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  • Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea, 1910–1945
  • Michael Kim
Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea, 1910–1945 by Mark E. Caprio. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009. 320 pp. 14 illustrations. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. $35.00 (paperback) $75.00 (hardcover)

Mark Caprio’s Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea, 1910–1945 represents a welcome addition to the English-language historiography on Japanese colonialism and colonial Korea. Caprio weaves together a wealth of secondary and primary sources to provide a complex and informative account of one of the most controversial topics in the intertwined histories of modern Japan and Korea. While guiding the reader through a wide range of sources that illuminate important events, debates, and policy processes, Caprio ably demonstrates the vast distance between Japanese rhetoric on assimilation and the actuality of segregationist colonial policies that ultimately produced a largely impoverished and undereducated Korean population by the end of colonial rule in 1945.

Chapters 1 and 2 situate Japanese assimilation efforts in Korea within broader global and regional contexts, yielding valuable comparative insights. Chapter 1 offers a detailed discussion of the assimilation practices of Western colonial powers, and chapter 2 reviews assimilation efforts in territories Japan absorbed prior to its annexation of Korea: Okinawa, Hokkaido, and Taiwan. The Japanese actively investigated Western precedents when formulating their colonial policy, and Caprio’s book illuminates the many ways their appropriations (as well as misappropriations) of French and British assimilation policies impacted Korea. Furthermore, the distinction that Caprio articulates between internal assimilation and peripheral assimilation comprises one of the more interesting contributions of his study. There is indeed a need to carve out a separate analytical category to understand the particular dynamics of Japanese assimilation policy in Korea.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 cover the development of assimilation policy through the first decade of colonial rule (1910–19), the reform period following March First (1919–30s), and the era of war mobilization (1937–45). Caprio presents an excellent overview of the issues and challenges Japanese colonial authorities confronted when attempting to assimilate the Koreans. His research establishes convincingly that assimilation was more an ideal in the beginning phase as the actual system installed during the 1910s was highly segregated between colonizers and colonized. Caprio also provides close readings of key texts that are essential for understanding the development of assimilation policy in Korea. For instance, he highlights the little discussed Korean role in forming colonial policy, such as the Counterplan Proposal of 1938 (pp. 145–51). In addition to official documents, Caprio marshals an impressive range of fictional works, diaries, and published sources that not only enriches his book but will surely prove invaluable for future studies of the Japanese empire and colonialism.

This is not to say that Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea is flawless. A possible conceptual problem appears in the leap from the post–March [End Page 307] First reforms beginning in the early 1920s in chapter 4 to the wartime mobilization of 1937–45 in chapter 5. Caprio leaves the strong impression that assimilation had been the primary goal of Japanese officials in Korea throughout both periods, with perhaps only their negative attitudes toward Koreans and lack of willpower preventing the implementation of their stated mission. To be sure, Caprio introduces some of the critics of assimilation policy during the 1920s and notes that the colonial government seems to have backed away from assimilation despite its various attempts to achieve this goal (p. 128). Nonetheless, he presents assimilation as the fundamental policy direction following March First. This interpretation is not entirely convincing.

I would argue that the Government-General of Korea advocated policies that pushed away from assimilation throughout much of the 1920s and 1930s; that is, it encouraged cultural difference between Koreans and Japanese. Many colonial policies during bunka seiji (cultural rule) reflect notions of naisen yūgo (amalgamation of Japan and Korea) more than naisen ittai (Korean and Japan are one). Amalgamation meant Japan and Korea would maintain their respective cultural and lifestyle differences while creating a new composite whole. In this respect, the fundamental colonial policies of this period were aimed toward the principle of association rather than assimilation. Therefore, analyzing cultural...


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