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  • Rules of the House: Family Law and Domestic Disputes in Colonial Korea by Sungyun Lim
  • Mark E. Caprio (bio)
Rules of the House: Family Law and Domestic Disputes in Colonial Korea. By Sungyun Lim. University of California Press, Oakland, 2019. xii, 173 pages. $34.95, paper. Open Access.

Rules of the House explores the development of Japan's "legal assimilation" over its 35-year period of colonial rule, concentrating important attention on how the policy engaged participation among traditionally underrepresented peoples. A strong point of Sungyun Lim's study lies in its crossing divides, both prior to and following this period, to draw connections between traditional and colonial-era law practices and those of postliberation Korea. Lim's focus is on family law, and particularly on how widows, daughters, and concubines were able to exploit structural changes during these periods through litigation. The majority of the cases she examined directly [End Page 187] involved property inheritance disputes. Lim finds that the Japanese efforts to codify Korea's traditional customary legal system produced a "hybrid system" where courts selectively based decisions on family law introduced by the Japanese, while on other occasions, in contradiction to assimilation rhetoric, they drew on Korean tradition in their decisions (p. 45).

One of the interesting legacies of this history is contemporary Korean society mistakenly attributing to Japanese colonial law certain aspects of its contemporary legal system that were carried over from Korean customary law. Lim reflects: the "evolving legal consciousness of the colonized Koreans . . . left a lasting legacy in the postcolonial years in family law" (p. 7). Sacrificed in this process were matriarchal rights that got bypassed as they were "redefined from one patriarchal system to another" (p. 8). She continues:

The civil disputes that I analyze in Rules of the House often show how gendered conflict over family property unfolded at odds with the Japanese colonial laws, a perspective previous scholarship . . . has downplayed. Often Korean men and their patriarchal interests, rather than Japanese laws, were the opponents of Korean women's struggle to have their customary rights acknowledged.

(p. 11)

Lim suggests the reason for this backlash by Korean men was the healthy women's presence in legal matters to claim and defend their rights. Searching the Chōsen kōtō hōin hanketsuroku (Records of verdicts in the High Court of Colonial Korea), she found that 93 of the 156 cases recorded here had women as the litigating party (p. 10). Cases included in this collection include litigation over issues ranging from adoption to divorce. Even these issues centered on a property component that served as a primary reason for the litigating parties deciding to bring their case to the courts.

The complicated position of the widow in the family presented some of the more interesting case studies introduced. Traditionally, a widow was to remain in the family, forbidden by custom to remarry, after her husband's death. Confucian tradition obliged her to remain chaste, at least if she was of the privileged class. Her capacity to "receive" property if no legitimate heir existed, at least until she located an appropriate male to inherit the property, and the 1894–95 Kabo Reforms legalizing widow remarriage were factors in much of the litigation of this period. These rights were acknowledged, but the fact that their contours were still not fully delineated served as the crux of such litigation (p. 39). Overlaying this legal system with a Japanese colonial system often complicated an already rather complex framework.

Korean widows are an important dimension of Lim's study; widows account for 72 of the litigants (out of 2,003) in the High Court cases she examined. She explains: they sat at the "crossfire between the interests of the lineage and the interests of the colonial state." More than the other female [End Page 188] populations examined here, widows benefited (unexpectedly) from the colonial legal system (p. 36). The 1917 case of Yi Se-ŏn, whose son died soon after her husband's passing, illustrates well the widow's plight. When her brother-in law, Ko Sung-hwan, attempted to claim his brother's property using the traditional claim that there was no more appropriate...


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pp. 187-192
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