Japan’s Colonialization Korea 1910-1945


During the Japanese colonization between 1910 and 1945, the colonial ruler oppressed the Korean people’s freedom of speech, culture, and economic autonomy, while also acting as a catalyst for Korea entering modernity. In fact, Seth writes, “In few former colonies has there been such lingering hatred” toward the ex-colonizer, talking about the modern sentiment in Korea (79). This is because Japan ruled with a firm authority, combining control of the government, appointing even village officials, military and police. Japan had over a quarter of a million people working and living in Korea, whose population was only 20 million. The high number of Japanese official working in Korea was partly due to the availability of government jobs in Korea, where they could make a decent wage, as well as the significant role Korea played in the expansion of Japanese territory from 1930’s until 1945.

While I have mentioned that the Japanese power trickled into every part of Korean government, the government was also centralized and efficient, power centralized in the hands of the Governor-General who “possessed an enormously broad authority, including the rights to issue laws, ordinances, and regulations and to appoint various officials” including the military (Seth, 43). Directly in front of the Kyongbok Palace, the palace of Korean royalty, the Governor-General’s large headquarters overshadows tradition with its impressive Western design.

In the beginning of Japanese rule, known as the “dark period”, Korean life was highly censored by Japanese officials who banned political organization and restricted the press. In reaction, leaders across religious affiliations organized a resistance movement with the goal of getting international attention as they presented a Declaration of Independence to Japan. On March 1, 1919 at the funeral of the emperor, Kojong, who many believed was poisoned by the Japanese government a large protest occurred, known as the March First Movement. This singular event lead to over six hundred concurrent protests in the months to come, leading to massive clashes between Japanese police and Korean nationalists, with over seven thousand deaths and tens of thousands of arrests. The movement aimed to bring international pressure to Japan to end their colonial rule, and while this did not occur, the movement did get attention as well as strengthening nationalism of Koreans. March 1st is still a celebrated holiday in both North and South Korea (Britannica.com).

This revolt did cause significant change in Korea as well, for in reaction Japan lifts some censorship on Korean publications and lifts tariffs that were stifling Korean trade. Japan also allows for Koreans to work in their government for equal pay as Japanese representatives. With the lifting of censorship laws, this period between 1919 and 1931 allows for relative artistic freedoms. With the freedoms, Cho Man-sik, a Presbyterian leader known as the “Ghandi of Korea”, starts the Korean Production Movement. Much like Ghandi’s work in India, this movement supported ideas of Korean nationalism, encouraging people to support Korean products and business. The movement was nationally successful, with a headquarters in each province and a monthly publication.

When Japan begins expanding their territories in 1931, the regime again tightens down on Korean citizens. When Japan invades Manchuria, a Chinese territory on the northern border of Korea, Korea became a central territory in the Japanese empire, a link between Japan and China. Japan further industrializes Korea, adding a vast railway network for transporting troops and building factories in the North to supply troops and life in Manchuria. The industrialization of agricultural production in Korea made the territory the primary supplier of rice for Japan. This economic growth and shifting role of Korea caused a mobilization of the Korean people, many going to Japan for higher education and factory jobs, or moving to the north of the country seeking industrial jobs.

Modernization leads to a heightened consciousness of women’s rights during this time, and women rights advocates begin discussing women’s right to divorce, sexuality, and to refuse the life of being a housewife. In this time as well, Japan was forcing young Korean women to work as prostitutes for the war effort in Burma. The Japanese called this project “comfort women”, and promised young women jobs in restaurants with enough money to support their families. These young women did not realize they would be trapped in Burma servicing military men for money, and once they were in this unfamiliar territory they were trapped.

While Japan attempts to expand its territory, they attempt to assimilate Korea into Japanese culture. With the larger territory, Japan aims to strengthen their nation by erasing Korean culture. They do this by forcing Koreans to change their names to Japanese ones, erasing the history of family names in Korea, banning the Korean language from schools, and banning Korean language newspapers.

In contextualizing this historical study, I read an article titled, “When the Korean Wave Meets Resident Koreans in Japan” by Koichi Iwabuchi. Iwabuchi writes about the admiration for Korean TV dramas in Japan. Since the late 1990’s, Japanese viewers have rapidly consumed Korean media, and have helped build the industry of culture production as a major source of income for Korea. Japan’s love of Korean TV goes as far as airing Korean shows on public television. Iwabuchi’s article straddles a position between arguing that the dramas soothe tensions between Japan and Korea, especially Korean residents in Japan, and appositionally arguing that the dramas remove the Korean experience from the painful history and that Korean residents of Japan are still oppressed. What I took most importantly from Iwabuchi’s article is this shift in relations between Korea and Japan, as Japan the ex-colonizer consumes Korean culture and becomes a supporter of the Korean economy by popular demand. Iwabuchi argues that Japan has felt superior and outside of Asia through history, but events like the Seoul Olympics of 1988 as well as the FIFA world cup of 2002 which was co-sponsored by Japan and Korea has, in Iwabuchi’s opinion, made Japan see Korea as a country of equal power and significance. The recent media sharing between the two countries perhaps can shed light on a redemptive relationship between the countries.

I am currently enrolled in an architecture class, and hope to use this as an opportunity to do some more research about the Japanese colonial architecture in Korea. I found the Japanese architecture, especially its placement, as an interesting form of control. How much of this architecture still remains in Korea? What is the relationship of modern Koreans to this historical architecture? I am also still curious about the feminist movements Seth discusses in this time period. How did the feminist movement evolve in post-colonial Korea? How is the Korean wave important in in understanding the relationship between modern Japan and Korea?









Iwabuchi, Koichi. “When the Korean Wave Meets Resident Koreans in Japan: Intersections of the Transnational, the Postcolonial, and the Multicultural” from the book East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave, published in 2008 from the Hong Kong University Press



Seth, Michael J. A Concise History of Modern Korea: From the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present. 2010. Pgs 43-80.






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