An American Intellectuals’ View of Japan’s Rule Over Korea 1910-1945
Preconceived notions and prejudices often prevent us from seeing the truth. And yet, as intelligent beings, humans will over time begin to understand the facts of a certain circumstance, eventually coming to grips with its reality. I have always believed this to be true, even as regards the often groundless charges brought against Japan pertaining to its perception of history.
Recently I came across a book that reaffirms my belief in these more rational tendencies of human behavior. Japan in Korea: Japan’s Fair and Moderate Colonial Policy (1910-1945) and Its Legacy on South Korea’s Developmental Miracle (Tokyo: Soshi-sha, 2013) sheds new light on Japan’s rule of Korea and will, I believe, bring about further reassessment of this difficult period of history. The study is co-authored by George Akita (Emeritus Professor at the University of Hawaii), and Brandon Palmer (Adjunct Professor at Coastal Carolina University), and has been translated into Japanese by Ko Shioya, former North American Bureau Chief for Bungei Shunju in New York.
Professor Kevin Doak of Georgetown University, a professor of modern Japanese political history, has contributed an insightful foreword, praising the duo’s work as “open historical scholarship.” To research their book, the authors investigated Japan’s colonial rule over Korea as fairly and objectively as possible, making every effort to transcend the nationalistic view of this period of history which has often led to harsh criticism of Japan by Korean scholars, politicians, journalists, and others. Assuming a steadfast posture to listen to all points of view, the authors have carefully considered one by one the complete range of claims against Japan.
As Prof. Doak points out, Messrs. Akita and Palmer have no intention whatsoever of “justifying the darker side of (Japanese) imperialism,” crediting the authors with having assumed a stubbornly open attitude towards “the experience of colonial Korea under Japanese governance”ー“one of the most contentious, ideological, and emotional topics” (in modern historiography). Doak compliments them highly on doing so “with a refreshing candor, sound judgment, and evidence-based argumentation.”
How, then, do the authors view the reality of Japanese colonial rule over Korea?
Rediscovering Historical Facts
In the opening chapter, Akita takes up examples of ferocious anti-Japanese condemnation based on the national historic narrative which has been pursued by ethnic Koreans, such as Professor Wonmo Dong of the University of Washington, and American diplomat Andrew Hak Ou, who until recently was posted at the American Embassy in Tokyo. Then, in Chapter 3, Akita admits that at one time he himself “was fully convinced that the nationalist historical narrative was correct.”
Akita says he became keenly aware of the problems of that school of thought by chance when he read a paper written by Prof. Palmer, who was then a graduate history student at the University of Hawaii, where Akita taught. The paper was entitled: “Koreans in the Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War: The Korean Special Volunteer System, 1937-1943.”
Professor Akita is one of the world’s leading scholars on modern Japanese political history, and a long-time specialist in Aritomo Yamagata (one of the leaders of the Meiji government and the architect of modern Japan’s conscription system). Akita was eminently qualified to objectively assess and respond to what Palmer had noted in his paper: that “…there is no hint of genocidal acts against Koreans by the supposedly all powerful, authoritarian Japanese regime…In fact, the Government General in Korea’s approach, and actions taken, to implement the volunteer and conscription systems are vital signposts of Japan’s self-interested moderate colonial policy…”
In this way, Akita’s research on Yamagata became linked with Palmer’s findings. Since then, over the last 12 years, Professor Akita has conducted intensive research on every aspect of the Japanese colonial rule of Korea, his efforts culminating in the publication of the “Japan in Korea” book late last month.
In order to find out if studies that had led to condemnation of Japan based on the Korean nationalistic historical narrative may have overlooked vital historical facts, Akita conducted a painstaking analysis of Japan’s rule over Korea. For example, he refers to a 1936 opinion survey cited by Prof. Dong in his 1965 doctoral dissertation. According to this survey, 8.1 percent of respondents thought Korea should be independent; 11.0 percent wanted independence at a favorable time; 32.6 percent had given up the thought; and 48.3 percent did not care one way or the other.
Another survey also cited by Dong – this one on the Korean attitudes toward the Japanese government – showed that overall, 11.1 percent were opposed; 14.9 percent called for reform; 37.7 percent were satisfied; and 36.1 percent showed no interest in the issue.
While reminding the reader that the results of these surveys must be interpreted cautiously, as they had obviously been conducted under government leadership, Akita stresses it is noteworthy that Koreans felt safe enough to openly state they ‘thought Korea should be independent’ and that the Japanese were willing to tally the responses as such.
“Japan’s Colonial Policy May Be Judged as ‘Almost Fair’”
The book contains a rich assortment of testimony by Koreans, including memories collected by a Hildi Kang, a white American woman who interviewed a total of 51 elderly Koreans who had lived through Japanese colonial rule before eventually moving to the US. Ms. Kang, married to Dr. Sang-Wok Kang, the eldest son of a large Korean-American family, put together a book detailing these interviews with her husband entitled Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945 (Cornell University Press; 2005). (The Japanese translation, entitled Kuroi Kasa no Shitade, was published by Blues Interactions Co., Tokyo, in 2006). Prof. Akita has this to say about Ms. Kang’s book:
“Kang writes of the epiphany experienced as she noticed how the family of an interviewee ‘chuckled’ and ‘smiled’ on learning her father-in-law’s recollections of his early years in Korea. It struck her that all his stories were based on what ‘took place under Japan’s onerous rule.’ This made her wonder, ‘Where were the atrocities I had come to expect?”
Akita pays particular attention to Kang’s description of the interviewees’ posture toward Japanese rule: “The interviewees portray Japan’s colonial rule as marked by complexity, nuances, contradictions, and normalcy; as well as one under which ordinary Japanese, and even the police, are sometimes seen in a positive light…Interview after interview began with sentences such as ‘nothing much happened to me.’”
Kang’s book also quotes another man as saying that, when Japanese police began arresting demonstrators in connection with the March 1, 1919 uprising, “the Police Commander…spoke kindly,” especially to the older men, and “unfastened the ropes that bound them and sent them home.” Kang also quotes a woman as saying: “After all, we (the Japanese in Korea and the Koreans) were all humans.”
By introducing these anecdotes, Akita urges the reader to ponder these recollections in comparison with the claims based on the nationalist historical narrative, which asserts that all Koreans were abused and exploited mercilessly under Japanese rule.
Results of vital research on the so-called “comfort women” are also introduced in the “Japan in Korea” book. I will not go into the detail, as I have already written about C. Sarah Soh, professor of anthropology at San Francisco State University, who discredits claims that most of the women were tricked into prostitution by recruits. [Editor’s note: Please see “The ‘Golden Boy’ of Japanese Politics in Trouble over Remarks about ‘Comfort women,’” posted March 28, 2013 on Ms. Sakurai’s Web site.]
Prof. Akita closes the last chapter of his book by noting: “I iterate that in the process of assimilation, there was suffering, pain, humiliation, and anger among Koreans. Still, what is striking are the good intentions and actions of Japan and the government-general so that, despite the blemishes, their Korean colonial policy may be judged as being ‘almost fair.’”
The English version of the Akita/Palmer book is slated for publication in the US and other English-speaking countries next year. I sincerely hope that the fruit of open and objective historical scholarship, as masterfully demonstrated by professors Akita and Palmer, will significantly help support our nation’s future.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 573 in the September 12, 2013 issue of The Weekly Shincho)