Earlier this year, I visited a children’s school in Tokyo. The kids were lively and smiling, as you’d expect, but in fact they’re in the middle of an increasingly tense international dispute. That’s because these Japan-born children aren’t actually Japanese. They’re Korean, and their community is loyal to the North Korean regime.
This isn’t a story about a physical border. North Koreans living in Japan experience a much less visible kind of border, one made of culture, tradition, history, and ideology. The result is a North Korean bubble in Japan whose members face fierce discrimination from Japanese society, leading the community to turn to Pyongyang for support.
The story starts in the early 20th century, when thousands of Koreans were brought to Japan to serve as laborers and, later, as “comfort women” — a euphemism for sex slaves provided to Japanese soldiers during World War II. Some of them ended up returning to their homeland, but many of them stayed.
This means that many Koreans were living in Japan before North Korea existed as an independent nation. And yet a subset of them later came to identify with the regime in Pyongyang and to see themselves as North Korean.
The newly formed regime of Kim Il Sung won their loyalty by sending resources to support Korean schools and businesses in Japan. Since then, the culture and ideology of North Korea has been passed down through generations of Japan-born Koreans at schools supported by the North.
Now that community is being tested like never before. North Korea routinely threatens to destroy Japan with nuclear weapons, prompting a spike in Japanese nationalism. Japanese politicians are feeling increasing pressure to crack down on this North Korean bubble, creating a battleground in the most unlikely of places: schools. And that’s where I went to try to understand what life is like on one side of this cognitive border: