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  • The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea: Education, Labor, and Health, 1910-1945
  • Soon Won Park (bio)
The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea: Education, Labor, and Health, 1910–1945, by Theodore Jun Yoo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 316 pp. Photographs, tables. $55.00 cloth.

In this discourse analysis of gender issues in the colonial period, Yoo analyzes how Korean women from different socio-economic backgrounds experienced the tumultuous period of modernization within the framework of Japanese colonialism. He tried to use triangular analytical perspectives of colonial modernity, male reformers, and the colonial government policies centering on various gender issues. The recent Korean colonial historiography has produced many counter-narratives like this volume, broadening and renovating our understanding of the complexities and nuances of colonial modernity in the twentieth century. According to these studies, in spite of the ambivalent and limited nature of colonial modernity, Korean women discovered new opportunities to articulate their sense of spatial location, craft new identities, and challenge not only the Confucian patriarchal system but also the hegemonic colonial system. Korean women inevitably, to be sure, experienced the tension within colonial surveillance on family, education, workplace, and women's bodies and health by both the colonial power and the nationalist reformers in the society.

The book, which is a unique gender study by a young male scholar, is composed of five chapters on different women's groups in Korea—Chapter 1: Women in Choso .n Korea; chapter 2: The "New Woman" and the Politics of Love, Marriage, and Divorce in Colonial Korea; chapter 3: The Female Worker: From Home to the Factory; chapter 4: Discoursing in Numbers: The Female Worker and the Politics of Gender; chapter 5: The Colonized Body: Korean Women's Sexuality and Health. The common theme that ties these chapters together into a coherent whole is the theme of colonial modernity from the gender perspective. In a good attempt to sort out discourses on these various gender issues, the author researched public debates, colonial government policies, business strategies, and Korean elite responses among others. Given the difficulties in discourse analysis methodology, the reader can come across a [End Page 159] crafty extensive use of quotes from contemporary accounts of Pyŏlgŏngon, Tongkwang, Sinyŏsŏng, various Korean literary publications, newspapers, and the memoirs of foreigners, including Christian missionaries at the time. I particularly enjoyed his unique way of using anecdotes or biographies of famous elite or activist women figures in the front of each chapter.

To be sure, not every chapter shines with powerful persuasion in balance. Some chapters stood out successfully, while others were weak. Chapter 2 on the 1920s "new women" issue was quite alive, although the issue had been explored elsewhere already. Chapter 5 on the sexuality and health of colonial-period Korean women remains the most refreshing and significant part of the book. Chapters 3 and 4 on yŏgong female factory workers and their resistance remain weak in terms of adding any new points to the insights or nuances of the colonial modernity theme.

Chapter 5 examines discursive forces that competed to define Korean women's sexuality, health, and eugenics, within the framework of proliferation of discourse on sexuality, medicalization of reproduction, and the socialization of sex through pedagogy. The introduction of and new attitudes toward various issues like sexuality, sex education, child-bearing technology, midwifery, abortions, infanticide, birth control, sexual disease, knowledge concerning obstetrics-gynecology are reviewed, though the form is rather convoluted in a discourse analysis format. The book will be valuable reading material for any undergraduate or graduate class on colonial or modern Korean studies.

One critical weakness of the volume as a whole is a lack of more conceptual reinterpretation of the complexities of gender and status in colonial gender politics and colonial modernity. The author painstakingly gathered various materials, but too often they remain useful as an overview of the socio-economic information but the work suffers from a lack of any conceptual sub-focus or sharp interpretations of each chapter's subject. I thought the author could do some more reading and thinking about a number of difficult issues to better understand women's perspectives on these...