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  • Rationalizing Korea: The Rise of the Modern State, 1895–1945 by Kyung Moon Hwang
  • Mark E. Caprio
Rationalizing Korea: The Rise of the Modern State, 1895–1945. By Kyung Moon Hwang (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2016) 395 pp. $75.00 cloth $34.95 paper

A hotly debated issue in Korean modern history is the point at which South Korea’s modernization originated. One side argues that this [End Page 576] development commenced during Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula and the other that it occurred prior to this time. Hwang’s Rationalizing Korea suggests a third option—Korean modernization covering a time period from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century when rationalizing peninsula administrations “underwent extensive diversification and growth in its regulatory, extractive, and symbolic capacities” (147). Japanese colonization extended a process begun in prior reform movements, particularly the Gabo Reforms (1894–1895), during which various governments extended their influence into the lives of the Korean people.

Hwang offers a number of areas in which Korean administrations employed a system that Foucault identifies as governmentality, including religion, public schooling, registration and classification, and biopolitics (both health and hygiene).1 Changes in regulations and classification (Chapter 7) were introduced as a means of correcting irregularities in the system that ostracized a large percentage of the population due to the literati yangban being permitted to keep slaves. Reforms introduced by the Gabo cabinet sought to end public slavery and secure a fairer distribution of the tax code. The new system also sought to incorporate information traditionally carried in the family registration (hojok) into a new registration system, but it dug deeper into the privacy of the incorporated families to “account for every household and every person at all times” (202). A “civil registration law” (1909) extended this initiative by expanding the boundaries of households to obtain information about members of extended families not currently living under the same roof (202). The Japanese colonial government advanced registration and classification further, particularly during the war years when the Koreans were “encouraged” to adopt the Japanese system. This reform ensured that all members of a household—including females, who traditionally kept their maiden names even after marriage—would be registered under a single household (as opposed to clan) system. More importantly, this strategy made it easier to mobilize everyone to contribute to Japan’s war efforts.

One administrative aim shared in the above example of “state rationalization” (as well as others) that Hwang presents is the intent to make the “people and social structure more visible to the state” (109). Hwang, who sees Rationalizing Korea as a sequel to his first book, which addressed social status in traditional and modern Korea, ends his discussion with Korean liberation in 1945. His discussion, however, also touches on Korea’s post-liberation dictatorships and even the “democratization” that began during the late 1980s. He correctly suggests that the either-or arguments regarding Korean modernization are incomplete, implying [End Page 577] that the two sides would be better served by collaborating with, rather than competing against, each other.

Mark E. Caprio
Rikkyo University


1. Michel Foucault (trans. Rosi Braidotti; rev. Colin Gordon), “Governmentality,” in Graham Burchell, Gordon, and Peter Miller (eds.), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago, 1991), 87–104.



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