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  • Rationalizing Korea: The Rise of the Modern State, 1894–1945 by Kyung Moon Hwang
  • Hyung-Gu Lynn
Rationalizing Korea: The Rise of the Modern State, 1894–1945. By Kyung Moon Hwang. ( Oakland: University of California Press, 2016. xvii plus 395 pp. $34.95).

The stream of English-language monographs on colonial Korea has increased in volume over the last several years, taking slightly different angles to a complex period that has been subject to far more intense research and debate in Korean and Japanese. Rationalizing Korea joins the flow by examining continuities between precolonial or late-Chosŏn dynasty period (regardless of whether the cutoff is placed at 1905, 1907, or 1910) and colonial period policies (1910–45). The book's aim is to qualify previous scholarship that emphasized the disruptions and discontinuities attributed to the emergence of the Government General of Korea, the Japanese colonial administrative entity, by examining the continuities in the larger trajectory towards rationalization of state and society. The result is an account that is useful in providing some breadth to existing frameworks in English, but without providing much new empirical information for specialists.

The prose is generally accessible, and the structure is clear. The introduction establishes the primary frame: the oft-cited, seldom critiqued, and opaquely defined (at least in Foucault's first attempt—which is dutifully quoted in its amorphous glory on page 327) concept of governmentality. In addition, the introduction also makes a claim for the utility of a longer window of examination that includes both nationalizing reforms implemented by Korean officials and reforms undertaken by the Japanese colonial state. It sketches the existing theories of the state and then provides a roadmap for the body chapters as well as an explanation of selection criteria for the cases covered (18–20). This is followed by eight body chapters, each of which explores a different theme: mobilizing society (chapter one); rationalizing provincial and local administration (chapter two); constructing ideological and symbolic apparatus (chapter three); promoting manufacturing and industry (chapter four); utilizing and intervening in different religions (chapter five); dispersing standardized education (chapter six); cataloguing the population via census (chapter seven); and rationalizing responses to diseases (chapter eight). The chapters contain twenty-six figures and eleven tables that are useful in helping readers visualize specific empirical descriptions in the text. A conclusion summarizes the themes, and the endnotes and the bibliography provide an overview of the sources consulted.

The book's attempts to cover a variety of policy areas, account for different forms of power, and link to larger debates on state, governmentality, and power are commendable. Hwang's argument that continuities between the Gabo Reforms (1894–95), the Gwangmu Reforms (1897–1907), and the various policies and initiatives undertaken by the Japanese colonial state (1910–1945) can be seen as part of a long-term and global trajectory that diffused governing technologies and tactics is useful to consider, even if not new. He is careful to flag the imperfections and contradictions that created what might be termed polyglossic projects of state rationalization (247).

The book's cogency is dampened, however, by limits in empirical research, which in turn constrict its analytical depth. Intimations of great familiarity with [End Page 641] state "documents" (21) to the contrary, there is no use of archival sources from the colonial period despite the fact that private diaries, letters, and interviews of various Japanese colonial officials have been open to researchers for decades. The empirical foundations are actually composed of secondary sources published in English and Korean, official reports and statistics, and newspapers, magazines, and newsletters. The one source that could be termed primary beyond simply being a period publication is the Gojong (Kojong) Sunjong sillok, the official records of King or Emperor Gojong and his son and successor, Sunjong: given that this seems to be cited literally once, the attribution of an abbreviation (GSS) in the notes is puzzling.

Likewise, the lack of engagement with major touchstone books in Japanese and Korean on the colonial state by scholars such as Asano Toyomi, Yi Hyŏngsik, Okamoto Makiko, Kim Tong-myŏng, and Kang Tong-jin is disappointing: several are not cited at all and others once...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 641-643
Launched on MUSE
2018-06-23
Open Access
No
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