A New Governor-General
The first signal Koreans had that a new liberal administration was in place was the appointment of a new governor-general. Though an admiral, Saito Makoto (in office 1919–27) was considered a moderate and one who had ideas less draconian than his two predecessors, Terauchi Masatake (1909–16) and Hasegawa Yoshimichi (1916–19).
The position of governor-general was closely intertwined with the position of the prime minister, the highest office of Japan. (The emperor remained largely a figurehead.) For instance, Terauchi’s predecessor as resident-general, Ito Hirobumi, had been prime minister just before his assignment to Korea. Terauchi reversed the process—he became prime minister immediately after returning from Korea. Hasegawa was the exception; he never served as prime minister, but his replacement, Saito Makoto, became prime minister after his term as governor-general in Korea. It is clear that Japan considered Korea important.
Upon his arrival in Korea, Saito made great efforts to show that repres-sive policies were a thing of the past. Indeed, Koreans began to exercise new freedoms. Saito abolished beatings and torture, and he pulled the police out of the marketplaces and other places where they once inter-fered. He pledged that more Koreans would be employed in government positions and that Koreans would be appointed as judges. He promised more schools and more educational opportunities for all Koreans, and he put Korean civil servants on the same pay scale as Japanese.
Although Saito’s reforms improved the lives of Koreans, subtle mea-sures were implemented at the same time that offset these liberaliza-tions. Eventually, freedoms were lost, and the increased public controls implemented behind the scenes during the time of liberalization came to the fore and dominated the society of the 1930s. For example, the governor-general’s promise of more schools was realized, and educa-tion was available to common people on a wider scale than ever before.
However, during the same period the government built more new police stations than schools. Japanese control of Korean opposition became more covert according to Michael Robinson: “Using an army of informers and intelligence officers, the Japanese police worked to sub-vert and crush political opposition before it took shape, thus to prevent a repeat of incidents such as March First” (Eckert 1990, 284).
Likewise, more Koreans were hired as government workers, as pledged, and salaries were set at parity for Korean and Japanese offi-cials. Still, Japanese officials qualified for an overseas hardship bonus—unlike Koreans. Publications in the Korean language were permitted, and these flourished.
Yet Japanese authorities established a new censor-ing organ, the Special High Police, in 1928 to monitor such publica-tions and other social activities. Eventually, this body started to arrest Koreans on charges of “thought crimes.” A typical example of what the Japanese punished under this term was a prosecution waged against the Chindon Society, suppressed for engaging in “activities deleterious to the promotion of harmony between Japan and Korea” (Eckert 1990, 314).
Later, in the 1930s, when the Japanese began to see communism as a special threat to their rule in Korea, workers and leftist intellectu-als were subjected to extended interrogations similar to those that were later called “brainwashing” when practiced on American prisoners in North Korea. The subjects of these programs were tortured until they repudiated their “impure” thoughts, confessed their political sins in writing, and joined special groups for those who had “reformed their thoughts” (Cumings 2005, 177).
Another new freedom enjoyed by Koreans under the term of Governor-General Saito was the freedom to form associations. All kinds of new groups could organize and meet for the common interest of the group. Koreans seized this opportunity and formed church-based groups, youth groups, tenant-farmer groups, patriotic groups, and many others.
The government, however, required each group to reg-ister. Much is known of the nature of society at the time, because the colonial records are filled with minute details of what was authorized. The Japanese used the registration law to encourage more organizations that were supportive of the state and the colonization, although they did allow other kinds of groups to exist and function as well.
While Koreans appreciated the freedom, the record of associations set the stage for an effective future crackdown by the Japanese. Indeed, in the 1930s, when the colonizers decided certain organizations were good but others were subversive, they had in hand the list of “troublemakers,” the roster of membership of groups that were suddenly no longer allowed.
The Era of the Short Story
Among the more important of the organizations allowed to register and organize into common interest groups were literary associations. These groups not only met and encouraged members to write, they were allowed to publish their writings. Literary associations flourished. Never before had writers had such freedom.
Korean literature blos-somed, and numerous short stories and poems were published. No longer suppressed by decree and by social convention, King Sejong’s hangul alphabet was used to great effect in the 1920s. Newspapers, magazines, and journals opened for business and began feeding a popu-lation anxious to read and learn of the modern world that had almost passed them by.
Literary journals started up at the rate of several each year for the first years of the 1920s. The names of the journals signaled both their optimism (Creation, Dawn of History, White Tide, for example) and their pessimism (such as Ruins). Similarly reflecting the times, Korean literature oscillated between optimism and pessimism, hope and despair.
The literary organizations were vibrant and full of life and optimism despite the dark and pessimistic stories members wrote. The leader-ship was young—most of the writers were in their 20s, and most had studied for a year or two in Japan. Each literary group had its own journal, and each had a slightly different purpose. Yet many of the same writers belonged to several different organizations.
The line separating one organization from another was very thin. Young writers of these overlapping constituencies were selecting one another’s works for pub-lication. It was a heady time for young writers, who could publish their works; decide which of their colleagues’ works would be published; and discuss writing, style, symbolism, influence from other countries, and influence from other Koreans as well as issues of nationalism and other schools of thought.
Writers exchanged ideas openly and freely in their groups of like-minded writers. They were also free because there was no established hierarchy to please.The favorite genre was the short story. The short story movement was led by a group of young authors who had studied in Japan, where the short story was the favorite form of literature at the time.
