Japan from the inside out

You go first (Part one of two parts)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 18, 2012

Japan’s colonial rule conducted in opposition to popular will deprived the Korean people of their nation and culture, and deeply wounded their pride.

– Then-Prime Minister Kan Naoto, in his 10 August 2010 apology to Koreans

Koreans and some Westerners insist that Japan needs the courage to face the facts of its history on the peninsula before bilateral relations can improve. That calls to mind a Japanese expression used in situations such as these: Mazu, kai yori hajimeyo. He who suggests it should be the first to do it.

In other words, OK. You go first.

In light of developments over the past week, it is apparent that the time has come for the Koreans to go first. The following contains facts of history that will require courage for some people to face.

There isn’t enough time and space here to describe the complicated situation in Northeast Asia at end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The Japanese joined the Chinese, British, French, and Russians as colonial adventurers in the region. People in Japan had their eyes on Korea for several reasons. Colonialism was one of them, and a look at the map will show another. The Korean nation at that time was defenseless, and the Russians had designs on it. It could have become, as some had it, a dagger pointed at Japan. There is also no doubt, as contemporary accounts from the 19th Century make clear, that the Russians had designs on Japan as well.

Korea was defenseless for many reasons, and all of them originate in the Korean political and social situation of the time. The country in that period might be best understood by describing it as today’s North Korea without the gulags, but with an estimated 30% of the population in slavery. People were starving, and to the extent it can be determined, the population was declining. The literacy rate was 4%. Wrote missionary Charles Dallet in 1874:

There is nothing national about scholarship in Korea. The books that one reads are Chinese books; the language one studies is not Korean, but Chinese. The history one studies is not the history of Korea, but that of China. The philosophical systems that attract followers are Chinese…. Koreans have demonstrated virtually no progress in scientific disciplines, but their knowledge of matters industrial is even less advanced. In Korea, there has been no progress whatsoever in the practical arts for centuries.

Chinese was the written language of the literate because the Korean elites saw their own language and the Hangul alphabet as inferior. China also claimed suzerainty over Korea. That ended when Japan defeated them in their first war (1894-95) and China was forced to give Korea its independence in the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

Very broadly speaking, it was in that context that Japan annexed/merged/colonized Korea. I use that construction because aspects of all three were present. Japan was well aware of European behavior in the rest of the world, East Asia included. In 1904, The Netherlands colonized Indonesia. In 1905, the French incorporated Laos into French Indochina. In 1909, Britain colonized the Malay Peninsula. The first Opium War in China was in 1840.

The Koreans and some Westerners criticize the Japanese for ignoring the Korean element in their nation’s origins. They are not aware that one of the arguments presented in Japan in favor of annexation/merger/colonization was that the Japanese and Koreans were really one people.

Many Koreans at the time supported the merger. They included Kim Ok-kyun, Lee Wang-yong, and other modernizers who were desperate to topple the impotent, backward Joseon dynasty and sought Japanese support to do so. They knew their country was not part of the modern world — Lee lived in the United States for four years — and like the Japanese two generations before them, they were anxious to rebuild their country. They saw what Japan had achieved and thought that working with the Japanese was the quickest way to achieve their objective. They were right.

Said Lee:

“Given the Korean race’s current level of competence, there is absolutely no possibility of Korea’s preserving its dignity as an independent nation. Our nation’s ruin is inevitable. Only annexation can save us from that fate, and there is no nation more suitable than Japan as an annexation partner. Europeans and Americans view Koreans as pigs or dogs, but the Japanese are different. I find it annoying that they attempt to impose their moral code on us and have a tendency to nag, but they do this because they view us as their peers. Japan is the only nation that can guide Korea and enable us to participate in the civilization of all mankind. There is no other way for the Korean race to escape from the pig sty and enjoy the prosperity to which, as human beings, we are entitled.”

Lee Wang-yong is now considered to be a traitor to the Korean nation. The government of Roh Moo-hyun — the predecessor of the current president — moved to strip his descendants of their assets.

The photograph above shows an arch built by the Iljinhue, a pro-Japan organization in Korea, to welcome the Japanese Crown Prince during his October 1907 tour of Korea. Four years later, the Crown Prince became the Emperor Taisho, who is the grandfather of the current Emperor.

