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  • Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910–1945
  • Todd Henry (bio)
Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910–1945, by E. Taylor Atkins. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 280 pages, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $60.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Given the animosity that has surrounded Japan’s official relationship with the Republic of Korea (to say nothing of its tumultuous connections to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) since the end of the colonial period (1910–45), it is perhaps remarkable that the so-called Korean Wave has gained so much popularity over the past decade among Japanese audiences, as well as those in other parts of the Asian and non-Asian world. However, such expressions of affection and enthusiasm for things Korean are invariably informed by unresolved layers of antagonism inherited from the former age of Japanese empire in (East) Asia. Evidence of these counter-currents can be found in an equally energetic anti–Korean Wave movement, sanitized textbook descriptions of colonial-era violence, and other xenophobic campaigns targeting resident Korean populations in postwar Japan. This postcolonial predicament is the inspiration for E. Taylor Atkins’s book, which begins from the present fascination with what he calls Koreana and aims to trace “how Japanese reacted to Korean music and other performing arts during the colonial period” (p. xi).

The author is to be commended for amassing a wide range of cultural productions—ethnography, dance, music, and even cultural heritage management—and shaping them into a more general claim about the [End Page 152] relationship between colonialism and culture within the context of modernity. However, the arguments that Atkins advances in Primitive Selves are self-consciously provocative and thus likely to be controversial, especially for scholars of colonial Korea but also for those who study imperial Japan. His first goal is to overturn the overly simplistic assumption that Japanese imperial attitudes toward the peninsula and its people were contemptuous and thus sought “to obliterate any evidence or memory of an independent national culture and identity through aggressive assimilation directives” (p. 3). To be sure, there remains an older, if persistent, historiographic tradition in both Koreas wherein one adopts a nationalistic narrative of erasure characterizing wartime “imperialization” (1937–45) and projects its purportedly homogenizing effects back onto the earlier decades of the colonial period. However, as recent work on the colonial period now recognizes, the Government-General neither maintained the administrative capacity to erase Koreanness nor did its agents necessarily reveal their desire to do so in such categorical terms.1 The whole strategic premise of “cultural rule,” a category of analysis still invoked in much historiography on the colonial period, was, as Atkins himself reviews in chapter 1, aimed at promoting a public sphere—one however limited, policed, and censored. This colonized public sphere encouraged bourgeois nationalist elites to promote elements of indigenous culture as an insidious, if incoherent and ultimately unsuccessful, way of further entrenching colonial domination in the wake of the March first movement (1919). In this sense, chapter 1—while offering a general, if familiar, contextualization of the colonial period—seeks to provide a revisionist account that stresses the structures of rule allowing for appreciation and valorization, rather than a denial of or an indifference toward, colonial-period Koreana.

To make this point, Atkins relies overwhelmingly on imperialist texts which, in their various ideological guises, arrogated to themselves the right to “protect” and then to “rule” over the peninsula, ostensibly for the benefit of the colonized population. One serious problem that emerges from such an approach is that it fails to examine in any sustained way the loaded assumptions buttressing such self-serving statements. More importantly, it downplays Koreans’ own efforts, whether violent or nonviolent, to prevent a complicit league of outside powers from first extinguishing their sovereign powers and then regaining those rights as part of various nationalist movements. Atkins’s reiteration of imperialist rhetoric is ironic given that one of his “guiding stars” is Schmid’s “Colonialism and the ‘Korea Problem’ in the Historiography of Modern Japan” (2000). As the author is fully aware but ultimately discards as irrelevant to his own problematic, Schmid warned of...


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