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The Korean Elites Becoming A Japanese Colony History Essay

From the time their independence from China was guaranteed in 1895 by the Treaty of Shimonoseki until it was taken away again by its incorporation into the Japanese Empire, Koreans struggled with new ideas of nationalism and a changing regional and world order. In accordance the Social Darwinist milieu of the era, Koreans sought the root of their state’s relative weakness and attempted to find practical solutions through self-strengthening and reform. At the same time, they sought to establish their own position between two neighbours, one whose power was waning and one ascendant and intent on encroaching on Korean sovereignty. As the title of this essay highlights, much of this introspection and enquiry happened through the medium of elite debate, some of which bore striking similarities to Japanese colonialist rhetoric. However, elites also sought new methods of expression for discussing the nation, in an attempt to keep it alive in the face of seemingly inevitable colonisation.

Japan’s victory over China in 1895 was a significant turning point in East Asian history. It demonstrated two very important changes in the East Asian regional order: Firstly, that China was no longer the regional powerbroker, and secondly, that Japan’s rapid development and westernisation in the wake of the Meiji Restoration had paid dividends. For Korea, a state which for most of its history had been under Chinese suzerainty and had viewed Japan as an inferior, this realisation caused a crisis of identity. This crisis was further compounded by the prevalence of Social Darwinian theory in contemporary discourse, which hypothesised that weaker peoples would ultimately be conquered by stronger ones.

Consequently, Korean intellectuals began to separate themselves from China in a process which Schmid calls “the decentering of the Middle Kingdom (Schmid, 2002, p. 55).” This entailed not-only a demotion of China’s position in the regional order, but also its depiction as a barbarous, weak, and self-destructive state. Its people became characterised as lazy and ignorant, and utterly lacking in civilisation. Civilisation was most often measured in terms of technological and military achievements, with the West being seen as both the progenitor of this civilisation and its benchmark standard. For example, one Korean newspaper noted in 1899 that China was unable to defend its territory from a country as small as Denmark, and that it failed to build any railways in territory that it controlled (Schmid, 2002, p. 58). Consequently, China became a precautionary tale for Korean thinkers, highlighting their own nation’s need for rapid development if it was to avoid a similar fate.

Japan, on the other hand, had proved that its ideology of bunmei kaika, or “civilisation and enlightenment”, could lead to rapid development and near-parity with the West. Korean elites soon adopted this ideology in their own rhetoric, espousing it as the solution to Korea’s weakness. The consequences of this were twofold. Firstly, it meant that Korea and Japan were singing from the same hymn sheet, both using a shared lexicon of neologisms and similar rhetoric based around the need for development towards capitalist modernity and a desire to engage with the civilised world, or what Schmid terms “the global ecumene” (Schmid, 2002). Secondly, it meant Japan became an authority on the topic, and some elites held it up as a model for Korea’s future development. These in turn had further consequences.

The closeness of rhetoric on both sides meant that language and its specifics became important in the intellectual exchange between Korea and Japan, which as Schmid points out was not limited purely to the dichotomy of nationalist against colonist (Schmid, 2002). As pointed out above, the two shared not only a theoretical framework, but also a set of identical neologisms, most of which had originated in Japan, used to express new nationalist concepts. Bunmei kaika, or Munmyŏng Kaehwa in Korean, is one such example. Held up by Korean elites as a model for future development to maintain national sovereignty, it was conversely invoked by Japan as a justification for colonisation, since Japan could offer Korea the civilisation and enlightenment which it had failed to gain for itself.

This closeness of language meant that Korean elites skated on thin ice if they suggested closer co-operation with Japan or the idea of Japan as a regional leader, which many did. In fact, in 1909 the Ilchinhoe faction of Korean elites memorialised the Korean Emperor, requesting that Korea be integrated into the Japanese Empire (Schmid, 2002, p. 88). This call in some quarters for closer ties with Japan stemmed from another prevalent idea of this era. Pan-Asianism, a concept which borrowed from Social Darwinism, argued that the peoples of Japan, China and Korea were one “yellow race” which had to cooperate in order to counterbalance the power of the “white race”, i.e. the peoples of the West. Some Korean elites envisaged Japan, as the emerging regional power, as the natural leader of such cooperation (Schmid, 2002). While on the one hand this style of rhetoric could be twisted to fit Japanese colonial rhetoric, on the other, the concept of Pan-Asianism also contained a strong element of trust between states, and Japan’s encroachment on the Peninsula was often criticised as a breach of this. The Korean newspaper Hwangsŏng sinmun noted in 1904 that Japan had been pivotal in securing Korean Independence, and in doing so implied that it had a duty to maintain it, in keeping with the spirit of Pan-Asianism (Schmid, 2002, p. 93). Much like the rhetoric surrounding “civilisation and enlightenment”, Pan-Asianism was likewise a double-edged sword.

