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Bloody progress

Posted By Owen On 2/8/2006 @ 1:06 pm In Colonial,Korea-Japan,Nationalism,Theory | 17 Comments

It’s time to get my industrial strength can opener out and open the can of worms labeled ‘Japan’s colonial domination of Korea and modern interpretations thereof’ (a bit of a mouthful to fit on any normal sized can I admit). There have been a couple of interventions touching on this subject recently that have prompted me to think about this a bit. Most recently Frog in a Well’s own Jonathan Dresner has stepped into this discussion with a thought-provoking piece on the need for a ‘colonialogy’ – a study of the forms of imperialism and colonialism.

Korea blogger Oranckay wrote about this article (reg. required) from the Japan Times a short while ago. It is titled “Another side to Japanese-Korean history” and could perhaps best be described as the softer end of the rightwing Japanese view of history. Interestingly, it focuses on a Japanese article detailing recent research on the colonial period in English – research which is noted approvingly for its more ‘nuanced’ approach to the period:

What Akita does in it is to list, with a few comments, some of the more notable books and dissertations on various aspects of the Japanese rule written in English in recent years, some by people of Korean ancestry, to suggest that, if you take a less than overtly nationalistic stance, the Japanese-Korean relationship during those 35 years may not have been a simple one of oppressor and oppressed but one that was “ambiguous and nuanced.”

So, on Japan’s contribution to Korea’s modernization — a subject that I understand only creates anger in Korea — Akita tells us that Carter Eckert in “Offspring of Empire: The Ko’chang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism” (University of Washington Press, 1991) and Gi Wook Shin in “Peasant Protest and Social Change in Colonial Korea” (University of Washington Press, 1996) argue that Japan helped agricultural reform and capital formation in Korea, although it did so out of necessity. Eckert is a professor at Harvard University and Shin a professor at Howard University.

This is the sort of thing that is likely to set off once again the ‘modernization’ debate between Koreans and Japanese over the colonial legacy. No doubt it will also give rise to discussions in the blogosphere and elsewhere between non-Korean and non-Japanese supporters of one or other side in this polarised debate.

The two sides of this debate (if it can be called that) tend to line up as follows:

In the blue corner: rightwing Japanese historians and politicians who say “ok, so you didn’t like Japanese colonialism that much, but it wasn’t all that bad and we did bring modernity to Korea after all. It’s time to just get over it and accept that you wouldn’t have become a modern country without our help.”

Meanwhile in the red corner: Korean nationalists (in other words a very large proportion of the Korean population covering the whole left-right spectrum) and leftwing Japanese intellectuals who say “Japanese colonialism was awful and brutal, it brought no benefits for the Korean people, only oppression and exploitation. It did not bring modernity to our country – we did that ourselves after liberation.”

Of the two positions (which admittedly I have caricatured rather severely) I find the rightwing Japanese neo-nationalist one the most disturbing and most in need of challenging. This is largely because of the racist assumption that underlies it: the Koreans were incapable of becoming part of the modern world independently.

However, I think there is a problem with this whole debate. The common premise that underlies both of these apparently polarised arguments is the liberal view of history, the idea that history is basically about progress with a few bumps along the way. The goal of history in this paradigm is so obvious that it often doesn’t need to be mentioned: the capitalist nation state. The argument therefore always concerns the means of reaching this goal: independent development toward capitalist modernity (a rarity outside of Europe) or colonialist development as a subjugated nation (for at least some portion of the development period). Now, of course, much work can be done and has been done to assess the actual impact of any particular case of colonialism/imperialism. Recent research, for example, has indicated that India’s total productive output at the end of British colonial rule was about the same as it had been at the start of colonialism.

I don’t want to get into a debate about whether Japanese colonial rule emprically left Korea more ‘modern’ or ‘developed’ (although it may be a worthwhile debate for another time). What worries me is that both sides in the Korea-Japan barney basically agree that it is the quantifiable ‘fruits’ of modernity that matter (railways, factories, roads, plumbing, consumer goods etc) and that these are to be traded off against its ills (exploitation, poverty, one-sided development, cultural and environmental destruction on a massive scale etc). If Korea had been an independent country for those 36 years would it have escaped the horrors of the 20th century, would progress have happened without exploitation?

The problem for me here is the lack of a critique of modernity itself. Whatever the path to capitalist modernity, it seems that brutality and exploitation has gone hand in hand with progress. The slave trade, the gulag, genocide, imperialist war, environmental devastation and the nuclear bomb have been as much part of the path to modernity as the consumer society, cultural interchange, liberal democracy and good plumbing.

I suppose what I’m arguing for here is the need for historians to reject the fetishism of modernisation and attempt to step outside of the paradigm of capitalist society. Perhaps we can conclude: primitive accumulation is never pretty, but when (or rather if) it occurs under colonial domination insult is added to injury.

PS: I’m sure everyone can guess who wrote this:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.”


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