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Japan’s colonial rule of Korea was ‘moderate’


Inuhiko Yomota writes from Antananarivo that the Madagascar capital is so dusty and so polluted with car exhaust that he’s almost gotten sick.

“Madagascar is said to be the poorest country in Africa and its capital has just one bookstore, small and Catholic. Japan’s former colonies, both Taiwan and Korea, have made remarkable economic and technological advances, but none of the former French colonies has accomplished anything of the sort.”

Yomota, the international traveler-scholar par excellence, has taught at a dozen universities outside Japan, from Columbia University in New York to Federal Fluminense University in Rio de Janeiro. In South Korea, he has taught at Konkuk and Chung-Ang universities, both in Seoul, and in Taiwan, at the National Tsing Hua University, in Hsinchu.

He wrote from Madagascar this time because he is writing “Yomota Around the World” for the publisher Chikuma. He adds: “France didn’t even bother with infrastructure in Madagascar” — France annexed the large island country in 1896 and gave it independence only in 1960 — “while Holland thought only of trade in Jakarta and Britain nothing but exploitation in India.

“In contrast, Japan first thought of sanitation, education, and infrastructure” in its colonies.

Yomota’s letter came when I was thinking of George Akita and Brandon Palmer’s “The Japanese Colonial Legacy in Korea: 1910-1945: A New Perspective” (MerwinAsia, 2015). For decades now, what John Kenneth Galbraith would call “conventional wisdom” on Japan’s rule of Korea has been markedly negative, and this historiography attempts to correct it, at times in great analytic detail, at times as fascinating anecdote.

Martin Fackler expressed this conventional wisdom most typically in his dispatch from Seoul for The New York Times (March 22, 2014, “U.S. as Central Stage in Asian Rivalry”).

“The conflict is rooted in grievances going back to Japan’s brutal colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and its attempts to extinguish the Korean culture,” he wrote.

Here Fackler was reporting on the Korean success in taking the “campaign” on “comfort women” to the U.S. and beyond, although for Korea this internationalization of the matter is “an irony,” Park Yuha, professor at Sejong University, in Seoul, argues in “The Empire’s Comfort Women” (2014), a deep, thoughtful study of the comfort women controversy from a global perspective of imperialism.

That’s because, she points out, Koreans have “lived for nearly 70 years since the liberation (in 1945) by erasing their memory of collaborating with the suzerain” — Japan — “and subordinating themselves to it.” For one thing, many of the managers of comfort women were Korean.

For anybody who needs evidence for what Park says, I might point to the diary that one such Korean manager of “comfort stations” in Burma and Singapore kept during the war. An Byeong-jik, emeritus professor at Seoul National University, uncovered it in 2013, and Kazuo Hori, a professor at Kyoto University, has translated it into Japanese.

The Koreans also “ignore their other face,” Park points out. It is the fact that they have procured comfort women for American soldiers stationed in Korea, just as the Japanese had done following their defeat in 1945.

By ignoring these things, they have “enjoyed a moral arrogance through a moral superiority” over Japan. This “moral arrogance” is not just utterly unwarranted; but it also makes the Koreans blind to “the shame and regrets of those who have committed crimes.”

Was Japan’s colonization of Korea “brutal”? The New York Times editorialists, ever ready to condemn others, gladly adopted the “brutal colonization” branding in reporting on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s stance (“Another Attempt to Deny Japan’s History,” Jan. 2, 2013). Shin Yong-ha, professor at Hanyang University, in Seoul, went further and said: “Koreans lived under the most ruthless colonial rule ever known in history.”

Naturally, one basic question arises, and Akita and Palmer ask it: In comparison with what?

Japan committed one extensive brutal act after it annexed Korea in 1910. On March 1, 1919, Koreans calling for independence started to gather to protest in large numbers. Assemblies were illegal. The governor-general of Korea reacted and set out to suppress the demand. The GGK’s persecution ended more or less only at the end of the year.

The number of Koreans the Japanese authorities killed in the process ranges from 553 (Japan’s official figure) to 7,509 (the figure that the Korean independence-fighter Park Eun-sik, 1859-1925, cited in his history, “The Bloody History of the Korean Independence Movement” (1920)). Either figure you take, it’s a large number of people to kill.

