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  • Guest Editor’s Introduction
  • Richard D. McBride II

The Korean colonial period (1910–1945) was a time of tumultuous transformation, not merely because Korea lost its sovereignty and suffered the humiliation of being subjugated by Japan—a country that Korean elites had long viewed as culturally inferior—but because a whole host of social, educational, cultural, economic, and political changes were instituted that altered the fabric of life irrevocably. Although progressive reformers sought to introduce some changes by means of a failed coup d’état in 1884 (Kapsin chŏngbyŏn), and other reformers encouraged King Kojong (r. 1863–1907) to make changes known collectively as the Kabo Reforms (Kabo kaehyŏk, 1894–1896) in the late Chosŏn period and during the short-lived Great Han Empire (1897–1910), radical changes and challenges to traditional ways of life occurred primarily in the colonial period.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the study of this period in Korean academe was conventionally dominated by the nationalistic paradigms of Japanese imperial repression versus Korean nationalist resistance, colonial exploitation versus national development, and Japanese culture versus Korean culture. Early scholarship in English focused on the harsh Japanese policies in governing Korea (Nam 1973). By the end of the twentieth century, however, scholars began to look beyond a simple binary understanding of this period and sought more pluralistic and nuanced approaches to the rise of modernity in Korea (see studies in Shin and Robinson [1999]) and at the memories of people living under Japanese rule (Kang 2001). Other scholars evaluated the complex baggage of and influences on the way Koreans understand their past due to their colonial heritage (Pai 2000). Over the course of the last decade, numerous monographs have been published exploring diverse aspects of Korea’s colonial experience, from gender (Choi 2013; Yoo 2014) to the rise of proletariat literature (Park 2015), from heritage management [End Page 5] (Pai 2013) to the arrangement of public space (Henry 2016). Research on Korea’s Buddhist tradition presents a microcosm of the changes and challenges faced by Koreans during this time.

Anglophone scholarship on Korean Buddhism and Buddhists during the colonial period has also grown. Research on the lives of individuals who attempted to shape the changes and revitalize the Buddhist tradition, such as Han Yongun (1879–1944) (Tikhonov 2008; P. Park 2009), and preserve traditions through the perils of control by the Japanese colonial authorities, such as Ha Tongsan (1890–1965) (Mun 2009), have been the focus of fruitful research. Nevertheless, many figures played a role in the making of modern Korean Buddhism (J. Park 2010). The most recent monographs on modern Korean Buddhism demonstrate that key elements of the Korean Buddhist tradition’s vision of itself in modern times, such as the importance of the Koryŏ Buddhist Canon, the practice of the festival of the Buddha’s Birthday, and the structural relationships between Korean Buddhist monasteries under a Great Head Temple, as well as propagation of the religion really trace back to the colonial period (Kim 2018; Nathan 2018, 54–80).

The three papers on Buddhism in the colonial period in this special issue of the Journal of Korean Religions highlight some of the different approaches taken by scholars to understand the complexities of this time and the changes wrought on Korea’s Buddhist tradition. The issue begins with Kang Hee-jung’s essay, “The Remains from Ancient Times: Newly Formed Connections with Buddhist Culture Designated as ‘Art’ or ‘Cultural Assets,”’ which investigates how Buddhist objects used in faith-promoting practices were cataloged, photographed, and published in books, and thus redefined by Japanese scholars during the colonial period as objects of antiquity. She documents how the Government General of Korea took pride in its projects to show Koreans their great Buddhist heritage and sought to infuse Korean people with the frame of reference that Buddhist culture was the crux of Korean culture by highlighting Buddhism as the essence of the Eastern Spirit. She discusses how, through these modern publications and educational curricula, the Korean people gained a renewed perception of Buddhist cultural assets and made them legacies that “belong to the past,” or objects for them to preserve and protect, rather...


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