Japan from the inside out

Were Koreans oppressors in the war, or its victims?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 30, 2008

IF YOU BELIEVE the newspaper narratives, the Japanese nation denies or chooses to ignore its behavior during the first half of the 20th century, while the Koreans were innocent victims of that behavior.

That might be the price one pays for choosing to swallow the mass media product, but then sometimes the antidote to that particular poison can be found in a surprising place—such as a Korean newspaper!

Here’s an example: Earlier this month, the Choson Ilbo of South Korea published an article titled Were Koreans Oppressors in the War, or its Victims? The piece gives readers a glimpse of a reality more complicated than that usually presented in the popular press.

It is in fact a review of a book recently released in South Korea called A Metahistory of Korean-Japanese Disputes over Historical Awareness. (It doesn’t seem to be available in Japanese yet.) The newspaper (poorly) translated their own article into Japanese, and I’ve tried to render it into English because I think the information it conveys should be more widely known. Please keep in mind that what you see after the process went from Korean to Japanese to English (and in one excerpt from English to Korean to Japanese to English) is probably not what people higher up the linguistic chain got.

The Choson Ilbo chopped up the review into three separate pieces for some reason, so I’ve put them all into one place. I’m not sure how well-written the original was, but the situation is what it is. Hereafter, the voice is that of the reviewer, Yu Seok-je.


A 19-year-old youth born in the colony of Korea volunteered to serve in the Japanese military. He rose to the rank of first lieutenant in the army and became a member of the kamikaze special attack squadron. Before leaving on his mission, he made a sound recording of his will for family members back home. The disc on which that will was recorded was discovered decades later. The voice cutting through the noise on an old record was by no means filled with sadness. It was the powerful voice of a first lieutenant in the Japanese army who pledged his loyalty to “His Majesty the Emperor”, and wished for the health of his parents. After his death in battle, he was enshrined with 26,000 other Koreans in the Yasukuni Shrine.

There was a surprising response to a television documentary broadcast three years ago that contained this information. Previously, one constant in Korean society was that the mention of the word Japan, with its negative image, would create a frenzied reaction. This time, however, there was no reaction at all.

Why was that? It was because these people were victims who, it was claimed, died an unjust death, while at the same time, serving as officers in the Japanese military and shouting Tenno Heika, Banzai! (Long live the Emperor!) In the decades-long debate about the faction friendly to Japan (during the colonial/merger period), dominated by the Korean-Japanese problem, there were no means available to offer an explanation about them.
The editors of this book are Kan-Nichi Rentai 21 (Korea-Japan Solidarity 21), a group consisting of Korean and Japanese intellectuals launched in 2004 to seek a new Korean-Japanese relationship appropriate for the 21st century. They are searching for a means to achieve solidarity by examining themselves and achieving a more mature viewpoint that transcends the antagonistic relationship that has arisen between the two countries. In brief, they now want to leave behind the intolerant nationalism with which one party views the other for a closer study of history. That’s why the authors of this book have chosen to step back from knee-jerk nationalism itself and develop a new viewpoint of their own through self-reflection.
The book So Far from the Bamboo Grove (In Japanese, Yoko’s Story) touched off a dispute about historical awareness last year. (Note: This is a semi-autobiographical novel by Yoko Kawashima Watkins describing a Japanese family’s escape from northern Korea at the end of World War II. The father was serving there as a government official during the colonial/merger period.) Commenting on the book, UC San Diego literature professor Lisa Yoneyama said, “Yoko’s Story closely resembles that of A Little Princess (a 1905 children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett). Both have the backdrop of a colonialist history that is not American and leave the impression that the United States is not connected with the history of colonial rule. That’s why mainstream American society appreciated Yoko’s Story as a book depicting the suffering of war. In this book, the historical background of Japanese colonial rule in Korea is wiped clean. This is related to the lack of historical awareness in the United States of their own colonial domination of others.”

Also commenting on Yoko’s Story was Professor Shin Hyon-gi of Yonsei University: “The dispute regarding this book began drawing nationalistic battle lines over the war in memory. Moreover, there was a sense of outrage that the Japanese, in their memories, considered themselves the victims. If you think about it carefully, however, (you’ll wonder) is it true that all Koreans were victims and all Japanese were always the victimizers? Talking about the experience of cruel persecution and ordeals is one way to achieve a collective identity. A clear line of distinction is drawn between the “good Korea” and the others, who are the villains. But crushing the memory of the Japanese does not mean that the memory of Koreans has won.”