But, if you compare the Japanese killings with some others, the scale may pale. For example, take the number of people the Americans killed in the Philippines from 1899 to 1902. As a result of the harsh U.S. actions and measures, “600,000 Filipinos died of disease and in concentration camps or on the battlefields of Luzon alone,” Gen. Franklin Bell (1865-1919) testified before a Senate committee.

Still, the GGK was distressed enough by the uprising and the consequences of its suppression to reverse its policy, from a “military (budan) governance” to a “cultural (bunka) governance.” Thereafter, the Japanese policy concentrated on “a modern infrastructure, education system, and economy,” Akita and Palmer point out.

More notably, throughout its colonization period, Japan never practiced any of the “forced labor, economic exploitation, and destruction of recalcitrant villages, with occasional forced relocation and racial segregation,” Akita and Palmer say.

Many are likely to object to this statement, so let’s modify it by saying everything is relative. And let’s see what some of the major imperial powers did.

Among them, Belgium’s forced labor in the Congo Free State (1885-1908), which Joseph Conrad memorably depicted in “Heart of Darkness” (1899), reduced the Congo’s population from 20 to 30 million to 8.5 million by 1911.

Holland’s compulsory labor and taking as much as half of the harvest of crops in Indonesia led to frequent famines, “including one in 1850 that killed upwards of 300,000 people.” Portugal’s forced labor in Angola killed over 300,000 Africans.

And, yes, France practiced forced labor to harvest coffee in Madagascar until after World War II.

Of course, killings and exploitation in some form or another continue to this day. But relative to the era of colonialism, Japan’s rule of Korea was “moderate,” even “almost fair,” Akita and Palmer judge. I must agree with them.

Hiroaki Sato is an essayist and translator based in New York.

  • TV Monitor

    Wrong, this poorly educated author doesn’t understand the immense damage that Japan has inflicted on Korea.

    Let us rewind back to late 19th century; Korea was a kingdom stretching from Korean peninsular to East Manchuria; yes, Korea held a Manchurian territory as large as peninsular territory known as Kando. Imperial Japan illegally handed over Korea’s Kando province to China via the Kando treaty. Then following the surrender of Imperial Japan it was Korea that was divided, not Japan, and Korea pays for the price of Japan’s crimes to this day. Unfortunately, most Japanese including the writer of this editorial are clueless because of Japan’s poor quality history education.

    This is what makes Japan the worst colonizer in history of past 300 years in terms of damages it left behind, and why a true reconciliation is impossible.

  • Richard Solomon

    What an elaborate attempt at rationalizing and justifying colonialism this is! To call the exploitation and suppression of another culture/country ‘moderate,’ let alone ‘fair,’ is to deny the reality of the impact which such act it ivies has on the victims. For this writer to call the Koreans ‘arrogant’ is the most powerful example of the extent to which Japanese like the writer are in denial about what took place in Korea from 1910 until 1945. If this writer and other Japanese actually believe their perspective on the Japanese occupation of Korea, it borders on delusional. Tragically, there is little hope for reconciliation between the two countries if this represents mainstream Japanese thinking about these issues. This is exactly what the Chinese want: if the Japanese and the S Koreans cannot reconcile, it will be that much easier for China to have its way in the East and South China Seas.

  • Liars N. Fools

    五十步百步 — comparative brutality is not and should not be a course of study. It misleads more so than enlightens.

    Japan did not legally colonize Joseon; Japan annexed Joseon. This is significant because at one fell swoop the Joseon people became Japanese. But the practice was not annexation in which the Joseon people were the equal of Japanese but colonization in which the Joseon people became second class in their own home lands. The machinery of politics and economy was dominated by Japanese, and many Japanese from then overpopulated Japan came to take over real properties that was suddenly open to them but not to the original occupants.

    The historic irony is that Meiji Japan probably could have led an anti-Western imperialism coalition of China, Joseon, and itself. Many of the “modernizers” in Qing China and Joseon looked to some Japanese for help. Sun Yat-sen lived in Japan, as did Lu Xun. Philip Jaisohn sought advice. But Japan opted for its own imperial path which led to its tragic adventures in the Korean Peninsula, Manchuria, and China.

