The Japanese Legacy in Korea

The Japanese Legacy in Korea

There is bitter disagreement between Koreans and Japanese on the overall value of—or damage done by—Japanese colonialism in Korea. Some Japanese scholars argue that Korean historiography treats Japan too harshly and that their countrymen did good things in Korea that should be recognized.

Koreans respond that even the so-called good things were done for Japan’s advantage, not Korea’s. Undoubtedly, Japanese colonization had lasting material effects for Korea. Like other modern colonizers, but more intensively than most, the Japanese built things for their own purposes that would be useful when they left.

The better to move goods and troops, the colonizers built more than 6,000 kilometers of rail lines and 53,000 kilometers of automobile and coun-try roads in Korea (in 1945 China, though many times vaster and more populous, had only twice as many rail passengers and twice as many roads.) “In short,” notes Bruce Cumings, “by 1945 Korea had a much better-developed transport and communications infrastructure than any East Asian country save Japan: this sets Korea off from China and Vietnam . . .” (Cumings 2005, 167). Once renowned for its isolation, Korea was linked to the world.

The Japanese also industrialized Korea. It began to do so early in the occupation, and the pace picked up as Korea became a supplier of manufactured goods to Japan’s new colony in Manchuria. In the early 1940s the Japanese moved especially advanced industries to Korea to escape Allied bombing—the Chosen Aircraft Company near Seoul, the product of a joint venture between a Japanese industrial combine and a rich pro-Japanese Korean entrepreneur, built kamikaze aircraft in 1945. Japanese banks and industrial combines poured money into Korea, building textile mills, hydroelectric power plants, chemical plants, mines, and oil refineries.

The colonial period also saw the development of a modern civil ser-vice, a postal system, newspapers, banks, corporations, and trade asso-ciations as well as capitalism and the response to capitalism, including trade unions and leftist organizations. Korea during this period changed from a society largely dependent on the peasantry to one that became dominated by an industrial class and wage work. It saw the waning of a landed aristocracy and the rise of a middle class used to creating and running business enterprises.

Some Korean entrepreneurs who profited during the Japanese occupation, such as the banker and agricultural magnate Kim Song-su (1891–1955) and the adaptable Korean capitalist Pak Hung-sik (1903–94) were reviled by other Koreans as collaborators. Certainly they were not patriots, but their expertise in running modern business enterprises would be important for the future of Korea (Cumings 2005, 171–172).

No potentially positive outcome of the Japanese occupation goes unchallenged. For instance, the average life span of Koreans actually increased more than 60 percent, from 26 years to 42 years, during the 35-year Japanese rule.

Koreans respond to this by citing the unknown number—at least in the tens of thousands—killed at the hands of the Japanese. In addition at least 22,000 Koreans who were forced to serve fighting for Japan in World War II are known to have been killed. Some 700,000 Koreans were forced to work in Japan, and of these at least 50,000 were killed in the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In A History of Contemporary Korea the Korean scholar Kang Man-gil moves beyond lists of Japanese crimes to make a more sophisti-cated case for the damage caused by the colonial period. In Kang’s view, though Korea modernized under the Japanese, it remained socially and politically backward, contributing to the long period of dictatorial rule that has only recently ended in South Korea and con-tinues in North Korea.

By seeing to it that Japanese firms did most of the investing and profiting in Korean development, the Japanese “inhibited growth of Korean capital and of the Korean bourgeoisie,” while “Japanese policies of suppression hindered the growth of an organized and trained proletariat.” Further, Kang argues that the colonial period caused Korea lasting political damage by interrupting a movement toward democracy that was evident in the last decade of the Choson era.

Once Korea was colonized . . . no form of political activity was allowed. Thus, throughout the entire colonial period the people inside Korea were unable either to gain any training for democratic politics or to produce political leaders with demo-cratic traits. The thirty-five years of colonial rule were the period when Korean history should have liquidated the old system of autocratic monarchy and established a democratic political system. But, under Japan’s militaristic colonial rule, the Korean people were deprived of any opportunity to learn democratic. politics (Kang 1976, 4)

The Japanese period has also left cultural legacies that are not always recognized. Many aspects of daily life have distinct Japanese roots, such as bath houses, tearooms, and even the subway system, which is laid out on tracks that run the opposite way of the streets: Traffic on the streets is like that of the United States and Europe, with vehicles driv-ing on the right-hand side of the road, whereas on the subway system, developed with Japanese technical assistance, trains run on the left-hand side of the two-track way.

