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.”