Thus the book extends the horizon of thought into “troubling territory” that had been viewed as taboo in both countries. The victims in the victimized country have raised their voices to censure the victimizers in the oppressor country. But neither the victims in the oppressor country nor the oppressors in the victimized country are visible in this construct. No clear distinction can be made between victimization and victimhood, and the construct is both compound and multilayered. When the nationalism of both countries is in conflict, there is no place for one to stand in the rapids.

The Japanese wives have been forgotten by nearly everyone. Professor Kano Mikiyo of Keiwa College asserts that the problems of the past are by no means resolved. In the latter half of the 1930s, the policy of forming a unified whole of Japan and the colony of Korea (in Japanese, the naisen ittai policy) led to the strong encouragement of intermarriage. There were 5,458 marriages between Koreans and Japanese from the years 1938 to 1943, and of these 3,964, or 73%, were between Korean men and Japanese women. Most Japanese women stayed in Korea (after the war), and according to a 1975 survey, 73% of the remaining 956 women were in the economic classification of poverty or extreme poverty.

Professor Kano said, “The backdrop to the tragedy of these Japanese wives is the tacit acceptance of their fate in the patriarchal systems of both countries. In Japanese society, Korean men, who were ethnically weaker, were stronger both socially and culturally in gender terms under the patriarchy. Fixing up these men with the women of the stronger (Japanese) group exacerbated their self-esteem as males. Did this really achieve a balance by promoting equality?”

Considerations of the “troublesome territory” continue. Professor Lee Yon-hun of Seoul National University was critical of the explanation written in a South Korean history textbook that “Japanese imperialism stole 40% of Korean territory”.

In regard to the argument that the Class A war criminals should be separated from the rest of those venerated in Yasukuni Shrine, Prof. Takahashi Tetsuya of the University of Tokyo worries this would be a “dangerous scenario”. “After the Class A war criminals were separated, the war dead who were involved in Japanese invasions overseas before 1928, and who had no connection with the invasions after 1928, would remain enshrined. Once the Class A war criminals were removed, if the Yasukuni Shrine were to become operated by the state and visits by the Tenno (Emperor) were possible, it could be used as a device for supporting Japanese military activity.”

The critical weakness of this book is that the opinions and assertions of the 18 Korean and Japanese authors, and the logic behind those assertions, are not unified. One possible interpretation is that the lowest common denominator for the authors is simply that they have removed themselves from the line of sight of nationalism, with which many people have been permeated. As the book itself states, if that is the case, as heated disputes with a multiplicity of viewpoints rage with no one offering a conclusion or a proper answer, its significance can only be discovered by considering it as one attempt to identify their common ground.


I’m not sure why Mr. Yu thinks the lack of a unified voice is a drawback; it is inevitable there will be a wide range of viewpoints in an issue such as this, and I think it is worth drawing attention to them.

The group Korea–Japan Solidarity 21 recently published a textbook examining the war that was written by Japanese, Korean, and Chinese historians. Nothing by that group is available on Japanese, however.

It is interesting to note that a textbook is apparently in use in South Korea with the claim that “Japanese imperialism stole 40% of Korean territory”. Who knew that such a textbook existed? Yet everyone knows about a Japanese textbook that glides over the same period in history–everyone except students in Japanese schools, because only a miniscule micropercentage of them even use it.

It is unfortunate that all the Japanese cited in the review are academic leftists; Prof. Yoneyama in particular seems to have permanently pitched a tent out in left field. Here is her profile on her university’s site, in which she tells us as much about her cat as she does her “partner”. The professor is rather upset at the success of So Far from the Bamboo Grove, as you can tell from this article in the English-language version of The Hankyoreh, a South Korean newspaper. Here is a plot summary of A Little Princess; I haven’t read either book, but to think the two are comparable seems like something dreamt up by a college literature professor with an axe to grind and time on her hands. She’s offended that Ms. Watkins wrote the book, and she’s offended that Americans like it.

