At the end of Japanese occupation in 1945, Korea emerged onto the world stage as one of Asia’s most industrialized nations. Her people surfaced all at once ecstatic, confused, on the way to prosperous times, clothed in rags, united as Koreans, and yet still divided into societal factions preceding and formed during Japanese occupation.
In the decade following her liberation, Korea fought a civil war, leaving the newly once-again-autonomous nation divided on the 38th parallel. As the South grew into “The Miracle on the Han River”, her northern counterpart degenerated drastically into famine, poverty and a grim human rights crisis—all of which persists in the present-day. These two pictures of post-Japan Korea offer a disparity in indicating the effect of Japanese colonialism.
Gathering from Hildi Kang’s Under the Black Umbrella, the Korean Park-Kyung Won-centric film The Blue Swallow, and sentiments expressed in the Korean Communist Party’s 1934 “Platform of Action of the Korean Communist Party”, evidence stands to support both the detriments and benefits of colonialism, but the term colonized cannot be compromised in the face of ambivalent results. The fact remains that even in the kindest depictions of Japanese colonialism, Korea was colonized—subdued, sheltered and suppressed for the sake of a people not her own.
More a defeated people than equalized subjects, many Koreans found themselves subject to targets of bigotry. Acts of prejudice ranged from petty forms of ill-social reception by the Japanese to larger scale instances of extrajudicial mistreatment. Kim Sobun, a housewife during the later years of Japanese occupation recounted the lower address of “madam”1 she received from a group of her Japanese friends– a difference slight enough to blend into the everyday, but notably implicative of difference between Japanese and Korean social status (Kang).
On a level involving legal authority, the case of Christian “martyrs” well illustrates the ability held by Japanese police authority to instigate extrajudicial arrests and torture filled prison stints in spite of the Japanese constitution’s official “ guarantee [of] freedom of religion” (Kang). These martyrs many-a-time died in jail after long imprisonments involving torture—without official sentences.
Such acts were not limited to the numerous protestant leaders and missionaries imprisoned, but extended to various political prisoners and people with suspect ideologies. The legal system endeavored to identify and provide retribution to as many anti-Japanese and potentially anti-Japanese individuals as possible in a skewed manner that ignored the rights guaranteed to Korean citizens as subjects of the empire of Japan.
Defiled were many due to their lack of legal rights in these extra judicious proceedings, and also defiled due to the lack of check on Japanese authority over Korea, were many young “comfort women” who, according to the testimony of Kim Pong Suk were “trained” to be sent to the Japanese army under the pretense of “becoming nurses and taking care of the Imperial Japanese soldiers”—a fate Kim providentially and unknowingly avoided, much unlike many of her elementary and middle school classmates (Kang). Many of those interviewed in Kang’s book were in grade school during the last years of Japanese occupation.
They learned Japanese since preschool and harbored neither love for nor hatred toward Japan, interacting with Japanese children and hoping to participate in the war effort in only the spirit of innocence patriotism, living what they knew to be the only way of life—a life much different from their elders. The extra judicious proceedings of many Japanese authorities on Korean soil were an injustice to those subjugated by political and juridical force, but just as powerful was the method of subjugation by assimilation.
Implemented through the educational system, unofficial—but all the same enforced—decrees to adopt Japanese names, Shinto worship and other various channels, assimilation worked toward the gradual, but sure, erasure of Korean culture and customs. For many elders of the time, assimilation did not mean survival, nor did it mean compliance, but it meant acceptance of Japan and betrayal of Korea—blasphemy toward Korea and all her history.
However, the idea of a “more perfect union” between Japan and Korea presented the ‘unofficial’ requirement of Koreans to switch to Japanese names in 1939—a society in which Korean children grew up reciting the “Pledge of Imperial Subjects” to Japan, learning Japanese in pre-school—all part of the general “tactic” electrical engineer Yang Songdok claimed Japan purposed “so that the younger generation would know nothing… and their thinking and their attitudes would become Japanese” (Kang).
He saw Japan as an eradicator of Korean culture and believed the country’s aim to be to “eliminate any vestige of Korean consciousness” (Kang). And whether or not Yang’s premonitions aligned with the intents of the Japanese government, whether suddenly and chaotically or leisurely and undetectably, the eradication or attempt to eradicate any culture and its history is damaging and tragic.