    Too arrogant in their own ultra-nationalism, the Japanese imperialists and militarists never could quite understand why the Koreans and Chinese resisted Japanese “enlightened” views. After all, they just wanted to bring sanitation, transportation, and industry. That they also brought death, rape, rampage, and oppression is the main source of negative feelings in China and Korea against that era, which unfortunately Abe Shinzo wishes to sanitize.

    Many Japanese understand this historical reality. Denying it or sanitizing it is not helpful.

  • Bruce Chatwin

    “Madagascar is said to be the poorest country in Africa and its capital has just one bookstore, small and Catholic. Japan’s former colonies, both Taiwan and Korea, have made remarkable economic and technological advances, but none of the former French colonies has accomplished anything of the sort.”

    What of Japan’s other former colonies? Say the Philippines or Burma/Myanmar?

    Is the author suggesting a causal connection between Taiwan and Korea’s economic and technological accomplishments and Japan’s colonisation of those countries?

    Who are George Akita and Brandon Palmer?

    The author makes no mention of the Death Railway, Sandakan, or Bataan, to name but three Japanese atrocities. Not to mention the Battle of Manila in 1945.

    The author makes some good points about the behaviour of other colonial powers but ruins his article by diminishing or ignoring Japanese brutality.

  • At Times Mistaken

    Surprising read. Just when you think it can’t get any worse. The writer sinks to new depths of bad.

  • Jonathan Fields

    This is exactly the kind of white-washing that makes people so angry with the Japanese. But it’s nice to see all kinds of different opinions on JT, I suppose…

  • Red Chairman Toad

    Korea was not colonized but annexed into Japan.

    BTW, except Japan, have any other former master states or colonial powers ever officially apologize and compensated for their overseas rules?

  • Kyle

    Pure delussoon. The argument is not about Japanese Colonialism compared to the rest of the world. The question is, was it criminal, cultural genocide, exploitation, illegal, and a violation of human rights? The answer is yes! Japan and Korea will get over their history, but ignorant hack writers like Mr. Sato do nothing to bring reconciliation. Certainly Japan was not the worst colonizer in history, does that somehow make their crimes “fair”? The ignorance by Mr. Sato is stunning.

  • 151E

    It would be interesting if the Japan Times could arrange an exchange / debate on the topic between Hiroaki Sato and Niall Ferguson.

  • Paul Martin

    I have often visited Korea and Taiwan for long periods and noticed that their entire systems are based on Japanese education and architecture even their police forces are shaped after the Japnese, so they owe their prosperity to Japan because they were all peasants before !

  • KenjiAd

    In Sato’s logic, even if I broke into his house, declared it mine, and used it for some 45 years, he would thank me, as long as I installed a brand new A/C that he would be able to use after I got busted. Yeah right. I’m impressed.

  • Bruce Chatwin

    Brandon Palmer, co-author of “The Japanese Colonial Legacy in Korea: 1910-1945: A New Perspective”, accepted the 2014 Japan Study Encouragement Award from the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals. George Akita sat on the board recommending the 2014 award. Henry Scott Stokes also sat on the board. The board recommending the 2015 award included Akita, Stokes, Palmer, and Kevin Doak. The right-wing revisionist Japan Institute for National Fundamentals is chaired by Yoshiko Sakurai and Shinataro Ishihara is a director. Many of the board members are also members of the right-wing, revisionist organisation Nippon Kaigi.
    Kevin Doak, who writes the forward to Akita and Palmer’s book, is also the winner of a prize awarded by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals. Doak’s chair at Georgetown is paid for by the Nippon Foundation which traces its history back to the self-declared fascist Ryoichi Sasakawa’s Sasakawa Foundation.

  • Hendrix

    Yet more warped logic by a Japanese right winger who wrote this article, Colonialism is never moderate and just robs a country of everything… it really amazes me how this story even got published and also a disgusting attempt at rationalising Japans past crimes.