Korean elites were not however unaware of the duplicity of the rhetoric they employed. Consequently, they increasingly sought ways of defining their nation in terms which made it in some way impervious to Japanese interference. The nation became conceived in a variety of ways which removed it from its spatial and temporal contexts, thus offering Korean elites “an alternative strategy for resistance”. One of these was the emerging concept of a “national soul” or kukhon, a popular memory which might survive even as the body of the nation was destroyed, and might later be resurrected (Schmid, 2002, p. 141). Similarly, an essentialist notion of a “national character” or kuksŏng, came about at the same time. This idea became closely entwined with historical truth, since at the same time as decentring China, Koreans sought to determine what was purely Korean, and in doing so turned to history. Here again it came to blows with Japan, which was producing the vast majority of contemporary historical works about Korea, most of them conforming to its own colonialist rhetoric. Consequently by 1908 Korean historians, even under the strict censorship of the protectorate, were correcting Japanese assertions about historical Japanese rule on the Peninsula, reviling them as an attempt to destroy Korea’s national soul (Schmid, 2002, p. 158). While their enmeshment with debates over historical accuracy meant that they were not entirely out of the reach of Japanese encroachment, nevertheless these new concepts, by existing outside of the rhetorical minefield of “civilisation and enlightenment”, offered Korean elites the chance to more firmly articulate a stance of resistance to the Japanese.

Another method of articulating a sense of nationhood was to describe it in ethnic terms. The neologism minjok was originally used sparsely in newspapers to refer to races of people, but rapidly developed into a concept specific to the Korean people. The minjok came to define the Korean nation as the collective of ethnic Koreans, hence divorcing the conceptual nation entirely from a geographical state which was now under foreign control. The concept of minjok also looked to history for its validity, representing the final step in the process of decentring the Middle Kingdom. Korean elites reshaped their own understanding of their origins, looking to the mythical progenitor of the Korean people, Tan’gun, as their model, and placing him above Kija, the mythical Shang dynasty courtier who was purported to have delivered Chinese culture to the Korean peninsula. The revival of the Tan’gun myth, which gave birth to its own religion, also sparked an increased interest in genealogy, as the nation became viewed in terms of the family bloodline writ large. This removal of the nation from all spatial constraints allowed it to exist beyond the reach of Japanese colonialism and allowed hope for future independence of Korea’s geographical territory, in keeping with the idea of “resurrecting the national soul”.

The full annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910 and the total censorship of the press which accompanied it stifled the nationalist movement in Korea for some years. It re-emerged dramatically in 1919 with the March 1st demonstrations and the months of sustained rioting which followed. These events, and the fact that they had not been foreseen, caused the Japanese administration to alter its policy on the Peninsula, simultaneously freeing controls on the press while tightening its security network, allowing the nationalist movement to reform. The nationalist movement was not, however without limitations; in order to work within the confines which the colonial administration set, moderate nationalists had to postpone their basic goal of independence, choosing instead to focus on self-strengthening policies based on a Western model. This brought them under fire from more radical left-wing nationalists who demanded emancipation, and whose views were more in line with the opinion of a majority of ordinary Koreans who were increasingly more aware of their national identity. Robinson highlights two failures of the nationalist movement during the 1920’s. Firstly, its basic schism and internal strife prevented it from presenting a united front and therefore it failed to attract popular support which might otherwise have been readily available. Secondly, it was inherently elitist, with nationalist elites viewing themselves as the holders of an exclusive knowledge garnered from study of the West. In this sense, they were little changed from the Confucian elites of the Chosŏn dynasty who had drawn their status and power from access to an exclusive knowledge base. This led to further alienation from the body of mass support which their movement needed in order to be successful.

To say that Korean elites talked themselves into becoming a Korean colony, if it implies that they quietly acquiesced to the inevitability of being conquered, is not true. To some extent the Social Darwinian thought of the era did see the destruction of weaker states by stronger ones as a foregone conclusion, and Korean elites were certainly quick to bemoan their own state’s demise in terms which offered little in the way of constructive solutions. However, elites were just as quick to recognise the duplicity and double standards inherent the rhetoric of “civilisation and enlightenment”, and sought alternative modes in which to express their opposition to Japanese interference. They developed essentialist notions of the Korean nation, as a national soul or character, or as an ethnic nation, a terminology which removed the nation from its physical territory. While this might not have been a practical strategy for countering Japanese colonialism, in the face of an enemy which was militarily far superior, it was the only avenue of resistance open to Korean elites at the time.


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