There are Japanese legacies, and then there are Japanese legacies

When you’ve been a colony for a few decades, the marks of that experience don’t simply disappear overnight. We can refer to these marks as “legacies” or, as my handy dictionary reports, “a thing handed down by a predecessor.” Korea has a lot of these things handed down by its predecessor and scholars interested in the post-colonial history of the peninsula are increasingly looking at some of more interesting continuities that reach across the 1945 divide.

However, the topic of Japanese legacies (일제 잔재) is also of great interest to nationalists. For nationalists, pointing out the legacies of colonial rule serves to extend the evil hand of Japanese imperialism far beyond the fall of empire and deep into Korea’s postwar history. The viral infection contracted during Korea’s chilly exposure to subservient colonial rule continues to plague the society and can be used to explain any number of postwar ills. The diseased pro-Japanese Koreans have haunted the corridors of the postwar political world, while a militaristic miasma hangs ominously over the decades of dictatorships that followed Japan’s defeat (I think that will conclude my use of sickness-related metaphors for now).

This is, of course, not a uniquely Korean phenomenon. It points to a problem at the heart of studying the history of many post-colonial (in the chronological use of this term) histories: what can’t one blame on Empire? If Luke Skywalker and his merry band of Ewoks liberate Endor from the hands of the Empire, what aspects of, and for how long can the difficulties faced by post-colonial Endor be rightly blamed on Darth Vader and the Emperor?

This is a difficult question which deserves more than a short blog posting. I don’t mean to contest the important fact that there are a great many obviously negative legacies do remain from the colonial period in the case of Korea. They are clearly of much interest to historians. However, what makes their continued existence such a powerful political weapon not only for the cause of Korean nationalism but the politically progressive movements in Korea which have long allied themselves to the nationalist cause, is the strange idea that on one happy day in August, 1945, all of the unhappy evils of the past few decades of Korean history lined up to board the repatriation boats headed for Japan in the months that followed. In terms of Korean historical narratives, the colonial period acts as a kind of container, a repository for tragic events. As anyone who has looked at Korea’s postwar history knows, however, the tragedy did not end. To complicate the story, the new twin evils of Russian and American empire arrived on the scene. These prevented the full eradication of the “Japanese legacies” (including the pro-Japanese), prevented unification, and spoiled the newly unfurled flags of liberation.

Thus, the Korean case is in fact more complex than the class nationalist narrative. The classic narrative for post-colonial and a great number of nations which were never formally “colonies” but which were under the direct control of other powers, basically runs like this: 1) Golden age of heroic national accomplishments 2) Period of decay (also known as the “Why we got our ass kicked” chapter) 3) A period of darkness under foreign control 4) A national awakening, often under foreign control 5) Liberation and triumphant national recovery. There are dozens of national histories which have adopted this pattern. Take my “own” Norway for example, which needs only minor modifications. Norway’s nationalist history has its golden viking age, a period of decline and decay, and as Ibsen put it, our “four hundred years of darkness” under Danish domination. This was followed by almost a hundred years of reluctant union with Sweden that I like to call the “pre-dawn frost” when Norwegian nationalism fully developed and there was the great awakening preceding the final “liberation” from Swedish union in 1905. In the mid-19th century, Norway even had its own “homogenous nation” theory (단일민족논) as nationalists claimed that only Norwegian blood was truly pure and uncontaminated by that of other races. Ever since liberation the spunky Norwegians, who are easily the most nationalistic of all Scandinavian countries, yearly march about to celebrate, somewhat awkwardly, the pre-forced-union-with-Sweden independence constitution of 1814. However, still bearing “han” from centuries of using a “foreign” language and having their own national traits crushed under the weight of foreign influences, more nationalistic Norwegian scholars of language and cultural customs often speak of the insidious legacies of the dark age of foreign rule.