  • Bruce Chatwin

    The author, Hiroaki Sato, notes Holland’s (use of) compulsory labor and taking as much as half of the harvest of crops in Indonesia led to frequent famines, “including one in 1850 that killed upwards of 300,000 people.”

    Sato neglects to note the use of compulsory labour by the Japanese in Indonesia. Sato ignores the use of forced laborers referred to as kinrōhōshi and romusha by the Japanese. The U.S. Library of Congress estimates that the Japanese military used between four to 10 million rōmusha from Java. Romusha sent to other countries (eg Burma/Myanmar) by the Japanese military had a death rate of 80%.

    The author also fails to note that during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, an estimated 2,400,000 people died in the 1944-5 Java famine.

  • Sam Gilman

    This article is typical of a problem, perhaps better a sickness, that affects all the countries caught up in the imperialist adventures of the past two centuries, with the possible exception of Germany: trying to pretend away ones own crimes by pointing at those of others. It of course affects the Japanese right, particularly at the moment. But it also affects the US and western Europeans. It affects China. (I say “possible” exception of Germany because it was not swift to recognise the crimes it committed in Africa (apologies were forthcoming for some only in 2004, but no compensation.) )

    The behaviour of the US in the Philippines does not diminish the crimes of the Japanese. The crimes of the Japanese do not diminish the crimes of the Dutch or Belgians. The current British Prime Minister refuses to apologise for massacres in India and describes the British Empire as something to be proud of; how many Britons have even registered this? No one in Japan should deny the horror of the Nanjing Massacre, but does that mean we give a pass to China’s devastation of Tibet? (Or: no one should deny the human devastation caused by China’s occupation of Tibet but does that mean we deny the horror of the Nanjing massacre? Isn’t it funny how the order changes the meaning?)

    For some reason, too many people find it too difficult to look at the horrors of their country’s own past, while finding it so easy to look at the horrors of others. Were there moments in various colonial histories that were relatively peaceful and in the strictest sense, liveable? For many of the occupied nations, yes. Yes, you can point to those times and those places. But effective subjugation is not some benevolent moderation. Why deny the violence lurking at either end of these periods, and that flows under them? What is so addictive about the colonial experience that makes it so difficult to surrender it fully? I don’t know, but the extent to which so many people from so many of these countries kick back against facing up to what their compatriots and ancestors did really disturbs me.

  • Sam Gilman

    That’s a very interesting reaction to someone simply saying that Hiroaki Sato’s article reflects a broader global apologistic pattern in postcolonialism. Nowhere did I seek to diminish Japanese colonial crimes. I went out of my way to emphasise all the reasons that they and all other colonial crimes should not be downplayed.

    I must confess I’m not sure if you were trying to parody precisely the problem I was describing or are a very good example of it: trying to turn the spotlight away from your own country’s crimes (you appear to be British) by getting into some kind of competition about who wasn’t as bad as the others. Yes, the article is about one Japanese interpretation of their colonial history. Are you trying to say that there is something uniquely Japanese about failing to come to terms with crimes of colonialism?

    Let’s focus on the UK since you specifically want to absolve the UK, and I’m British. I said Britain hadn’t apologised for massacres in India. You told me to look at a Wikipedia link. It said what I said: no apology has been offered for the Amritsar massacre. There is a recognition that it was bad but no apology. You didn’t notice that? (And yet think how much has been said about the precise wording of Japan’s apologies) Here is what David Cameron himself said:

    “In my view,” he said, “we are dealing with something here that happened a good 40 years before I was even born, and which Winston Churchill described as ‘monstrous’ at the time and the British government rightly condemned at the time. So I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for.

    “I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened.

    “That is why the words I used are right: to pay respect to those who lost their lives, to remember what happened, to learn the lessons, to reflect on the fact that those who were responsible were rightly criticised at the time, to learn from the bad and to cherish the good.”

