- Intimate Empire: Collaboration and Colonial Modernity in Korea and Japan by Nayoung Aimee Kwon
Sumptuously illustrating the cover of Nayoung Aimee Kwon’s Intimate Empire: Collaboration and Colonial Modernity in Korea and Japan is a postcard written in mixed Korean script by the Akutagawa Prize–winning writer Kim Saryang 金史良 (1914–1950). In the short note addressed to Ch’oe Chŏnghŭi 崔貞煕 (1912–1990), a celebrated female writer in the Korean colony, Kim asks Ch’oe for assistance in correcting his imperfect Korean. Such anxieties displayed by Kim and other writers, who lacked confidence in both their Japanese and their Korean language skills; the shattered subjects that emerge in their colonial writings under the pressures of Japanese empire; and more generally [End Page 255] speaking, the “conundrum of representation” (p. 10) commonly faced by Koreans caught in between the Japanese metropolis and the Korean colony for whom this divide is internalized—it is these experiences of subjection that lie at the heart of Kwon’s monograph. In its broader effort to find ways of connecting colonial and postcolonial Korea, Kwon’s book is a pioneering effort to make East Asian transnational scholarship legible to a Eurocentric audience. It serves as a lesson in the rewards and drawbacks of a project that seeks to bridge the epistemological divide between the idiom of postcolonial studies and the rich body of literature and criticism that has circulated in and between Japan and Korea for well over a century.
For anyone unfamiliar with Korean and Japanese scholarship about the colonial period, Intimate Empire is a helpful compendium of close readings and case studies based primarily on literary and literary critical works written in Korean and Japanese. Very little on this scale—and certainly very little with Kwon’s transnational focus and critical ambition—currently exists in English, except perhaps for Karen Thornber’s Empire of Texts in Motion, against which Kwon’s book will likely be favorably compared.1 Kwon’s book makes a more concerted effort to unpack and employ critical categories, to historicize texts within the specificity of Japanese empire, and to bridge critical discussions of this material across the colonial–postcolonial divide. Empirically speaking, there are few surprises to be found in Intimate Empire, which focuses largely on the experience of three authors—Kim Saryang, Chang Hyŏkchu 張赫宙 (1905–1998), and to a lesser degree Kang Kyŏngae 姜敬愛 (1906–1944)—all of whom have all been discussed in the East Asian and anglophone academies for a long time now.
The main intervention Kwon seeks to make has to do with the way her predecessors in the study of colonial texts in Japan and Korea have forsaken their responsibilities as metropolitan critics. Indeed, on several occasions Kwon’s book strikes a very schoolmasterly note, shaking its finger at ostensibly postcolonial (particularly Korean) scholars who Kwon claims remain caught up in a binary framework of collaboration versus resistance when looking at colonial texts—scholars who [End Page 256] succumb to the myopia of politicized reading practices by analyzing these texts solely in terms of the kind of national or ideological allegiances the postcolonial critic chooses to project onto the writer at hand. This critical myopia, argues Kwon, leaves no room for considering the far more complex “conundrum of representation” that faced writers at the time, a conundrum in fact shared between writers normally seen at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. In such cases, “we metropolitan critics not only fail to consider the repressive roles of our own privileged positions vis-à-vis the minor text, but we also reproduce the same old dynamics because it is not in our interest to change or relinquish our power and therefore we do not want to give up such positions of privilege” (p. 58). Throughout her book Kwon challenges existing readings of the colonial texts she re-examines with an emphasis on their historical contexts. In a final chapter, she travels through the pantheon of largely Western-based postcolonial...