There are huge differences here I’m overlooking, but the point here is that the “legacies” that are reviled in both Norwegian and Korean cases gain their political power from their alien origins – they come from the outside, are implanted like parasites into the heart of the nation, and prevent it from thumping like it should. There are two effects of this process, one intended, and one side effect. The intended effect is a process of delegitimization by associating an internal opponent (pro-Japanese, conservative political forces, the bastardized Danish dialect that most Norwegians speak some form of today etc.) with a universally reviled external threat. The unintended effect is what amounts to a kind of hollowing out of agency. History almost becomes a kind of passive process observed and lamented rather than an active process that is reflected upon and learned from. Subjectivity, and with it responsibility, is deflected by (to return to my medical metaphors) diagnosing an internal cancer caused by external environmental factors and dwelling upon its inevitable malignant effects (This ironically shares something in common with the the classic postwar narrative of Japanese history on the left: the pre-war and wartime cancer was Japanese militarist cliques or fascist elements, while the people remained, by omission or oppression, innocent of anything that transpired).

These are some of the fundamental issues that I think are at stake when confronting the question of “legacies,” especially in post-colonial contexts. Sometimes, however, the issue of legacies, or in this case “Japanese legacies” has an amazing capacity to sink to the level of the ridiculous. Take, for example the Korea Times article “Japanese Legacies Remain in Society” in the August 13th issue. The first thing that amused me about this article is the way that an accurate historical observation, widely known in academic circles and even more widely, has the capacity to become “news” through the miracle of the modern press release. But what really stands out in this article are some of the things included in a category which, in Korea, is equivalent to a condemnation. I mean, there are Japanese legacies, and then there are Japanese legacies:

Though it has been nearly 62 years since the country was liberated from Japanese colonization, there are still traces of its presence in society, especially in the field of education.

Regulation on hair length, morning sessions conducted by head masters, the national flag housed in glass frames, students’ military-style hand salutes, school trips and sports events to name just a few.

I was especially shocked to learn that the flag was housed in glass frames, but I was comforted to read further down that:

However, there were signs of change. From 2001, national flags in school are hung on tapestries rather than locked away in glass frames.

My sources report, however, there are still a significant number of schools in Korea that have school trips and sports events.

The connections between things such as sports education and school trips (especially to national museums, monuments, and similar places of symbolic importance) and the rise of nationalistic education should never be ignored. As anyone who has studied sports education knows, there is a deeply militaristic side to the history of our physical education classes. Vladimir has written about this issue here at Frog in a Well already. However, the problematic implication that seems to be made when this issue gets addressed in Korean society today is that without colonial rule Korea would somehow have matured into a nation devoid of any of the hair length regulations, hand-raised salutes, and that their students would have been spared a designation as “potential soldiers.”


  1. Great post Konrad. A few thoughts:

    Interestingly, the sort of historical narrative you describe also appears within imperial/colonist nations. In Britain (or more properly the United Kingdom) this sort of historiograpical template is applied to Scottish and Welsh history and in the Scottish case has been brilliantly and decisively dismantled by the Marxist historian Neil Davidson. (I’m not even going to start on Ireland, which seems to be the granddaddy of all colonial/postcolonial narratives – a sort of testbed for everywhere else.) Then, even in more supposedly homogeneous and less historically contingent versions of the ‘nation’ such as (South) Korea and Japan, we find that these stories of colonial oppression and emancipation are replicated internally on a smaller scale (eg Cholla province in Korea, Okinawa/Hokkaido in Japan), which just goes to demonstrate the (I have a feeling I’m going to start over-using this word) fractal nature of empire/hegemony/power relations.

    Returning to your final point, I think one of the many things that the slightly obsessive discourse on Japanese colonial legacies occludes in South Korea is the nature of the attempted/aborted modernisation process of the late nineteenth century, prior to colonial domination proper. Of course, one can argue that this process itself was hugely influenced by Japan, which it was, although there were other influences too. But there were, in my opinion, much bigger structural/historical factors at work here, which I think gave late developing capitalist countries from Germany onward a broadly similar character. It is certainly no accident that Japan and Choson turned to Germany for their model of the modern nation state and its associated paraphernalia. Basically, to put this in baldly Marxist terms, when other countries in the world have already become successful capitalist nations, new independent national centres of capital accumulation can only be successfully formed through mass coercion and mobilisation, hence the militarisation of society, statist direction of the economy and the penetration of the state into all areas of life (all things that characterised the Soviet Union too, when its forced industrialisation drive had really got underway in the early 1930s).

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