    I’m not quite sure what the difference is between that and the noises that come out of Abe’s mouth (and I’ve not heard Abe openly say we should cherish the good bits of the Japanese occuptions, although it wouldn’t surprise me in private). One of the defences the Japanese Right use about comfort women, or about the rape of Dutch women in Indonesia, is that they point to contemporaneous condemnations of criminal behaviour to give the impression that these things were just aberrations in otherwise wisely moderate and uplifting rule. Just as we see with the US media casting white mass murderers as aberrant but black criminals as a reflection of their origins, so we get post-imperialists of all countries doing the same. Bad eggs, everywhere, but the chicken is healthy.

    But Amritsar is small fry, and well, maybe we should adopt a statute of limitations arbitrarily set at forty years before the current Prime Minister’s birthday. So what about postwar Kenya? For sixty years the British government covered up and destroyed evidence of violence and torture in Kenya during the Mau-Mau rebellion on a massive scale. For decades, the British government, despite knowing the claims were true, simply said that whatever the victims claimed, it was all lies. What “lies”?:

    “forced sodomy with broken bottles and vermin and snakes and just horrific, horrific things”

    “[Nzili] testified that he was taken to Embakasi, a notorious prison camp which was run by a sadistic police officer called Mr Dunman who was known for castrating suspected Mau Mau fighters. Running away from the movement was no defence. On the fourth day inside the camp Mr Nzili was publicly castrated with a pair of pliers normally used on cattle.”

    “In fact, in total [only] 32 Europeans died,” Elkins says. “As opposed to that, nearly 1 1/2 million Kikuyu were put into some form of detention, where they were tortured and forced to labor.”

    When you and I were growing up in our nice “we won the just war against the forces of evil” glow, all of this was bluntly denied.

    Once the government was forced by the courts to release what material it had, did it suddenly own up, apologise, prostrate itself and compensate? No, it took up a new stance: Yes, all these things happened, and wasn’t it awful, but it was damn well going to fight any claims for compensation or admit liability. Only when this legal strategy did not work, and the battle against paying compensation ended in an out-of-court settlement, did the British government apologise. In 2013. But still, in settling and expressing regret, the foreign secretary, in reference to what happened, said

    Many members of the colonial service contributed to establishing the institutions that underpin Kenya today and we acknowledge their contribution.

    Hmmm. Didn’t Japan build all those schools in Korea? Doesn’t that exculpate Japan from its crimes? No, not one bit. Nor does any kind of thing like that exculpate the British of their actions in Kenya or elsewhere. So why say it? Why this need to say “Yes it was bad, but…”

    Did your view of Britain as a country that faces up to its crimes form only after the events of 2013, or has it been a belief you’ve held for much longer? Do you want to say “yeah, well, that was just Kenya”? Then I can point you to Aden, where we had torture cells there, too. People being made to sit on pipes that inevitably were forced by bodyweight into their anuses. People thrown in refrigerators. Beaten, sexually abused. This was going on all around the empire, as the now vindicated Harvard researcher Caroline Elkins points out. Batang Kali, Cyprus…there’s a lot out there that most people have never heard of.

    Then there’s more from India on a huge scale. The Bengal famine in 1943 – an event barely acknowledged or known about in general British society – where the British deliberately chose to starve Indians (while carefully guaranteeing rations in Britain) resulting in the deaths of around four million people. Seriously: food aid from the US and Canada was refused. Can we plead the exigencies of war? No. We would not have done the same to British citizens. We starved these people. When Churchill was challenged, his reply was that if there was a food problem, “Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”.

    As Bruce Chatwin rightly points out in the comments here – the famine deaths in Indonesia during the Japanese occupation are the responsibility of the Japanese occupiers. The same goes for us. Have we apologised? No. OK, so do we confront it fully? Do we recognise properly what our colonialism did? You might comfort yourself with that idea that we do, but here’s what David Cameron said about the Empire in general:

    “Speaking after his visit [to the site of the massacre he refuses to apologise for], he said: ‘I think there’s an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did and was responsible for.

