Japanese Colonial Ideology in Korea (1905-1945)

Written by: Yi Wei, University of Toronto

Japanese colonial ideology operated in Korea from the times of the Korean protectorate, in 1905, to the end of the Second World War, in 1945. Japanese colonial ideology worked through three distinct and yet mutually reinforcing channels: knowledge production, economic policies, and brute force. This essay seeks to shed light on the workings of the Japanese colonial ideology in colonial Korea through a chronological examination of events. 

Before the annexation of 1910, the Japanese epistemic community produced a profuse collection of writings on the Korean body. Japanese ethnographers portrayed Japanese and Koreans as peoples of the same race, with the former being more advanced in terms of civilization. On the one hand, Japanese ethnographers argued that Japanese and Koreans “possessed considerable physiognomic, linguistic, and cultural similarities.”[1]On the other hand, Japanese ethnographers quickly insinuated differences between the two peoples. They branded Koreans as ignorant, lazy, and incapable of initiating progress.[2] This simultaneous similarity in race and differences in dispositions and stages of development validated Japan’s role in leading Korea in civilizational and cultural development. In this case, Japanese ethnographic knowledge production justified Japan’s eventual annexation of the Korean peninsula in 1910. Japanese colonial ideology channeled itself through ethnographic knowledge production.

Furthermore, in the precolonial period, sanitization dominated Japan’s discourse on Korea. Japanese scholars characterized Koreans as filthy, and some even branded Seoul, the capital city, as the “shit capital.”[3]Japanese knowledge production on the hygienic situation in Korea led to the establishment of Seoul Sanitation Association (SSA) in 1907 during the protectorate period.[4]Outwardly, the SSA was founded to carry out sanitary reforms, aligning Korean sanitary conditions to those of Japan. In reality, the SSA utilized brute force to enforce Japanese hygienic standards to individual Korean households. The colonial police intruded into private spaces of Korean homes, surveying hygienic conditions and collecting sanitation fees.[5]In this case, brute force was employed by the colonial police to enforce the Japanese discourse on sanitization. Japanese colonial ideology worked through both knowledge production and brute force. 

Japan was able to annex Korea in 1910 due to its military strength. Contrary to the later claims of Makoto Saito, the union of Korea and Japan was not “peacefully accomplished by the mutual consent of the people.”[6]The looming presence of the military enabled the annexation. The first decade of Japanese colonial rule in Korea was coined “the military rule” for valid reasons.[7]A year from annexation, the colonial police arrested 700 Korean opponents of colonial rule. These dissenters were imprisoned, tortured, and prosecuted.[8]This heavy hand of the police characterized the first decade of Japanese colonial rule in Korea. Brute force enforced Japanese colonial ideology in the 1910s. 

In the early 1910s, the new colonial government enacted economic policies and institutional arrangements. Most notably, the government initiated the cadastral survey.[9]This economic policy demonstrated the workings of Japanese colonial ideology in two ways. Firstly, as Kim Dong-No argued, the Japanese cadastral survey institutionally favoured Korean landlords at the expense of Korean tenants, pitting the latter against the former in an domestic class warfare.[10]The cadastral survey preserved the land rights of the landlords and deprived the land rights of the tenants, widening the economic disparity between the landlord and the tenant. The cadastral survey was an early demonstration of Japanese colonial tactic of divide and rule. 

Secondly, in Marxist terms, the cadastral survey initiated a capitalist process of primitive accumulation in Korea. Through making landownership singular and commodifying land, the Japanese colonial government made Korean land legible to the Japanese capitalist machine. Meanwhile, as tenants were denied their traditional tenant rights to land, they were deprived of their means of production. Without ownership to land, tenants could not control the fruits of their labour and actively seek advancement through hard work. Thus, poor tenants were made even poorer. They became free-floating labour power that was ready to be absorbed by the Japanese capitalist machine. In such a way, Japanese economic policies, such as the cadastral survey, institutionally reduced Korean tenants to poverty and accumulated an abundance of cheap Korean labour power for the empire. Japanese colonial ideology worked through economic policies. 

In the early 1910s, Japanese intellectuals continued the process of knowledge production to legitimize its hold on Korea. Similar to the ethnographic works, portions of these works stressed a simultaneous sameness and difference between Japan and Korea. For instance, as shown in Do-Hyun Han’s work on colonial religious governance, Shamanism was framed as the dominant Korean religion. Japanese colonial scholars argued that Korean Shamanism was a primitive branch of Japanese Shintoism. They argued that in terms of religion, Korean was “below Japan on the evolutionary stage of civilization.”[11]This epistemic installation of Shamanism as the dominant Korean religion showed the workings of the Japanese colonial ideology. 

In 1919, a group of Korean nationalists read the March First Declaration of Independence in a restaurant in Seoul. This resulted in months of demonstration and protest against Japanese rule, which came to be known as the March First Movement.[12]Japanese reaction to the March First Movement could be seen in two layers. Firstly, the colonial police suppressed demonstration through brute force. The colonial police burned villages, shot on crowds, and conducted mass searches.[13]An obituary, published in the New York Times, confirmed this narrative. A female participant of the March First Movement, Yi Kwan-sun, was imprisoned, interrogated, and died in the process.[14]Indeed, when knowledge production and economic policies failed to hamper a Korean nationalist front, brute force was employed to subdue the uprising. 

