우물 안 개구리


Dokdo is Korean for “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!”

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:57 pm Print

Apparently inspired by the success of other international publicity campaigns around disputed lands — Tibetan independence, Pakistani claims to Kashmir, the Golan Heights, etc. — some Korean business owners in New York are trying to raise the profile of the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute by publicizing it in English on dry cleaning bags.

This is part of a larger push to broaden Korean diaspora engagement with the homeland and leverage overseas success into diplomatic weight. This includes trying to instill a sense of the importance of the Dokdo issue — as Koreans see it — into second and third generation Korean Americans. I’m not sure what the benefit is to tying Korean American identity to a post-colonial maritime resource dispute instead of … well, almost anything from the panoply of Korean history and culture seems like it would be more likely to succeed in the long term and have greater benefits.

Speaking of generations, the North-South separation has had linguistic consequences over the years. Most of the examples given seem to be in the political realm, terms which have taken on specific meanings within the Kim-cult/juche system. After decades of living in a more or less permanent state of political terror, I would imagine that most North Koreans would be very careful, precise with their language. The culture shock for individual defectors is already pretty severe; the culture shock of reunification in Germany was substantial, though the political system in East Germany was never as thoroughly totalitarian, information was never as tightly controlled.


Cholera: Disease, Nation, and Identity?

Filed under: — John P. DiMoia @ 11:05 pm Print

I’ve been looking at disease patterns in the early stages of the USAMGIK occupation, focusing on the cholera outbreak of spring and summer 1946, covering roughly April to September of that year, and peaking with the summer rains in June and July. I’m still not certain that a single disease identity is the correct frame, as there was some question of translation in the Japanese context–this according to Crawford Sams, with GHQ PHW (Public Health and Welfare)–and a number of competing disease entities as well, typhus primary among these.

In any case, leaving the question of identifying a disease entity aside for the moment, the patterns of quarantine and policing established by both USAMGIK and GHQ contain numerous interesting overlaps with previous policy. For one, the movement of repatriated ethnic Koreans back to Japan for a variety of reasons in 1946 and 1947–family property left behind, seeking to return to work in Japan, allegations of black market activity–meant that this group, along with Taiwanese, rapidly became identified with the disease itself in the Japanese press. There’s already a good bit of scholarship on this point–e.g., both Tessa Morris-Suzuki and Christopher Aldous have published on migration controls and disease policy (typhus) in Japan–indicating that the outbreak of cholera tended to reinforce existing prejudices and beliefs about ethnic Koreans.

Within Korea, the disease created the conditions for a mobilization based upon the introduction of “Western” medicine to a greater extent than had previously existed. That is, food controls, restrictions of the use of “night soil,” controls over sources of potable water, survey of animal populations, and even restrictions regarding large public gatherings (including funerals) were all among the practices put into effect to try to limit the spread of cholera, generally passed along by contaminated food or water sources. I have yet to find any local medical records (still working largely from USAMGIK bulletins here and Korean newspaper accounts), but it’s fair to speculate that this general policy felt a lot like Japanese policy regarding public health for much of the 1920′s and 1930′s. And the use of “local area doctors” (USAMGIK’s term for certain groups of TKM practitioners, although again, the translation issue is not always clear) meant that practitioners of traditional Korean medicine were enrolled as a last line of defense in terms of reporting the spread of disease. As both Park YunJae (Yonsei) and Shin Dong-Won (KAIST) have written about the reliance upon traditional practitioners fifteen to twenty years earlier, there’s considerable room here for speculation about how these new policies were received.

Finally, the disease did not respect boundaries, and two further problems added to the complex situation. One, the movement of Japanese forces and ethnic Koreans, primarily from North (Manchuria) to South (the DMZ, with some destined for Pusan) across the border rendered the migrations controls ineffectual. This was also the case for Southern Japan, where individuals could cross by boat into Japan unorbserved. Two, the lack of reliable information and communication with the Russians / Northern representatives only exacerbated the situation.
I still don’t know exactly what to do with this information collectively, except to note that it has a lot to do with the “national style”–itself a problematic label–that South Korea would later adopt with respect to medical practice, and to recognixe that the polciing aspect of public health definitely continued beyond the colonial period into the occupation and the subsequent formation of new states.


