured while he was at Tsushima.
Makiko Ito, 32, an alumna of the course, works for the Kyushu branch of a South Korean company.
“You wouldn’t be able to stick it out for long unless you had a sense of self-reliance,” she said. “And not all of us, at Tsushima, were able to put up with the loneliness.”
While 10 students or so from the Korean course go on every year to study in South Korea, a maximum of another 10 or so drop out of the course in a year.
Tsushima, an island of only 30,000 residents, was visited in 2018 by 410,000 South Korean tourists, but the boom was later chilled by the strained bilateral relations.
The novel coronavirus pandemic went on to wipe out all visits by South Korean tourists, of which there has been none since sometime in 2020.
That means life plans have gone wildly awry for students who had wished to learn Korean to work in tourism on Tsushima island.
Ayaka Yanagi, another alumna who is now a sophomore at Pukyong National University, was at Tsushima High School when the island was packed with inbound tourists and the situation had yet to take a turn for the worse.
“I love Tsushima so much, so I still wish to be able, in the future, to work at an airport or in tourism on Tsushima,” said Yanagi, 19.
She said her 13 classmates came from all parts of Japan, including Kagoshima Prefecture, Tokyo and Yokohama. The diversity was stimulating, but that came at a price: she sometimes clashed with fellow students who had grown up in different environments.
In retrospect, however, Yanagi said she believes that was the real pleasure of the experience.
“I wish I could go through Tsushima High School again,” she said.
LANGUAGE BOOM PUSHED BY K-POP CRAZE
Education ministry officials said that Korean was taught at 342 high schools across Japan as of May 2018, second only to Chinese among foreign languages other than English.
The figure was up from only 131 high schools in 1999. The count is on the rise on the back of the recent K-pop music craze.
But officials of the Nagasaki prefectural board of education said Tsushima High School is not like the others.
“It has no parallel elsewhere in Japan in that it is a public high school that offers serious Korean lessons,” the officials said.