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

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 18, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 151-154 | 10.1353/jks.2013.0012

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In most postliberation writing on the colonial period, the dominant narrative has pitted an omnipotent Government-General against oppressed Koreans, the latter described either in collaboration or resistance with the former, although some more recent studies have made room for a “grey zone” lying somewhere between these politicized antinomies and have acknowledged that the colonial state struggled to establish a workable hegemony over its multiethnic subjects. With Jun Uchida’s well-researched study on the interstitial position of Japanese settlers in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Korea, the story can no longer remain nearly so simple, nor can the methods scholars use to study this controversial era. Building on Carter Eckert’s Offspring of Empire (1991), Peter Duus’s The Abacus and the Sword (1995), and other texts in postcolonial studies, Uchida’s history offers a wide-ranging treatment of the Japanese population that first flocked to the peninsula as part of Korea’s annexation and subsequently put down their roots as a privileged, if precarious, group of colonizing expatriates. As the book’s title aptly suggests, the “brokers of empire” played an important role in almost every aspect of colonial life, including politics, the economy, journalism, and even religion. While offering “thick” portraits of these forgotten figures and a veritable who’s-who of Korea-based expatriates, Uchida’s path-breaking study offers inductive methods for exploring larger issues animating contemporary debates on Korea’s encounter with Japanese imperialism. These include the nature of rule under the Government-General, the degree of Koreans’ inclusion into a multiethnic polity, the kind of colonial politics that ensured as a result, and the role that bourgeois leaders played in both the direction and pace of the peninsula’s development.

Brokers of Empire operates along both chronological and thematic axes. In terms of the former, the author carefully charts the trajectory of lower- to middle-class entrepreneurs as they moved from subalterns at home to powerful critics of a colonial system that marginalized them more than their metropolitan counterparts, but certainly less so than the Koreans over whom they dominated. Settlers’ quest to recover the political autonomy they enjoyed before the annexation of 1910—colonial citizenship, as Uchida appositely describes it—and the nonassimilationist stance of “separate but equal” with regard to Koreans’ own struggles for self-rule continued well into the 1920s and early 1930s. However, the unexpected upswing of anticolonial nationalism, epitomized by the March First movement of 1919, galvanized expatriate leaders to work more closely with the colonial state in “harmonizing Japan(ese) and Korea(ns),” if only to pursue their own political and economic agendas. Finally, during the wartime period (1931–45), settlers all but silenced their criticisms of the Government-General and became, in Uchida’s terms, “organs” or “deputies” of the state and thus active agents of late colonial power. Even as Japanese expatriates cooperated in mobilizing Koreans, they continued to express reservations about fully accepting colonized subjects as their equals, a lamentable situation not lost on the latter.

Alongside these diachronic transformations, Uchida reveals a number of synchronic themes, using settlers as both the subject and method of her analysis. For one, she skillfully disaggregates the Government-General as a contested form of colonial rule. Although usually understood as a force of repression, Uchida uses the shifting position of settlers, what she tracks as a new vantage point “from within” the system, to demonstrate the tenuous and makeshift dimensions of that authority. In various chapters, the author highlights a “cognitive gap” separating the interests of the colonial state from those of Japanese settlers—the former seeking to control the latter, while the latter secured its political and economic demands vis-à-vis the former. Building on themes introduced in chapter 2, chapter 6, for example, describes how local councils offered Japanese and Korean elites of the 1920s and early 1930s ways to promote their inclusionary demands, ones that often contravened the supervisory interests of the Government-General. Although the latter did not necessarily acquiesce to the former’s demands, concerned representatives compelled government officials to seriously consider the possibility of expanding suffrage and even creating an assembly—modes of citizenship that the colonial state later institutionalized...

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