Books / Reviews

Colonial Japan and the first 'Korean Wave'

by Gord Sellar

PRIMITIVE SELVES: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910-1945, by E. Taylor Atkins. University of California Press, 2010, 280 pp., $24.95 (paper)

While pop-culture industry insiders reputedly hate the term, and discussion of it has generally waned in Korea, the “Korean Wave” remains inescapable in discussions of Korean pop culture — especially within the Asia-Pacific region where the Korean entertainment industry remains not only a popular import, but also a major influence on pop-culture production.

It may surprise some — in Korea and elsewhere — to realize that the recent “Korean Wave” of the last decade is not historically singular.

In wonderfully clear prose and with considerable academic rigor, “Primitive Selves” focuses on what Atkins calls, in the title of his final chapter, “The First K-Wave,” situating it in the context of Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula, as well as contemporaneous colonial practices worldwide.

Atkins succeeds in illustrating the many anxieties and self-contradictions that shaped the Japanese reception, handling and discussion of Korean traditional and popular culture throughout the official, anthropological, curatorial and popular spheres.

Admirably balancing the claims of Japanese and Korean scholars, Atkins evinces a sensible and rationally critical attitude to the excesses of nationalist historiographies mainstream discussions in both societies.

Though for my money he is, perhaps because of his stronger familiarity with Japan, sometimes a bit too accepting of questionable claims on the Korean side.

“Primitive Selves” explores how cultural, legislative and historical processes intersected at the question of how to define Koreanness — a problem faced by Japanese occupiers and Korean colonial subjects alike.

Atkins manages to make this story compelling, in part through snapshots of individuals whose careers related in some part in this enormous, self-conflicted process.

For example, he discusses Ch’oe Sng-Hi, a sort of Korean Josephine Baker-like figure who settled in Japan and popularized Korean dance forms (and later, Japanese dance), and ethno-musicologist Tanabe Hisao, whose formal writings on Korean music alternately supported and repudiated Japanese colonial-era agendas.

Figures like Tanabe and Ch’oe help to put a face on the Japanese Empire, and on the subjects — Japanese and non-Japanese alike — who lived within it.

While Atkins makes no secret of the fact that his specialty is Japanese history, not Korean, this poses little impediment to his task, which after all is primarily to understand why and how Japan has periodically engaged energetically with Korean culture for its own purposes.

He draws upon a range of seemingly disparate phenomena: a constant alternation between denigration and praise of Koreans as “primitive” or “simple”; the longings Japanese have felt for Bae Yong Jun in the last decade, and the crazes for Korean gisaeng (as contrasted with Japanese geisha during the colonial era), and the Korean song “Arirang,” (which enjoyed a bizarre postwar popularity in Japan).

Atkins’ thesis — that for Japanese, the popular primitivization of Koreans and their culture served diverse purposes, imperial, cultural, psychosocial and imaginative — is well-demonstrated.

Indeed, all that is lacking here is an assessment of how to read the more recent Korean Wave in the light of the earlier one.

Atkins comments, in his epilogue, on how the Korean government’s definitions of culture, or the goals and ideals of the 21st-century Korean pop-culture industry, are clearly indebted to ideas promulgated during Japanese colonial rule. Unfortunately, instead of going further, the book peters out in a slightly baffling “final word” tangent about colonial architecture and its fate in postindependence Korea — a forgivable misstep, if also regrettable.

One wishes Atkins had turned his sights to the more recent Korean wave, and to what degree it is an extension of the first one, shaped by the policies and definitions of the colonial-era Korean wave, and the postcolonial Korean anxieties stemming from the colonial period.

But perhaps this would be too much to ask from one book, and in any case, the lack does not mar the text, so much as leave one hungry for more.

Gord Sellar is an author and professor at the Catholic University of Korea.