TSUSHIMA, Nagasaki Prefecture–Shortly after the start of the new school year, a class of high school freshmen listened to Kim Kyoung-ah on the podium, who is in her seventh year of teaching Korean.
“You breathe differently to pronounce loud and soft sounds in Korean,” Kim said.
The students seemed strained by the seriousness of the Korean class they were taking on April 21.
Girls made up the overwhelming majority of students. Photos and sticker labels with images of their favorite K-pop stars were seen applied to their pen cases and pencil boards.
But what was surprising was that the students were not in South Korea but to the prefectral Tsushima High School here on a remote island in Nagasaki Prefecture.
The current academic and fiscal year marks the 20th for a special program at the school, which offers intensive Korean lessons, which is rare for a public high school in Japan.
Many of the course’s students are here as part of a prefectural program to “study on a remote island”, having left their homes at age 15.
More than a few of these students will go on to study at universities in South Korea.
Interviews with former students of the course who studied on the island of Tsushima and in South Korea showed that they kept in touch with South Korea in one way or another, although they have not been spared the choppy waves of bilateral relations.
They proved, above all else, to be typically driven by a spirit of autonomy.
Leach Lilly Midorikawa, a freshman, said she came from Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, to study Korean here because she became a fan of Twice, an all-girl multinational pop group based in Korea. from South.
Midorikawa, whose father is Australian, said she hoped to study at a South Korean university in order to learn to speak three languages, including English.
The Remote Island Study program was established by the Nagasaki Prefectural Board of Education in fiscal year 2003 for high schools on remote islands in the prefecture to accommodate students from outside the islands.
An international cultural exchange course, intended to teach Korean and South Korean culture to students in the program, has been set up at Tsushima High School on this “border island”, located just 50 kilometers from Busan.
The course was promoted in fiscal year 2019 to the international cultural exchange department, where two South Korean teachers tutor students so that they can master the language enough in three years to study at a South Korean university.
As of spring 2021, 363 students from Kyushu, Kanto, Kinki and other regions were admitted to the course. More than 70 of the alumni have gone on to study at universities in South Korea.
FOOTPRINTS BEYOND BORDERS
Kanako Mitani, 34, from the prefectural capital of Nagasaki, was among the first group of students in the Korean class. She then attended Dong-A University in Busan and also went to study in Canada while enrolled there.
Mitani worked at a Tokyo branch of a South Korean trading house and an information technology giant. She now works for a company in Kita-Kyushu, her husband’s hometown, where she uses both English and Korean to communicate with her business associates.
The international cultural exchange course was set up at Tsushima High School during the heyday when Japan and South Korea co-hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2002.
Bilateral relations, however, gradually deteriorated into a mixture of anti-Japanism in South Korea and Korea-phobia in Japan.
The alumni of the course were not spared the tense bilateral relations of the time.
Among them is Asuka Hirakata, 33, a section head of a South Korean-affiliated cosmetics company that operates a chain in Japan.
She attended Tsushima High School in Shimabara, Nagasaki Prefecture, under the “study on a remote island” program and later attended National Pukyong University in Busan.
The long-running feud over the disputed islets of Takeshima was heating up 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 were stomping on the Hinomaru Japanese national flag that they had spread on the ground.
She got a job, after graduating, with a company affiliated with South Korea.
She was raided by anti-Korean protesters while clerking at a store selling South Korean beauty products in Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo Koreatown district.
The crowd kicked store signs and injured an employee. Outlet sales plummeted.
Hirakata said she felt disgusted by hate-motivated people on both sides.
“South Koreans love Japan,” she said. “K-pop music and South Korean cosmetics are also gaining popularity in Japan. No one around me is anti-Japanese or Korean phobic.
Tomohiro Mori, 32, a former Korean language student, operates a poultry farm in Ukiha, Fukuoka Prefecture.
When asked what he had learned from the course, he replied: “I got the feeling first hand, when I was in high school there, that I would be able to live on my own. “
Mori attended Tsushima High School and continued his studies at Pukyong National University because, in his own words, he “didn’t want to live like other people”.
“A student there who spoke good Japanese helped me with my studies,” Mori said, referring to a South Korean student who is now his wife.
The Mori Poultry Farm is cage free which means the chickens are not kept in cages but are allowed to roam freely in their coops. Cage-free eggs come with delicately flavored yolks and are in high demand among health-conscious people.
Mori said the entrepreneurial spirit behind what he does was nurtured while he was at Tsushima.
Makiko Ito, 32, alumnus of the course, works for the Kyushu subsidiary of a South Korean company.
“You wouldn’t be able to hold on for long if you didn’t feel empowered,” she said. “And all of us in Tsushima couldn’t stand the loneliness.”
While about 10 Korean course students leave to study in South Korea each year, a maximum of about 10 more drop out of the course within a year.
Tsushima, an island of just 30,000 people, was visited in 2018 by 410,000 South Korean tourists, but the boom was then dampened by strained bilateral relations.
The novel coronavirus pandemic then wiped out all visits by South Korean tourists, of which there have been none since 2020.
This means that life plans have gone wrong for students who wanted to learn Korean to work in tourism on Tsushima Island.
Ayaka Yanagi, another former student who is now a second year student at Pukyong National University, was in Tsushima High School when the island was crowded with tourists and the situation had not yet gotten worse.
“I love Tsushima so much, so I always wish I could work in an airport or in tourism in Tsushima in the future,” said 19-year-old Yanagi.
She said her 13 classmates came from all parts of Japan, including Kagoshima Prefecture, Tokyo and Yokohama. Diversity was stimulating, but it had a price: she sometimes came up against peers who had grown up in different environments.
Looking back, however, Yanagi said she thought that was the real fun of the experience.
“I wish I could go back to Tsushima High School,” she said.
LANGUAGE BOOM DRIVEN BY K-POP FOUADE
Education Ministry officials said Korean was taught in 342 high schools across Japan as of May 2018, second only to Chinese among foreign languages other than English.
The figure was up from just 131 high schools in 1999. The number is on the rise following the recent K-pop music craze.
But Nagasaki Prefectural Board of Education officials said Tsushima High School was not like the others.
“There is no equivalent anywhere else in Japan in that it is a public high school that offers serious Korean lessons,” officials said.