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  • Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910–1945
  • Peter Duus (bio)
Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910–1945. By E. Taylor Atkins. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2010. xv, 262 pages. $60.00, cloth; $24.95, paper; $20.00, E-book.

The study of cultural relations between the metropole and its dependencies has broadened the discussion of Japanese imperialism in recent years. This [End Page 149] trend has been influenced by cultural studies “theory” that argues cultural production is a political process and that cultural products, in one way or another, can be read as an expression of power relationships. To be perfectly frank, the urge to politicize culture reminds me of the days when literary critics under the influence of Freudian “theory” sexualized literary production. They found latent homosexuality in every protagonist and Oedipal conflict at the heart of every plot. At first, this approach was refreshingly novel but eventually it became a cliché, then succumbed to the next academic fad.

What makes Taylor Atkins’s study of Koreana—Japanese knowledge about Korean culture—so interesting is the way the author challenges the cultural studies approach without completely abandoning it. As the title indicates, Atkins, like many students of Western imperialism, has found it useful to deploy the concept of the Foucauldian “gaze.” By this he means colonial "surveillance” that generates knowledge used to define, and therefore dominate, manage, and discipline the colonized. But Atkins distrusts what he calls an “eternally paranoid, vulgarized version of Foucauldianism” that rests on the “usually unstated, unexamined premise that institutions such as the state, professional organizations, schools, hospitals, and the like are inherently wicked and intent on suppressing individual freedom and diversity” (p. 5). In other words, he does not subscribe to the reductive politics of culture studies.

Instead, he argues that despite asymmetry of power in the colonial relationship, the “gaze” could be an act of introspection as well as an act of surveillance. In his view, “the modern histories of neither Japan nor Korea can be adequately grasped without extensive reference to the other” (p. 10). On both sides, encounter with the “Other” sparked self-reflection. In “gazing” at Korea, many Japanese were reminded of who they were and where their culture came from, and under the Japanese “gaze” many Koreans became more aware of the uniqueness of their own cultural heritage. The colonial cultural relationship was a two-way street.

It will come as no surprise then that Atkins is deeply critical of the narrative of indignation and humiliation offered by postcolonial nationalist Korean historiography with its neat dichotomies between victims and victimizers, resisters and collaborators, oppression and suffering. He rejects the notion that the Japanese pursued a policy of “cultural genocide” or “cruel assimilation,” and he suggests that Koreans were allowed to develop their own cultural self-identity to some degree, if only because the colonizers thought it to be in their interest. In a sense, Atkins tries to see colonial cultural interaction between Japanese and Koreans as a “win-win game” rather than a “zero-sum game.”

Given the sensitivity of the subject, Atkins is quick to assert that his interest in Japanese appreciation of Koreana—“Koreanophilia” he sometimes [End Page 150] calls it—does not mean that he endorses Japanese colonial rule or that historians should abandon their attention to the “crimes, betrayals, and horrors” that accompanied it. To disarm potential critics, his first chapter offers a quick historical tour that recapitulates the conventional political narrative with all the usual nods to the darker, brutal side of Japanese colonial rule—the ruthless political clampdown under Governor-General Terauchi Masatake, the violent response to the March 1 movement, the continuing suppression of dissent during the period of “cultural rule,” and finally, the intensification of coercive assimilation under the wartime kōminka policy. His main point, however, is that the Japanese impulse “to study and comprehend, document and record, preserve and exhibit distinctively Korean cultural traits” continued throughout the colonial period despite the brutalities of the colonial government and shifts in overall colonial policy (p. 50), and that “a respectable number of Japanese” demonstrated “intellectual interest, aesthetic pleasure, and genuine affection for...


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