Modernization or Japanization? –The Movie “Homeless Angels” 1941

Filed under: — Sayaka Chatani @ 10:17 am Print

I had a chance to watch a Korean movie from the colonial period, called “Homeless Angels (집없는 천사, 家なき天使),” at the Korean Film Archive (KFA) in Susek, Seoul, the other day. This movie was made by the infamously pro-Japanese director of the time, Choi Inkyu, in the late 1930s, and released in 1941. The Korean Film Archive listed it as one of 100 representative works that reflect Korean cinema, “because it is one of the very few surviving movies from the Japanese colonial era” despite the fact that the last scene (where all the children recite the pledge of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor) was propagandistic for the  Japanese imperialist cause.

The movie is about the founder of an orphanage called 香隣園 and the Korean boys who joined the orphanage. Conversations took place mostly in Korean, except for some occasional code switching with Japanese. Since Matt at GUSTS OF POPULAR FEELING has featured this movie a while ago, giving details of the plot and pictures of various scenes, I will not explain the story in detail here. I would rather like to point out the key historiographical issue in the discussions related to this movie among Korean film scholars, the KFA and GUSTS OF POPULAR FEELING.

The KFA interprets this movie as mostly a humanist story of enlightenment by Koreans for Koreans, and argues that “the propagandistic sequence is inserted irrespective of the plot and thus does not pose a substantial threat to the text’s actual subject.” In critique of this interpretation, Matt has highlighted the militaristic nature of the training that children receive, and indirect expressions that praise Japanese military advancement in the film. His interpretations suggest that children could represent Koreans in general, and that the film could leave the audience with the lesson that Koreans could have become real Japanese citizens if they had made a great effort.1 The interpretations of this movie among film scholars today are similarly divided on how to interpret the nature of this movie in the same way as the Japanese imperial authorities were bewildered.2 Is this a mere Japanese propaganda? Or is this a ‘Korean’ humanist story of rescuing and enlightening homeless children?

Let’s step back from this question for a moment. There are many elements in this movie that reflect the global trends at the time. The first thing to notice is that in the movie there is clear pastoral idealism depicted as a reaction to industrialization. The film shows the decadence and corruption of urban culture, and its contrast to the healthy, disciplined, frugal and simple rural life. The idealization of rural agricultural life is found in media and intellectual discourse, not only in Korea and Japan, but also in Britain, Germany and other places in the world since the 1900s. Secondly, the special role of children as ‘our future’ and ‘our hope,’ but at the same time, as those that adults have to lead in the right direction, can be considered as a new concept that rapidly spread around the world in the 1910s. Historians often point out Stanley Hall‘s theory of developmental child psychology as having helped create and spread such an image of children. With these two elements combined, it is not surprising to see that large-scale youth movements were launched around the world around the same time — the Boy Scouts, Hitler Jugend, Japanese Seinendan, Communist Komsomol, etc. All these youth groups praised militarized discipline and pastoral ideology. Lastly, while idealization of rural life is clearly a rejection of modern consumerism, the movie seems to imply that Western Enlightenment itself was the basis of their activities. In the movie, the founder of the orphanage gains support from his brother-in-law, a rich doctor who owns an empty Western style house, a sizable farm and a farmhouse outside of Seoul available for use. There was a quick flashback scene in which this brother-in-law was spending time with his German girlfriend there, showing that he was educated in the Western style and is familiar with European culture. More interestingly, the founder names his son and daughter ” Johann (요한)” and “Mary (마리아)” respectively, which we can’t help but see as bizarre given the setting of Japanese colonialism. Overall, the adults who help the children in this film are all “Westernized.” This close relationship between the Enlightenment thought and anti-industrial youth movements was also prevalent in other parts of the world.

Coming back to the question of how to interpret the nature of the movie “Homeless Angels,” it is clear that the film was not simply about “Koreans helping Koreans.” At the same time, the question of “to what extent it was Japanese” has become a much harder question to answer because Korea, as well as Japan, was embedded within the larger historical trends of the time. The same difficulty of separating “Japanese” colonial modernity from world-historical trends is a common problem with many of the writings about the Korean colonial history. I wish that historians had better tools to capture the interaction of all the world, regional, national, provincial, and personal contexts instead of endeavoring to fit all the elements into narrower national terms. 