 Secondly, Japanese reaction to the March First Movement could be analyzed through Makoto Saito’s address to the American people. Published in an American journal, this was an example of Japanese knowledge production that aimed to influence international public opinion. In this address, Makoto Saito claimed that Japan’s use of force to put down the March First Uprising was “grossly and unjustly misrepresented.”[15]The governor general claimed that the colonial administration was attentive to Korean voices and that Japan would “grant the Korean people the administration of local affairs at some opportune time in the future.”[16]Saito’s promise to grant Koreans self-rule was congruent with the League of Nations’ promise to grant mandates with self-rule at some time in the future. Japan’s power to publish its narrative of the March First Movement, disseminate it to the public in the West, and invoke western language stabilized international opinion in its favour. In this case, Japanese colonial ideology functioned through knowledge production to shape international opinion. 

In the 1920s, economic policies and brute force worked together to prevent a common Korean front and maintain Japanese colonial ideology. As mentioned earlier, economic policies created an increased socio-economic distance between Korean landlords and Korean tenants; the same was true in terms of politics. Korean landlords constituted the majority of Korean elites, who formed the moderate faction in the nationalist cause. Korean tenants, on the other hand, were predominantly radical socialists. The moderates sought to work within the colonial framework while the radicals wished for a complete overthrow of the colonial system.[17]In this way, radicals branded moderate nationalists who worked within the colonial system as Japanese collaborators. Class tension, which originated from earlier economic policies, created divisions within the Korean nationalist cause. Meanwhile, the colonial police selectively utilized brute force to prevent activities of nationalist groups, mostly, those of the radical Communists.[18]The police’s crushing of radical Communist nationalists and tolerance of moderate nationalists further strengthened the radical’s perception of the moderates as collaborators. 

During WWII, the colonial ideology worked through economic arrangements that institutionally impelled Koreans to contribute to the Japanese war effort. In 1937, reduced to dire poverty by Japanese economic arrangements, Korean men readily enlisted as soldiers and Korean women left home to find work. Many Korean women were tricked to become comfort women. Indeed, class and poverty were central in the analysis of Korean comfort women.[19]Japanese economic policies heightened poverty and impelled Koreans to offer their labor power, and in the case of Korean comfort women, sexual labor power, to fuel the Japanese war machine. 

Knowledge production was used to legitimize annexation and shape international opinion. Economic policies were enacted to heighten class tensions and accumulate Korean labor power. Brute force was used to annex, threaten, and quench rebellions. The three sectors were interwoven to create, uphold, and empower the Japanese colonial ideology in colonial Korea. Among the three sectors, knowledge production and brute force were mutually constitutive. Knowledge production justified the use of brute force, and force realized the agendas of the knowledge production. Knowledge production often worked hand in hand with economic policies to instill colonial rule. When both knowledge production and economic arrangement failed to proactively destroy dissent and Korean national aspirations, brute force was dispatched to silence Korean voices. The three sectors worked to frustrate Korean national efforts and hinder the awakening of Korean national consciousness.

Works Cited

[1]Todd Henry, “Sanitizing Empire: Japanese Articulations of Korean Otherness and the Construction of Early Colonial Seoul, 1905-1919,” The Journal of Asian Studies 64, no. 3 (2005): 639-75, http://www.jstor.org/stable

/25075828, 645.

[2]Todd Henry, “Sanitizing Empire: Japanese Articulations of Korean Otherness and the Construction of Early Colonial Seoul, 1905-1919,” 647-648.

[3]Todd Henry, 651.

[4]Toddy Henry, 655.

[5]Todd Henry, 656. 

[6]Makoto Saito, “A Message from the Imperial Japanese Government to the American People – A Home Rule in Korea?” The Independent, January 31, 1920. 

[7]Michael Robinson, Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey: A Short History(Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007), 37.

[8]Robinson, Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey, 38

[9]Kim Dong-no, “National Identity and Class Interest in the Peasant Movements of the Colonial Period,” in Lee, Ha, and Sorenson, eds., Colonial Rule and Social Change in Korea, 1910-1945, (Seattle: Center for Korea Studies Publications, 2013), 156. 

[10]Kim Dong-no, “National Identity and Class Interest in the Peasant Movements of the Colonial Period,” 166. 

[11]Do-Hyun Han, “Shamanism, Superstition, and the Colonial Government,” The Review of Korean Studies 34, no.1 (2000): 34-54, http://111/dbpia.co.kr/ Article/NODE0115987, 36.

[12]Robinson, Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey, 48. 

[13]Robinson, 48. 

[14]Inyoung Kang, “Overlooked No More: Yu Gwan-sun, a Korean Independence Activist Who Defied Japanese Rule,” New York Times, last modified March 28, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/28/obituaries/overlooked-yu-gwan-sun.html.

[15]Makoto Saito, “A Message from the Imperial Japanese Government to the American People – A Home Rule in Korea?” The Independent, January 31, 1920. 

[16]Makoto Saito, “A Message from the Imperial Japanese Government to the American People – A Home Rule in Korea?” The Independent, January 31, 1920. 

[17]Robinson, Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey, 61-69. 

[18]Robinson,Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey, 70.

[19]Pyong Gap Min, “Korean ‘Comfort Women’ The Intersection of Colonial Power, Gender, and Class,” Gender & SocietyVol.17 No. 6 (2003): 939-957.

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