It is impossible to know now how many people were members of the Iljinhue, and a straight answer from Korea is unlikely, but estimates range from as high as one million (in a country of 13 million) to a low of 4,000. There are definite records of roughly 270,000 members cooperating with the Japanese in the 1905 war with Russia. The group submitted a petition to the Korean Emperor and prime minister urging Japanese annexation, and the petition claimed that one million people supported it. The dynasty had collapsed, and they wanted capitalism and reform. The group disbanded after the annexation/merger/colonization, having achieved their aims.

That was viewed as a positive development throughout the world. One French reporter wrote:

“Civilization is defined as progress achieved by peaceful means. From this standpoint, Japan’s annexation of Korea will become a new facet of Far Eastern prosperity and progress.”

The same sentiments were also expressed by journalists, government officials, and travelers from the United States, Russia, and Great Britain.

After the annexation/merger/colonization, what did Korea get?

The Japanese freed the slaves. They began a program of general education — in Korean and in the Hangul alphabet. Those textbooks still exist. One innovation was to allow females to attend school for the first time. Indeed, females among the commoners became legally entitled to have names for the first time.

There were 100 primary schools in the country in 1905. By 1945, there were 5,000. The literacy rate rose from 4% to 61%. Some complain that the Japanese tried to eradicate the Korean language. There was, in fact, an incident in October 1942 in which the members of a Korean Language Society were arrested for disturbing the public order. Nevertheless, only 16% of the Korean population could handle the Japanese language to one degree or another as of 31 December 1941. Were the other 84% of the population not using Korean? The percentage of the Japanese-capable (not necessarily fluent) population rose to 22% in 1943, but by then more people were going to school.

Due to wartime controls, the Maeil Shimpo was the only daily Korean newspaper published after 1940. The following is a photograph of its front page on 14 August 1945, one day before the Japanese surrender. The predominance of Chinese characters in the headlines is a space-saving device; the use of the Hangul alphabet in the text is clear.

In the Offspring of Empire, Carter Eckert wrote that the declining population of about 13 million in 1910 had risen to 25.5 million by 1942. Industrial output had increased six-fold. Far from being confiscated by the Japanese, 90% of the accumulated capital stayed in Korea.

During that time, life expectancy had risen from roughly 24 to 54.

In the early years of the merger, 20% of Japan’s budget was allocated to Korean development. Rather than being a scheme for exploitation, the Japanese viewed it as they did their development of Hokkaido some years before. The budget for the local Korean government for 1911, the first year of the new arrangement, was JPY 3.6 million yen. Korean tax revenues totaled JPY 1.3 million. The Japanese offset the shortfall, which they continued to do until 1939. That year their budget contribution was 25%.

In 1928, the Japanese established a major electric power utility company with 100% Japanese ownership. By 1940, 9% of that ownership had been assumed by Korean interests. As is standard practice in developed countries, the local ownership stake was taken by large financial institutions. The Japanese created those too.

In 1900, when the Japanese started building railroads on the peninsula, Korea had 100 kilometers of rail lines. By 1945 they had 6,000 kilometers. One of the first to be laid was a line between Seoul and Incheon, which reduced the time of a round trip from at least five days to at most three hours.

In The Economic History of Korea, Myung Soo-cha of Yeungnam University wrote:

Per capita grain consumption declined during the colonial period, providing grounds for traditional criticism of the Japanese colonialism exploiting Korea. However, per capita real consumption increased, due to rising non-grain and non-good consumption, and Koreans were also getting better education and living longer.

The following cartoon from a Korean newspaper in the late 1920s (lower panel) is meant to be humorous. It shows women commuting to work on public transportation. The humor was that they chose to stand and hold on to a strap rather than sit on an open bench because it enabled them to show off their new wristwatches.

Their grandmothers weren’t allowed to go to school. Some of them weren’t allowed to have names.

Wrote British historian Alleyne Ireland in The New Korea, published in 1926:

From such a study [of the available data], which has occupied me for more than three years, and of which the results are presented in this volume, I have formed the opinion that Korea is today infinitely better governed than it ever was under its own native rulers, that it is better governed than most self-governing countries, that it is as well governed as any of the British, American, French, Dutch, and Portuguese dependencies which I have visited, and is better governed than most of them, having in view as well the cultural and economic development of the people as the technique of administration.


In the fiscal year 1918 public schools for Korean children numbered 466 throughout the country, and the expenditure for them amounted to 1,835,000 yen, of which only 195,000 yen, namely about ten per cent of the whole, fell upon the Korean population, the average burden on each household being as low as six sen (1 sen = $US0.005), while the rest was met by government assistance. However, in view of the growing need of common education among the people a programme was drawn up in 1919 to found 400 more schools within the next four years on the standard of “one school to every three villages at least,” and this necessarily meant [a] large increase in expenditure and consequent increase in the incidence of the school tax, as well as in the amount of government aid. (…) It is to be noted that between 1918 and 1922 the expenditure on the elementary education of Koreans increased nearly eight-fold.

