The 1920s Cultural Policy of Korea

Cultural Policy (1919–1931)

The 1920s were remarkably different from the decade before and the decade to follow. The March First Movement had embarrassed Japan in front of the world community. The large-scale Korean resistance and the harsh Japanese suppression were at odds with the image of enlightened colonialism Japan wanted to project.

Japan had violently suppressed the movement, and thousands had been killed and injured; many more had been arrested. In the aftermath Japan reexamined its policies and initiated a softer approach to its colony.

They called their new approach the “Cultural Policy” (Bunka Seiji), a label that denoted a relaxation of controls over the cultural life of Koreans. Koreans began to enjoy freedoms in many areas of their lives.

Japan between Militarists and Advocates for Democracy

The early 20th century in Japan was a time of a struggle between mili-tarists on one side and prodemocracy groups on the other. Those who wanted to emulate Western models of democracy were winning the day in the late 19th century and again in the 1920s, while the militarists were stronger in the last decade of the 19th century (after defeating China in 1895) and the first decade of the 20th century (after defeat-ing Russia in 1905). In the 1930s the Japanese war machine rolled into Manchuria (1931) and China (1937), again putting the militarists in control of the Japanese government.

The Taisho Period (1912–26) in Japan was a time of peace and liber-alization. In 1918 Hara Takashi became Japan’s first commoner to serve as prime minister, elected in open, fair elections, though only men meeting minimum tax qualifications could vote.

As prime minister in Japan during the Korean March First Movement, he changed policies in Korea and appointed a more liberal administrator, Saito Makoto. As elsewhere in the world, Marxism, communism, socialism, and even anarchism attracted interest and followers in Japan, and diverse view-points were expressed. This eclectic political left countered the strength of the militarists and the right wing.

However, Japan’s efforts to establish a modern liberal democracy were greatly hindered by the loss of its leaders to assassination, three of them prominent prodemocracy leaders. Ito Hirobumi, who had drafted the Meiji constitution (adopted 1889) and served as the first prime minister of modern Japan (four terms, 1885–88, 1892–96, 1898, 1900–01) and first resident-general of Korea (1905–09), was assassinated by a Korean nationalist in Manchuria in 1909.

Hara Takashi was assassinated in 1921 by a man described as a lunatic. Hamaguchi Osachi, who served as finance minister, home minister, and then prime minister of Japan (1929–30, 1931), was shot. He survived to run for reelection but died a few months later.

Finally, Saito Makoto, who served twice as the gov-ernor-general of Korea (1919–27, 1929–31) and once as prime minister (1932–34), was assassinated by militarists in 1936.

The next prime minister, Okada Keisuke (1868–1952, in office 1934–36), left office after a failed coup attempt by the military in which he narrowly escaped assassination. Thereafter, the military was in control of the government and plunged Japan headlong into war.