Bloody progress

It’s time to get my industrial strength can opener out and open the can of worms labeled ‘Japan’s colonial domination of Korea and modern interpretations thereof’ (a bit of a mouthful to fit on any normal sized can I admit). There have been a couple of interventions touching on this subject recently that have prompted me to think about this a bit. Most recently Frog in a Well’s own Jonathan Dresner has stepped into this discussion with a thought-provoking piece on the need for a ‘colonialogy’ – a study of the forms of imperialism and colonialism.

Korea blogger Oranckay wrote about this article (reg. required) from the Japan Times a short while ago. It is titled “Another side to Japanese-Korean history” and could perhaps best be described as the softer end of the rightwing Japanese view of history. Interestingly, it focuses on a Japanese article detailing recent research on the colonial period in English – research which is noted approvingly for its more ‘nuanced’ approach to the period:

What Akita does in it is to list, with a few comments, some of the more notable books and dissertations on various aspects of the Japanese rule written in English in recent years, some by people of Korean ancestry, to suggest that, if you take a less than overtly nationalistic stance, the Japanese-Korean relationship during those 35 years may not have been a simple one of oppressor and oppressed but one that was “ambiguous and nuanced.”

So, on Japan’s contribution to Korea’s modernization — a subject that I understand only creates anger in Korea — Akita tells us that Carter Eckert in “Offspring of Empire: The Ko’chang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism” (University of Washington Press, 1991) and Gi Wook Shin in “Peasant Protest and Social Change in Colonial Korea” (University of Washington Press, 1996) argue that Japan helped agricultural reform and capital formation in Korea, although it did so out of necessity. Eckert is a professor at Harvard University and Shin a professor at Howard University.

This is the sort of thing that is likely to set off once again the ‘modernization’ debate between Koreans and Japanese over the colonial legacy. No doubt it will also give rise to discussions in the blogosphere and elsewhere between non-Korean and non-Japanese supporters of one or other side in this polarised debate.

The two sides of this debate (if it can be called that) tend to line up as follows:

In the blue corner: rightwing Japanese historians and politicians who say “ok, so you didn’t like Japanese colonialism that much, but it wasn’t all that bad and we did bring modernity to Korea after all. It’s time to just get over it and accept that you wouldn’t have become a modern country without our help.”

Meanwhile in the red corner: Korean nationalists (in other words a very large proportion of the Korean population covering the whole left-right spectrum) and leftwing Japanese intellectuals who say “Japanese colonialism was awful and brutal, it brought no benefits for the Korean people, only oppression and exploitation. It did not bring modernity to our country – we did that ourselves after liberation.”

Of the two positions (which admittedly I have caricatured rather severely) I find the rightwing Japanese neo-nationalist one the most disturbing and most in need of challenging. This is largely because of the racist assumption that underlies it: the Koreans were incapable of becoming part of the modern world independently.

However, I think there is a problem with this whole debate. The common premise that underlies both of these apparently polarised arguments is the liberal view of history, the idea that history is basically about progress with a few bumps along the way. The goal of history in this paradigm is so obvious that it often doesn’t need to be mentioned: the capitalist nation state. The argument therefore always concerns the means of reaching this goal: independent development toward capitalist modernity (a rarity outside of Europe) or colonialist development as a subjugated nation (for at least some portion of the development period). Now, of course, much work can be done and has been done to assess the actual impact of any particular case of colonialism/imperialism. Recent research, for example, has indicated that India’s total productive output at the end of British colonial rule was about the same as it had been at the start of colonialism.

I don’t want to get into a debate about whether Japanese colonial rule emprically left Korea more ‘modern’ or ‘developed’ (although it may be a worthwhile debate for another time). What worries me is that both sides in the Korea-Japan barney basically agree that it is the quantifiable ‘fruits’ of modernity that matter (railways, factories, roads, plumbing, consumer goods etc) and that these are to be traded off against its ills (exploitation, poverty, one-sided development, cultural and environmental destruction on a massive scale etc). If Korea had been an independent country for those 36 years would it have escaped the horrors of the 20th century, would progress have happened without exploitation?

The problem for me here is the lack of a critique of modernity itself. Whatever the path to capitalist modernity, it seems that brutality and exploitation has gone hand in hand with progress. The slave trade, the gulag, genocide, imperialist war, environmental devastation and the nuclear bomb have been as much part of the path to modernity as the consumer society, cultural interchange, liberal democracy and good plumbing.

I suppose what I’m arguing for here is the need for historians to reject the fetishism of modernisation and attempt to step outside of the paradigm of capitalist society. Perhaps we can conclude: primitive accumulation is never pretty, but when (or rather if) it occurs under colonial domination insult is added to injury.

PS: I’m sure everyone can guess who wrote this:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.”


  1. I’m fully in agreement that ‘modernization’ and ‘improvement’ are not necessarily synonymous, and the assumption, as you point out, of right-wing pro-colonialists that no modernization or development would have taken place without ‘intervention’ is quite unjustified (by Japan’s own history, if nothing else).

    At the same time, I’m not — being basically not Marxist in any meaningful sense of the word — prepared to entirely dispense with industrialism as an improvement in some ways and depending on the distribution of benefits over proto-industrial or non-industrial production. Much as colonial development benefits subjects as well as (but not as much as) rulers, capitalist developments benefit workers and consumers as well as (if not as much as) capitalists.

    The simple equation of capitalist industrialism with improvement (or with modernization, which ought to be a considerably broader term) is clearly false; but a simple rejection of the connection between development and quality of life is also false.

  2. Yes, I agree with you here basically. Otherwise I suppose I’d have to be a primitivist and advocate living in the woods or something like that. Really I just wanted to get at the uncritical and panglossian view of modernisation that seems to lie behind both colonial apologists and their nationalist opponents. It sort of assumes that modernisation is possible without (or with a minimum of) its attendant horrors, in the face of all contrary evidence.

  3. Owen, how would you characterize Korea’s scholarly (or otherwise) response to the “Colonial Modernity” approach which very self-consciously tries to extract itself from this binary by including a more critical approach to modernity that is prominant in a lot of enlightenment critique these days? I’m quite sympathetic to this approach and I think it has already yielded some interesting work on the ironic and sometimes surprising aspects of attempts towards modernity in the colony. As Michael Robinson and Gi-Wook Shin say in the introduction of Colonial Modernity in Korea:

    “modernity is neither a universal good nor a historical necessity.” and “Colonial modernity possessed liberating forces and a raw, tranformative power, and it affected the more nuanced forms of domination and repression in the colony. Its sheer complexity must be recognized.” p11

    Much of their work show some of the more indirect forms of repression and the importance of cultural production in the intensification of colonial hegemony.

  4. I must admit that I’ve read parts but not all of that book. What I read I thought was excellent. In terms of the Korean response, I’ve certainly seen articles that use some of that terminology (식민지 근대성) so I assume there is a fan base, probably among younger Korean academics. I would also assume that it has been attacked by some of the more nationalist academics. I wonder if Noja knows a bit more about this? Anyway, searching for 식민지 근대성 at Aladdin comes up with 38 books so there has obviously been quite a bit of interest.

    It adds another layer of irony to the whole thing when it seems as though the Japanese right is looking to some of that sort of (excellent) non-Korean scholarship to prop up its arguments, because it adds ‘ambiguity and nuance’ to the interpretation of Japanese colonialism. As though that means that it doesn’t also find colonialism abhorrent.

