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Reviewed by:
  • Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945
  • Wayne Patterson (bio)
Hildi Kang , Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2001. xxii, 166 pp., tables, illustrations, map. $25.00 (cloth).

More than a half century has passed since the liberation of Korea from Japanese rule. During that period, most of the discourse about the colonial period has revolved around what increasingly appear to be artificial binaries: resistance versus collaboration; tradition versus modernity; colonialism versus nationalism. While, on the one hand, these binaries simplified the telling of that history, on the other hand, they at the same time obscured the fact that the period was far more complex than the stark black and white hues these binaries conveyed. Common sense should have alerted us to question such an overly simplistic view, and writings such as Richard Kim's Lost Names (1998) and Colonial Modernity in Korea, edited by Shin Gi-Wook and Michael Robinson (1999), among others, have begun to chip away at this construct. Continuing in this trend is the volume under review.

Because this volume is based on oral history, the reader will want to know about the interviewer, the interviewees, and the interviewing technique. The life stories of fifty elderly Koreans in the San Francisco Bay [End Page 148] Area who lived through the Japanese colonial period in a wide variety of occupations, such as farmers, teachers, bankers, and businesspeople, provide the material for the book. Since most of the informants were born in the second decade of the twentieth century, one hears little about the first period of the colonial period from 1910 to 1919 and more of the latter two periods—1920 to 1930 and 1931 to 1945. The interviews themselves were conducted in Korean by Kang's husband, who is a native speaker. The author, Hildi Kang, has a master's degree from San Jose State University and is well-versed in the history, periodization, and characteristics of the colonial period and often interjects explanatory notes placing the vignettes into context. The material is engagingly arranged through the technique of interspersing chapter-length life histories with shorter vignettes from other informants.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part, titled "Change by Choice," generally deals with the 1920s, when the Japanese ameliorated their most repressive policies as a result of the March First Movement of 1919. The argument here is that an increasing amount of space was created for Koreans to get ahead in life, or at least not to run afoul of the Japanese authorities. One informant recalls shouting "Manse" at the top of his lungs and being ignored by the Japanese police. Another talks about how his fellow Japanese truck drivers and he became drinking buddies. And yet another praised the technical competence of the Japanese engineers who repaired a continually leaking dam, improving local conditions. Not all Japanese in Korea were viewed negatively. As one respondent reported, "Japanese people were not bad. We got along." Some became friends and treated Koreans equally and sometimes favorably. And Japanese as well as Korean students made common cause in mocking the Japanese emperor. While it would be a stretch to conclude, as one informant did (p. 57), that "Life was most pleasant" for most Koreans, the reader is led to conclude that for many Koreans, the period was not always the living hell it has often been portrayed to be. It will also cause the reader to ponder the question of what it meant to be labeled as a collaborator or pro-Japanese.

Lest the reader get the idea that Koreans led lives similar to that of Master Yun, the protagonist in Ch'ae Man-sik's novel, Peace Under Heaven (1937), the second half of the book, titled "Change by Coercion," covers the subsequent and more repressive period of the 1930s and early 1940s, in which personal choice gave way to increasing pressure. Here the more familiar refrains appear: the dirty work of the Japanese secret police, and the enforcement of name changing, Japanese-style clothing, Shinto shrine worship, and speaking only Japanese. Even in this more oppressive atmosphere...


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