To observe that modern “physical culture” (athletics) training in the compulsory schooling system is something closely linked to the conscription system and a general culture of militarism, represents no new scholarly achievement. In fact, if you were born in the right (?) place and time, you don’t even need to be a scholar to make it into your working hypothesis: I, for my part, vividly remember the “physical culture” lessons of my Soviet childhood, which included a good deal of marching, throwing of fake “grenades”, and lots of pep talks, which all boiled down to this: “Boys, learn it here and now, unless you wish to become pariah when you are eventually called up”.
It was an unquestioned assumption that every “boy” was going to be called up at some point. And it was not the “enlightened West”, at least before WWII, which served as an inspiration for fledgling anti-militarists like me: in the British schools from the 1880s, from what I understand, physical education, compulsory as it was, was often the domain of retired military men, and took the form they knew best, namely that of the drill. And of course, I already knew in the mid-1980s, that the main model for Soviet’s aggressively militaristic “Young Pioneers Organization” were Baden-Powell’s Scouts, their underlying ideology being an omnipresent Edwardian Social Darwinism, with its talk of the imminent “decline” (of Britain, West, and whatever else – you are surely in decline unless you are constantly training yourself to kill others…), and the desire to culturally colonize the working classes by importing them into the bourgeois/aristocratic “athletic patriotism” (John Springhall, “The Boy Scouts, Class and Militarism in Relation to British Youth Movements, 1908-1930”, – Review of Social History, Vol. 16, 1971).
When I first came to South Korea in 1991, I quickly understood that all the demons that haunted us, were already here as well: the “physical education” (체육) lessons based marching and command, the assumption that schoolboys are future conscripts to be drilled in advance in school. In their criticisms of the ways “physical education” was built up in the Korean schools, the anti-systemic dissidents of the 1980s often ascribed the blame to the “legacy of the Japanese imperialism”, and especially to the militaristic craze of the Pacific War time (see, for example, 고광헌’s excellent 스포츠와 정치, printed by 푸른나무, 1988). But there was very little concrete research about how, in detail, the school physical culture was militarized from the late 1930s onward.
And now, at last, this vacuum is starting to be filled – 신주백, one of the most promising historians of the colonial/early post-colonial period, has at last published a thoroughly scholarly paper dealing with the issue: “체육 교육의 군사화와 강제된 건강” (The Militarization of the Physical Education and the Forced Healthiness), in 정근식 (ed.), 식민지의 일상: 지배와 균열, 문화과학사, 2006. From this fascinating piece we learn that the Government-General, in preparation for the introduction of conscription in Korea (which began ultimately in 1944. Once introduced, such things tend to stay for a very, very long time…), surveyed the physical condition of around 60 thousand Korean male youths in March 1942, and from this ascertained how much improvement was needed.
About 97% of those called up for the survey complied. This is a very high level of the administrative efficiency for a colony and was mainly achieved by mobilizing the “neighbourhood patriotic associations” (애국반 – they became 반상회 in South Korea and 인민반 in North Korea from the 1950s) and making the families collectively responsible for the compliance of the young males. Then, from 1942, the “physical culture” lessons in the schools practically mergered with military drills. Around 600 hours of the drills a year were supposed to be provided for all Korean males above the primary school level, and the militarized Korean Sports Promotion Association turned athletic tournaments into places where the “Imperial Army Spirit” was to be demonstrated in action. However, the “Kokumin Tairyoku ho” (National Law on Physical Strength, 1940) from Japan proper (more here)was never fully implemented in Korea, and the physical fitness of all these Korean males of constription age were never tested in full. Korea needed Kim Il Sung and Rhee Syngman to turn the sado-masochistic dream of checking and grading the ability of every young male to throw grenades and march into the sort of grim reality we are still facing here….