- Seeds of Control: Japan’s Empire of Forestry in Colonial Korea by David Fedman
As many of us are spending our days behind a screen rather than in a forest or a field, we tend to forget that plants are immensely fundamental to human beings: they harvest solar energy and turn it into things that support us for free. It follows that any civilization thrives when it is in control of its vegetal resources. Countries progress durably when their plants prosper. Japan, after abandoning its feudal society that closely and frugally had tried to manage the vegetal wealth of its limited lands—including colonized Hokkaido—was inventing ways to harvest trees from its expanding new colonial empire in Korea, before the collapse that came with war. It is this fascinating story of trial and error that forms the topic of David Fedman’s book Seeds of Control: Japan’s Empire of Forestry in Colonial Korea.
Forestry as “a vital element of state power” gets the attention that it deserves in this book. This is a most important point that Fedman makes: that forestry in colonial Korea was crucial and fundamental and that it came in tandem with many other things. Harvesting trees brought with it the necessity to invest in nationwide governance with legal systems and infrastructure, which in turn brought roads, settlements, and cities, and enticed mining companies into exploration. In the case of the Yalu River, it even brought in border security efforts. We learn how forestry further south brought similar control and imperial indoctrination—disguised as social discipline—and efforts were much [End Page 228] more tuned to educating and mind-controlling local actors and governments through newly set-up associations and clubs, all with proper forest management as a strategy for imperial control. Modernizing the society of Korea was not only a colonial and imperial strategy of oppression, it was also redoing society for the value-free purposes of the global money economy. As a social and political historian therefore, Fedman shows, with a strong understanding of government administrator psychology, many parallels with events taking place today, when governments all over the world tune power in order to soak their people in ideas of consumerism, wherein local realities suffer and disappear, together with their sustainable practices. In so doing, they forget that it is vegetal resources in the end that sustain our world. This was just one of my many personal takeaways from Seeds of Control.
The book is divided into three parts: “Roots,” “Reforms,” and “Campaigns,” which detail the emergence of a thoroughly planned and quite successfully managed forestry in colonial Korea. The first part, “Roots,” begins with the question of how forestry was modernized after the collapse of Japan’s own feudal society to become a social, cultural, and administrative construct that supported the new nation and legitimized political and administrative control by the state over remote inland, colonies included. Another root in understanding colonial forestry is the psychology of the imagery that was spread in which Korea was seen as a landscape of barren, denuded hills in desperate need of reforestation, while the northern primary forests of the Yalu region were waiting as mouth-watering resources to be exploited.
The second part, “Reforms,” tells the story of the insecure start of forestry under the Japanese colonial government and how it developed through strategy, trial, and error into a consolidated and thorough administration. Ownership had to be registered and controlled, while growing trees became the subject of government concern through its research and experiment facilities. Taking the Yalu region as a case, the book details how the timber industry geared up in a regional context; however, the last chapter of this part turns to the efforts to compel local farming communities to contribute to the greater goal of forestry for the empire.
Moving on chronologically, the third part, “Campaigns,” looks at how forests and their resources were used to aid the Japanese war effort, starting from 1937. On the one hand, propaganda persuaded people to tend forests...