The average American knows very little about South Korean and Japanese relations. Most couldn’t even locate Korea on a map. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks—when the US government pushed for all its citizens to obtain a passport—it became clear just how disinterested the American public is in foreign affairs. Seventy-five percent of the population then didn’t own a passport. Of course much of that figure reflects disparity in wealth, but we should also consider that the president at the time—a member of the elite—had little travel experience. I certainly don’t applaud this level of apathy and self-interest, which seems to characterize American mediocrity, but it’s important to be aware of it, especially in light of two recent events that happened on US soil, both of which involved South Korea and Japan, their contentious past, and their desire to reshape it to reflect the myth of who they are.
In the summer of 2013 the Glendale California city council erected a ‘comfort women’ memorial—a statue of a girl clad in a hanbok. The statue purports to stand in remembrance of the tens of thousands of girls from various Asian nations and the Netherlands who were coerced or simply forced into prostitution—virtual sex slavery—by the Japanese military. The monument was welcomed by Korean ultra-nationalists and most other Koreans that feel an obligation to revere their roots—whatever they may be—and get one strike in on their eternal enemy, the Japanese. And so, Glendale appeased one immigrant population at the expense of another, a move the city would later regret.
More recently, in February of 2014, a bill moved through the Virginia legislature and was voted on successfully to change history and geography textbooks and, presumably, maps by labeling the Sea of Japan along with Korea’s preferable title of the East Sea. Before the vote a letter surfaced from a Japanese diplomat to the Virginia governor that hinted at troubles in recent Japanese investment in the state if the measure was passed. Many Koreans, of course, cried foul. The thought of using a third party to garner political gain against an enemy—though not reflected on very deeply—seemed repugnant.
A third issue has yet to reach US soil, though perhaps it has more right to than the previous two. The issue involves the contested ownership of an originally-uninhabited rocky island that lies between the Korean peninsula and Japan. In Korea it’s known as Dokdo, in Japan as Takeshima. In recent years Dokdo has become a powerful symbol that has galvanized seemingly all Koreans around a nationalist identity that in many ways was an invention of the Japanese.
At their core all three issues can be traced back the United States’ disastrous imperial policies and the nation building myths about identity that began during Japanese occupation of the Joseon territory and intensified at the end of World War Two.
INSIDE WE’RE ONE
Noam Chomsky is fond of quoting a tenet of international law that came about through the Nuremberg Tribunals in which Justice Jackson defines the supreme international crime as an act of aggression that initiates a chain of atrocities and great suffering. Professor Chomsky often uses this idea as an example of how the US has since violated the very lofty principles that they helped create and held up to the world. The US can’t be charged with committing physical acts of aggression on the Korean Peninsula in 1905, but it certainly can be made complicit in Japan’s war crime—the invasion of Joseon—even if only retroactively.
In the rarely-talked about US-brokered Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, the second article provides the diplomatic green light Japan needed to march unchallenged into the Korean peninsula. This isn’t an interpretation. The article states in clear terms:
“The Imperial Russian Government, acknowledging that Japan possesses in Korea paramount political, military and economical interests, engages neither to obstruct nor interfere with measures for guidance, protection and control which the Imperial Government of Japan may find necessary to take in Korea.”
The Joseon Dynasty was Japan’s prize for defeating the Russians, for entering the civilized world. As Kakuzo Okakura so aptly put it in his Book of Tea, “He [the westerner] was wont to regard Japan as barbarous while she indulged in the gentle arts of peace: he calls her civilized since she began to commit wholesale slaughter on Manchurian battlefields.” In the wake of the Russo-Japanese peace treaty, Japan became a modernized superpower, Joseon a colony, Roosevelt a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The US gained access to an important region rich in resources and labor and would later gain full dominance after a series of devastating wars.
Koreans naturally focus on the suffering that came under Japanese occupation and this victimhood largely defines their modern identity. Of the many grievances, the two that seem to get the most attention are forced prostitution and the outlawing of the Korean language. The former we will focus on in part two of this essay. As to the latter, B.R. Myers points out in his book, The Cleanest Race, that it wasn’t until the end of the colonization period that a ban on Korean language was enforced as a desperate means to retain control. He mentions this not as an apologist of colonial wrongs, but in an attempt to provide desperately needed context. The dominant theme of Japanese colonization wasn’t to destroy Korean culture but instead to define it. This is also touched upon in Professor Myer’s book and in more detail in Pai Hyung il’s Constructing ‘Korean’ Origins.
The policy to dominate much of the early colonization period was Japan’s Nissen Dosoron—the idea that Japan and Korea shared the same root. The Japanese scholars and archaeologist that came to the peninsula in the 1910s were busily working to provide evidence of Joseon’s ancient origins in North East Asia—a link they believed would reflect Joseon’s stagnation and backwardness and, hence, provide some justification for colonization. Through this process they virtually created Joseon studies (modern-day Korea studies), uncovered crucial links between Joseon and China, and began to construct a national identity that has had lasting effects on both North and South Korea.
