TOYOAKE, Japan (AP) -- The high concrete walls of Hwang In Suk's school enclose a world different from the rest of Japan. Another language echoes through the halls. The classrooms, with their chalky blackboards and flimsy desks, look like they haven't been changed since the 1950s, when the school first opened.
The government has begun denying funds to schools like this, and the reason is most evident at the front of each classroom, where portraits hang of North Korea's first leader, Kim Il Sung, and his son, Kim Jong Il.
More than 9,000 ethnic Koreans in Japan go to schools, from kindergarten through college, closely affiliated with North Korea. The schools serve a community that is in many ways stateless, created by the movement of Koreans to Japan prior to the end of World War II, when the Korean Peninsula was a Japanese colony.
Hwang, who commutes four hours a day, six days a week, to attend this aging school with a dustbowl of a playground, considers it a haven. She and her classmates can speak Korean, study their own culture and call each other by their real names, not the Japanese pseudonyms most use to get by in the mainstream.
"This is the only place where we can be ourselves," the 18-year-old said.
In a nation where ethnic Koreans like Hwang have suffered intense discrimination for decades, the schools are a target of rightists and an enigma to the Japanese public. Some have no signs out front saying what lies inside. Their girls stopped wearing Korean-style school uniforms off campus years ago amid harassment and physical threats.
Now, Japan's government is moving to ostracize the schools even further by excluding them -- and only them -- from subsidies aimed at making a high school education affordable for every child. School officials say the impact of the exclusion, announced earlier this year, is still to be seen but will likely impact enrollment and deepen the stigma the schools already face.
Despite criticism from human rights groups that the government is bullying a vulnerable ethnic group, Japanese officials say they are acting out of concern over the schools' ties to a hostile nation. The solution, they say, is for the schools to become more Japanese.
That, school officials and students say, is exactly what they do not want to do.
It's a Saturday afternoon and classes have just let out at the Aichi Middle-Senior High Korean School, which sits atop a hill overlooking a suburb of Nagoya, a city in central Japan.
Teenagers dressed in black-and-white uniforms disperse for their after-school activities. Two girls sit by the playground tuning saxophones. Other students hang back in their homerooms, cluttered with books and backpacks, to kill time before they catch their trains home.
There is a lot of chatter. Though shy at first in the presence of a rare visitor from the outside, the students soon go back to their gossip and games, laughing and flashing peace signs whenever a camera is pointed in their direction.
"We're a community," Hwang said as she changed out of her indoor shoes and placed them neatly in a shoe rack. "We have our own history and our own roots. We support each other."
The schools -- one university, 10 high schools and 73 grade schools -- survive primarily on tuition and donations from the community. They also receive funds from Pyongyang, but that income stream has largely dried up as North Korea struggles to meet its own domestic economic shortcomings. They received about $30 million a year in the 1970s but get only about $2 million now. That covers the cost of textbooks for younger students and is used to improve facilities and fund scholarships.
When students are about to finish high school, they go on school trips to North Korea. For many of the students, generally fourth- or fifth-generation Koreans in Japan, it is the first and only time they will experience North Korea firsthand.
Officially, most of the students are not North Korean. Some are naturalized Japanese, some have South Korean passports. Many, however, fall into a gray zone, with no passports at all because their families were registered in Japan before North and South Korea separated and declared themselves independent countries.
In the '50s and '60s, North Korea's seemingly bright economic prospects and promise of a socialist paradise prompted many Koreans in Japan to align with Pyongyang -- which was quick to support their schools. That legacy continues to be a major factor behind why so many Koreans in Japan associate themselves with North Korea, despite Pyongyang's subsequent decline and isolation. There are only four schools for Koreans in Japan that are aligned with the South and they were not excluded from the government subsidies.