Japanese financial assistance continued after the war. South Korea received US$ 800 million as part of the terms of the 1965 treaty restoring relations. The South Korean national budget that year was US$ 350 million. Note the year the South Korean GDP starts to skyrocket in this chart.

This period of economic growth is now known as the Miracle on the Han River. The Koreans did the work. The Japanese funded it.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, the AFP news agency in France published an article on the current Japan-Korea contretemps. It contained a reference to the “brutal” Japanese occupation of Korea. Finding a contemporary English-language newspaper report without such language is difficult.

There is always another side to every story, and there is another side to this story. You can find it, with varying degrees of truth and falsehood, elsewhere. But this is the side of the story some people would prefer you didn’t know about, and not know about themselves. It is for those with the eyes to see and the courage to look.

Part two will deal with the comfort woman controversy.


We’ve all heard of the K-Wave in East Asian pop culture. Here’s the flip side.

10 Responses to “You go first (Part one of two parts)”

  1. yankdownunder said

    Thanks for this and looking forward to part 2.

    AFP uses the word “brutal” in any article about Japan/Korea. Sometimes they use “harsh” and “brutal”.

    Also the AFP reports on the islands events.

    Japanese nationalists have landed on an ….

    The activists were part of a group who had sailed from Hong Kong …

    A team of South Koreans on Monday began a 230-kilometer relay swim …

    Why Japanese are nationalists and Chinese are activists and SK are SK? Their bias is so blatant.

    Mazu, kai yori hajimeyo.
    Korea first. ok but US should be second. US allowed or caused a lot of this mess.

    Off topic – Do you know why MacArthur didn’t send Koreans back to Korea? Normally liberated people return to their homeland.
    Y: You mean Koreans in Japan? Most of them seem to have come willingly? As for the others, I don’t know.


  2. toadold said

    During the Korean War The US Air Force used P51 Mustangs for ground interdiction. They had some mixed squadrons of US and Korean Pilots. They were for the most part veterans of WW II. The Americans with P51 experience and the Koreans with Zero’s. One squadron reported the loss of on of their Korean pilots during a hectic period when he forgot what he was flying and tried to due a maneuver the lighter Zero could do but the Mustang could not at low altitude. I’ve never been able to find out much about those Korean pilots WW II experience.
    I would advise patience with S.Korea. It is actually a very young democracy and country in terms of history.
    T: I understand your point. However, the point of this past week is that the Japanese have now run out of patience after 60+ years, and they are quite patient people.

    The problem is that the Koreans are not content to keep this at a bilateral level, as the Honda business in Congress in 2007 makes clear, or formal moves with international bodies to have the name of the Sea of Japan changed, or complaints about Olympic uniforms, or comfort women statues in New Jersey, or about 50 other things. Now they’ve got Hillary Clinton involved, and she’s the Secretary of State.

    Taiwan is a young democracy too, and they recognize and approve of the same things the Koreans won’t admit happened.


  3. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    Toadold, thank you for your message but for me, a Japanese, there is no particular reason to regard Koreans young and Japanese old. They are not different in any aspect. To think one nation or people thereof is/are younger than the other starts bias. We cannot be much different anyway. Enlightened or not, or having matured democracy or not, does not seem that important to me. Do we need to be that advanced, is my question, though the question itself might be coming from someone who believes he is from an advanced country.

    Japan started a war, a big war, long ago. The self-claimed victims have all good reasons to hate the intruder despite of whatever the intruder brought about to their country.

    Probably a more balanced view about Japan may appear from more people a century hereafter….

    I hope that my son, now 6 years old, will see a better relationship with the countries around our country. Nobody does not have to lose anything, he/she only needs a pair of eyes to watch. I would like to have those eyes, too.

  4. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    A: I do not understand Taiwanese, are they preparing to be consolidated with the mainland? They might have approved of that Koreans never approve, but it looks like the things are changing rapidly.

  5. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    Gosh I was speaking too much….
    2: I didn’t think so. You can speak all you want.


  6. Smith said

    Are you sure Japan did all that on behalf of Koreans? Whites could make the same argument about enslaving blacks, right? Perhaps a bit more balance is in order, sir.
    S: Thanks for the note.

