TOKYO - Hundreds of ethnic Korean students rallied in Tokyo Friday calling for the return of Japanese state subsidies for schools funded by a pro-Pyongyang group.
The group were protesting a 2013 move when Japan stopped payments to 10 Korean high schools, with Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura saying they were "under influence of Chongryon," the de facto North Korean embassy in Japan.
But pupils and teachers hit back Friday.
"Students who go to Korean high schools are regular youngsters who were born and raised, and will continue to live in Japan," Shin Gil-Ung, 65, the principal of a Tokyo Korean school, told reporters ahead of the rally.
"We hope the discriminatory measure will be lifted as soon as possible, and we are calling for further support from the Japanese public," he said, after submitting a formal protest to the education ministry.
Until recently, these schools - to which ethnic Japanese people are also free to send their children - received the same local government support as any other foreign school in Japan.
But that was suspended in the wake of a 2012 rocket launch by Pyongyang, which the US and its allies said was a barely-disguised missile test.
Unlike regular state-run schools in Japan, each Korean institution proudly displays portraits of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and his successor-son Kim Jong-Un in their classrooms.
Many parents and teachers say this represents their gratefulness for the leaders' financial support totalling hundreds of millions of dollars in the past half-century.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Koreans live in Japan, mostly a legacy of those who emigrated or were forced to move to Japan during its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.
About 10 per cent are believed to be affiliated with Chongryon (the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan).
Ethnic Koreans became stateless with Japan's 1945 defeat, having forfeited their Japanese nationality. They remain without the vote in their host country, after they were given a legal status of "Koreans" without distinction between the North and the South.
When Korea was divided in 1953, they were forced to choose between allegiance to the US-allied Seoul or Beijing-backed Pyongyang. Many complain of institutionalised racism and discrimination and feel the withdrawal of subsidies amounts to collective punishment.
"I think this issue is part of discrimination against ethnic Koreans," said Kim Nana, a 21-year-old female student who graduated from one of Korean high schools.
"We will fight this battle to win our rights," an 18-year-old student added.