Economic Exploitation, Modernization, or Both?
The Japanese changed Korea forever, and ever since the end of their era in Korea in 1945 outsiders have been debating whether there was anything good in these changes. In Korea, where the whole period tends to be remembered as a time of Japanese exploitation and patriotic Korean resistance (with the occasional traitor and collaborator), the point seems much less debatable. Professor Bruce Cumings describes the view among contemporary Koreans he has met:
Among Koreans today, North and South, the mere mention of the idea that Japan somehow “modernized” Korea calls forth indignant denials, raw emotions, and the sense of mayhem having just been, or about to be, committed.
For the foreigner even the most extensive cataloging of Japanese atrocities will pale beside the barest suggestion of anything positive and lasting that might have emerged from the colonial period. Koreans have always thought that the benefits of this growth went entirely to Japan and that Korea would have developed rapidly without Japanese help anyway. (Cumings 2005, 148–149)
Other observers have found Koreans who say that the Japanese presence brought benefits as well as oppression. The American writer Hildi Kang, in Under the Black Umbrella, an oral history derived from interviews with Koreans who lived through the colonial period, quotes a Korean elder, Yi Sangdo, who recalls that the Japanese built dams and bridges that brought flood control to his village. “
I must say, their organization impressed me. I think it was probably good in the long run,” while another Korean just as strongly—and perhaps just as accu-rately—insists, “They had sinister plans . . . to eliminate any vestiges of Korean consciousness” (Hildi Kang 2001, 2).
While the Japanese encouraged—actually forced—Korea to grow economically, it stifled Korea politically. The Japanese outlawed politi-cal organizations, shut down newspapers and magazines it deemed threatening to their rule, and prohibited and confiscated books at will, including school textbooks that told young Koreans too much about themselves and their possibilities, books such as Elementary Korean History, History of Korea, the Biography of Yi Sunsin, and History of the French Revolution (Kang Mang-gil 2005, 9).
It is impossible to know how Korea might have changed without the Japanese. Undoubtedly its economy and industry would have modern-ized, with less grief for Koreans. Certainly the Japanese seem to have sped up the process. They had to do this in order to retain control of their unwilling colony and to make it a bulwark of their hurriedly assembled empire, which they saw as always threatened with destruction. Japan made Korea efficient to make it more useful to Japan.
In place of the relatively decentralized traditional Korean state of the Choson period, the Japanese put in place “a powerful state that penetrated to the lowest levels of Korean society,” notes historian Michael Robinson in Korea Old and New. “Power was centralized in a large bureaucratic order backed by impressive coercive force” (Eckert 1990, 257). Very few colonies in the history of imperialism were as thoroughly and tightly controlled as was Korea by such a large and ever-expanding bureaucracy.
By 1910 about 10,000 officials were employed by the colonial bureaucracy; by 1937 the number was 87,552 (52,270 Japanese and 35,282 Koreans), and according to Robinson, “if a broader calculation of all public and private positions important to the colony is made, the totals for 1937 would be 246,000 Japanese and 63,000 Koreans” (Eckert 1990, 257); the population of Korea at the time was about 23 million. To give an idea of how intense a style of colonial government this was, Robinson points out that the French ruled a Vietnamese population of 17 million with only “2,920 administrative personnel, 10,776 regular troops and about 38,000 indigenous personnel.”
Virtually all histories of Korea suddenly bristle with precise sta-tistics as soon as they reach the period of Japanese control, because the Japanese kept such complete records. This fact in itself says a lot about the nature of Japan’s rule, its intrusiveness, and its efficiency. In the colonial period government control reached down to a level that under Korea’s traditional Confucian administration had virtually escaped government.
Now an edict from the governor-general’s office immediately affected life in the village, and those at the top knew, if they cared to, what was going on in the village. The Japanese did this in order to overcome resistance and get the most out of their colony, and they did it, additionally, because it was what they were doing at home.
Back in Japan itself they were establishing a modern state of a rather regimented, authoritarian variety. The difference was that in Korea this process was being carried out by foreigners for the benefit of the foreigners. To whatever degree the Japanese believed their words about their mutually beneficial partnership with the Koreans—and the mem-ories of some of the Koreans interviewed by Hildi Kang suggest that some Japanese did believe it—their policies in Korea were designed to strengthen and enrich Japan.
If the Koreans benefited, that was all very well from the Japanese point of view—it proved that their empire was good for everyone, but when sacrifice was called for, it was the Koreans who were made to sacrifice for the Japanese. The Korean historian Han Woo-keun gives an illustration of the process. In 1920 the Japanese instituted a 15-year plan to increase Korea’s annual rice crop by 45 mil-lion bushels, 25 million of which were to be exported to Japan.
This proved to be an unrealistic goal, but nevertheless the planned quantity of rice was exported to Japan every year. By 1933 more than half of the annual rice crop was being sent to Japan, while rice consumption by the average Korean dwindled in proportion. By the end of the 1920s, the average Japanese consumed almost twice as much rice as the average Korean, who had to supplement his diet with millet, maize and barley, mostly imported from Manchuria. (Han 1970, 480)
Governor-General Terauchi, while expanding the police force and clamping down on any sign of resistance to Japanese rule, actively pur-sued his country’s economic goals as well. Korea received a railroad, a developing industry, and improved harbor facilities, much of which was geared to exporting raw goods to Japan and importing manufac-tured goods from Japan. Mining, fishing, and agricultural output all increased, and a manufacturing sector started to prosper.
