Japan and Asia (3)

An alternative history of Korea

By William Wetherall

Drafted 7 August 1987
Posted 31 Jaunary 2006
Updated 10 July 2011

Article originally written for Mainichi Daily News but not published.

See also Japan and Korea and Japan and Asia?

What would have happened if France had not sold the United States the Louisiana Territory in 1803? America's westward expansion would probably have stopped at the Mississippi. There might never have been a gold rush or Pacific trade, and hence no Commodore Perry in Japan.

California might have remained Spanish. Or become part of Russia if the Russians had moved down the coast from Alaska. Or even Japanese if Japan had come out of its cocoon by the middle of the 19th century, ventured east, claimed Hawaii, and colonized the westcoast.

Such speculation cannot change the past, but it helps us interpret the significance of historical events.

Assume that history unfolded as it did to the Meiji period. What would Asia be like today if Japan had stopped expanding after claiming Okinawa in 1872? Or even after acquiring Formosa, the Pescadores, and the Liaotung peninsula (returned under Russian pressure) in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895; the southern half of Sakhalin and the Russian lease on the Liaotung Peninsula in South Manchuria in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905; Korea in the "annexation" of 1910; and German territories in East Asia and the Pacific in World War I?

Take Korea, for instance.

What would Korea be today if Japan had not invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China in 1937, or signed pacts with Germany in 1936 and 1940, or "occupied" French Indochina in 1940 and attacked the U.S. and other countries in 1941?

It would be either a Japanese colony or a communist state. If still a colony, it would be a troubled colony, rife with rebellion, on the verge of revolution, a true thorn in Japan's chrysanthemum.

There would have been no Korean war since the peninsula would not have been divided. But what if the Soviets had still supported the People's Liberation Army against the Kuomintang and the Kuomintang had fled to a Japan-ruled Formosa?

Then the Korean communists would have helped the Chinese and Soviets push the Japanese out of South Manchuria, in return for which they would have gotten support for guerrilla activities in Japan-ruled Korea. Such was (and still is) the fervency of Korean nationalism, as spawned by Japanese imperialism and inspired by Japanese example.

The "annexation" of Korea was "provoked" by the assassination of Ito Hirobumi in Harbin, Manchuria by a Korean patriot in 1909. Backed by Japanese troops, Ito had forced Korea to become a Japanese "protectorate" in 1905, and the following year he was appointed the first Resident General of the colony.

The Korean emperor was forced to abdicate to his feeble-minded son and the army was disbanded in 1907. Ito, nominally a moderate who wanted to avoid annexation, had resigned from his post shortly before he was shot.

Partisan uprisings spread across the peninsula. Anti-Japanese were so intense that in 1908, Koreans even killed a Japanese-appointed American advisor on foreign affairs, attached to the Korean government, while he was on leave in San Francisco.

The first decade of the annexation was the lull before the storm. The "March First Movement and Massacre" of 1919 ended all illusions of a "peaceful" and "harmonious" Korean acceptance of Japanese rule.

Inspired by the concept of self-determination of peoples implied in Woodrow Wilson's "Fourteen Points" of 1918, Korean nationalists signed a petition proclaiming independence. Japanese military police arrested the leaders and shot demonstrators. This sparked disturbances all over Korea, and by summer, when the nationalists had been suppressed with the help of the Japanese army, thousands of Koreans and hundreds of Japanese were dead or wounded, and thousands of Koreans held for investigation and prosecuted.

Japan tried to control such Korean pride and "rebelliousness" by assimilating all Koreans into the Yamato fold, thus eliminating Korean ethnicity, and hence Koreans. Various homogenization policies were carried out in the name of Nai-Sen ittaika (unification of Japan and Korea) and kominka (turning Koreans into imperial subjects).

By 1938 all schools in Korea had been Yamatoized. The Korean language was forbidden in schools. Children had to visit Shinto shrines, honor the Japanese flag, recite loyalty oaths, and bow in the direction of the emperor's palace.

Korean newspapers and magazines were censored, suppressed, and finally abolished. The same fate befell Korean literature.

Korean laws were replaced by Japanese laws. A Japanese-style family register system was introduced. In 1939 all Koreans were ordered to Yamatoize their names as evidence of complete assimilation. In 1939, effective in 1940, all Korean [Chosenese] households were mandated to adopt common family for the household, and individuals were allowed to change their personal names. In the same year Japan began recruiting, sometimes impressing, Koreans to labor in mines, factories and construction, and military conscription began in 1942.

Anti-Japanese sentiments were strong. Koreans throughout the Japanese empire, including about one million who had settled in Japan before 1939 and a similar number who were forced to come as laborers, resisted assimilation as best they could under constant police watch.

After the March First movement, some exiled Koreans met in Shanghai to form the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea and elect Syngman Rhee its first president. Kim Ilsung was a product of largely communist-backed anti-Japanese insurgency forces in Manchuria, home of nearly one-million Koreans, some displaced during the Yi dynasty, others refugees from Japanese rule.

The rest is political and politicized history.

Divided Koreans now seek the reunification of their minzoku, which means "race" or "ethnic group" but is sometimes translated "people" or "nation" with monoracial or monoethnic nuances. Some South Korean textbooks which stress "racial history" claim that the first Korean kingdom was founded by the mythical Tangun in 2333 BC.

This use of legend "based on historical fact" to serve political needs is reminiscent of the role that the myths of Japanese origins play in Yamatoism. Minzoku, the keyword in prewar racialist ideology, became less common after the war, but the ultra-rightists have kept it alive, and Prime Minister Nakasone widely invokes it in his speeches.

Minzoku is also important in China, a self-styled multinational (multiethnic) state. But nowhere in Asia is the concept of minzoku so essential to national identity as it is in Korea, north and south.

Japan may be called a collection of cultural fossils. Old Chinese dialects can be reconstructed by studying the ways that the Japanese language has preserved two or three different pronunciations of Chinese characters.

The present-day confrontation between the Japanese government and Koreans in Japan can be seen as a petrifaction of the colonial period. Guided by prewar racial ideology, the Ministry of Education has ordered local boards of education not to hire Korean teachers.

The Ministry of Justice, in the spirit of prewar assimilation policy, still hopes that Koreans who naturalize will Yamatoize their names. And reminiscent of prewar police controls over colonial subjects, the Alien Registration Law requires fingerprinting and constant possession of the registration booklet, though Japanese nationals are not required to carry any personal identification, much give their fingerprints as a part of their family registration.

Japanese and Korean nationalism past and present are related in one more way. Japan's attempt to racially assimilate Koreans in the past fostered Korean nationalism. But Japan's determination to assimilate its resident Koreans not only feeds nationalism in both Koreas, but has the effect of inspiring neo-nationalism in Japan.

Koreans themselves are ambivalent about the idea of Japanese nationality and Korean ethnicity. Labels like "Korean Japanese" upset their racialistic equation of nationality with ethnicity. Hence few Koreans in Japan would naturalize, even if Japan were to call itself a multiethnic country, reserve the word "Japanese" for designating citizenship regardless of race or ethnicity, and admit the existence of Ainu, Okinawan, Korean, Chinese, and many other kinds of Japanese.

What prevents this is not patriotism as a love of country, but "nationalism" in the Nazi sense of love of pure volk.