Korea under Japanese Colony

the Japanese Colony (1910–1945)

as the Choson dynasty ended, Korea began 35 years as a colony of Japan. The conditions of subjugation were not always the same. Generally, the Japanese colonial occupation is divided into three phases: the Military Period, also called the Dark Age (1910–19); the Cultural Policy Period (1919–31); and the Assimilation Period (1931–45).

The first decade was characterized by harsh military rule, but the Japanese also brought with them modernization and new ideas and products. During this phase the resistance elements, both on the left and the right, were squeezed off the peninsula; armed resistance fighters hid in the hills of Manchuria, while others tried to set up gov-ernments in exile in Shanghai and elsewhere.

On the other end of the spectrum, the collaborators sought advantages for themselves and their country by pragmatically recognizing that Japan was in charge and a new world order was in effect. Most of the farmers and workers tried to make the best of the situation. The second decade was remarkably open, and censorship and suppression were subtle.

Armed resistance continued in Manchuria, but governments-in-exile had abandoned any practical hope of obtaining recognition; the ordinary citizen contin-ued to look for reasons to hope for a better day. Japan’s economy was growing, and some Koreans enjoyed new products from the outside world. Much of the Korean populace accepted, to some degree, Japan’s concepts of an “Asian Greater Co-prosperity Sphere” and “Asia for the Asians.”

Cultural creativity flourished, with short stories and poems published in an array of newly created magazines; the world economy of the 1920s was booming; and the average Korean was swept along in a flood of development and prosperity. The subtle emergence of “thought police” and the first political arrests were a foreshadowing of darker days to come. The third decade and a half was marked by war that brought untold hardships to the colony. Life became difficult for the average Japanese citizen, but matters were even worse for the residents of the colony, the second-class citizens.

The Military Period (1910–1919)

Japan had had its eyes on Korea since the 1870s. Its influence in Korea had grown in fits and starts, and Japanese policy was not always con-sistent. There were differences between military men and democracy advocates, who argued about using military power.

Japan’s influence grew gradually. Its decisive invasion of Korea occurred as a by-prod-uct of the war with Russia in 1904, when Japanese troops landed at Inchon, marched into Seoul, and forced the Korean government to accept Japanese “protection.”

From that point on only outside interven-tion could have removed Korea from Japanese control, and the Treaty of Portsmouth confirmed that those with the power to intervene were content to let Japan have Korea.

Every move the Japanese made after 1905 served to strengthen their control, efforts that included the sup-pression of a vigorous Korean guerrilla movement. When Korea was annexed to the Japanese empire on August 22, 1910, it was largely because the groundwork had been laid.

Though the term annexation is commonly used to describe Japan’s actions, the Korean people did not become citizens of Japan with the rights of Japanese, nor did they have any real representation in their own government or control of its policies. Japan took control of Korea, retained control with the help of a large military and civilian police force, and ruled it through a series of governor-generals appointed in Japan.

It was an age of imperialism. Japan had already taken control of Taiwan as a result of the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, and it was now looking at Manchuria and the mainland of China. The Japanese observed that the world was being carved up by imperial powers. Their choice, it seemed, was to be carved up or seize the carving knife—to be colonized or to become an empire.

Japan’s successes—defeating the Chinese and then the Russians—probably surprised the Japanese as much as it did other Asians and, for that matter, the rest of the world. Japan was the first and only non-Western empire in the age of impe-rialism and the first to defeat a European power. Once Japan began to succeed at imperialism, it could not easily turn back. Japan was on the road to becoming one of perhaps three or four countries that would rule the world. At least that was the way it looked to the imperialists at the time.

Military Regime

The first Japanese governor-general was Terauchi Masatake (1852–1919). He had been appointed resident-general in 1909 to succeed the assassinated Ito Hirobumi (1841–1909) and became governor-general at the point of annexation. Terauchi held the post until 1916, and his tenure was one of ruthless military rule.

The first phase is called the Military Period because of the increase in numbers of soldiers and military police that Japan brought into the peninsula to combat the resistance movement that had gained strength after 1905, when Japan declared Korea its protectorate. Before 1905 a Japanese political takeover had not seemed plausible.

After the Korean army was dissolved in 1910, many who had been in the military joined the guerrilla fighters, leading to a sudden increase in armed anti-Japanese activity. Yet the Korean resistance remained scattered and poorly organized. Within a few years the overwhelming force of the Japanese army and police had eliminated the armed resistance by killing Korean resistance fighters, arresting them, or squeezing them out of the country.

Those committed to armed resistance mostly left the peninsula. Many gathered in Manchuria and Russia, from where they fought a guerrilla war against Japanese forces at the Chinese-Korean border. During the administration of Governor-General Terauchi, thousands of Koreans were killed: Official numbers say 17,000; unofficial estimates are higher.

While some Koreans gave their lives in the fight against occupa-tion, others accommodated themselves to it. In an effort to diffuse resistance in Korea’s traditional aristocratic ruling class, the colonial government gave special treatment to members of the former Korean royal family and to high-ranking pro-Japanese officers.

Some eminent Koreans were offered titles of nobility, others were given pensions, and elderly Confucian scholars were given “age grants” (Han 1975, 406). An essentially powerless privy council was staffed with pro-Japanese Koreans. Thanks to the existence of the privy council, which employed 15 pro-Japanese Korean first-class advisers and 55 pro-Japanese Korean councilors, the Japanese could tell the world that Koreans were partici-pating in their government (Kang Man-gil 2005, 6).

Koreans were also employed in large numbers in the lower ech-elons of the military and civilian police force, by means of which the Japanese controlled Korea. The military police force, which was widely used for nonmilitary and noncriminal matters, was a special feature of Japanese rule in Korea. In the words of Korean historian Mang-gil Kang,

The military police were involved directly or indirectly in every aspect of colonial rule, from the collection of intelligence to the extermination of anti-Japanese guerilla units, the summary disposition of criminal affairs, the mediation of civil suits, the serving of processes, the collection of taxes, the protection of forests, the compilation of populations registers, the provision of escorts for postal officers, the enforcement of quarantines and the prevention of epidemics, the measuring of rainfall, the control of economic activities including smuggling, the oversight of labourers, and the diffusion of the Japanese languages, and projects for improving farming. (Kang Man-gil 2005, 7)