When Japan and Korea were one
Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 6, 2008
Can we say that Japanese-Korean relations are now in a desirable state? Koreans have often made an issue of Japan’s historical awareness, but the conception of this historical awareness itself is overtly Korean…Why have Japanese-Korean relations become so impenetrable?…It’s not only because the Koreans lack a complete understanding of history. It’s also because the Japanese have been negligent in making the diplomatic efforts toward resolution. (The relationship) is a joint production created by a lack of insight on both sides.
- Prof. Shimojo Masao
PROF. SHIMOJO is referring to the Takeshima dispute in this excerpt from his book, Nikkan: Rekishi Kokufuku e no Michi (Japan and Korea: The path toward overcoming history). In addition to Takeshima, he might just as well be speaking about the primary historical issue in bilateral relations from which all the others derive: Japan’s annexation/colonization of the Korean Peninsula in the first half of the 20th century.
Japan is the only Northeast Asian country to have had a continuously open and free political system since the end of the Allied occupation in 1952. It is the only country to have held free elections throughout that period with no interruptions. It is the only one to have maintained freedom of speech, and the only one not to have imposed martial law. It is also the only one not to have mustered out the army to butcher its own citizens in the street
Nevertheless, many in the West too often tend to accept the interpretation of regional historical issues from those in countries where deviation from the nationalist narrative is tantamount to professional suicide, rather than from Japan, where one can walk into any bookstore and find plenty of reading material that is brutally honest about the country’s past.
For example, last weekend in a neighborhood bookstore I plucked off the shelf a paperback titled Kankoku Heigo (The Annexation of Korea), written by Unno Fukuju in 1995 and now in its 18th printing. It cost 780 yen (about $US 7.40), which is pocket change for any curious high school or university student.
Here’s what it says on the flyleaf:
After using the Ganghwa Incident as an excuse to successfully open up Korea, Japan competed with China and balanced its interests with those of the Western powers. Following wars with both China and Russia, it annexed Korea in 1910. It is a history of cruel oppression and the elimination of the tenacious resistance of the Korean government and its people. This account is a full history depicting the entire process of Korean colonization, based on the latest historical research.
You’re not likely to find such self-criticism in China, but South Korea does have a few scholars who favor a more balanced viewpoint, despite the distressing number of people in that country who make up history to suit themselves. Surprisingly, some even think that the Japanese annexation/colonization was on balance a beneficial enterprise.
For example, just last week in the comment section, frequent poster Ken uploaded the links to three YouTube videos (here, here, and here) that contain a single 27-minute interview/lecture with Che Kei-ho, a visiting professor at Kaya University. The interview is titled Japan’s Annexation of Korea. It is in Japanese with acceptable English subtitles.
I found out about the videos last week, but a couple of other websites had posts about them last summer. Those websites didn’t take the time to discuss the content, however, leaving it to their readers to access and watch the videos themselves. That’s too bad, because many people wouldn’t take the trouble to watch, and many of those that did would lack the context to understand what they were seeing.
In brief, here’s what Prof. Che had to say, with some comments.
The professor says that Japan and Korea were essentially one state until about 500 or 600 years ago. He doesn’t mention that Japanese who urged annexation a century or so ago used the shared heritage of the two countries as a justification.
That changed when Lee Seong-gye founded the Joseon dynasty. Prof. Che says the dynasty turned the Korean Peninsula into an isolated backwater, as the ruling elites oppressed the common people, made no effort to improve the infrastructure, and created an unfriendly environment for commerce and industry. The people at the top ate, and everyone else starved. The rulers were somewhat strange and paranoid, shutting off the country from the outside world.
Anti-intellectuals, they prohibited the use of the Hangeul script–one of the peninsula’s landmark cultural achievements–and those authors who did use it were executed. It was common practice for the rulers to execute not only the criminals, but their families as well.
The professor is the first to admit that accurate statistics are impossible to obtain, but argues that the overall population under dynasty control fell from 1770 to 1910.
He makes the intriguing observation that most of the above characteristics closely resemble today’s North Korea under the Kim Family Regime. That comparison is interesting on several levels. When comparing themselves to the South, the North Koreans claim they are the ones who maintain the true traditional Korean spirit, and that the southerners are too influenced by foreigners. Today’s northerners certainly behave as if they are the heirs of the Korean “Hermit Kingdom” of the past.
The professor asserts that foreign control of such a backward place was inevitable. According to Prof. Che, the Koreans would have been unable to modernize on their own, and it was the Japanese who got them started. In his view, the Japanese created the industrial infrastructure, particularly railroads, and an educational system. The primary beneficiary of Japanese capital investment in industry was the northern part of country, which the professor says was better off under Japanese rule than it is today.
To demonstrate that the lives of the people improved, he cites statistics suggesting the population of the peninsula doubled from 1910 to 1945, reversing the declining trend.
What Prof. Che does not mention is that Japan’s development of Korea is seen by some as having been for the benefit of Japan. By the late 1920s, according to some sources, more than half of Korean rice production was exported to Japan, despite shortages in Korea that drove many Koreans to emigrate to Japan. (I haven’t seen the original sources, so I don’t know if the historians examine the extent to which the emigration was a natural movement away from an area of poverty to an area with more opportunities.)
