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  • Colonizing Language: Cultural Production and Language Politics in Modern Japan and Korea by Christina Yi
  • Travis Workman (bio)
Colonizing Language: Cultural Production and Language Politics in Modern Japan and Korea. By Christina Yi. Columbia University Press, New York, 2018. xiv, 211 pages. $65.00, cloth; $64.99, E-book.

A number of scholarly publications on the Japanese empire have come out in the last two decades, expanding our understanding of the history, culture, and politics of Japan's imperialist expansion in the early twentieth century. They have explored the colonial histories and literatures of Taiwan, China, Manchuria, and Korea from multiple vantage points and theoretical orientations. This is a welcome development, considering the various ways that cold war political ideologies—including, most prominently, ethnonationalism—had previously led to myopic and present-oriented narratives of the period. Works concerning "the colonial period" in Korea have brought to light the complexity of issues of national identity, gender, language, and cultural erasure under Japanese colonial rule. Contemporaneously, a number of scholars have drawn from developments in the study of the Japanese empire to expand the context for reading and interpreting the literary works of ethnic Koreans in postwar Japan (zainichi). Considering the literal meaning of the term zainichi, this is a necessary recognition of changing views of the Japanese empire, which produced the conditions of possibility for Koreans "remaining" in postwar Japan.

One of the virtues of Christina Yi's Colonizing Language: Cultural Production and Language Politics in Modern Japan and Korea is that it bridges these two areas of research to present an illuminating account of "Japanese language literature" (Nihongo bungaku) in the mid-twentieth century. As the title of the book suggests, Yi's primary concern is "language ideology"—how concepts and practices of national language were employed for colonial rule and how colonial and minority subjects responded to and worked within regimes of national language. In this regard, the "colonizing" of the title has a double meaning, referring both to the way that concepts of language were integral to subject formation, and therefore colonized the bodies and consciousnesses of modern national and imperial [End Page 183] subjects, as well as to the ways that local, regional, and individual languages were objects of colonization during the processes of nation building and empire building.

One important intervention of Yi's work is that she reads this subject-object duality of language and colonization not simply as an erasure of the Korean national language by Japanese national-imperial language. She rather emphasizes the power of modern language ideology to establish the parameters of the universal and the particular, the cosmopolitan and the local, and the national and the regional, categories that then structure how literary and cinematic texts engage with and attempt to overcome the problem of their linguistic medium in a colonial situation. Therefore, she not only analyzes and clarifies the colonial effects of the policies and practices of the Japanese national language (kokugo) in colonial Korea, but also shows how the idea of kokugo came to affect Korean intellectuals' imagination of the Korean national language (kug'ŏ) after liberation. She also explains how speaking and writing in a national language as a colonial or minority subject are not simply matters of subordinating one's original national identity out of self-interest. She shows the ambivalence of the desire to be a proper speaking and writing subject of national language: national language at once empowers and subordinates; it provides access and includes, while discriminating and excluding. Although she does not refer directly to Naoki Sakai's discussions of national language as a "regulative idea" (in the Kantian sense), Yi shows, through close readings and a detailed literary-historical account, how "Japanese-language literature" grapples with the normative function of "national language," and how colonial and minority subjects engage with language ideology in ways irreducible to a political calculation.

Therefore, by focusing on language ideology and reorienting our attention to the tropes and practices through which Koreans imagined themselves as imperial subjects, Yi disrupts powerful cold war–era ideas about collaboration and resistance during the colonial period. At the same time, she also provides a conceptual framework through which to judge the...


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pp. 183-187
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