On Aug. 29, 100 years ago, the treaty annexing Korea to Japan was promulgated, a week after its signing. It was not a treaty between equal partners. The 1905 Korea-Japan Convention had already made Korea a protectorate of Japan. Under the annexation treaty, the Korean emperor handed sovereign power over his country to the Japanese emperor “completely and forever.” Thus Korea became a colony of Japan.
The government general of Korea, set up to rule colonial Korea, was an unusual entity. Its head (governor general) was a Japanese general or admiral under the direct control of the Japanese emperor — the sovereign of the Japanese empire.
An unfortunate fact about the Japan-Korea relationship after the Meiji Restoration is that Japan emulated the United States’ “black ship diplomacy.” To open Korea for trade with Japan, Japan sent seven naval and nonmilitary vessels in 1876 and forced an unequal treaty on Korea — as the U.S. and other Western powers had done to Japan — to make that country open two ports, with extraterritorial jurisdiction provided for Japanese.
There is the view that Japan’s 35 years of colonial rule improved Korea’s infrastructure, education, agriculture, other industries and economic institutions, and thus helped Korea modernize. But one should not forget the discrimination and sufferings that the Korean people experienced under colonial rule. These days many Japanese visit South Korea as tourists, and economic ties between that country and Japan are strong. But unless Japanese learn some basic facts of modern history involving the two countries, solid future-oriented bilateral relations are unlikely.
For example, if Japanese remember Hirobumi Ito only as Japan’s first prime minister, they are being forgetful. He also served as the first Japanese resident general in the protectorate Korea. Japanese should know that Koreans regard An Chung Gun, who assassinated Ito in Harbin on Oct. 26, 1909, as a person who carried out a “noble undertaking.”
As one would expect, Koreans resisted Japan’s strengthening its authority over Korea. The most conspicuous form of resistance was armed struggle. A Japanese military record, for example, indicates more than 2,800 incidents of armed struggle from August 1907 to the end of 1910. Nearly 17,700 Korean participants in the struggle were killed.
Japan carried out a comprehensive land survey of Korea from 1910 to 1918 to establish property rights. Many farmers were forced to become tenant farmers because they could not produce documented proof that they owned their land.
Although rice production increased, a sizable portion of the rice was shipped to Japan. A South Korean book says that during the Pacific War, 40 to 60 percent of Korea’s total cereal crops were “plundered by Japanese imperialism.”
Perhaps the most thoughtless thing Japan did in Korea, which caused strong resentment among Koreans, was its attempt, after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945, to assimilate Koreans as true subjects of the Japanese empire. Schoolchildren were forced to make a pledge of allegiance to the Japanese empire and the emperor every morning. The same Japanese textbooks used in Japan — compiled by Japan’s education ministry — came to be used also in Korea.
In October 1942, the government-general of Korea suppressed an attempt by Korean intellectuals to compile a large Korean language dictionary with hangul (Korean alphabet). They were arrested on suspicion of violating the Peace Preservation Law — a notorious thought-control law for punishing those who had formed an organization to change Japanese polity and abolish private property. In 1940, Japan started pushing the use of Japanized names among Koreans. Local administrators applied various pressure, as the use of such names was regarded as the mark of being true subjects of the Japanese empire.
Japan started accepting Korean volunteers into its army in 1938 and began conscription in 1944. It also carried out a large-scale mobilization of Koreans as wartime workers. Many Korean women also suffered as military sex slaves.
Those who try to justify the annexation of Korea must not forget that Koreans have their own ethnic identity, history and culture. The nature of Japanese rule over Korea is symbolized by the fact that the government general of Korea in 1925 built the Chosen (Korean) Shrine — to enshrine Japan’s Sun Goddess and the Emperor Meiji — in the Korean colonial capital Keijo (today’s Seoul). The government general strived to build a shrine in every village and force worship there. Japan also failed to implement any laws in colonial Korea to protect people at the workplace even though such laws existed in Japan.
If the Japanese are interested only in pop culture or in the tourist spots of South Korea, their understanding of Korea will be too narrow. By the same token, if Korean people fail to objectively look at how Japan has changed (or has not changed) since the prewar and wartime period, they will miss the opportunity to fully understand today’s Japan.