Extend the logic of her argument and one would expect her to be attacking Gone with the Wind for its portrayal of slaveholders on a plantation during the American Civil War.

It is worthwhile for people outside Japan to realize that viewpoints such as those of Prof. Takahashi exist, even though the scenario he postulates here is as likely to occur nowadays as a cow jumping over the moon. His Japanese language website describes him as an enthusiastic participant in the Peace Boat voyages to South Korea and Pyeongyang. (Members of their cruises also met several times with Yasser Arafat.)

The Peace Boat project was the brainchild of a group that included Tsujimoto Kiyomi, a member of the lower house of the Diet in the Social Democratic Party (formerly the Socialist Party). She was forced to resign in a financial scandal, and was later reelected through the proportional representation system. She is also suspected of, at minimum, having ties to the Japanese Red Army terrorist group. Others think she funneled them money.

It would be interesting to know if a wider spectrum of Japanese political opinion is represented in Korea-Japan Solidarity 21. There are other currents in contemporary Japanese-Korean relations, after all. For example, former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro, a conservative/traditionalist, is the chair of the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians’ Union; an assistant executive director of the same group is former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

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7 Responses to “Were Koreans oppressors in the war, or its victims?”

  1. Ken said

    I abandoned Korea during current brain-washed generation; ‘Idiot is not cured till the end.’
    Here is only expectation of self-effort to improve;
    Criticism by mass media is not functioned in this kind of totalitarian nation as same as China.
    Why does such non-ideological opinion as foolows have to be attacked?

    By the way, does anybody know whether next photograph that Chinese soldiers have Tibetan clerical robe to disguise is true or not?

  2. mac said

    Its a little bit weak, and off topic perhaps, but a friend of mine’s father was actually held as a WWII prisoner of war in Japanese camp. His bottomline was that the Japanese were tough but the Koreans were far worse; sadists. That is, the Koreans in the Japanese army.

    Now you can make whatever sociological deductions you wish about the position of Korean males in Japanese society as per the feminist article but, at the end of the day, it is the hand with the stick in it that is responsible for giving the beatings.

    I also always wondered why, if the wartime prostitution of Korean females was such a terrible and alien thing during WWII (the estimated numbers fluctuate between 10,000 to 200,000 or more), did upward of one million South Korean women work as “sex providers” between 1950 and 1971 for the Americans? *

    Likewise to, ahem, service an industry of up to 1,000,000 “workers” takes a considerable infrastructure although, my guess is that a proportion of those much have been part-time workers, as per young students in Korea these days or Japan’s Korean prostitutes posting their videos on YouTube. Moon reports in her book, “Owners and pimps generally take 80% and give the prostitute 20% of her earnings per trick.” Are and were these owners and pimps not mainly Korea males. “Korean males” and the male bound officialdom have always washed their hands of any involvement in it from their side, but we know that is not true.

    This is my lead into another statement. War are truly not fought “nation” against “nation”. They are between one bunch of cranky old men against another that they have prior dealings with. And invariably, the victims are women and children without any representative rights or influence in the debate. Who are most important and who can we actually help the most, the victims of yesterday or the victims of today? I am sick of an entire nation being blamed for things they personally had nothing to do with. Anyway, Is a recent figure such as “4.1% of Korean women in their 20s working in the sex trade” (Korean Institute of Criminology, 2003) entirely composed of “victims” and who organizes it? Pass me the Luis Vuitton handbag, I am going shopping …

    I am neither Japanese nor Korean and have never used either a voluntary or an involuntary prostitute and so hold my hands up and say, “Don’t shoot me. I am in innocent bystander”. Some authors have questioned the mindset of Koreans abroad, and especially vocal Koreans, as to be unrepresentative. This is especially seen on the internet and amongst Korean-Americans boys. I encourage anyone to attempt to edit any Korean related topic on the Wikipedia or follow dialogues on Youtube …

    I have met kind “normal” Korean embarrassed by the whole deal (linguist married to a Japanese woman, living in Japan), a fairly sleazy Korean, and an absolutely whacko Ultra-Protestant, post-plastic surgery, Korean virgin firebrand. I need to meet some coolheaded intellectuals.