    1. Yes, I’m sure.

    2. Wrong. No one in Korea was enslaved. The Japanese ended the existing practice. However, some Koreans did sell their daughters (stepdaughters, by most accounts) at the time.

    3. Perhaps you should have read my last paragraph before you wrote your last sentence.


  7. Gray said

    The practice of selling children (boys were also frequently sold as farm labor, girls for domestic help, sex worker) was also prevalent in Japan and continued until the early 1950s. In both countries it was a reaction to abject poverty and the alternative option of starvation. In the case of those sold into sex-work (in Korea), the most common group was not daughters but unwanted wives.

    English explorer Isabella Bird also gives a good view of the changes in human rights brought by Japan’s influence over Korea (though from what I recall she wasn’t a fan of the Japanese government). The same is true of the later British Consulate reports from Korea in the 1930s, while highly critical of Japan’s expansion in Asia they attest to Korea being generally peaceful and harmonious with a high level of development and improving quality of life though little political freedom (as could be said of Japan itself at the time) and a younger generation that was quite pro-Japanese.

  8. Ken said

    >Do you know why MacArthur didn’t send Koreans back to Korea? Normally liberated people return to their homeland.

    Good question! That is one of eight wonders in the world.
    As a matter of fact, MacArthur ordered Japan to send them back to Korea at Japanese cost and Japan obeyed it.
    Most of refugees from North Korea now are those who returned to Korea which had been called the paradise of existing world.
    But some of Koreans stayed in Japan from their own wills.
    And considerable numbers immigrated again to Japan illegally with escaping from Korean war.
    So former Pres. of Korea answered in a TV interview in foreigner’s suffrage for Koreans in Japan as follows.
    “They escaped from mother land and have been leading wealthier life while we were tormented by many difficulties.
    Now they request some service and support from Korea while they demand the suffrage in Japan.
    They are disloyal and selfish. They are not authentic Koreans. They should naturalize in Japan and contribute the society.”
    What I cannot understand at all is though they chose better country and stayed in Japan but say they hate Japan still now.

  9. It may be wiser to compare Japan and Korea to Britain and Ireland rather than lets say Britain and Malaya or France and Indochina, due to the proximity of the two and the fact that British propaganda was also similar in how Ireland was a part of Britian rather than an exotic faraway land that was colonized. And how can you say for sure that the economic growth fueled by Japan was for the benefit of Koreans. From what I have read most of the Koreans who benefited were landowners that were collaborators and Japanese settlers in Korea itself. Also your article makes no mention of Japanese settlers in Korea. You also glossed over the brutal suppression of pro-independence movements such as the one in 1919. Now I’m not going to say that the Japanese were always brutal, their attitude changed after this suppression according to Bryan Myers, but you shouldn’t ignore the nastier aspects of japanese rule if you want to paint a balanced picture of what really happened. Personally I see the occupation as one that was brutal but also one that was beneficial to Korea. This is what i felt was missing from the article, and your portrayal of only the positive aspects of Japanese rule makes you appear almost as biased as those SKs who only rant at the negative aspects of Japanese rule.
    H: Thanks for the note.

    …if you want to paint a balanced picture of what really happened…

    If you want your comments to be taken seriously here, you should read the posts carefully. Start with the last paragraph of this one.

    – A.

  10. 21st Century Schizoid Man said


    “What I cannot understand at all is though they chose better country and stayed in Japan but say they hate Japan still now.”

    In my younger days Korean Highschool was said to be fearful mobsters, that they extract eyeballs of their enemy with spoon in their fight.

    I do not know the truth. That is an image I had to have when I talked with my friends back in junior high.

    Considerable part of Japanese ultra right wing group (acting as such mainly for money, as I understand it) and of Yakuza mobsters consists of them.

    I do not know the truth. That is an image given by some netizens.

    But if I were one of them and opted for a presumably better life and settled back in Japan and were treated like inferior group of people, probably I would stay in Japan, hating Japanese. Chon, we used to say. Baka da Chon da to iwareta (I was said that I was a fool or a Korean), is the typical expression when one is bitterly insulted by others and is trying to describe the insult suffered.

    There is other side to every story. I have never had a friend whom I could recognize as a Korean or its descendent, although I did not intentionally avoid it. Under current situation, it would be a bit difficult to become friends with Koreans or Chinese. Some people may dub me narrow-minded, and probably true. That is ok, there are tons of my buddies everywhere.

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