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Reviewed by:
  • Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910-1945
  • Noriko Aso
Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910-1945. By E. Taylor Atkins (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2010) 280 pp. $60.00 cloth $24.95 paper

In Primitive Selves, Atkins acknowledges that Japanese colonial governance of Korea during the first half of the twentieth century was oppressive and exploitive. However, he also argues that there were Japanese at the time who valued and sought to preserve aspects of Korean heritage, which "provided a means whereby Japanese and Koreans contemplated their respective identities and modernities" (50).

Atkins employs a comparative approach, drawing extensively on studies of Western colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by such scholars as Stoler and Stocking, with particular reference to the work of Thomas on internal contradictions and resistance.1 Characterizing Japanese social scientific projects in the Korean peninsula as "mimetic," Atkins provides contextualization by discussing Euro-American disciplinary trends and tropes (3). For instance, Atkins juxtaposes Western anthropological photographs of "representative" figures of "primitive" peoples to similarly composed imperial Japanese portraits of Koreans in traditional clothing to illustrate the power of "colonial cliché" (98).

One of Atkins' earlier books was a study of jazz in twentieth-century Japan—Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan (Durham, 2001). In this current work, he offers illuminating ethnomusicological discussions of, as just one example, the elasticity of the folk song "Arirang," which served as biting political satire, rallying anthem, and syrupy pop hit during the colonial era. However, Atkins does not claim to offer a comprehensive history of the performing arts in colonial Korea. Rather, for the most part, he limits himself to analyzing imperial Japanese perspectives, while actively engaging with Korean Studies as a field. Schmid's call to study the Japanese metropole and colonies together rather than as distinct [End Page 498] entities, along with Pai's study of the colonial origins of Korean archaeology, are cited as inspirations.2

Atkins is combative to some extent in challenging Western, Japanese, and certainly Korean scholarly accounts of the era that emphasize imperial Japanese attempts to extinguish Korean cultural as well as political independence: "Few scholars in the humanities and social sciences don't enjoy sticking it to The Man. This habit is clearly beneficial to humanity. But it also breeds a cynicism that can distort historical perspective as much as uncritical readings of hegemonic voices do. It causes us to question the sincerity of someone like Yanagi Muneyoshi, who was profoundly moved by the 'beauty of the [Korean] line' (sen no bi), or of the armchair folklorist and constable Imamura Tomo, who studied what he described as the 'beautiful customs' (bifū) of the populace" (48). Atkins allows that such cases of Japanese attraction to Korean arts were at times intertwined with the imperial colonial project. Yet, perhaps influenced by the opportunity for new alliances that he perceives in the Korean pop-culture boom in contemporary Japan, Atkins generally presents such colonial-era expressions of affinity as critical of modernity and potentially of Japan itself. Nevertheless, confronting complicity on the part of even committed Japanese advocates for Korean culture—Yanagi Soetsu (founder of Japan's mingei movement), for one, saw Korean aesthetic genius as "unconscious" rather than "conscious"—remains vital precisely in order to grasp colonial complexity.

The comparative approach of Primitive Selves makes it accessible not only to those in Asian Studies but also to readers more familiar with Western colonialism, although the latter should understand that Atkins is addressing what he sees as imbalance. The next challenge might be to see how analysis of Japanese and Korean relations during the imperial era opens up opportunities to reassess the dynamics of Western colonialisms as well.

Noriko Aso
University of California, Santa Cruz


1. Ann Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley, 2002); George Stocking, Romantic Motives: Essays on Anthropological Sensibility (Madison, 1989); Nicholas Thomas, Colonialism's Culture: Anthropology, Travel and Government (Princeton, 1994); idem, Out of Time: History and Evolution in Anthropological Discourse (Ann Arbor, 1996).

2. Andre Schmid, "Colonialism and the 'Korea Problem' in the Historiography of Modern Japan: A Review Article," Journal...


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