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Ineligible for gov't free subsidies, Japan's Korean kindergartens are struggling to survive

Students at Yahata Kindergarten in Kitakyushu's Yahatanishi Ward practice playing a Korean drum called a janggu at Yahata Kindergarten in Kitakyushu's Yahatanishi Ward on March 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroya Miyagi)

FUKUOKA -- A year and a half has passed since the October 2019 launch of a program making kindergarten and day care services free in Japan. But kindergartens with affiliations to international schools or other schools catering to foreign nationals are ineligible for government subsidies, leading to children at the kindergartens leaving for free schools, and thereby putting some at risk of going out of business.

    The Mainichi Shimbun spoke to stakeholders at kindergartens affiliated with Korean schools in the southwest Japan city of Kitakyushu to find out about the current state of affairs.

    Sim Yong-hwa, who gave up on sending her son to a Korean kindergarten, is seen at Yahata Kindergarten in Kitakyushu's Yahatanishi Ward on Feb. 25, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroya Miyagi)

    Of the three Korean kindergartens in Fukuoka Prefecture, Kokura Kindergarten, affiliated with Kitakyushu Chosen Elementary School in the city's Kokurakita Ward, is now effectively closed. Ten years ago, it had about 30 students, but Japan's declining birth rate has led to continually falling student numbers, a trend then exacerbated by the outflow of children due to the Japanese government's free kindergarten program started in 2019. By the 2021 academic year, no students remained.

    Forty-two-year-old Sim Yong-hwa's 6-year-old son attended Kokura Kindergarten until the end of the 2019 academic year. She transferred her son to another school because she felt she had no other choice.

    Sim is a third-generation Zainichi Korean from the southwest Japan prefecture of Saga. She spent her youth through junior high school in Japanese schools, but felt out of place among her friends due to the differences in their backgrounds. She often thought of her roots, but knew there was only so much ethnic education that could happen in a household where Japanese was the regularly spoken language.

    She thought having her child come into contact with culture and ethnic education from a young age would provide him with the foundations to understand who he is. He began attending Kokura Kindergarten aged 2, and he gradually started using Korean words in everyday life. Sim described her elation when he first called his father and mother using the Korean words "appa" and "eomma."

    Students at Yahata Kindergarten in Kitakyushu's Yahatanishi Ward learn hiragana on March 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroya Miyagi)

    To combat decreasing student numbers every year, the kindergarten kept its fees lower than Japanese kindergartens, at 8,400 yen (about $76) per month. But when Japanese kindergartens went free, the Korean kindergarten's costs became seen as too heavy a financial burden, and it forced families to avoid the school. The five children supposed to enter Kokura Kindergarten in the 2020 academic year ended up going elsewhere. Sim's son, who was starting his last kindergarten year in the 2021 academic year, would have been its only pupil.

    "It's important to cultivate identity, but at what cost to my child?" Sim asked herself. Following an internal struggle, she decided to transfer her son to a kindergarten close to home. But when she told her son about the change, he said, "Why do I have to change kindergartens?" She was at a loss for words.

    In February, Sim took her son to see a performance by students at Yahata Kindergarten, which is also affiliated with Kitakyushu Chosen Elementary School. Seeing his peers dance, her son said, "I can dance even better than them," stood up, and started dancing.

    Watching him, Sim became uncertain whether she'd made the right decision transferring him out of Korean kindergarten. "Korean schools provide an education where students learn about Japanese and Korean cultures, and develop people ready for the global stage," she said. "Does it do any good to draw a line between small children?"

    A student at Yahata Kindergarten in Kitakyushu's Yahatanishi Ward learns hiragana on March 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroya Miyagi)

    In March, I visited Yahata Kindergarten, where I was welcomed by some 20 Zainichi Korean children. Korean and Japanese was written on the classroom blackboard. It was a class where the oldest children were learning to read and write hiragana, a Japanese phonetic system of symbols.

    The teacher asked them, "What word has the syllable "bi" in it?" They yelled out words like "beer" and "binbo" (Japanese for poor), forcing a wry smile onto the teacher's face. The basic language used at the kindergarten is Korean, but because most of the kindergarteners speak Japanese at home and are unaccustomed to speaking Korean, Japanese is used to support their learning.

    The kindergarten's curriculum is created by referring to the Japanese education ministry's kindergarten education guidelines. The teacher said, "We celebrate Japanese holidays like hinamatsuri (Girls' Day), and do exchanges with Japanese kindergartens. We also incorporate Korean culture, such as song and dance, into our curriculum. As long as we're living in Japan, we want to value both cultures."

    Korean schools in Japan today have their roots in national language training schools. They were founded by Koreans who came to Japan when the Korean peninsula was colonized during World War II, and were unable to return there after the war. The schools were meant to prevent their children and grandchildren forgetting their language and their culture.

    Kokura Kindergarten, in Kitakyushu's Kokurakita Ward, which was effectively closed because it lost all its students to other kindergartens, is seen in a photo taken on April 28, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroya Miyagi)

    Korean schools are also sensitive to the opinions of Japanese society. According to one teacher, 10 or more years ago, Korean kindergartens taught children about the late Kim Il Sung's birthday and other North Korean holidays. From the school's perspective, this was taught as a facet of informing students of their homeland's culture and history. But due to public criticism and concerns from parents worried about the discrimination their children may face from their studies, the content is not currently taught.

    Eighty-eight facilities nationwide were deemed ineligible for the free kindergarten program applying to children aged 3 to 5, because "the quality of early childhood education (provided by the facilities) cannot be systematically guaranteed." Forty of the facilities -- nearly half -- are Korean kindergartens.

    The Japanese government began a separate program from the 2021 academic year, in which even if a facility is ineligible for free education subsidies, the government will provide a maximum of 20,000 yen (about $182) a month to guardians for each child aged 3 or over, if the institutions clear certain government-set criteria.

    An official at the Kitakyushu Municipal Government said, "We are planning to put the program to use starting around summer, but if facilities don't meet the national criteria, they may not be eligible for this, either."

    One criterion posing a challenge is that "at least one-third of the kindergarten teachers or day care facility workers must be certified."

    Fukuoka Prefecture has one Korean kindergarten in Fukuoka and two in Kitakyushu, but because they are considered "miscellaneous schools," staff can work there without credentials as a day care worker or other certifications.

    Only two people working at Korean kindergartens and day care facilities in the prefecture are certified as day care workers or other kinds of staff, and neither of them work in Kitakyushu. Although Yahata Kindergarten has three teachers, they are only certified to teach in Korean schools.

    Finances at Korean kindergartens are becoming tighter by the year. For revenue, school operators rely on fees paid by students' families and donations from former students. In recent years, on top of declining student numbers, the coronavirus pandemic has depressed donation amounts. Furthermore, teachers' salaries are much lower than at Japanese schools, meaning Korean schools have chronic teacher shortages.

    "Education at Korean schools is about learning one's identity and roots, and learning how to live in harmony with Japanese society," said Yun Gyeong-ryong, director of Fukuoka Chosen Gakuen, the body operating the Korean kindergartens in Fukuoka Prefecture. "But when we're deemed ineligible from a broad range of programs, and targeted for discrimination, guardians don't want to go through the pain of making their children attend Korean schools. We can't blame them for that choice."

    (Japanese original by Hiroya Miyagi, Kyushu News Department)

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