As depicted in The Blue Swallow, assimilation’s societal coercion impacted not only individual self-definition, but could also jeopardize one’s status as ‘pro-Korean’ or ‘pro-Japanese’. Like many Koreans who wanted to work, succeed or pursue their educational and vocational dreams, aviator Park Kyung Won could only experience the culmination of all her hard work if she flew under the Japanese flag—declaration to an impersonal country for a personal dream.
Assimilation materialized as another complication to the Korean identity on top of the Korean Communist Party faction and And while encounters with individual Japanese differed enough that not all Korea-Japan relationships could be classified as hostile, because Korea was colonized as an empire, whether or not her people were affiliated with or would encounter Japanese well disposed to the idea of Korean autonomy did not change her subordination to all things and people Japanese.
Like most racially charged sentiments, the extent to which prejudice against Koreans occurred—if at all—depended on each individual, but the junior social status of Koreans on their own soil was evident through the yield of almost all economic furthering, such as in agriculture, inexplicably skipping over the Korean people. Koreans under Japanese rule witnessed the fruit of much of their labor cross the Sea of Japan.
Calls by the Japanese government to increase agricultural production in Korea were met with compliance and largely favorable results in the farming industry, but as the piles of rice intended to ship to Japan climb higher than the piles designated to remain in Korea, so did climb the Korean Communist’s sentiments that the Japanese were “robbers who oppress and plunder the Korean people”. Despite the increased production of rice and cotton, 70% and 80%, respectively, of the millions of pounds of both commodities produced in Korea were shipped to Japan (Kang).
The promise of increased food supply for the Korean people was elusive and advancement in the Korean agricultural market was evidently exclusively advantageous to the citizens of Japan. This exploitation of those in the Korean middle and lower classes, was a cardinal detriment, requiring workers to labor more and receive less, however, the leaders of these operations were not exclusively Japanese, many were Korean landowners—considered by the Korean Communist Party to be “allied of Japan”. While support and campaigns by the Japanese government for the development of Korea in agricultural and conomic efforts were mere guises to further procure success for the Japanese economy—developing Korea to nurture another nation—the role of Koreans who “collaborated” with the Japanese contributed to the Communist party’s accusation that Korea “[was] not a united nation” and those in positions of “collaborative” leadership with the Japanese thereby participated in the very same “plunder” of Korean toilers. After Korean liberation, progresses in the agricultural field under Japanese rule made for a steady base to build upon.
However, institutions implemented and left behind by days of Japanese colonialism did not benefit the Korean people, the Korean people benefited the Korean people by grasping onto those institutions that were both introduced to and developed by their own hands to once further the cause of another nation, to further their own nation. The Yang-ban were Korea. The peasants were Korea. The pro-Japanese Koreans were Korea. The communists were Korea. The anti-Japanese Koreans were Korea. Park Kyung Won and Koreans living in Japan were Korea. The people of today’s North Korea were Korea as well as the people of today’s South Korea.
Korea had and has factions, was and is divided, and simultaneously suffered as well as prospered as one nation with many camps. All of Korea was colonized—subjugated, suppressed and subordinated—by Japan, but not all of Korea submitted equally and not all of Korea emerged equally. The crumbling of the skewed Yang-ban-topped social hierarchy cannot be proffered as a positive of Japanese rule without regarding the complete social subjugation of Koreans under the Japanese as exemplified by comfort women and other perverted abuses of the Japan-centric social order.
Likewise, neither can the sure platform of Korean industrialization and economic growth erected under Japanese rule and left behind after Japanese rule be credited without observing the intent to benefit Japan, and not its colonial subjects. Even South Korea’s post-Japanese economic proliferation cannot be cited without also raising the case of North Korea’s concurrent descent into national poverty. Like most historical cases of colonization, designations of good and bad overlap enough that a dichotomy of both terms is both supportable and refutable by numerous events.
As it goes however, colonization in itself is meant to be an oppressive rule primarily geared to serve the dominant state, with all benefits for the subordinate state in alignment with the fundamental purpose of furthering the colonizer and not the colonized. Japanese colonialism did not build the “Miracle along the Han River”, nor did it erect Kim Il Sung’s totalitarian regime. It did however indisputably produce an industrial metamorphosis on Korean soil, which was left behind and arguably used as a platform for further Korean modernization after the end of Japanese occupation—regardless of intent to benefit who.
Japanese colonialism also indisputably effectuated the suffering, and stifling of Korean culture and many Koreans—regardless of the variations in relationship between individual Koreans and individual Japanese. Compressed, Japanese colonialism played bully to a resolute Korean victim—a binary force of both suppression and empowerment, though a self-determining victim certainly testifies to a self-empowering victim.