NEW YORK — Historian George Akita recently sent me a brief essay that appeared in the December issue of the monthly Nihon Rekishi (Japanese History). He had told me of a full-length article he’d written on alternative views of Japan’s rule of Korea between 1910 and 1945. The essay, titled “New Currents in the Studies of Korea under Japanese Rule in English,” appears to be a precis of that article.
What Akita does in it is to list, with a few comments, some of the more notable books and dissertations on various aspects of the Japanese rule written in English in recent years, some by people of Korean ancestry, to suggest that, if you take a less than overtly nationalistic stance, the Japanese-Korean relationship during those 35 years may not have been a simple one of oppressor and oppressed but one that was “ambiguous and nuanced.”
So, on Japan’s contribution to Korea’s modernization — a subject that I understand only creates anger in Korea — Akita tells us that Carter Eckert in “Offspring of Empire: The Ko’chang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism” (University of Washington Press, 1991) and Gi Wook Shin in “Peasant Protest and Social Change in Colonial Korea” (University of Washington Press, 1996) argue that Japan helped agricultural reform and capital formation in Korea, although it did so out of necessity. Eckert is a professor at Harvard University and Shin a professor at Howard University.
Similarly, Akita cites Brandon Palmer’s Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Hawaii, “Koreans Mobilized for War by Japan, 1937-1945,” another sore point for Korean people. Palmer closely analyzes various laws to show Japanese legislators strove to be fair under the circumstances. Apart from his overall argument, of course, most Koreans of a certain age know that not all the mobilized Koreans were draftees. A sizable number became field-grade officers — majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels — or were graduates of Japan’s military and naval academies, many of whom formed the top echelons of their country’s intelligence and military services following its independence in 1945.
South Korean President Park Chun Hee, who was assassinated in 1979, was one of them. In the early 1970s, when a group of Japanese military officers visited South Korea, I hear, South Korean officers kidded them that Japanese soldiers had lost Yamato-damashii, the quintessential Japanese fighting spirit, even as Korean soldiers kept it up.
The Imperial Japanese Army also had a Korean lieutenant general, Shiyoku Ko (he romanized his name in Japanese pronunciation). Although he met an unjust death as a result of the military tribunal in Manila, he was a graduate of Japan’s War College in the 1920s. That, of course, is nothing for the Japanese to boast of. Ko is said to have been among the first to compare Japan and Korea to England and Ireland, and Park’s assassin was the chief of his intelligence service.
The Japanese acceptance of Koreans may not make Japan much better than the United States in its acceptance of blacks before and during World War II. But the Japanese military and institutions of higher education were not bastions of discrimination as some Koreans today seem to believe. Nor were all Japanese racially prejudiced. After all, the Japanese government told its citizens to maintain the spirit expressed in the old Chinese expression yi-shi-tong-ren, “regarding everyone with equal humanity,” vis-a-vis “the new Japanese,” namely, Koreans, Taiwanese and others. Yes, it might have been as hollow as the Jeffersonian motto “All men are equal” in the U.S., but still.
I have no desire to “justify (Japan’s) history of invasion and occupation,” let alone “its intention to realize its hegemonism again,” as Korean President Roh Moo Hyun put it in an address to his nation last March 23. Akita quotes Roh at the start of his essay. He also quotes Jung Suk Koo, who asserted that the Japanese fail to understand “the deep scar that the country suffered over the 36-year-long colonial rule.” Jung, an editorial writer of the Hankyoreh newspaper, said that during a symposium held in Tokyo a week earlier (The Japan Times, March 31, 2005).
But if I do not understand the second part of Roh’s statement, I wonder about Jung’s sweeping observation. As he must know, many Japanese “intellectuals of conscience” are vocal in expressing their sympathy for “the ongoing pain” of that scar. Foremost among them is the Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe. Another historian friend of mine, Richard Minear, once said to me on a similar subject: it depends on which Japanese you are talking about.
In his books Chung Daekyun, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University, suggests that the Koreans who focus on taking Japan to task for its pre-1945 rule of their country often fail to pay heed to some important facts. The pandering willingness of some Japanese intellectuals, such as Oe, in accepting their condemnation doesn’t help. At the least, there should be a distinction made between Korean nationals living in Japan and people of Korean ancestry in Japan, Chung argues.
Chung, who was born in Japan in 1948, should know. After studying law at Rikkyo University, he studied ethnic issues at the University of California at Los Angeles, then taught at a South Korean university for more than a dozen years before taking up his current post in Japan. The situation may remain hopeless for some time to come. Not just that Korean schoolchildren are taught what an undeserving country Japan is as the perennial recipient of Korean cultural and other largess; they are actively encouraged to hone their anti-Japanese (Ban-il) sentiments, or so Chung tells us.
Then there is one speech I am unable to forget. A dozen years or so ago, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye came to New York to talk about his recent visit to South Korea. At one point in his talk, he recollected, with some bemusement, how the South Korean officials he met in Seoul told him that Japan was the greatest threat to their national security. How? Inouye asked. The answer was: Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea. The senator had to think a moment to remember history. But didn’t that happen four centuries ago? Yes, was the answer.
In comparison, Japan’s colonial rule of Korea ended a mere six decades ago.
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