  1. I would add the fact that the orphanage was available only for boys. It reflects the tendency of Japanese colonialism that regarded Koreans as military and labor human resources at the time. []
  2. See 강성률, 영화로 보는 우리 역사 3 [집 없는 천사]와 찬일: 계몽을 가장한 자발적 친일, 내일을 여는 역사, no. 20, 2005.6, pp.227-232 []


School Strikes in Colonial Korea: 1937-1939

Filed under: — Sayaka Chatani @ 9:00 pm Print

I had a chance to look into two primary sources on ‘school strikes (同盟休校)’ (mostly in common schools) in the colonial period of Korea (the Kominka period in particular), and translated some of the records from Japanese to English. The documents I looked at are: 高等外事月報 (朝鮮総督府警務局) and 朝鮮思想運動概況(朝鮮軍). It is quite interesting and I would like to share some of the anecdotes here.

<Students’ Complaints in 1937-1939>
The main complaints throughout these years were about the excessive amount of ‘practice (jisshū)’ classes at the expense of academic training. Many went on strike because they perceived that they were not receiving adequate education or were not provided with qualified teachers. In many of these cases, the quality of education mattered more than ethnicity. To give a few examples;

  • 69 male students out of the total of 80 fourth graders were discontent about the educational policy of the new Japanese principal who emphasized only ‘practice’ classes and disregarded academic courses. The class president and 5 other students gathered all the male students and decided to go on school strike during that week. They carried out the strike the next day. But after the local police and the school caught the six instigators, all the rest attended school the following day. (Kyŏnggi, Common School, May 1937)
  • 32 forth graders went on strike in the hope that the school would hire an additional teacher and reduce the number of self-study hours. The police detected the plan, and dissuaded them from carrying it out. (North Ch’ungch’ŏng, Common School, March 1937)
  • Students were discontent with a Korean teacher of Buddhism and the Korean language for his short temper and ineffective pedagogy. 32 students went on strike for two days. (South Kyŏngsang, Buddhist School, May 1937)
  • Civil engineering students were discontent with the Japanese principal’s decision to hire a new Japanese teacher to replace a resigning Korean teacher since the new teacher lacked adequate educational background. 101 students went for strike, but after the principal explained his intention to promote school reform and discipline by hiring a Japanese teacher, and promised to hire another Japanese teacher with higher technical knowledge, the students were satisfied and resumed attending school. (South Ch’ungch’ŏng, 1939)



Martial Arts and the Korean Colonial Police in 1938

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 4:35 am Print

The relationship between Korean martial arts and Japanese martial arts is usually a touchy one. This is because, like the history of so many other things in modern Korea, it is susceptible to what I like to call the “Colonial Death Touch.”

The Colonial Death Touch works like this. Any practice which can be demonstrated to have its origins in the Japanese colonial period, was reborn during the colonial period partly out of inspiration or imitation of some Japanese practice, or was significantly influenced by similar Japanese practices is ruled to be inauthentic. Inauthentic things, of course, cannot be authentically Korean, and thus risk, at the very least, losing its place in the national cultural or historical repository. At most, it can destroy any popularity such practices might enjoy.

The Colonial Death Touch is sometimes delivered by, for example, Japanese nationalists who want to anger their Korean neighbors. However, it is also often used domestically. For example, practitioners of Korean martial art X might claim that they are superior to martial art Y because they are “pure” Korean while martial art Y is soiled by its evil Japanese roots. I’m sure many readers familiar with Korean martial arts can think of some examples of this.

These sorts of exchanges, whoever their participants might be, are silly childish games of nationalist mudslinging. They depend on a simplistic idea of authenticity, a laughable faith in cultural uniqueness, and a conception of the colonial period as cultural and economic black hole out of which only the bright shining light of Korean national resistance can possibly shine.

One martial art that became popular during the colonial period which remained popular in the postwar period is 검도(劍道, J: Kendō) or swordsmanship. In recent years, perhaps partly due to the ever present threat of the colonial death touch, the martial art has undergone some degree of “Koreanization” while other innovations in technique, uniforms, etc. probably are more simply attributable to the evolution of all such arts across time.