    So what is it with the Japanese Left? Is there really Chinese political influence, is there a lack of maturity in Japanese liberals, due to its relatively youth and inexperience, looking over their shoulders to Papa America for examples and encouragement … or are they just genuine afraid and naturally want to appease their nearest neighboring monster?

    It is effecting world politics negatively and needs to be put to bed nicely, metaphorically speaking.

    *Sex among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations. By Katharine H. S. Moon. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997

  3. mac said

    Oh yeah, the mac is back …

    Here is a link to an excerpt of the book;

  4. ampontan said

    And in classic form too, I see!

  5. Jon said

    The issues and causes of the war are so much more complicated then most people realize. Most people in the West are taught the basics such as the evil Japanese aggressors raped and pillaged China and started the war.

    But in reality, the causes of the war were much more complicated and it was not only Japan that was the cause of the war. The western powers and Russia were also to blame for their pressure on Japan and their control of China as well.

    I am by no meabns defending Japan. Japan committed horrible acts (Pearl Harbor, Battan Death March, Nanking). But the Japanese are not solely to blame for the war.

  6. mac said

    You repeat those events like mantras that have been given to you for a specific end. “The Japanese” DID NOT do those things. A certain group of individuals did. There is no such thing as “The Japanese”. It is a false mental construct we have been conditioned with by our rulers to achieve their ends, just as Korean people are now being conditioned by their rules for their ends.

    Pearl Harbor really was not so bad. It was a military attack on a military target … unlike the firebombing and ultimately atomic strikes on Japanese little old ladies and children. Its part of the the farce to say that Americans were not already involved in hostilities against the Japanese, they were on two account. Firstly, they were pumping in money and resources to fuel (one side) of China; secondly, there was an agreement between the Brits, Dutch and US to defend one another if any of their financial interests in SE Asia, read Empires, were challenged.

    As far as the Western powers go, since the time of the Portuguese Christians and Maranos in the 15 th Century brining gunpowder, seeking to practise divide and rule, starting an exploitative slave trading of Japanese women. They had all been queuing up one by one to cajole or kick in the door of the Japanese islands; threatening both the people and the sovereignty of the islands until Perry cracked it. There was no legitimacy for the Americans to do so. It served solely capitalists interests and led, progressively, to the same form of total cultural genocide certain sort of Americans do best.

    I can remember reading anything in history about the Japanese sailing thousands of miles to enslave and attack Europe or America. (Funnily enough though, the pumped up Christian Daimyo of Kyushu at that time did actually do their fair bit of that in Korea, along with the usual atrocities which makes me laugh. So much for “loving thy neighbor”.)

    Interestingly enough, under international law of that time, there was legitimacy for the Japanese government to go into Korea to defend itself as Korea was unable to and, of course, it had the support of a certain aspect of Korea powermongers. Japan was being threatened by sizable aggressors, particularly Russia. It was already caught in the game between two super powers.

    If it made a failing, it was to walk into the trap that was set for it by wilier opponents but confrontation over resources was unavoidable. For me the poison in all this is that it was not for right and wrong, progress and “freedom” … but just capital interests. All the little grannies got firebombed for the sake of capital interests.

    With Korea, there had ding-dongs going back centuries and I give the Korea a break as, in essence, they are a young nation just entering the world stage … but they really need to get rid of the chip of their shoulder. To allow one’s self to be drawn down to a nationalistic level is always a mistake. One is nearly always being willfully misled. The fight was not nation against nation, people against people. It was more one class of individuals, the same class on both sides, against other classes. We, the people, just dragged into their commercial war games. Its another form of divide and rule.

    But, just to keep on topic, how and why if prostitution was such an offense to Korean society, could it increase *5 TIMES* in a matter of 5 or more years? That means 5 times more individuals involved in supporting it. Perhaps it is just down to capital interests again … as is all this tiresome “Japan Beating”.

    Personally, I’d rather see SE Asia bury the hatchet, work together to build common economic strength in the region without America’s involvement. I mean, who is it in Korea that is going about deviling? Chinese … communist … CIA … Japanese nationalists … who is it that is making trouble?

  7. […] referred to a Korean newspapers article titled Were Koreans Oppressors in the War, or its Victims? and carried on the discussion about […]

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