|South Korea Table of Contents
Korea underwent drastic changes under Japanese rule. Even before the country was formally annexed by Japan in 1910, the Japanese caused the last ruling monarch, King Kojong, to abdicate the throne in 1907 in favor of his feeble son, who was soon married off to a Japanese woman and given a Japanese peerage. Japan then governed Korea under a residency general and subsequently under a governor general directly subordinate to Japanese prime ministers. All of the governor generals were high-ranking Japanese military officers.
In theory the Koreans, as subjects of the Japanese emperor, enjoyed the same status as the Japanese; but in fact the Japanese government treated the Koreans as a conquered people. Until 1921 they were not allowed to publish their own newspapers or to organize political or intellectual groups.
Nationalist sentiments gave rise to a Korean student demonstration in Japan, and on March 1, 1919, to a Proclamation of Independence by a small group of leaders in Seoul. With the consolidation of what became known as the March First Movement, street demonstrations led by Christian and Ch'ondogyo (a movement that evolved from Tonghak) groups erupted throughout the country to protest Japanese rule.
In the wake of the protest, Japan granted considerable latitude to Korea. As historians have noted, the ensuing intellectual and social ferment of the 1920s marked a seminal period in modern Korean history. Many developments of the period, including the organization of labor unions and other social and economic movements, had continuing influence into the postliberation period. In the 1930s, however, the ascendancy of the military in Japanese politics reversed the change. Particularly after 1937, when Japan launched the Second SinoJapanese War (1937-45) against China, the colonial government decided on a policy of mobilizing the entire country for the cause of the war. Not only was the economy reorganized onto a war footing, but the Koreans were to be totally assimilated as Japanese. The government also began to enlist Korean youths in the Japanese army as volunteers in 1938, and as conscripts in 1943. Worship at Shinto shrines became mandatory, and every attempt at preserving Korean identity was discouraged.
The Korean economy also underwent significant change. Japan's initial colonial policy was to increase agricultural production in Korea to meet Japan's growing need for rice. Japan had also begun to build large-scale industries in Korea in the 1930s as part of the empire-wide program of economic self-sufficiency and war preparation. Between 1939 and 1941, the manufacturing sector represented 29 percent of Korea's total economic production. The primary industries--agriculture, fishing, and forestry--occupied only 49.6 percent of total economic production during that period, in contrast to having provided 84.6 percent of total production between 1910 and 1912.
The economic development taking place under Japanese rule, however, brought little benefit to the Koreans. Virtually all industries were owned either by Japan-based corporations or by Japanese corporations in Korea. As of 1942, Korean capital constituted only 1.5 percent of the total capital invested in Korean industries. Korean entrepreneurs were charged interest rates 25 percent higher than their Japanese counterparts, so it was difficult for Korean enterprises to emerge. More and more farmland was taken over by the Japanese, and an increasing proportion of Korean farmers either became sharecroppers or migrated to Japan or Manchuria. As greater quantities of Korean rice were exported to Japan, per capita consumption of rice among the Koreans declined; between 1932 and 1936, per capita consumption of rice declined to half the level consumed between 1912 and 1916. Although the government imported coarse grains from Manchuria to augment the Korean food supply, per capita consumption of food grains in 1944 was 35 percent below that of 1912 to 1916.
Under Japanese rule, intellectual influences different from traditional Buddhist, Confucianist, and shamanistic beliefs flooded the country. Western-style painting was introduced, and literary trends, even among writers who emphasized themes of social protest and national independence, tended to follow Japanese and European models, particularly those developed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The works of Russian, German, French, British, American, and Japanese authors were read by the more educated Koreans, and Korean writers increasingly adopted Western ideas and literary forms. Social and political themes were prominent. Tears of Blood, the first of the "new novels," published by Yi In-jik in serial form in a magazine in 1906, stressed the need for social reform and cultural enlightenment, following Western and Japanese models. Yi Kwang-su's The Heartless, published in 1917, stressed the need for mass education, Western science, and the repudiation of the old family and social system. Ch'ae Man-sik's Ready Made Life, published in 1934, protested the injustices of colonial society.
In the 1920s and 1930s, socialist ideas began to influence the development of literature. In 1925 left-wing artists, rejecting the romanticism of many contemporary writers, established the Korean Proletarian Artists' Federation, which continued until it was suppressed by Japanese authorities in 1935. One of the best representatives of this group was Yi Ki-yong, whose 1936 novel Home tells of the misery of villagers under Japanese rule and the efforts of the protagonist, a student, to organize them. Poets during the colonial period included Yi Sang-hwa, Kim So-wol, and Han Yong-un. But the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War marked a period of unprecedented repression in the cultural sphere by Japanese authorities, which continued until Korea's liberation in 1945.
From the late 1930s until 1945, the colonial government pursued a policy of assimilation whose primary goal was to force the Koreans to speak Japanese and to consider themselves Japanese subjects. In 1937 the Japanese governor general ordered that all instruction in Korean schools be in Japanese and that students not be allowed to speak Korean either inside or outside of school. In 1939 another decree "encouraged" Koreans to adopt Japanese names, and by the following year it was reported that 84 percent of all Korean families had done so. During the war years Korean-language newspapers and magazines were shut down. Belief in the divinity of the Japanese emperor was encouraged, and Shinto shrines were built throughout the country. Had Japanese rule not ended in 1945, the fate of indigenous Korean language, culture, and religious practices would have been extremely uncertain.
Japanese rule was harsh, particularly after the Japanese militarists began their expansionist drive in the 1930s. Internal Korean resistance, however, virtually ceased in the 1930s as the police and the military gendarmes imposed strict surveillance over all people suspected of subversive inclinations and meted out severe punishment against recalcitrants. Most Koreans opted to pay lip service to the colonial government. Others actively collaborated with the Japanese. The treatment of collaborators became a sensitive and sometimes violent issue during the years immediately following liberation.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress