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Sunday, April 20, 2003


Changing narratives of Korean history

COLONIAL MODERNITY IN KOREA, edited by Gi Wook Shin and Michael Robinson. Harvard University Press, 2000, 466 pp., $49.50 (cloth)

Until very recently most English-language general histories of Korea treated Japanese colonial rule or "Japanese occupation" as a rupture or distortion of the "natural development" of the Korean nation, creating a blank space in the national narrative when Korean history no longer belonged to the Koreans. The colonial period was written as "victims' history" -- a narrative of oppression, exploitation and suffering. The only Koreans given any agency were those who resisted Japanese authoritarianism, economic exploitation and cultural aggression.

This nationalist narrative, of course, drew heavily on a parallel historiography in Korean (and, oddly enough, in Japanese) that focused on similar themes with relentless predictability. But during the last decade or so, a new generation of American and Korean historians of Korea has tried to "rescue history from the nation."

This collection of essays provides an excellent guide to their work. The goal of the editors, and most of the authors, is to write a narrative of the colonial period that transcends "the binary logic of true nation/antination" by embracing "more inclusive, pluralist approaches."

This volume succeeds in showing how to write a history of colonial Korea that is neither a simple celebration of anti-Japanese resistance nor an apologia for Japanese rule.

Implicitly or explicitly, all the authors recognize the inequities, brutalities and discrimination that accompanied Japanese rule, but they do not treat the period as "abnormal" or as "rupture." Indeed, many of them point out that it was integral to the development of contemporary Korean society. Soon Won Park, for example, argues that to understand "the roots nourishing Korean modernity of the 1960s and beyond," scholars should abandon the year 1945 as a significant temporal boundary and focus instead on the "transwar period" from 1930 to 1960.

Shifting the narrative away from the political and nationalist perspective raises an interesting set of new issues. It is no longer necessary to see colonial development as a zero-sum game. Instead of debating whether Japanese policies benefited the Koreans or whether they distorted the development of Korean society, many of the authors assert that Korea "modernized" during the colonial period. And they recognize that modernization is not necessarily an "emancipatory project."

Chulwoo Lee, for example, argues that, by adopting many apparently innocent practices such as collecting statistics or regulating burial practices, the colonial government carried out an intrusive projection of power that allowed the state "to extend its power and control to minute details of life untouched by the traditional Korean state." Obviously this "modernization of power" did not end in 1945.

Park examines the emergence of a Korean working class. She looks at colonial industrial growth as "a powerful historical earthquake" that shook rural migrants loose from the rural sector by opening up new kinds of urban employment. She does not deny that Korean workers were subject to differential wages, responsibilities and treatment in the workplace, but she argues that the emergence of an indigenous working class was also accompanied by an expansion of the market for nonmilitary consumer goods, new patterns of internal migration, rising levels of education, new possibilities for upward mobility, changes in worker consciousness and the diffusion of new occupational categories and skills. All this happened neither because of the Japanese presence nor in spite of it, but simply because industrialization dictates certain kinds of social change.

Many essays place emphasis on the agency of the Koreans in changing their own society. The volume offers abundant evidence that Korean activists energetically tried to reform their society quite independently of the colonial regime and its goals. Kenneth Wells' essay describes a small group of feminists who fought to improve the rights and status of women; Gi Wook Shin and Do Hyun Han argue that Korean "agrarianists" and "social reformers" were involved in the colonial government's "rural revitalization campaign" in the 1930s; and Joong Seop Kim points out that the movement to emancipate the hereditary pariah caste as the "longest lasting social movement" in colonial Korea.

The authors also remind us that the experience of individual Koreans under colonial rule depended on occupation, location, class and gender. Just because the Japanese controlled the administrative structure and dominated the economy did not mean that old social boundaries, divisions and tensions disappeared.

Many of the essays indicate that colonial policy was contested terrain. There are debates about the metropolitan constitutional structure applied to Korea; whether radio programs should be broadcast in the Korean language; how to deal with the problem of rural unrest; what agricultural development policies to pursue; and whether to treat Korea as a "supply base" or a "route to the continent" during the 1930s.

Other essays indicate the considerable impact of the Japanese on various aspects of modern Korean culture, but what this volume does not shed much light on is "colonial modernity." The term does not even appear in the index. Most of the authors agree that "modernity" is universal, specific to locale, and compatible with colonialism. Only Soon Won Park offers a definition of "colonial modernity." She describes it as "a modernity that created capitalism, modern technology-oriented cosmopolitanism, an urban middle class, and a consumer culture, in the absence of political emancipation." That sounds not so very different from "noncolonial modernity" in many parts of the world, even today.

This review is excerpted from Monumenta Nipponica 58:1.

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