- Japanese Colonial Legacy in Korea 1910–1945: A New Perspective by George Akita, Brandon Palmer
Many agree that Japanese colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945 was intense and pervasive due to the empire’s interest in the peninsula’s strategic value and assimilation policies targeting the Korean people. Although many are interested in the subject of Korea under Japanese colonial rule, the majority of the researchers come from Japan, Korea, and the United States, that is, the nations that played the roles of ruler, ruled, and liberator. Scholars in these countries naturally view history from different perspectives. In his The Pacific War and its Political Legacies (2009), Denny Roy, a scholar of Chinese political history, discusses divergent accounts and perspectives of the Pacific War (1941–45) presented by China, Japan, and America and calls this discrepancy a Rashomon effect, the term made famous by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film, in which the same incident is recounted contradictorily by several characters involved. Similarly, Japanese rule of Korea in the first half of the last century is viewed and interpreted from conflicting viewpoints, reflecting the researchers’ backgrounds. An increasing number of scholars today, however, seek a middle ground through examining the rich historical records available. George Akita and Brandon Palmer’s book Japanese Colonial Legacy in Korea 1910–1945: A New Perspective captures this new trend.
Post-liberation Korean scholars perceived the colonial period from the dichotomous viewpoint of Japanese oppression versus Korean resistance, depicting Japanese rule as ruthless, exploitive, and without merit. This standpoint is represented by C. I. Eugene Kim and Han-kyo Kim’s seminal monograph Korea and the Politics of Imperialism 1876–1919 (1967) as well as many works that followed. Akita and Palmer refer to this black-and-white interpretation by Korean scholars as a “nationalist (or patriotic) historical paradigm.” Seventy years after the end of the colonial period, this paradigm has not lost momentum in South Korea.
Many in the United States have also been critical of Japanese colonialism. As Akita and Palmer point out, in 1945, the victorious Allied powers were convinced that “Japan, in every aspect of its society, economy, culture, religion, and governance, was completely flawed,” and “these views of Japan spilled over into perceptions of the Japanese as brutal colonial overlords” (p. 197). Although postwar American scholars of Japanese history often challenged this bias in search of more balanced views, some [End Page 115] American mainstream media and scholars today, as pointed out by Akita and Palmer, still condemn Japan’s past and allude to the resurrection of Japanese militarism. Naturally, such criticism of Japan is well received by Korean nationalists.
In direct opposition to the above views, Japanese nationalists affirm the empire’s legacy on the Korean Peninsula. After all, both the Korean population and life expectancy doubled during the colonial period of less than four decades, and modern infrastructure and industry were constructed on the peninsula largely with Japanese funds. Scholars conveying this view draw on reports from the Government-General of Korea and other Japanese sources.
At first glance, Akita and Palmer’s discussions based on Japanese documents appear similar to Japanese nationalists’ publications. They argue that the Otsu incident of 1891 exemplified Meiji Japan’s judiciary independence, and the Government-General of Korea governed Korea based on the rule of law. Japanese leaders emphasized gradualism, mutual benefit, and respect for Korean traditions when discussing newly acquired colonies and territories. Akita, an expert on Meiji political history, demonstrates Japan’s progressiveness by referring to an 1886 letter written by then– Home Minister Yamagata Aritomo, an architect of Meiji Japan’s military and political foundations; another prominent Meiji statesman Okuma Shigenobu’s proposition in 1906; and “commoner” politician, Home Minister, and later Prime Minister Hara Kei’s views on Korea in the year after Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910.
Akita and Palmer admit that the first governor-general of Korea, Terauchi...