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  • Scientific Management in East Goes West: The Japanese and American Construction of Korean Labor
  • David S. Roh (bio)

I do not want to treat efficiency as mere technique or method. There is no other way for humankind beyond efficiency. I wish to emphasize that the way of man is in fact efficiency.

—Ueno Yōichi (187–89)

In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.

—Frederick Winslow Taylor (7)

“System, system, system!”

—Reporter for the Detroit Journal, after visiting a Ford plant (qtd. in Nevins and Hill 461)

New York, the 1920s. Two friends on a desultory stroll across Brooklyn Bridge pause to take in the city skyline. The Korean student, Han, revels at the spectacle of New York’s gleaming structures, while his mentor, Kim, stands grimacing beside him. Han effuses,

What a Picture! The arched City Hall against the afternoon sunset, these long columns and these high towers. What different rhythm from the Grand Canal of Venice or the Hankang of Hanyang! . . . [This city] links humanity to the world of mechanism, the world of mass production, this magnanimous gigantic structure. . . . All is the work of a short time, in a small space. It would have taken men in different ages hundreds of years to accomplish this. . . . The craftsman may have worked in deadening monotony, the engineer may have planned in routine formation. But the product emerges with individual creativeness, a monument to the American age. Precise, exact, swift, poignant, and powerful.

(Kang, East 245)

What impresses Han more than the sheer scale of New York is the fact that these monuments were made with such celerity and precision. It is efficiency —a “rhythm” so distinct from Europe and Asia—that enchants, but also [End Page 83] unsettles Han; beneath the surface of Han’s wonder lies a quiet acknowledgment of the individual sacrifice needed for the New York building to rise—the worker and designer must labor in anonymous tedium.

On the other hand, Kim has a decidedly more sardonic outlook:

“This island,” he muttered, “is rockbound. It can’t grow any more. Yet the inhabitants in it increase more and more. Probably it is no longer than the span of a century since the New York of today emerged, from rural farmlands. . . . Now all the depraved creatures and exiled souls in humanity gather to help the big city’s growth and add to the radical scare. . . . Well, science that tries to explain the how-and-where of truth, from simple to complex, from particular to general, is no help to me.”


Kim’s despondency is perhaps reflective of the dark modernist vision of America ruled by an efficiency bereft of a humanistic center. He sees New York as a collection of alienated souls fueling the city’s unmitigated expansion. Unable or unwilling to accept efficiency without purpose, Kim—as Han’s double—has been left hopelessly behind by the modern age.

With these two disparate views, Younghill Kang sets the crux of his argument in East Goes West (1937), an admonition of all that can be achieved through efficiency, both beauteous and terrible. Crafted with strong autobiographical elements, the novel chronicles Chungpa Han’s arrival and education in America, where he discovers the limits of his racialized potential through a series of humble jobs while pursuing his studies. Han comes to realize that the art and literature so valued in Asia goes unappreciated in America; instead, ruthless efficiency and market logic rules over all.

Han’s and Kim’s comments hold an additional layer of complexity, for they speak as former colonial subjects. The rise of the burnished metro-pole and the desperate mass of people from rural origins would have been familiar scenes first encountered in colonial Korea and imperial Japan. Hidden behind Han’s and Kim’s views regarding the American way of efficiency lies an echo of the past—the Japanese way of efficiency. In America, Han learns that this efficiency has a name: Taylor.

In this essay, I reconfigure Kang’s critique of American capitalism as part of a more expansive argument about colonial labor and manufacturing techniques. While much of the scholarly...