Reaching back to the time of liberation in 1945, however, I did find it remarkable that 검도 seemed to remain particularly popular among the Korean police. Like the popularity of Kendo among the Japanese police down to this present day, Korean police publications from the late 1940s and 1950s show pictures of 검도 practitioners gathered in huge numbers. This is somewhat surprising since the sword of the police in the colonial period was one extremely hated symbol that often gets mentioned in anti-police newspaper articles. The post-Liberation police stopped carrying the sword after a reform of November 8, 1945 and replaced it with a police stick. Admittedly, one could argue that the symbolic weight of a sword carried is different from that of the bamboo 죽도(竹刀 J: Shinai) used by 검도 practitioners, but I find the resilience of 검도 to be impressive and admirable all the same. Others, however, might point to this as yet another expression of the “pro-Japanese” tendencies of the police.

It is not surprising to learn that many Korean police during the colonial period were also working hard at various martial arts. In a 1938 Japanese imperial government report on the colonial police, there is an interesting table listing the number of Japanese and Korean police holding various degrees of skill in three martial arts: Judo (유도), Kendo (검도), and Kyudo (궁도, Japanese archery).1 The degrees are listed by dan beginning with shodan (in some martial arts this is often now called the first degree “black belt”). Below are the number of police holding first degree or higher in the three martial arts for 1938:

  1. 日帝下 戰時體制期 政策史料叢書 第67卷 警察과 思想統制 4(昭和13年 警務要覽 外) p.45 (40 in original report) []


Colonial Period School Architectural Archive

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 5:46 am Print

Thanks to a posting at The Marmot’s Hole I learned about a project being undertaken by the National Archives to display a variety of information, archival documents, and media about school architecture during the colonial period. The project home page can be found here:

일제시기 학교건축도면 컬렉션

You can also read more about the 3D materials being put up related to Keijo Imperial University (경성제국대학). Whether in movies like “Radio Days,” commercials with people in colonial-period attire, or projects like this, I think there is a healthy trend of starting to reclaim the colonial period as part of Korean history rather than simply a black hole from which it emerged reborn.

On the technical side it was remarkable to discover that the whole site seems to work fine on non-IE browsers and on a Mac. I can only hope this is also a new trend since full operability with non-IE browsers is almost non-existant in Korea. In fact, one can see the Macintosh imprint on the website itself. Someone who has more time on their hands than I might want to send the project an email and let them know their web designers engaged in a little bit of artistic theft as they nabbed three Macintosh OS icons for their buttons:


Here you can see the icons for three Apple applications that come with every new computer: iMovie, iChat, and iPhoto. As Mac users may recognize, the designers decided to make a few changes to the iPhoto icon, perhaps because the palm tree in the background didn’t fit the website’s theme. Compare to the original here:



Korean War Criminals in the Movement to “Set History Straight”

Filed under: — Sayaka Chatani @ 1:54 am Print

Frog in a Well welcomes a guest posting from Sayaka Chatani on the issue of Korean War Criminals and the difficulty Korean historians have found in addressing them in modern Korean historiography. Sayaka is a PhD student in the History Department of Columbia University. Her research interests are in the transnational history of early to mid-twentieth century East Asia, mainly focusing on the colonization and decolonization of Korea and Taiwan.


Colonial legacies are one of the most hotly debated political issues in South Korea. The phrase “legacies of Japanese imperialism (ilche chanjae)” is ubiquitous in newspapers and in bookstores, and the topic not only triggers controversies among academics, but inspires social movements, and leads the government to adopt policies to resolve the remnant problems.

