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  • The Aestheticization of Korean Suffering in the Colonial PeriodA Translation of Yanagi Sōetsu’s Chōsen no Bijutsu
  • Penny Bailey (bio)

Are not the problems of life and destiny the most important issues with which we will ever concern ourselves? These issues are materializing right in front of us. How could I possibly remain silent?1

If people cannot unravel the secret of the line, they cannot enter the heart of Korea.2

Between 1919 and 1923, the Japanese art critic, philosopher, and social justice advocate Yanagi Sōetsu 柳宗悦 (1889–1961) published a series of texts expressing his antipathy for Japan’s expansionist agenda in Asia.3 The catalyst behind this corpus was the swift and brutal response by the Japanese colonial administration in Korea, the Government-General of Korea (Chōsen Sōtokufu 朝鮮総督府), to the 1919 independence uprisings in Keijō 京城 (Kr. Kyŏngsŏng, present-day Seoul). As civil unrest spread across the country in what became known as the March First Movement (Kr. Samil Undong 三一運動, Jp. San’ichi Undō), thousands of Koreans demonstrating against Japanese occupation of the peninsula were killed or [End Page 27] wounded, and tens of thousands arrested; reports in the mainstream Japanese press blamed the unfolding crisis on the insubordinate behavior of “malcontent Koreans” (futei Senjin 不逞鮮人) and Western missionaries.4 Outraged by what he viewed as Japan’s culpability in the uprisings, on 11 May Yanagi penned Chōsenjin o omou 朝鮮人を想ふ (Thinking of the Koreans), his first essay on Korea. The work marked the starting point of a campaign polemicizing against Japan’s colonization of Korea through essays, public speeches, art exhibitions, musical performances by his wife, Kaneko 兼子 (1892–1984), and the 1924 establishment of the Chōsen Minzoku Bijutsukan 朝鮮民族美術館 (Korean Ethnic Art Museum) in Keijō. Motivating these projects was a humanistic credo that articulated Yanagi’s affection for the people and aesthetics of Korea, coupled with a proposal to use the “great art” (idai na geijutsu 偉大な芸術)5 of the peninsula as a panacea for the persisting tensions between Japan and Korea arising from Japan’s annexation and subsequent occupation of the peninsula, referred to as the “Japan-Korea Problem” (Nissen mondai 日鮮問題).

One of the most intriguing (and eventually controversial) aspects of Yanagi’s campaign was his aestheticization of Korean suffering in a discourse he named the “beauty of sorrow” (hiai no bi 悲哀の美). Its fullest articulation was laid out in Chōsen no bijutsu 朝鮮の美術 (Korean Art), which appeared three times in 1922: first in January in the prestigious literary magazine Shinchō 新潮 (New Currents), then in May as a privately printed book, and finally in September as one of ten texts in Yanagi’s anthology Chōsen to sono geijutsu 朝鮮とその芸術 (Korea and Its Arts).6 Chōsen no bijutsu proposed that Korea was beset by a national sorrow precipitated by the peninsula’s history of recurrent invasion by foreigners. This sorrow, which was reified in all of Korean visual culture, was particularly discernible in the white glazes, decorative motifs and techniques, and, above all, linear characteristics of the two main genres of Chosŏn-dynasty (1392–1910) ceramics, porcelain (Kr. paekcha 白磁, Jp. hakuji) and stoneware (Kr. punch’ŏng sagi 粉青沙器, Jp. funsei saki). These works were far removed from both the bold intention of Chinese artworks and the sentimental and joyful character of Japanese artworks, which sought their artistic expression in form and color, respectively. “Standing between these two,” Yanagi asserted, “was the art of Korea, which was forced to carry the destiny of sorrow (hiai no meisū 悲哀の命数) alone.”7

The present article provides the first English translation of Chōsen no bijutsu following an analysis of the circumstances and impulses that led to Yanagi’s construction of the “beauty of sorrow” discourse. In this introduction I argue that the discourse [End Page 28] encased Chosŏn ceramics in a narrative that employed meanings and values based not so much on the contextual factors surrounding Korean ceramic production and consumption as on Japan’s rise as an imperial power, which provided both the environment and the resources for Yanagi to establish his career as an art critic. By co-opting the Chosŏn works to frame his discourse, Yanagi was able to publicly vent...