Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ask a Korean! News: A Look into Imperial Japan’s Rule over Korea

The Korean promises that he really tried. He really tried not to give any attention to Shintaro Ishihara, governor of Tokyo, who said “I heard from President Park Chung-Hee [former military dictator in Korea during 1960s-70s] that compared to European countries’ colonial rule over Asia, Japan’s rule was softer and fairer.

To be sure, this post is not really about that statement. But the Korean will make several points about this statement, just to get them out of the way:

First, the Korean will note that this statement barely made a blip in Korea. Except for some small news reports commensurate with celebrity gossip, Korean people did not care.

Second, the Korean can totally see former president/military dictator Park making that statement, as he made his career in the Japanese military before Korea was liberated.

Third, Ishihara has already proven himself to be a total nutcase, unworthy of any attention. He claimed that Rape of Nanking was a fiction, and that “old women who live after they have lost their reproductive function are useless and are committing a sin.

Fourth, the Korean takes no stance on whether or not the imperial Japan’s rule was harsher or softer than the rule by imperial European countries. It was what it was. However, the Korean does think Ishihara's statement is despicable.

Now that those points are out of the way, the Korean can turn to the real topic. In response to Ishihara’s remark, Thok-Kyu Limb, former National Assemblyman in Korea, sent an open letter to Ishihara decrying the statement. And that letter shows an interesting illustration as to what Korean life was like under the Japanese rule. Below, the Korean translated some excerpts of the letter.

Really big caveat here: the Korean is NOT introducing this letter as an endorsement of what Limb ultimately argues in the letter. In fact, the Korean thinks this letter was rather poorly written overall -- it is more or less besides the point of what Ishihara said, and it overstates the case by failing to put his experience into perspective by referencing the suffering caused by other colonial regimes.

The reason why the Korean was compelled to translate this letter was this: Yes, we all know (except certain revisionists) about Imperial Japan's numerous war crimes. But as heinous as the war crimes were, they did not affect every single Korean person. Then what was life like for a regular Korean person who was lucky enough not to be subject to Imperial Japan's war crimes? The translated portion of the letter gives a glimpse of the answer, provided that one applies all normal cautions that any reasonable person would apply – e.g. only one person, with a certain type of motivation, etc.

WARNING: The Korean knows this is an emotional topic, evidenced by the 100+ comments in the Korea-Japan Series Part III. As such, discussion on this topic may devolve into an online shouting match, which the Korean severely dislikes. Therefore, this comment thread will be aggressively monitored. Any personal attack, foul language, irrelevant discussion, and general bad manners will be deleted immediately.

And now, finally, the letter excerpt:

….

When I met Former Diet Member Ishihara in person in Seoul, 1975, I felt that he was a phenomenal intellectual who I expected to contribute greatly to the advancement of friendship between Korea and Japan. Yet for the last 30 years, whenever the Korean people were about to forget, he would enrage them by making statements that are so far from reality, which disappoints me greatly.

The Analects [by Confucius] say: “Once over the age of 70, doing what one wants to do never violates any law.” Mr. Ishihara is well over 70 as well, and I gave much thought as to why he would say such things despite that fact. My conclusion was that, even for a great intellectual like Ishihara Shintaro, truth is difficult to say without experience.

Accordingly, I wish to show my direct experience of how brutally Japan ruled Korea. I was born in Nonsan, Chungcheongnam-do, Korea, and I was in third grade at August 15, 1945, when World War II has ended.

Every winter, I have seen the police come to our village and round up all male adults. They would break the ice in the reservoir that was as cold as negative 10 to 20 degrees Celsius. Then they had the adults take off their tops and get down on their fours, and poured the ice water on their exposed backs while yelling, “Get out all the rice you hid.”

As a child, it was frightening. The Japanese police had already taken the entire rice harvest by the village. The village folks had so little to eat that they boiled and ate the dried-up leaves of radish and cabbage. In spring, every blade of grass was eaten, and sometimes we would even eat pine tree barks. Japanese government, after taking the rice, sometimes gave out sesame dregs [leftover sesame after oil was squeezed out of them], but over two-thirds of it was rotten black.

One spring day, my mother gave me a bowl of very dark porridge. I have been an obedient son, taking my parents’ words as absolutes. I thought the color of the porridge was strange, but because my mother gave it to me, I put a
spoonful in my mouth. But I immediately spat it out and yelled, “This is too bitter to eat!” My mother, weaving cloth, simply turned her face and dropped her head.

As time passed, I often thought about why my mother did that. I think that porridge was made of barley husk, because she had nothing else to give to her son. How I must have broken her heart when I refused to eat! To this day I get teared up in regret, wishing I had said nothing and gladly ate.

It did not stop there. I was forced to speak only Japanese not only at school but at home as well, even as a first grader who has never learned Japanese. Every Monday, we received five paper tickets, we were told to take away our friends’ tickets when they spoke Korean, whether they were in school or at home. Next Monday, we were beaten with a bamboo ruler by the number of missing tickets. Where else did such cruelty of completely banning the use of one’s own language exist?

In addition, toward the end of Imperial Japanese rule, every piece of iron in Korean rural areas – including spoons, chopsticks, and doorknobs – were taken, because they were conscripted to forge weapons.

My own experience is but small suffering. There would be no end to the stories of brutal massacres, including the assassination of Empress Myeong-Seong. In a word, Japan’s rule was truly cruel.

….


There you have it. The Korean will reprint the warning one more time.

WARNING: The Korean knows this is an emotional topic, evidenced by the 100+ comments in the Korea-Japan Series Part III. As such, discussion on this topic may devolve into an online shouting match, which the Korean severely dislikes. Therefore, this comment thread will be aggressively monitored. Any personal attack, foul language, irrelevant discussion, and general bad manners will be deleted immediately.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@hotmail.com.