Most Koreans don’t know about Nissen Dosoron and the idea that the Japanese disseminated propaganda that stated that inside Koreans and Japanese were one (albeit, the Japanese believed they were the more developed) strikes many as odd and uncomfortable. It’s simply incongruent with what has been taught in Korea since 1945. It absolves Japan of a certain degree of evilness that the dominant ideology is unwilling to relinquish. The evilness of the Japanese during the colonial period—and to some degree now through their unwillingness to acknowledge their past wrongs—is constantly reinforced through propaganda campaigns that use symbols like Dokdo, comfort women, the East Sea, and the attempt to change Korean names to Japanese. These symbols can be seen daily in a variety of media and in a number of novels and movies.
In the novel Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Choi Sook Nyul the issue of comfort women and name changing come together to create an emotionally charged narrative, though one written with little subtly or believable characters. The villain, Captain Narita, is an embodiment of the one-dimensional heartlessness that is expected of the Japanese, but he’s not a character. He’s constantly shown as a menacing force bursting through the family gate, and his power is always countered by mention of his diminutive stature—a stereotype that has long characterized Korea’s view of the Japanese and doubtless makes colonization that much harder to swallow.
It’s Captain Narita who rounds the young girls up like cattle and ships them off to the front, and it’s Mrs. Narita, his wife and local school teacher, who gives the protagonist her Japanese name. Both of these scenes, in particular, provoked my students’ ire when we read it together, and it’s understandable that they would. However, the anger and the situation seemed too absolute. It all struck me as though something was missing. The complexity of the situation can be understood after reading Professor Pai’s book, at least in regards to the changing of names, and with a little knowledge of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Professor Pai—through an exhaustive archaeological investigation—shows just how much Korean culture, and the language itself, owes to Chinese. Korean and Japanese, besides sharing a similar grammatical structure, also share a vast vocabulary that comes directly from Chinese and use Chinese characters to provide etymological meaning. So when Mrs. Narita changes the protagonist’s name, she isn’t actually changing it. She’s simply changing the pronunciation of the Chinese characters that both Korean and Japanese share. The meaning is intact, but she is now rendering it in the language of imperialism. Of course, this doesn’t alleviate any of the indignity of having someone impose their will on you. It does, however, provide a different understanding than simply saying that your name has been changed. Contrast this with the growing number of Koreans today that are taking Biblical names spelled in Hangeul, and even English, and the question needs to be posed: Under whose hand has Korean culture fared the worst?
The simplification of the name changing grievance and many of the other problems that have arisen between Korea and Japan, and Korea’s often-condescending attitude toward China, couldn’t exist if the truths of Pai’s book were acknowledged and contemplated. What appears to be an esoteric academic study implies radical conclusions that undermine the way contemporary Koreans see themselves. To state it simply, the idea of a pure Korean language or a continuous Korean culture that stretches far back into history is a phantom, a castle made in the sky. The language as we know it today—the single most defining characteristic of what it means to be Korean—couldn’t exist without China’s influence on the peninsula, and the same can be said about Japanese. The same can also be said about most of traditional Korean culture. The truth is that prior to Japanese colonization there wasn’t a strong sense of national identity among the Joseon. The literati spoke and certainly wrote in Chinese, and in contrast to the predominant creation myth of today—that of Dangun (the mythical figure whose earliest mention was in the 14th century and who many modern Korean historians base the existence of Gojoseon and Korea’s 5,000 year-old history on)—the educated class, at least, believed that Joseon was founded by a Chinese sage, Kija (箕子), who brought culture and music and writing and much more to the peninsula after the rise of the Zhou Dynasty in China. Kija was allegedly from the fiefdom of 朝鮮 (zhao xian), the very name that King Yi Seong-gye, used to give his dynasty legitimacy, the Joseon (朝鮮) Dynasty.
Perhaps more shocking, though, is another picture that comes into focus through Professor Pai’s study and that is that prior to the Chinese arrival to the peninsula in 108 BC and their establishment of the Lelang Commandery, there was nothing of what we know today as Korean. Even over a hundred years later during the Three Kingdom’s period there was no common means of communication except through Chinese characters. The influence of the Chinese was significant. This history and archaeological record makes North and South Korea’s common view of one blood that stretches back 5,000 years problematic and dangerous when navigating contemporary political issues.
So it wasn’t until Japan’s arrival that a national identity was constructed and this was done largely for the colonizer’s benefit. This picture may seem alien to a visitor or sojourner of South Korea today where terms like 한식 (hansik), 한복 (hanbok), 한글 (Hangeul), and the like are confronted everywhere, but one needs to consider that Daehan Minguk, the Republic of Korea, didn’t come into existence until 1948. In response to a related question, Professor Pai stated, “There was no concept of ‘Korean costume,’ till the Japanese articulated and identified the ‘Chosenjin’ traits in their ethnographic reports and photographs in the 1910s.” She, of course, is not suggesting that the Joseon of the 1800s didn’t go around in the clothing that Koreans today call the hanbok, but rather that they didn’t see their clothing as being tied to a cohesive identity that stretched back into millennia. It required the Japanese to come and construct that idea, the very idea that Korean nationalists would take as their own after World War Two.