Back to School
Photojournalist Mark Edward Harris visits a Korean school in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, one year after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that triggered a nuclear disaster in the country.
Story and photographs by Mark Edward Harris
There are a number of reasons students change schools, such as a family moving to a different neighborhood, but for the children at Woori Hakkyo (“Our School” in Korean) in Koriyama, in the Fukushima Prefecture of Japan, it would be nuclear fallout that spurred their en-masse transfer.
This unlikely scenario became stunning reality soon after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck the Pacific coast of Tohoku on March 11, 2011, killing more than 15,000 people, injuring some 6,000, and destroying tens of thousands of buildings.
The earthquake also triggered powerful tsunami waves, reaching upwards of 40 meters, that severely damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on the coast, located less than 40 miles from the Koriyama Korean school. When the escaping nuclear material created a real and present danger, the students were relocated to a Korean school in neighboring Niigata Prefecture. Students lived in a dormitory while their parents remained in Koriyama, where many had their businesses, according to school principal Goo Yong Tae.
Last December, the school’s 16 students and eight teachers were allowed to return to their original campus, and last month, I had the opportunity to spend the day with them, along with Goo and Shim Ryong Han, the chairman of the school’s board of education. One year after Japan’s strongest earthquake, all appeared resolved to move forward and focus on their educational goals, though ominous reminders of the disaster were ever-present and contrasted starkly with the handmade “welcome back” signs from well-wishers: A government-mandated radiation monitor was installed at the school, and a huge mound of radioactive topsoil—that had been scraped off the school grounds—was piled up on the far side of the school’s soccer field and covered with a tarp. Goo said the government hadn’t decided what to do with the pile yet.
The school staff meanwhile keeps a daily log of the radiation levels at the campus.
The Koriyama school is one of two Woori Hakkyo schools located in the disaster region; the other in Tohoku was destroyed and has yet to be rebuilt. Part of the challenge in rebuilding the Tohoku school, or in decontamination efforts at the Koriyama school, is that such work is not fully funded by the national or municipal governments. The Japanese government justifies its lack of aid by citing that the Woori Hakkyo schools receive financial support from the North Korean government.
Goo told me there are about 2,000 ethnic Koreans, referred to as zainichi, living in Fukushima Prefecture. Most of them were born in Japan, and don’t care if their ancestors were born in what is now North or South Korea. They are simply proud of their Korean heritage.
Two Northern California-based groups, the Japan Pacific Resource Network and Eclipse Rising (made up of zainichi Korean Americans), established the Japan Multicultural Relief Fund last year to raise money for ethnic Koreans and other minority groups in Japan who may be underrepresented or neglected in post-disaster relief aid. The fund has already awarded grants to NPO Woori Hakkyo, a nonprofit organization that supports students who attend the Woori Hakkyo schools. (There are Korean schools backed by the South Korean government in Tokyo and Osaka, but they operate separately from the North Korea-supported Woori Hakkyo schools, said Goo.)
Students play at recess on the soccer field, where in the distance, behind the soccer goal, can be seen the tarp-covered–and now, snow-covered–mound of radioactive topsoil that was removed from the school grounds.
At the Koriyama school, save for the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hanging in the principal’s office, there was little indication of influence from above Korea’s 38th parallel. Students here enjoy a 2-to-1 student-teacher ratio, and take math, history, science, economics, Korean history, Japanese history and English classes. Though snow was piled several feet high outside the concrete building, there was a tangible warmth nurtured by the school’s staff and students. After a communal lunch in the cafeteria that included kimchi, some of the children chased each other around the soccer field. The mound of radioactive topsoil located just behind the soccer net seemed to go unnoticed. Children, no matter what situation they find themselves in, tend to have to the unique ability to remain, thankfully, children.
For more information on the Japan Multicultural Relief Fund, visit http://relief.jprn.org.
This article was published in the March 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!