Japan from the inside out

The memoirs of Im Mun-hwan

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 23, 2011

IM MUN-HWAN was born on the Korean Peninsula in 1907, three years before the merger with Japan. Bright, ambitious, and willing to work hard, he left Korea for Japan at the age of 16 to better himself. That was not unusual; Japanese sources claim that more than 90% of the Koreans who went to Japan to live and work during the period of merger did so voluntarily. Korea was a backwater in those days, and some Koreans moved to Japan for the same reasons Europeans emigrated to America.

Im pulled jinrikshaws, delivered milk, and worked as a cleaner while attending school, first at Doshisha middle school (which still exists as part of an educational corporation that includes the well-known Doshisha University). He also received private financial assistance.

He pursued an elite educational program that is still the model for young men and women with certain objectives today, and graduated with honors from the Law Department of Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo). He then passed the difficult test for upper level bureaucrats.

Hoping to contribute to the betterment of his homeland, Im went to work for the government-general of Korea. He was stunned by the harsh prejudicial treatment he received from fellow Koreans, particularly because he had experienced nothing of the sort in Japan.

When Korea became independent with the Japanese surrender in 1945, he stayed in Korea — where he was vilified as “Japan’s dog”. Nevertheless, the Korean government hired him to work in the bureaucracy, which valued him for a “fastidious” approach to money that he said he learned in Japan. He eventually rose to the position of Agriculture and Forestry Minister, while managing to keep private his astonishment at the “irrationality” of the Yi Seung-man (Syngman Rhee) administration.

Late in life, Im Mun-hwan wrote The Memoirs of a Bureaucrat in the Service of Imperial Japan and the Republic of Korea, the source of these stories, in Japanese. It was republished this June by Soshisa, 18 years after his death, and sells for JPY 2,940 yen.

It is unfortunate that so many Korean politicians, academics, and opinion leaders demand that the Japanese look honestly at history while so few of them are willing to take that same look themselves. Perhaps they’re frightened of what they might see.

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2 Responses to “The memoirs of Im Mun-hwan”

  1. Marellus said


  2. Jane said

    Very true. All countries distort their own history and glass over the more unsavory bits, but my mouth is often left hanging open by many of the Korean “interpretations” of history. In particular, the mythologizing of the Choseon Era as a time of peace and harmony among the Korean people while dropping any mention fo the thrall that Korea was held in by China or the cruel slavery system at the time is an egregious twist of the historical situation.

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