“Korea turned out to be this nice, laid-back place…”

It’s 1918; Korea has been a Japanese colony since 1910; a Japanese settler recalls with amused relief the extravagant fears she had expressed on the eve of her family’s migration several years earlier: “We might never see our hometown again if we’re killed by resentful, crazy rioters.”

No, she’d been wrong and her husband right: Korea was the land of opportunity. Riots there were, but they were sporadic and distant. Although poor at home, a Japanese family could do pretty well for itself in occupied Korea.

The novella “Kannani” takes us there. Its author is Yuasa Katsuei (1910-72), a Japanese writer raised in colonial Korea and generally supportive, though not uncritically, of the “pan-Asianism” Japan invoked as justification for its nascent imperialism. Yuasa grew up in a town near Keijo (the colonial name for Seoul) — as does his protagonist, 12-year-old Ryuji, who loves, tragically, the 14-year-old Kannani.

A child’s-eye view of history (or of current events destined for historical significance) is as precious as it is rare. Ryuji is a bright kid, and a good kid. He wants to make friends with the Korean boys and is hurt when they ostracize him as a “Jap.” Hurt, but not bitter. One day, he vows, he will be the colony’s governor-general and “try with all his might to bring glory and prosperity to Korea.”

His friendship with Kannani, the girl next door, brings down on him the scorn of the Japanese boys: “Ryuchan and Kannani are totally strange / falling for a Korean slut puts all Japanese to shame!”

“Why,” he wonders, “do Japanese and Korean kids hate each other so much?” It makes no sense!

Kannani tells him one day that her father has forbidden her to play with him: “My father hates Japanese. … He says they abuse Koreans and they’re mean.” Ryuji is shocked and indignant: “Japanese don’t do bad things, because we’re subject of the Emperor.”

Kannani “smiles sadly.” Ryuji sounds a little like Mr. Uemura, her school’s history teacher. The Korean girls hated him; to him, “Japan is always good and Korea is always bad.” Of Japan’s semi-mythical third-century invasion of Korea under the semi-mythical Empress Jingu, he lectures, “If that great era had continued … you students would have been Japanese all that time and you’d be much the better for it.”

The girls get their revenge: they disrupt with chatter and laughter a lesson on the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, reducing Mr. Uemura to impotent rage: “That kind of behavior is why you’ll lose your country to us, you demented students!”

Alas, the riots Ryuji’s mother had so feared before her arrival were not as distant as a deceptive calm had led her to suppose. Long-simmering anger boiled over in 1919. Korean kids shouted, “Three cheers for Korean independence!” Japanese kids scoffed, “Those Korean kids are nothing; it’s easy to conquer them ‘cuz we have Japanese spirit!” Kannani’s dream, inspired by a half-digested school lesson, had been that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson would invoke the Monroe Doctrine (sic) and “come to Korea in an airplane and save us.” Ryuji and his people emerge unscathed. Not so Kannani. The story ends with a search party, Ryuji and his father among them, failing to find her body.

We should not judge the Japan of this early imperialist phase too harshly. It was an age of colonize or be colonized. Few nations stayed safely and quietly at home.

Some colonizers, individuals and nations, set to work in the spirit of genuine idealism — misguided idealism, a later age would say, but not always ignoble, as when a character in another Katsuei novel, a Japanese artist in Manchuria, muses as he views from a train window evidence of the economic development Japan has wrought, “If one has power and force, there’s nothing that can’t be accomplished.”

The trouble, then as now, is that that is not true. There’s a lot that power and force can’t accomplish. They can’t, for example, or at least rarely do, nullify the oppression that inevitably accompanies them. No nation, and few individuals, can powerlessly submit to power without losing something. Whether loss outweighs gain is a value judgment which defies unanimity. But loss there always is.

It can be physical, political, economic or psychological, as in the 1939 novella “Into the Light” by Korean writer Kim Sa-ryang (1914-50). A young Korean studying in Japan allows himself to be known by the Japanese reading of his surname. Is this right? Is it selling out?

More severely conflicted is the child he befriends, son of a Japanese thug and a miserably downtrodden, physically abused Korean mother. The symbolism is obvious.

At the hospital the woman is brought to half dead after her husband knifed her, the child, furiously rejecting the Korean blood in him, denies her — “You’re wrong! My mother’s not Korean!” — and breaks down in “burning, hot tears.”

Are nations doomed to hate, loathe, despise and fear each other? Maybe, maybe not. History suggests yes, but here and there an incident, an encounter, a meeting of minds inspires hope against all odds. The year is 1598. The invasion that Kannani learned about in class has ended in failure. Among the Korean prisoners of war in Japan, soon to return home, is the Confucian scholar Kang Hang (1567-1616). While in Japan, he befriended the Japanese Confucianist Fujiwara Seika (1561-1619).

Seika and Kang studied together, writes historian Hiroshi Watanabe, “the two communicating via written Chinese. Afterward, Kang cited Seika as evidence that there were Japanese who understood Chinese characters and were conversant with the fundamental principles of the universe.”

Second of two parts on “Imperial Japan.” The first part was published on page 23, April 20. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “The Naked Ear” (2012).

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