Some historians also hold that Japanese armament production accounted for a significant part the industrialization of the north. (I tried to find information about the possibility of American bombing raids of these plants during the war, but was unsuccessful.)
One Japanese source cites statistics showing that the peninsula’s economy grew between 1% and 2% in the 1920s, and more than 3% in the 1930s, but of course those figures don’t mean much in isolation. The same source also admits that overall grain consumption declined on the peninsula during the first half of the annexation, but claims this is evidence of improved conditions in Korea.
His explanation: growth and capital investment led to the development of different economic classes, which in turn created a wealth gap. When that happened, the tenant farmers became poorer and consumed less. In contrast, there is a limit to the amount a landowner or other relatively well-off person can consume. Ergo, grain consumption declined with economic growth in the early 1930s.
Of course Prof. Che is not the first to argue that Korean weakness led to foreign domination and the annexation. Here’s Avram Agov summarizing a paper he wrote:
In its relation to foreign powers, the late Choson government manifested the major vulnerabilities that precipitated the collapse of Korean statehood. I examined the Korean military and financial systems because of their vitality for the normal function of a government. The paralysis of Korea’s financial and military systems precipitated the Japanese annexation of the peninsula by creating a political setting that was susceptible to deep foreign penetration and manipulation. The patterns of external control in Korea through finance and military was set by the Chinese (1884-1894), deepened by the Japanese (Kabo reforms, 1895-1896), shaped by the Russians (1896-1898), and fully utilized again by the Japanese after they established a protectorate in Korea in 1905.
By and large, the lack of an articulate Korean internal policy, pertinent instruments to carry out modernization reforms, and adequate vision of the ruling elite were chiefly attributable to the poor state of the military and financial systems at the turn of the century. These domestic factors contributed to a steady foreign penetration, which engulfed and shaped to a large degree the politics of late Choson dynasty. The Korean state continued to weaken in this the background of a growing urgency that demanded better internal and external performance.
Because others have presented similar arguments, the most noteworthy aspect of Prof. Che’s lecture is that he is a Korean insisting that Koreans should look in the mirror first, instead of at the Japanese, when they want to place the blame.
The professor’s 24-minute lecture included a brief mention of Lee Wang-yong (photo). That’s a shame, because he deserves closer examination. Lee was a reformer who wanted to Westernize Korea and thought that would be best achieved through association with Japan. He signed the treaty of annexation and served as the country’s prime minister from 1906-1910.
There’s a striking resemblance between Lee and the Meiji Restoration-era reformers in Japan of the previous generation. After living in the United States from 1887 to 1891, he recognized just how far his country had fallen behind. Lee was fluent in English, but couldn’t speak Japanese, though he was later made a member of the Japanese peerage.
Lee surely considered himself a patriot, but his fellow countrymen today see him as a collaborator and traitor. He is viewed with so much repugnance that his remains were dug up and dismembered. (It doesn’t sound like a good idea to get on the bad side of a Korean.) In fact, the South Korean National Assembly passed a bill in 2005 to seize the property of collaborators with the Japanese, and the large landholdings of his descendants were confiscated.
Here’s some background on the legislation written by Korean university Professor Choo Jae-woo:
Many South Korea experts in Japan see Roh’s investigation as being primarily politically motivated to strengthen the shaky political ground for Roh’s progressives in advance of the 2007 presidential election – and to harm Park Guen-hye’s opposition Grand National Party (GNP). They also point out that South Korean governments, except for that of former president Kim Dae-jung, have used anti-Japanese elements to strengthen the sitting administration’s political standing and divert the people’s attention away from such domestic difficulties as a sluggish economy. Using anti-Japanese sentiments makes it easier to unite the nation and boost nationalist feelings.
Many experts in Japan? Most South Koreans thought the same thing—there was no need to use the Japanese as camouflage. They were also quite aware that opposition leader Park was the daughter of former South Korean President Park Chung-hee, who also served as an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army in the 1940s. That potentially put her reputation and assets at risk. (Park, incidentally, was selected by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most important Asians of the 20th century).
Prof. Choo’s article is poorly written (in fact, almost unreadable) and is biased from several perspectives, even when he means well:
To condemn (the collaborators’ families) for retaining their inherited wealth and status is somewhat like charging the descendants of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and others in the United States (who plundered its wealth as the nation industrialized) and denouncing their economic and social well-being today by blowing out of proportion their ancestors’ illegal and unjust way of gaining their wealth. But even the American robber barons were not like the Japanese occupiers.
Yet as the first excerpt makes clear, anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea is cynically manipulated and fanned by local politicians for domestic reasons. Historical research on the Korean Peninsula is not always driven by a search for the truth. Gaining the advantage in domestic politics and in international diplomacy is just as important, if not more so.
Better relations between Japan and Korea depend on a more sophisticated historial awareness. Despite Korean assertions, there’s a greater need for that awareness in today’s Korea than in Japan. Prof. Che’s work, flawed though it might be in some ways, is a step in the right direction.
Fortunately, he’s not alone. Cho Woo-suk, writing about the demonization of Lee Wang-yong in the JoongAng Daily in 2001, had this to say:
The truth is not as simple as an elementary school textbook.
And that’s an excellent place to start.
Update: Here is an overview of colonial period economic history, written by a Korean, and here is a link to a comparison of the colonial economies of Korea and Taiwan, also by a Korean, both courtesy of Ponta.