Among the many controversies surrounding the history of Japan’s colonial rule in Korea, much attention has centered on the question of collaborators. Many Korean historians argue that former pro-Japanese collaborators subsequently prevented Korea’s unification and brought about significant harm to South Korean society. They see punishing them as a prerequisite to restoring a healthy society.1 In the context of ‘setting history straight,’ The South Korean government has confiscated the property of descendants of nine collaborators.2 A presidential fact-finding panel has finished its second investigation to identify the names of pro-Japanese collaborators, and continues working on a third investigation.3

In contrast to their excitement over the issue of collaborators, historians have only given very limited attention and analysis to the issue of Korean war criminals despite the significant number of Koreans put on trial and executed as Japanese prison guards. When a few Japanese and Korean historians do face the issue, they tend to simplify the complex experiences of Korean war criminals to fit the dominant minjung discourse that blames a distinct group of collaborators for betraying the majority of Korean people. The fact that Korean war criminals were both victims and victimizers makes it difficult for nationalist historians to openly discuss the issue.


  1. For example, Ahn Byung-ook, “The Significance of Settling the Past in Modern Korean History,” Korea Journal, Autumn 2002, pp.7-17, and Chung Youn-tae, “Refracted Modernity and the Issue of Pro-Japanese Collaborators in Korea,” Korea Journal, Autumn 2002, pp.18-59 []
  2. New York Times, “World Briefing, Asia: South Korea: Crackdown On Collaborators” May 3rd 2007. []
  3. The Korea Times, “202 Pro-Japanese Collaborators Disclosed.” September 17, 2007 []


Three thoughts on Visibility

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:19 am Print
  • My favorite new blog Photoshop Disasters has a Korean Basic Instinct 2 poster in which Sharon Stone’s head has been altered from the US version: Cosmo7 cites the fact that the hair is wet, which is the photoshop ‘tell’ but can’t explain why they would do that. I suspect that the wet hair is a side-effect of needing a head shot that was oriented differently, that they wanted to shift Stone’s gaze away from the viewer, make her less …. well, here’s where my complete lack of exposure to Korean media becomes a liability. Either they want her to be less aggressive (which doesn’t entirely make sense, given the movie) or more aloof.
  • Dr. Virago and Dr. Crazy (Dr. Crazy’s analogy to Star Trek/Lost In Space/Heroes is worth the price of admission) among others, are having an interesting discussion about how scholars achieve “visibility” and “impact” both within their subfields and in the discipline. Their discussion doesn’t directly touch Asian Studies, but it does have some thought-provoking ideas for both young and feeling-marginalized scholars.
  • I just got my current Journal of Japanese Studies in the mail, and two of the three articles are about Korea: one about the development of the Korean Civil Code under Japanese protectorate and the other about middle-class Koreans in 1930s Japan. The latter is by an old grad school friend, Jeff Bayliss, who’s teaching a course combining Korean and Japanese history which is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I’m a little jealous, yes, but mostly I’m thrilled to see the crossover scholarship being taken seriously.


Disparity Studies

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:57 am Print

In my discussion of the job market I said “I only saw two Korea positions, which seems about par for previous years: at some point, though, Korea positions should catch up with Japan ones.” Morgan Pitelka took exception, noting (correctly) that

Other than UCLA, which continues to have one of the most productive Korean studies programs outside of Korea, and perhaps Harvard and Columbia, how many grad schools are cranking out Korean studies PhDs? I also know of only a handful of liberal arts colleges with any substantial Korean studies, and rarely language. Very few regional/MA-granting universities have substantial Korean studies. Almost all have some Japanese studies. Also, as far as I know, few colleges or universities DON’T have access to study abroad in Japan. On the other hand, most colleges and universities don’t have study abroad options in Korea.

He’s absolutely right, of course: Korean studies doesn’t have the infrastructure Japanese studies does in the US1 and that means that — like the painfully slow growth of MidEast studies and Islamic history after 9/11 — it will take real time and effort to build. But that’s a symptom, I think, not the root of the issue. As I said, “Korean history is no less interesting than Japanese history, and the US is no less involved in Korean affairs than it is in Japanese affairs.”

