The Assimilation Period (1931–1945)
In the early 1930s, Japan’s imperial ambitions led it to take a series of increasingly risky gambles that involved it in 14 years of war, known in East Asia as the Pacific War. Eventually, all of East Asia was drawn into the conflict, as were Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Japan’s attempt to conquer northern China was condemned by its former allies, and Japan became internationally isolated.
Meanwhile, its resources were stretched to the limit. At last in 1941, when the United States refused to sell Japan the oil it needed to keep its war machine running, Japan upped the ante by conquering the Dutch West Indies, and the logic of war demanded that Japan simultaneously attempt to cripple any possible opposition to its actions by attacking Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
Though time would show that Japan’s survival was not really at stake, its government and its people seemed to feel, during much of this period, that it was and that its predicament justified drastic action.
This paranoia empowered the most reactionary and militaristic forces on Japan’s home islands. Abroad it motivated widespread atrocities and wanton massacres by Japanese troops who had been taught in school to regard other Asians as subhuman. It also led to a cruel but futile attempt to eradicate the culture of Korea. This period is known in Korea as the Forced Assimilation Period.
The Mukden (Manchurian) Incident
The Mukden Incident or Manchurian Incident are the names given to the event that on September 18, 1931, led to a sharp increase in Japan’s military operations in northern China and eventually to the Pacific War.
Extremists in Japan’s Kwantung army, stationed in Manchuria under the terms of treaties that allowed Japan to use troops to protect its railroads and ports, wanted Japan to conquer the province once and for all.
The civilian government back in Tokyo was reluctant to take the step, which had no justification under international law, so local commanders staged a bombing and blamed it on the Chinese.
The conspiracy was enacted without the knowledge or authorization of Japan’s prime minister or even its military high command in Tokyo.
However, the conspiracy’s aim—the military occupation of Manchuria—had been widely debated in Japan.
The Japanese public, which had for decades learned from their schools and government-censored newspapers to admire the army, despise the Chinese, and see control of northern China as Japan’s mani-fest destiny, was overwhelmingly in favor of the action.
The Japanese government had never established adequate civilian control over its military forces and was now led into a war by them. Japan quickly conquered the entire province of Manchuria, which, though recognized internationally as a part of China, at the time had been in the hands of a local warlord.
In September 1932 Japan established a puppet government in the province it had conquered, which it promptly recognized as the supposed independent state of Manchukuo. No one was fooled. Manchukuo was a colony of Japan.
From Manchuria to Nanjing
At the time China was engaged in a civil war. The Nationalists—that is, the Republic of China forces commanded since the mid-1920s by generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975)—had been relatively successful in defeating the warlords who had defied the central government in the years following the collapse of the Qing dynasty.
Now the greatest internal threat facing the Nationalists were the Chinese Communists under Mao Zedong (1893–1976), who in 1931 had established the Soviet Republic of China-based in the mountains on the Hunan-Kiangsi border.
In The Pacific War: World War II and the Japanese, 1931–1945, the Japanese historian Saburo Ienaga explains how the civil war between the Nationalist and Communist forces weakened the Chinese response to Japanese aggression:
The Chinese, of course, did not recognize the phony state of Manchukuo. Nevertheless, the Nationalist government, giv-ing its first priority to the civil war with the Communists, had little enthusiasm for simultaneously attempting to recover Manchuria. . . .
Thus, in July 1935, the Manchukuo-China Transportation Agreement restored regular communication and transportation between the two areas. Japanese aggressors seemed to have realized their dream—control of the vast spaces of Manchuria. . . . But they wanted more. They expanded military control to Mongolia and North China and overreached themselves. (Ienaga 1978, 67)
After its relatively easy conquest of Manchuria, the Japanese found it much tougher going, and the bloodiness of the campaign kept rising, climaxing in 1937 in the taking of Nanjing (Nanking), where Japanese troops massacred 300,000 civilians, according to Chinese figures, and committed many other well-documented atrocities.
Before it was over the war begun in 1931 by the Mukden Incident had killed an estimated 20 million Chinese (Roy 1998, 164).
Japan’s new acquisitions on the Asian mainland changed the role of Korea within Japan’s imperial system. Korea had become a stepping stone; to a great degree, Japan would colonize Manchuria from Korea. The worldwide economic crisis of the 1930s also influenced Japan’s policy in Korea.
Japan responded to the bleak international conditions with a program of heavy, government-directed investment in its colo-nies; it hoped to make its empire a self-sufficient economic system, safe from the fluctuations of the world market. The labor of Koreans, skilled and unskilled, willing and unwilling, would be essential to these plans. Korean textile mills would supply cheap clothes to Manchuria.
