Commentary / Japan | THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Japan’s colonial rule of Korea was ‘moderate’

by Hiroaki Sato

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.