Japanese and Korean writers were influenced by recent trends in European litera-ture. Works of European writers such as Émile Zola (1840–1902) were being translated into Japanese and were inspiring Japanese and Korean writers.
Korean writers experimented with Zola’s naturalism, with its grim subject matter, realistic settings, and mechanistic explanations of human behavior, and with a Korean version of the fin de siècle deca-dence that had recently passed out of fashion in Europe.
A more up-to-date group of left-leaning writers worked to create proletarian fiction that would address the problems of workers and inspire the masses, as many writers in Europe and America were then attempting to do.
By this time the ideas of socialism had gained ground with many young Koreans, perhaps as a result of the changes in Korean society, wherein modernization was creating a genuine class of factory workers, and because Koreans studying abroad had been exposed to radical thinkers and left-wing organizations.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks had taken control of Russia, and Marxist ideas were beginning to gain ground elsewhere in East Asia. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921 and the Japanese Communist Party in 1922, and these influences spread to Korea as well. Left-wing writers organized their own liter-ary association in 1925.
They gave it the unlikely name Korea Artista Proleta Federatio (The Korean Federation of Proletarian Artists), better known by its acronym, KAPF, in Korean pronounced “Kapu.” KAPF writers believed literature should serve the social movement, while other writers argued the merits of literature for literature’s sake. Although many stories predating the KAPF bore social messages, with the formation of KAPF, the social message of short stories became more overt. Many such stories met their end under the pen of the Japanese censors.
The Japanese police also censored the newspapers and the literary journals; the game, therefore, was to get things past the censor. Many stories and poems of the day were written in allegory such that the cen-sors, reading the surface story, saw no problem, but the Korean reader, looking for symbolic meaning, saw a different story.
At the outset the censorship was fairly loose, and even transparently critical pieces were approved for publication.
For example, one of the best-loved poems of the early 1920s was entitled “Will Spring Come to Stolen Fields?”—an obvious reference to the Japanese occupation. Despite the ever-present Japanese censor, there was still a feeling of freedom in the air.
The relative freedom of the age, coupled with the inspiration from Europe via Japan, made the 1920s a watershed for the development of Korean literature.
Indeed, this period produced dozens of major works that have found their way into every anthology of modern Korean liter-ature. Literary output dropped off dramatically in the 1930s, however.
The 1940s were so chaotic that little was published, and the 1950s were disrupted by the Korean War and the chaos of the postwar era. It was not until the 1960s that the literary scene caught up to the heights that Koreans had briefly achieved in the 1920s.
In 1923 one of the worst earthquake disasters in the history of the world unfolded in Japan. On September 1 an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale shook the Kanto region of Honshu. The natural disaster, known as the great Kanto earthquake or the great Tokyo earthquake, was horrific in terms of deaths, injuries, missing people, and property damage: About two thirds of Tokyo was destroyed and much of the region around Tokyo as well. After the quake fires broke out causing even more destruction. In all, about 140,000 people died.
For the 30,000 Korean residents of Tokyo, the disaster did not end with the earthquake and fires. Responding to rumors that the Koreans were looting and rioting, Japanese civilians, apparently in some cases aided by the military and the police, began to take out their frustra-tions on the Koreans. About 6,000 Koreans were massacred. Rightist Japanese vigilantes also killed notable Japanese leftists and communists as well as around 600 Chinese workers and members of other minority groups (Mai 2005).
Both the liberalization and the attacks on the left that were prac-ticed by the Japanese administration in Korea were influenced by Japan’s policies at home. In the early 1920s Japan, in common with other industrialized countries (the United States included), was haunted by the specter of the 1917 Russian Revolution, terrified of a similar uprising in Japan.
This worry was grounded in reality; many Japanese workers and intellectuals were leftists, while in 1918 many of the common people all across Japan had rioted in response to food shortages and inflation. As noted earlier, Japan’s own Communist Party had been founded in 1922, only a year after the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Japan’s rulers, even its most liberal, sometimes reacted to left-leaning dissent with brutal repression while heeding calls for liberal democratic reforms.
The two-sidedness of the Japanese approach is perfectly expressed by its passage in 1925 of two laws: first, the Peace Preservation Law, which gave broad powers to the police to suppress political dissent, especially leftists, communists, and anarchists; and second, the Male Suffrage Act, which extended the franchise to all male citizens over the age of 25, eliminating the tax-paying requirement that had previously restricted the right to vote to about 1.2 percent of the population.
While the election law benefited those on the political left, the Peace Preservation Law was enacted to suppress left-leaning groups in Japan. The Communist Party was banned and driven underground by 1926. However, the wording of the law, which criminalized participation in, instigation of, or assistance to any scheme undertaken “for the purpose of changing the national policy or of denying the private property system,” was ambiguous enough to give the police maximum flexibility in arresting all their perceived enemies (Totman 2000, 364–365).
The new law was used effectively in Japan and even more so in Korea. Gradually, the freedoms gained were lost in the late 1920s. KAPF members soon found themselves targets; suppression and censorship gradually increased until 1935, when Japanese authorities arrested many of the KAPF members in two successive waves. Others escaped to the mountains and to Manchuria. Though disbanded and scattered, the KAPF writers were not forgotten. Decades later many emerged as cultural heroes in North Korea.