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Brokers of Empire: Japanese Settler Colonialism in Korea, 1876–1945 by Jun Uchida (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 473-477 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0050

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“Irish history,” Frederick Engels wrote, “shows one how disastrous it is for a nation when it has subjugated another nation. All the abominations of the English have their origin in the Irish Pale.”1 Mutatis mutandis, the same may certainly be said of Japan, and it also captures, in essence, the viewpoint of Jun Uchida’s impressive study of settler colonialism in Korea.

In thinking about this work, I am reminded of a graduate seminar on the Japanese empire I cotaught with Irwin Scheiner in the mid-1990s. Peter Duus’s big book, The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895–1910 (University of California Press, 1996) had just come out and was making a considerable splash, so we invited the author to discuss his work with our group. Although much of the response to the book was deservedly positive, both Duus himself and a number of the seminar participants remarked on its almost complete reliance on Japanese sources. It was, so to speak, a treatment of Japanese history that happened to be set in Korea. As such, it was a major achievement. Combining the political, economic, and cultural dimensions of the early phase of Korea’s colonization, Duus offered a rich case study of what he termed mimetic, or late-developing, imperialism. But what difference would it have made, someone asked him, if you had been able to read Korean and use sources in that language? The answer was obvious, he said. Korean perspectives, in their diversity and in a far less filtered form, could have been highlighted and the role of Korean actors in the processes leading to annexation made clear. It would be up to a new scholarly generation to pick up this challenge.

At that time, the trend we are now seeing for Japanese historians to make full use of Korean archival and published materials was just beginning. It has now taken hold pretty well, as witness the line of works including Alexis Dudden’s The Japanese Colonization of Korea: Discourse and Power (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005), Theodore Yoo, The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea: Education, Labor, and Health, 1910–1945 (University of California Press, 2008), and two recent dissertations: Michael Shapiro’s “Christian Culture and Military Rule: Assimilation and Its Limits during the First Decade of Japan’s Colonial Rule in Korea, 1910–1919 ” and Sungyun Lim’s “Enemies of the Lineage: Widows and Customary Rights in Korea, 1895–1945” (both University of California, 2010 and 2011, respectively). It is fair to say that Jun Uchida’s new work is among the best examples of what can result when multilingual research is possible. Chronologically, Brokers of Empire can be read as a continuation of Duus’s story, which stopped with annexation in 1910. Uchida’s overlaps (too much, perhaps) with his at the start but carries the account well beyond, through the 1920s to the end of the war—and of the empire itself. They are alike in taking an integral approach to Japan’s imperial project in Korea and in being notably hefty books. They can be read together with great profit.

Yet Uchida’s work is more than a continuation of Duus. First, as her title suggests, Uchida’s interest lies less with the direct agents of the colonial regime than with its organized subalterns among the population of Japanese migrants and settlers. These “brokers of empire,” she argues, “mediated Japan’s passage from imperialism . . . to colonialism” (p. 36, emphasis in original), and to some degree the processes of modernity itself. Introduced in part 1, the “brokers” grew from groups of Japanese settlers, including “petty merchants and traders, young educators and journalists, political adventurers and carpetbaggers” (p. 35), whose presence largely preceded that of the colonial regime and who had in some instances accumulated considerable wealth and local influence. Over the decades, these colons (p. 95) had come to associate Korea (if not Korean people) with “home.” And as Uchida points out, they eventually developed relations with Koreans “on the ground” that were more direct and extensive than those formed by insulated sojourner authorities. Yet despite their self-proclaimed status as colonial pioneers, the brokers were attached...



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