    ‘But of course there were bad events as well as good ones.’ “

    The point here is not to compare the severity of the crimes. They are all awful, and beyond the pale. We are not comparing the theft of sandwich with the theft of a fortune, but deaths in the millions. The point is to show that this habit of downplaying, of trying to deflect, of ignoring is part of a general pattern across the former colonial and slaving powers. (How many on the American Right think Twelve Years a Slave is just liberal propaganda? Why can’t even a left-wing French President such as Francois Hollande apologise for the Algerian war?) How many people demand that the Japanese confront their crimes fully in their school history lessons, but don’t know about most of the stuff I’ve mentioned here. When Robin Cook – promoter of “ethical foreign policy” – moved into the Foreign Office, he famously removed a huge portrait of some old governor of India, being as it was the corrupt sign of empire. In its place he put a huge portrait that radical father of parliamentary democracy, Oliver Cromwell. First visitor? The Prime Minister of Ireland, who naturally threw a fit. Neither him, nor his highly educated civil servants saw that coming. Oh, we’re soooo good at facing our past.

    One cannot properly confront someone like Hiroaki Sato and the nonsense he writes without grasping that it’s not some ineffably Japanese thing he’s doing. One certainly cannot properly confront someone like Hiroaki Sato if one is guilty of the same thing. When Japanese nationalists try to throw other countries’ crimes in their face, very often I see people respond with “Oh, but we weren’t as bad as you.” This to me is the wrong response, a poor response that only strengthens their rhetoric of victimisation. I think a better, more disarming response is to dig up the very worst thing your country did, something they likely didn’t even know, and say “I can confront this – why can’t you confront what your country did? Why do you try to hide it?”

  • tisho

    I have never seen nor heard a Japanese writing negatively of Japan, even the most obvious things are somehow twisted in a positive way for the country. I see and hear Koreans and Chinese talking negatively and rationally about their countries all the time. Every time i see a topic that is negative for Japan written by a Japanese or discussed by a Japanese, i immediately know that the Japanese fault is going to be either downplayed, denied or twisted somehow, and i am always right.

  • AJ

    Claiming credit for two of the Asian tigers’ economic miracles and making a moral relativistic case that this makes Japanese imperialism “moderate”, even “almost fair”, is such a galling and dismissive insult that the gall is astonishing.

    The Japanese weren’t the most brutish or exploitative imperialists of the era, but that should not lead in any way to the conclusion that the Japanese were not brutish or exploitative.

    I could agree with the points that Japan did more than bring hate and misery to Korea and Taiwan or that Western powers were just as bad if not worse in many of their own cases, But these points don’t make Japan’s crimes any less heinous nor rub out the shame Japan should feel in acknowledging the uglier moments of its history. If Japan wanted to go along this line, it should seek to become a model of admitting its guilt and then pressure France and Holland to more fully acknowledge that their history of imperialism are also disgraces.

  • GIJ

    This column was about as persuasive as something written by an arrogant white Englishman claiming that the British Empire brought parliamentary democracy, “free” trade, and railways to the world. Even in the most prosperous of ex-British colonial holdings (e.g. Malaysia, Singapore, Ireland, Hong Kong, Barbados, Bahamas, Malta–all of which are countries or territories where living standards are close to or exceed what is seen in present-day South Korea) you’re just not likely to find too many people who buy such reasoning.

    In the final analysis, humans will likely respond more strongly to injustices committed against them by outsiders than by people they consider their own. Therefore, no person who is not a fool will dare to tell black Africans that European imperial regimes on their continent were less repressive than what preceded them in the pre-colonial era, even if that were true (and whether that conclusion is true is highly debatable).

    I know this is a common argument among defenders of Japanese rule in Korea, i.e. that Japanese rule over Korea was better and more enlightened than the dynastic rule of native Koreans on the peninsula until 1910. In other words, Japanese governed Korea better than Koreans. This argument will go nowhere for eternity, plain and simple. Why? Because such an argument rests on the unspoken assumption that Koreans in 1910 were an inferior people incapable of effective self-governance. Again, telling Koreans or anybody else that foreigners did a better job of governing their country than natives did is an argument that will NEVER gain traction.

    Some people in Japan, a country never subjected to the humiliation of direct foreign rule (sorry, the 1945-52 occupation by the USA doesn’t count), perhaps have a certain amount of trouble understanding this crucial point. There’s more to life than infrastructural development.

  • Testerty

    So what happened to the Japanese colonies of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Philippine, British New Guinea etc etc?