This combination of systems is a little confusing when it comes to catching a ride: Buses and taxis run in the same direction on the street, but subway trains entered on the same side of the street go in the other direction. To add to the mix, on the stairs coming out of the subway is a sign that says “Those in a cultured society walk on the left.”

The role of the many Koreans who worked with the Japanese and gave varying degrees of support to their rule—whether as workers in the colonial bureaucracy or police, aristocratic members of the Privy Council, landowners who increased their holdings as a result of the same policies that forced many other Koreans into tenancy, business-men who benefited from Japanese sponsorship, editors and writers of pro-Japanese Korean-language newspapers and pro-Japanese organiza-tions, or the more ambiguous category of Koreans who sincerely par-ticipated in Japan’s Cultural Policy after 1919—is one of the touchiest aspects of the colonial experience.

In the immediate aftermath of lib-eration, Koreans moved to punish the most prominent collaborators, and it is possible that a large-scale reckoning would have occurred were it not for the intervention of the U.S. occupation forces. Koreans who had served in the colonial government and landowners who had prospered under the Japanese were put in positions of authority by the U.S. occupation, which feared that a popular revolution would be taken over by communists and manipulated by the Soviets.

Thousands of Korean colonial police who had been in hiding when the Americans landed were put back to work by the United States. Subsequently, in Syngman Rhee’s Republic of Korea, leftists of all types were considered a more dangerous enemy than former collaborators; trade union mem-bers, socialists, communists, and social revolutionaries of all types were violently suppressed, while people who might otherwise have been punished for their cooperation with the Japanese were able to thrive in the new regime.

Besides, in the 35 years during which the Japanese had ruled Korea, it had been impossible for large segments of the population to escape some involvement with the Japanese, often with mutual profit, so for decades after liberation, Koreans did not often broach the subject. Many thought it best to let sleeping dogs lie. However, after the passage of 50 years of healing time, Koreans now openly discuss the subject of collaboration.

It is the subject of papers and historical conferences, and it is published in books. For most of the years since the Korean War, the North claimed that all the collaborators were thriving in the South, but the South denied that such was the case. It is now openly admitted that many who had collaborated with the Japanese were living in the South, having faced few negative consequences for their roles.

The Emotional Legacy of Colonialism

Koreans today have a complex love-hate relationship with Japan. On one hand they respect the economic power and innovative energy in Japan, but on the other hand they remember the legacy of colonial exploitation. That memory itself is complicated.

In the Korean collective memory today, Japan represents the invasion of 1592 and the colonial takeover in 1910. Koreans talk of how they had to change their names to Japanese names and emphasize that they could not use their own language or write in their own alphabet.

Such talk gives the impression that those heavy-handed policies came with the Japanese in 1910, even though the name law and language prohibi-tion were not implemented until 1939. The earlier days of the colony, with the collaboration of many sectors of society, are forgotten.

When Koreans today speak of the colonial experience, they often remember the last phase of the occupation, a time of war and extreme deprivation. In fact, memory of the experience is becoming mostly secondhand; the generation who lived through the Japanese experience is dying. Those who lived through it, however, often tell of the softer side of the colonial experience—of knowing Japanese as neighbors, classmates, and friends.

Members of that older generation, now almost gone, speak of a strange love-hate relationship with the Japanese. They often describe the Japanese of that time as mosoun saram, or “frighten-ing people,” a term used in respect as much as derision: The Japanese were “frightening” in the sense that they knew how to get things done and that they were capable, intelligent, and creative, but they were also frightening in that they demanded obedience and compliance.

Subsequent generations who know the Japanese only vicariously from the stories handed down to them typically have stronger nega-tive feelings toward the Japanese than the Koreans who lived among them. Gradually, the better aspects of colonial life were discussed less often than the sadder stories, and over time it became less acceptable to say anything good about the experience. Consequently, the younger generations passed on the worst of the stories and in a sense were more anti-Japanese than those who experienced the oppression firsthand.