Koreans themselves would go to Manchuria to build industrial plants, railways, and telegraph lines, mine the ore, and cultivate the rice (the Japanese believed the Koreans grew rice more efficiently than the Chinese). After 1938 there would be Koreans in the Japanese military forces as well, and Koreans would be brought to Japan to replace Japanese men serv-ing in the army and navy.
To achieve its ambitions the Japanese required “active support and participation in their economic and military plans,” writes Michael Robinson, “not the indirect support of a portion of the elite and the grudging, sullen passivity of the Korean common man.” A new ultranationalist governor-general, Ugaki Kazushige (1868–1956), arrived in 1931, signaling an end to the velvet-gloved cultural policy of the 1920s. According to Robinson,
Japan set in motion policies in the 1930s to mobilize the Korean population to support its economic, political and military campaigns. By 1945, the ensuing massive mobilization led to the uprooting of millions of Koreans from their homes and to a disastrous program of cultural oppression that attempted to obliterate the very identity of the Korean people. (Eckert 1990, 306)
In 1934 Ugaki introduced a new curriculum in Korean schools that featured increased instruction in Japanese language, ethics, and his-tory. The new curriculum eliminated the study of Korean and the use of Korean in general instruction. Eventually, the colonial government would insist that only the Japanese language be used in all public offices, and by the 1940s all businesses and banks were forced to keep records exclusively in Japanese (Eckert 1990, 315). “
Korean culture was simply crushed,” observes Bruce Cumings (Cumings 2005, 182). Starting in 1935, students and government employees were required to attend Shinto ceremonies, although, as Cumings points out, “Shinto was a strictly Japanese religion, imbued with nationalist and essential-ist ideas.”
The Christian community in Korea led the resistance to the shrine order, which led in turn to a persecution of Korea’s Christians. Several thousand Christian ministers were arrested between 1935 and 1938 for their role in resisting the shrine order. The intensity of the forced assimilation policies increased as Japan marched toward its disastrous collision with the United States. In 1936 a new governor-general was appointed, Minami Jiro (1874–1955; governor-general of Korea 1936–42).
A former minister or war, Minami had been one of the leading generals of the Mukden Incident. After 1937—the beginning of large-scale war in China and the year of the Japanese massacres in Nanjing—Minami began to shut down Korean organizations of all types, while the colonial government created organizations to mobilize the population and indoctrinate Koreans with Japanese ideology.
Some were directed at children and adolescents, with names such as Korean Federation of Youth Organizations, Local Youth Leadership Seminars, and Training Institutes for Children’s Organizations. Other government-sponsored organizations were aimed at Korean intellectuals (for example, the Korea All Writers Federation), laborers, tenant farmers, and fishermen.
Organizations such as the Korean Defense Association, the Association for the Study of Policy Dealing with the Critical Situation, and the Korean Association for Imperial Rule Assistance were used to assist recruitment to Japan’s armed services, which began accepting Korean volunteers in 1938.
Virtually every Korean came to be associated with at least one mass organization by the 1940s (Eckert 1990, 316).In 1939 the governor-general promulgated the Name Change Order, which “graciously allowed” Koreans to change their names to Japanese style surnames and given names.
Though the program was suppos-edly voluntary, Koreans working for the government and for the many organizations closely associated with the government such as the Manchurian Railway Corporation found themselves under intense pressure to change their names.
By 1945 more than 84 percent of the population had complied (Eckert 1990, 318).Conceivably, there might have been a positive aspect to some of these changes—at the price of suppressing their own identity, Koreans could have achieved equal rights as citizens of the Japanese empire.
This certainly seemed to be the promise of the new policy, but the Japanese proved to be extremely reluctant to fulfill it. Even after the 1939 Name Change Order, all public records carefully noted nationality distinc-tions so that Koreans could never “pass” as Japanese. Korean workers were paid at less than half the rate of Japanese workers for the same work at the same skill level (Cumings 2005, 169).
Pro-Japanese Korean organizations, with Minami’s encouragement, conducted a campaign to enfranchise Koreans—to win home rule (direct rule by the Japanese government rather than by a colonial governor) and representation in the Diet, Japan’s parliamentary body, but these efforts were stymied by Japan’s ruling oligarchy.
Only at the war’s end, with Japan’s back against the wall, were Korean representatives chosen to sit in the Diet. They would have taken their seats in 1946 if the war had ended differently.