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  • Imperial Genus: The Formation and Limits of the Human in Modern Korea and Japan by Travis Workman
  • Michael Kim
Imperial Genus: The Formation and Limits of the Human in Modern Korea and Japan by Travis Workman. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016. Pp. x + 307. $34.95 paper, open-access e-book at

During the Japanese colonial period (1910–1945) debates about the universalism of Korean culture had an impact on a number of movements ranging from the cultural nationalists and proletarian artists of the 1920s to the pan-Asian nationalists of the 1940s. Culturalists in both Japan and Korea connected with neo-Kantian humanist perspectives during the early years of the Japanese empire. The goal was to discover the universal elements of their cultures in order to join the exclusive club of modern nations. Workman’s Imperial Genus provides a valuable framework for tracing the genealogy of the neo-Kantian concepts that became the basis for a discourse on human development, ranging from its limits to its potential for perfection. By delving into a broad assortment of texts in philosophy, literature, and the social sciences, Imperial Genus explains how Japanese and Korean intellectuals appropriated the idea that humans undergo constant development to situate the Japanese empire on the world historical stage and to establish their [End Page 294] own understanding of the relationship between the individual and the nation.

The “genus” in the title refers to humans as malleable entities that emerges from the discovery of interiority and the desire for agency. Workman argues that, within neo-Kantian discourse, humans gain the taxonomical status of a biological genus; then he makes the case that entire epistemologies and ideologies formed around the effort to classify human cultures along a civilizational hierarchy. Workman shows how colonial discourses and the Japanese imperial project embraced the notion of the human genus to develop an internal logic for imperial expansion and colonial subjugation. In a sense, one of the key issues behind Workman’s study is the question of how intellectuals from both the left and right converged upon fascism and imperial expansion during the wartime period of the late 1930s through 1945. Imperial Genus builds upon previous scholarship, such as Andre Schmid’s and Michael Shin’s work, and contributes theoretical sophistication to our understanding of colonial-era intellectual history.1

Chapters 1 and 2 focus on culturalist thinkers, such as Sōda Kiichirō 左右田喜一郎, Kuwaki Gen’yoku 桑木厳翼, and Yi Kwangsu 李光洙. Workman argues that these intellectuals emphasized the importance of national language to ground the transcendental subject in a localized modern subjectivity and to form the basis for colonial governmentality. Chapter 1 provides a useful reading of Yi Kwangsu’s seminal texts, including “On the Reconstruction of the Nation” (“Minjok kaejoron” 民族改造論, 1922) and The Heartless (Mujŏng 無情, 1917), while also introducing the significance of some lesser-known works, such as “Art and Life: The New World and the Mission of the Korean Nation” (“Yesul kwa insaeng: Sinsegye wa Chosŏn minjok ŭi samyŏng” 芸術과 人生: 新世界와 朝鮮民族의 使命, 1922). Workman highlights the presence of biopolitics and the significance of national allegory in Yi’s literary texts to show how early Korean authors attempted to elevate the national language while also encouraging what he describes as a “self-legislated morality” (p. 17). This insightful analysis allows us to understand how Yi’s “blood nationalism” and fascist [End Page 295] aesthetic emerged out of his desire to reinvent the nation through the formation of national literature (p. 64).

Chapters 3 and 4 introduce the proletarian artists of the NAPF (from the Esperanto name Nippona Artista Proleta Federacio, meaning “Japanese proletarian artists’ federation”) and KAPF (Epo. Korea artista proleta federacio) who appropriated bourgeois humanism to reconstruct the proletariat as an oppositional subjectivity. Workman features the work of Marxist thinkers, such as Nakano Shigeharu 中野重治, Im Chŏng-jae 任鼎宰, Im Hwa 林和, and Paek Nam-un 白南雲, to show how leftist economic and cultural theory within the Japanese empire interpreted the genus-being as the productive laborer and ultimately shared many of the basic assumptions of culturalism.2 Workman provides a particularly insightful reading of Paek Nam-un’s stage theory of Korean history. In his interpretation, Paek’s attempt at...


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