The landscape changed for the whole country. The railroad, the ulti-mate symbol of modernization, cut a path from Pusan to Seoul to Sinuiju and went on to China, Manchuria, Siberia, Russia, and the rest of Europe. In the process railroad towns supplanted the other, once-prominent towns in the area. Taegu, for example, was a fairly insignificant town until the railroad came.
It soon became the third-largest city in Korea. Originally, Sangju, to the north of Taegu, was a major market town and government center; after the emergence of Taegu as a railroad town and center of com-merce for the area, Sangju faded into obscurity. The next major stop from Pusan to Seoul was Taejon, also an inconsequential city before the railroad came. Thereafter, it became the fifth- or sixth-largest city in the country.
In many traditional societies railroad lines have engendered opposi-tion from native populations. In East Asia the opposition was expressed in terms of geomancy. Railroads, which cut through the countryside, leave scars: The straight lines of the railroad stand in stark contrast to the natural curves of the Earth, the outlines of the hills, and the flow of the rivers. On the basis of geomancy many Chinese and Koreans objected to the railroad when it first appeared.
When the Japanese laid out the course for the railroad through Pusan, they were confronted with a problem. The straight-as-an-arrow course would have taken the railroad right through the tomb of the founder of the Tongnae Chong lineage. The Chong surname group has four major branches, Tongnae, Kyongju, Yonil, and Hadong. The Chongs of Tongnae were important yangban figures in society, and the Japanese would have been politically unwise to run a rail line across the first ancestor’s grave.
So the Japanese quite politely curved the line around the grave and avoided conflict with the Tongnae Chong. In the process they engendered considerable goodwill for their caring and flexible attitude. The incident improved relations between the Japanese authorities and many of the Tongnae Chong, along with those inter-married with them.
However, these examples notwithstanding, Japanese residents in Korea and the Koreans themselves did not benefit equally from the technical and economic innovations. The government’s own reports reveal that the Japanese residents in Korea prospered at a much higher level than the Koreans. Indeed, the Japanese population burgeoned as hard-pressed Japanese immigrants arrived and made use of their advantages to gain an economic foothold.
Japanese entrepreneurs, farmers, miners, and fishermen found great success in Korea, much more than native Koreans achieved. For example, in fishing, Korean fishermen numbered four to five times as many as Japanese fisher-men in Korea, with more than twice as many boats, but they caught fewer fish and made less money, about 80 percent of the Japanese level. Mining figures showed a similar trend.
At the time of annexa-tion, Korean-owned mines produced about a third of the colony’s mining output; at the end of the first decade of occupation, they con-tributed less than a tenth. In manufacturing Koreans had nearly as many factories as the Japanese, but the output was 10 to 1 in favor of the Japanese; some industries were almost completely dominated by Japanese owners, such as food, beverages, and tobacco. Koreans had more factories in traditional areas such as ceramics, metalwork, and rice production.
One of the reasons behind this disparity in economic develop-ment was a law called Company Ordinance that went into effect in December 1910. This law increased the bureaucratic requirements for a Korean to set up a new company while facilitating the process for a Japanese.
High on the list of oppressive laws hated by the native population, the law was revoked in 1920 in the period of general liberalization. However, the damage had been done. The policy had put limitations on the development of capital by Koreans while fos-tering the formation of capital in the hands of Japanese individuals and corporations.
There were other forms of legal discrimination as well. Koreans, for example, could be flogged because, they were told, Korea had a tradition of flogging and torture; therefore the traditional punishments could be used on Koreans, but not on the Japanese. This obviously took the wind out of one justification for the Japanese takeover: the elimina-tion of archaic practices in Korea.
Another egregious aspect of Japanese policy was the land survey, which began even before annexation. Beginning in 1908 Japan con-ducted a survey of all farmland at great expense in order to extend ownership opportunities to Japanese citizens and corporations.
Large Japanese companies soon bought or confiscated large tracts of land. In the process hundreds of thousands of Korean farmers eventually became tenants, in some cases on the very land they had once owned. The Oriental Development Company, founded in 1910, soon had 300,000 tenant farmers working its land. Forestland was confiscated in a similar manner beginning in 1918.
All forestland held by villages and lineage organizations had to be registered, and thereafter the ownership was transferred to Japanese lumber companies. The abuse of the forests is one of the most often retold stories of the Japanese exploitations. The resulting erosion of the hillsides and devastation wrought by deforesta-tion were impossible to overlook.
By 1918, under a policy of colonial development that encouraged Japanese settlement in Korea, no fewer than 98,000 farmers had taken up residence in Korea. There were about 30,000 Japanese fishermen living in Korea, and three times that many fished in Korean waters from ports in Japan.
Businessmen from large companies and small-scale entrepreneurs flocked to Korea as well. Certain sections of Seoul and other cities came to be dominated by the Japanese. The landscape changed as Japanese-style homes, business buildings, and, of course, the dominant government office buildings were built.