AAS 2010: Annexation Centennial

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:39 am

Final exams crash onto my desk tomorrow, but I’m as organized as I can be in advance, so I thought I’d do a little belated AAS blogging, especially about the pair of panels on Saturday commemorating the centennial of Japan’s annexation of Korea and the 50th anniversary of Hilary Conroy’s groundbreaking study of same.

The Reconsidering panel chaired by my old friend Hyung-gu Lynn covered a good variety of disciplinary perspectives, not to mention being equally split between Korean and Japanese panelists. The focus was on the Protectorate era Lynn characterized the papers as demonstrating an “agnostic, open-ended committment to history” rather than the sort of “methodological nationalism” which often dominates conversations on this era.

The most striking presentation, I thought, was Toyomi Asano’s discussion of Ito Hirobumi’s Resident-General-ship and the legal reforms and proposals of that period. Asano argued that Ito’s proposal of a federation-style annexation and elimination of extraterritoriality rights for Japanese residents in Korea suggests that the colonial occupation of Korea was not a foregone conclusion; ultimately, Asano argued for an abandonment of teleological narratives in which Japanese domination of Korea was a foregone policy and against dichotomous colonization-or-independence binary absolutes. It’s true that Ito’s reputation among Japanese residents in Korea was “pro-Korean” and the merger proposal Asano outlined certainly seemed reasonable — an independent Korean judiciary and parliament, integration of the Korean royal family into the Japanese Diet — but as much as I agree that we need to have an open mind about missed possibilities in history, I’m not convinced. Asano’s right that Ito’s revision of Korea’s civil and criminal code laid a foundation for modern governance which persists — with modifications — to this day, and Ito’s rhetoric was reasonable, but I don’t know that there’s any reason to ignore the self-serving nature of both, not to mention Ito’s fairly aggressive moves against the Korean royal family, the disbanding of Korea’s military and violent suppression of anti-Japanese movements and guerrillas.

Doongook Kang’s analysis of Liang Qichao’s rhetoric related to Korea provided an interesting window into the Protectorate era, bringing Chinese discourses into the mix in a time when China is largely considered irrelevant to the Japan-Korea dynamic. During this time period, Liang’s comments on Korea mostly concern the causes of Korean decline, and there’s a fairly rapid shift involved. Before 1906, Liang focused on Japanese Imperialism and other external causes, but after that he’s emphasizing Korean internal factors, failings which, he argued, made colonization inevitable. What’s particularly interesting about Kang’s analysis is that it highlights the replacement of Chinese and Korean sources in Liang’s writing with Japanese sources (including textual errors), and Liang’s willingness to absorb Japanese rhetoric on Korea seems to be at the root of the change in tone. Korean intellectuals who took Liang Qichao seriously faced a choice about how to respond to these new arguments: some rejected Liang’s ideas and remained strong proponents of a revitalized Korean nationalism, while others became more pessimistic.

Yumi Moon tracked the positions of the notoriously (but not entirely deservedly, which was her point) collaborationist Ilchinhoe organization’s positions over the Protectorate era. Starting from an argument that reform, in 1904, was more important than sovereignty, the Ilchinhoe consistently tried to leverage the Japanese presence into reform opportunities; as anti-Japanese activities became more intense, the Ilchinhoe’s position in Korean society became more marginal and more dependent on Japanese support. Throughout, the Ilchinhoe’s hope for Korean development remained strong, but the form and substance of independence became separated; the biggest weakness of the Ilchinhoe’s position (and this goes back to Asano’s paper as well) is that their argument depended on the honest good will of the Japanese as developmental colonialists.

The second panel was more of a festschrift for Hilary Conroy’s 90th birthday than anything else, and wasn’t quite as focused, but the presentations were individually very interesting. Conroy himself gave the closing speech and, aside from some interesting reminiscences, the one thing he said that really stuck with me was that he should have switched the order of the title and subtitle of his book. The full title, which nobody remembers, is The Japanese Seizure of Korea, 1868-1910: A Study of Realism and Idealism in International Relations. If the subtitle had come first, Conroy argued, non-Asianists might have read it and it would have been a significant contribution to the political science literature; as it was, only Japan and Korea specialists read it and the lessons of the “problems inherent in the realist approach” were largely ignored until decades later.

For obvious reasons, my interest was most piqued by Wayne Patterson’s analysis of the relationship between international labor migration and annexation. He argued that Japan’s moves to strip the Korean government of its foreign relations power were partially inspired by Japan’s concern about anti-Japanese racism in the US. The brief window of Korean migration to Hawai’i in the first decade of the 20th century created a crisis: the use of Koreans as strikebreakers in Hawai’i was part of the movement by Japanese emigrant laborers to transmigrate to the US mainland, where their presence was increasingly being met with racial hostility. In order to reduce the pressure to transmigrate from Hawai’i, Japan wanted to stem the flow of Koreans to Hawai’i, reduce competition and raise wages. In addition, the attempt by Horace Allen to use emigration as a lever to expand US business interests in Korea was threatening Japanese economic and political control. Japan used Korean migration to Mexico — the result of a temporary lapse in regulation — to raise concerns about the mistreatment of Koreans overseas, then used their influence in the Korean Foreign Ministry to cut off funds for Yun Chi-Ho’s investigatory mission. As a result, Korean emigration was cut off entirely, and Japan was several steps further along in bringing the Korean government entirely under Japanese control, but it had no appreciable effect on the reception Japanese immigrants were getting in California or Hawai’i.

Peter Duus’ presentation placed his work on Korean colonization in the context of testing theories about imperialism, describing the Japanese takeover as the result of ad hoc decisions made to appeal to a variety of economic and political interests, but lacking a coherent or long-range plan until after the Russo-Japanese war. Alexis Dudden’s talk was a portion of this Japan Focus piece about the current discourses on Korean-Japanese history in Japan, especially the rise of nationalistic rationalizations of Japanese imperialism. Mark Caprio covered some of the same ground, directly challenging some of what you might call Japanese Exceptionalism with regard to its colonial history: Caprio rejected attempts to place the annexation and assimiliation policies outside of the normal categories of imperialism, arguing in essence that distinctions without a difference shouldn’t excuse abusive systems of power and control.

Excellent panels, both, and kudos to the AAS for scheduling them sequentially rather than simultaneously. (Crossposted at Frog in a Well: Korea)

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