Another commenter, “Overthinker” offered a cultural explanation:

There seem to be three fundamental reasons why Japanese Studies is “bigger” than Korean. One is that WW2 was more significant that the Korean War, and has given us longer-lasting imagery; household words like Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima that everyone knows about, whereas to most people the Korean War is basically Klinger in a dress. Second is the dominance of Japanese products in the marketplace: while LG and Samsung etc are strong players, they have not yet achieved the dominance of Toyota, Sony, and Nintendo. Third is the generally “cooler” images of Japan. Think of Korea, and most Americans would be hard-pressed to think beyond the aforementioned M*A*S*H and perhaps Kim Il Jung singing “I’m so ronery”. Mention Japan and people think of samurai and geisha and ninja, plus robots and giant rubber monsters stomping Tokyo on a regular basis. All these three factors would seem to indicate a greater interest in Japan at the BA level, which translates to bigger graduate programs, and more PhDs in the area. To become bigger, Korea needs to become more popular – more people at the undergrad level need to be curious about the place.

This is closer, I think: I definitely agree that Japan’s lead in economic and cultural production is a part of the puzzle. The relationship between pop culture images and student demand is not always straightforward, but it is true that there is more Japanalia in American culture than Koreania2 and more interest in the cultural roots of its economic success3 because that success was so striking in the 80s.

But, as I’ve said before, “there’s no question that a historian can’t complicate by talking about what led up to it” and I think the key to this puzzle is earlier. Much earlier: I think it starts in 1853.


  1. or anywhere in the West, I think, but I’m just going to go with what I know []
  2. No, I don’t know that “Koreania” is a word: would “Koreanalia” be closer? []
  3. I just had a discussion with my World History students about Musashi’s Book of Five Rings…. []


Thought Crime Arrests 1928-1944

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 5:07 pm Print

I spent a beautiful Saturday hanging with the old folks in 효창공원 near my place. This small park is full of interesting things including an anti-Communist memorial, the graves of various nationalist heroes, and includes the grave, museum and library for the man himself, Kim Koo (백범기념관). I spent my time in the park reading the first volume of 『해방 전후사 사료 연구』and thought I would share a chart from a chapter on late colonial historical materials by 이완범.

After listing some of the available materials and lamenting the general lack of good historical sources for the late colonial period (1937-1945), most of the chapter is dedicated to using statistics to look at the period, or more specifically, independence movements during the period.1

I’m sharing two of his tables, merged together below2 which contain statistics on arrests for thought crimes in colonial Korea from 1928-1944.

Thought Crime Arrests 1928-1944
Ave. Persons Per Case
1928 227 1592 7.0
1929 253 1743 6.9
1930 397 4025 10.1
1931 436 3659 8.4
1932 345 4989 14.4
1933 213 2641 12.4
1934 183 2389 13.1
1935 172 1740 10.1
1936 167 2762 16.5
1937 134 1637 12.2
1938 145 1344 7 (9.3)
1939 95 1042 6.9 (11)
1940 103 1193 10.1 (11.6)
1941 232 861 8.4 (3.7)
1942 183 1142 14.4 (6.2)
1943 322 1002 12.4 (3.1)
First half 1944 132 337 13.1 (2.6)
Total 3,739 34,098  
Average 225.43 2,110.06 12.2 (9.4)

Note: The averages in 이완범’s chart for people per case seemed off from 1938-1944 and I can’t find any note of a change in his method of calculation or source for his numbers (anyone have a guess for where he is getting the numbers from?). Thus I have put my own quick calculation in parentheses for these years.

Cases Per Year Peopleperyear-1

Note: Though I’m sure there is a better way, in these charts I have simply doubled numbers from first half of 1944 for the 1944 entries.

Numbers can be so much fun and feel so meaty (especially when accompanied by colorful charts), but what can these numbers tell us by themselves?

  1. It is unfortunate that, with the exception of the first chapter on materials related to wartime mobilization, everything in the first volume of such a general title focuses on independence movements. Volume two discusses mostly the postwar period, with materials related to education, political history, North Korean publications and US archival materials on the North Korean economic policies. []
  2. 『해방 전후사 사료 연구』p88 and p91. 이완범 takes the material from 朝鮮総督府警務局(編)『最近に於ける朝鮮治安状況』for materials up to 1939 and 近藤釖一(編)『太平洋戦争下終末期朝鮮の治政』 for the years therafter. The footnotes for the chart notes some discrepancies for the 1934 and 1945 numbers between the 1936 edition and his 1938 edition and an alternative lower case number of 74 for 1939 in a different source published in 1940, but it may not have been stats for the full year. []

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