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  • The Korean Buddhist Empire: A Transnational History, 1910–1945 by Hwansoo Ilmee Kim
  • John P. DiMoia (bio)
The Korean Buddhist Empire: A Transnational History, 1910–1945. By Hwansoo Ilmee Kim. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge MA, 2019. xiv, 344 pages. $45.00.

Although nominally a work of religious studies, Hwansoo Ilmee Kim's Korea's Buddhist Empire represents, equally, a volume directed against preconceptions of Japanese empire and, instead, one offering a competing vision of an active, organizing, and modernizing community of Korean Buddhists, both domestically and regionally. In crafting his ambitious take on religious and institutional transformation, Kim challenges the existing Buddhist canon, and his work holds implications beyond its immediate targets, with a short list of these subjects including perceptions of a top-down colonial state; the perceived predominance of (Korean) Christianity; and the notion of a static or relatively homogenous group of Korean Buddhists, one [End Page 496] dominated from neighboring Japan, keeping in close correspondence with colonial rule. Covering the Japanese colonial period as a whole (1910–45), Kim replaces accounts to date with a transnational narrative in which his actors travel frequently, circulate their ideas actively, and consistently seek to centralize and renew the power of their institutional structures. Indeed, many of the very institutions sought by imperial Japan as a sign of its legitimacy—whether objects, ideas, or forms of practice—become contested ground for Kim, offering the foundations of a Korean Buddhism which persists, albeit in much altered form, through division and the formation of North and South Korea after 1945.

As he acknowledges in the introduction, Kim begins with his goals linked to a specific historiographic moment, Sungtaek Cho's presentation of a paper in 2011, marking the beginning of attempts to challenge accumulated layers of postcolonial scholarship. The scholarship from the 1950s, and indeed, which prevailed for much of the next half century, tends to be explicitly anti-Japanese and often blames the colonial presence for the perceived problems of the Korean Buddhist community. As an intervention to this polarizing impulse, Kim proposes three related clusters of themes: Buddhist nationalism, governmentality (as a centralizing principle), and the propagation of Buddhist ideals at the transnational level. The fi of these goals suggest the complex interplay of the Japan-Korea dynamic, along with the Foucauldian language of renewal through focused efforts at institution building. If governmentality suggests an uncomfortable power dynamic, Kim uses the term to denote a centralizing or organizing process, one through which the Korean community might strengthen its practice amidst difficult, colonial circumstances.

With this set of founding keywords, Kim proceeds through a series of case studies, comprising a six-chapter narrative, tracing an arc roughly paralleling his major themes, that is, the Japan-Korea dynamic (Buddhist nationalism), the turn to transnational activity (propagation) as part of the strategic building of relationships, and the critical role of Buddhist institutions (governmentality). Assigning two chapters to each of the topics, Kim frames this material through the opening vignette of Toh Chinho, a Korean Buddhist who sailed for Hawaii in 1930 to attend a youth conference. Organized by Japanese Buddhists as a showcase, the conference aimed at offering a highly particular vision of Japan's accomplishments, a motivation leading colonial participants such as Toh to be listed as members of the Japanese delegation. Displeased, Toh argued for his own choice of a label, seeking to persuade Japanese representatives to hear him out. Through participation in such gatherings, and with the added factors of travel and the dissemination of ideas, actors such as Toh embody the themes Kim hopes to develop.

Kim's approach intersects with his related fascination with modernity, and although he does not define the notion rigidly, he suggests that it involves [End Page 497] a combination of his preferred cluster of themes, meaning at least some notion of increased mobility, access to new institutions and practices, and the ability to spread one's message. Along these lines, his first two chapters focus on existing Buddhist objects or practices, especially as they came to represent a point of struggle between Japanese and Korean practitioners. The first of these was the Buddhist canon, that is, the set of woodblock printed...


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