6 comments:

  1. I have asked around about the existence of Korean language books with compilations of personal stories during the Japanese annexation period, i.e. a Korean language equivalent of Hildi Kang's Under the Black Umbrella, but no one knows of one. Do you?

    I hate to bring up the H-word, but one thing Holocaust survivors have done effectively is retell their stories over and over again in print and on film and video. I know Comfort Women have told their stories, but I've not heard of any print or digital resources with the stories of other Koreans.

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  2. Thok-Kyu Limb's letter is quite problematic. By configuring his own personal experience of suffering as evidence to refute Ishihara's statement, Limb actually legitimizes Ishihara's statement. Of course, Ishihara's statement is in fact illegitimate as it is nonsensical to compare sufferings. By providing evidence Limb implies that there is reason in Ishihara's statement; as counter-evidence suggests that there is something needing to be disproved. However, as already stated, Ishihara's statement is blatantly false to begin with so no evidence, or refutation for that matter, would be needed in the first place.

    Sad as Limb's story is, he is playing right into Ishihara's hands as he is actually taking Ishihara seriously. Granted, Ishihara is a political person with real power. Therefore, his ramblings (no matter how erroneous) can have some weight. Thus, it is not suggested that Ishihara not be taken seriously, only that Limb's manner in dealing with Ishihara was misfired. Instead of critiquing Ishihara's statement from a purely intellectual perspective (i.e. attacking the validity of comparative sufferings), Limb inserted a personal narrative that only partially disproved Ishihara.

    The proper way of dealing with Ishihara should had been to discredit his assumption that sufferings can be compared. Once this foundation is dissolved Ishihara's entire argument collapses.

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  3. sonagi,

    Not exactly a book, but the Korean found this series to be incredibly interesting: Link. It is a series based on the headlines of old magazines in Korea in the early 20th century. Each one is great, but the Korean found no. 6, 12, and 17 to be highly interesting.

    T.S.,

    Generally agreed, but the Korean will try playing the Devil's Advocate:

    Why cannot different incidences of suffering be compared? Isn't it true that the entire criminal justice system is based on the idea that suffering indeed can be compared? If we feel comfortable saying that person A who, say, cut off another person's arm deserves less punishment than person B, who killed another person, why can't we say Imperial Japan's rule was softer and fairer than European colonial rule?

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  4. T.S., I see your point, but I think you are too idealistic. I think one problem is that for years the actual suffering of Koreans under the Japanese occupation was so widespread and so common that people didn't document it much. Instead it was spoken about in generalities and basic facts.

    Now, decades later, the lack of documentation is being turned into an accusation that such documentation doesn't exist because such suffering didn't really happen. Instead, the exceptions are trotted out (which is one reason many Koreans don't often mention the many individual Japanese who had good relations with their Korean neighbors) to undermine the general statements.

    I could offer something similar under the much briefer communist occupation during the Korean War.

    You can see the likes of Imperial apologists in the K-blogs doing that very thing, talking about how it wasn't so bad and claiming that Korea was Japan's greatest ally, or that the pre-occupation was far, far worse.

    So I would agree that systematic and factual records be accompanied by factual oral histories, translated into English and Japanese as well.

    My only qualm about this — and it's a big one — is that a discussion of the past can too easily lead to negativity in the present, which is not fair to modern Japanese and is detrimental to Korea's own interests.

    [Actually, though, I would have to say that, based on a very long and far-reaching body of anecdotal evidence, that Koreans at the individual level tend to not just tolerate but have an affinity toward individual Japanese, so the anti-Japanese sentiment that was exacerbated during the Roh administration (and other presidents) has mostly been damaging to state-to-state relations.]

    And I do agree that to some degree comparisons are possible, but only to point out that no Korean should ever say that Korea suffered as much or more than Jews (or Romani — "gypsies") during the Holocaust.

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  5. I realize that a comprehensive, definitive case on issues as explosive as this particular one cannot be made in the context of a Blog post.

    Nonetheless, I expected someone who is so obviously intelligent and knowledgeable as you are to try a tad bit harder than simply present a personal tear-jerker from a politico who is likely preening for his electorate. Argument based on pathos, to invoke one of your many insightful posts at Mr. Koehler's Blog, may work with the masses, but it is the least persuasive form of argument among the knowers.

    Among other things, the excerpt you have posted from the Korean lawmaker's letter does not address Ishihara's claim explicitly. Ishihara did not say that Japan's rule over Korea was thoroughly benign; he simply said it was less harsh compared to its European counterpart elsewhere. Isn't it then incumbent for the Korean lawmaker to make some comparisons between European colonialism and its Japanese counterpart? That is, does he not need to at least demonstrate a modicum of knowledge regarding European colonialism?

    The fundamental problem with these type of debates is that both sides of the divide are rarely familiar with both sides of the story. As I told Mr. Hodges at his Blog, this reminds me of the argument about "Asian values." Those liberal universalists who claimed that Lee Kuan Yew, et al. were fabricating "Asian values" as a justification of their tyranny knew nothing about East Asian culture, and Lee and his cohorts demonstrated little familiarity with pre-modern West.

    So we have here, between Ishihara and the Korean lawmaker, another example of the dialogue between the deaf.

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  6. Oops. Mea culpa.

    I missed this paragraph somehow:

    "Really big caveat here: the Korean is NOT introducing this letter as an endorsement of what Limb ultimately argues in the letter. In fact, the Korean thinks this letter was rather poorly written overall -- it is more or less besides the point of what Ishihara said, and it overstates the case by failing to put his experience into perspective by referencing the suffering caused by other colonial regimes."

    That disclaimer of a paragraph addresses every issue I raised.

    When in doubt, trust theKorean! :)

    ReplyDelete

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