  5. Yes, the first fruit of labour inside the Korean academia on the 식민지 근대성 I can vividly remember, came from the late Prof. Kim Chin’gyun’s Marxist school in the SNU – a very content-rich article collection entitled 근대주체와 식민지 규율 권력 ( Remember first seeing it around 1998, and then 문화과학사 reprinted it anew in 2003. The approach there, heavily influenced by M.Foucauld (too heavily, for my taste, in some cases), was quite close to what you have described – questioning of the immnanent disciplinarian repressiveness of any sort of modernity, and its colonial version in particular. Theoretically, the tone was largely set by the article by Pak T’aeho (Yi Chin’gyOn) – Marxist-turned-postmodernist, and one of the most talented disciples of Prof. Kim – “근대적 주체의 역사 이론을 위하여”. I guess it was one of the first full-blown critical excursions into the concept of “modern” in Korea’s historic-sociological scholarship. Then came a plethora of very fascinating works on the history of “oppressive modernity” free of blaming Japanese for all the hardships of modern Korean history – for example, the book on the modern sexuality in Korea and the ways “sexual” was regimented and stigmatized BEFORE 1910, in Taehan Empire, by my good friend Ko Misuk ( I only hope somebody in Europe or USA will at some point translate into English at least one article by either Ko Misuk or Yi Chin’gyOn, just to give some impression to the non-Korean reader on the scope and methological depth of the “modernity criticism” in Korea today. By the way, never could understand why the books like these are not even reviewed in the JAS or some other “mainstream” Asian Studies journals?

  6. Thanks Noja,

    I share your feelings on the lack of attention…actually, while auditing a seminar with Professor Wakabayashi at Tokyo U (Taiwan specialist) he had one of his Korean grad students translate one of the 식민지 근대성 based articles from Korean to Japanese and present on it.

    I wish we had more of the kind of thing Josh Fogel used to do in the Sino-Japanese studies journal: providing annual summaries in English of excellent Chinese work (on Japan) and Japanese work (on China). I hope eventually I can start contributing some discussion of these works on these three frog in a well blogs…but it will have to await a less busy period of my grad school education (or aftermath of it).

  7. When I have more time I’d also love to translate some of this recent writing on Korean modernity. The terms of the debate are so circumscribed by what is available to English readers. Perhaps as a long-term project those of us here who are interested should consider selecting some interesting articles to translate for some sort of ‘cutting edge’ collection of work on history/modernity/colonialism.

  8. I’m not making any promises on this… But it is an idea I’ve been thinking about for a while. Does that sort of thing happen in Japanese studies/history?

  9. It does. There are a couple of really famous examples I can think of offhand where seminal works were translated — Maruyama Masao, Kitagawa on religion, Ienaga on WWII — which added immensely to the English language discourse. There have been some newer translations, too, particularly in the field of literature.

  10. Without getting into the theoretical debate concerning modernity–which I find interesting and worthy of scrutiny along the lines advocated by the blog’s author–is there a standard by which to judge how a uncolonized Korean regime would have developed all things being equal. Can we ascertain if and how Choson would have conducted development and how would the welfare of the Korean population differed? Also, what about the Korean central government’s culpability for not being able to defend Choson from Japan, and what that means for this debate? Surely, the political development of Choson as a failed state syas something about its hypothesized ability to further development. Although it does not condone japanese actions or conduct, can we say Choson would have considered the welfare of its population in any more of an enlightened manner than Meiji Japan?

  11. That’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it? History is not a controlled experiment, and we don’t have the kind of predictive models, even for hindsight situations like this one, which allow us to say with even the bravado of false confidence that an uncolonized Korea would have been one way or another.

    The experts will have to speak more specifically to the issue of late Choson as a failed state, but my impression is that it was no more of a failed state than the Tokugawa regime, but it was under greater pressure and interference from, ironically, Japan than Japan itself had been from foreign powers who were more focused on China in the mid-19c.

  12. it seems to me that implicitly those who would say Japan did more for Korea than Japan gets credit for are making an argument, that Choson was a failed state. Politically, it’s really hard to claim Choson was successful, unless there was some sort of union, like Syria and Egypt.

    Also, although I have not yet read the book, L.M. Cullen’s “A History of Japan, 1582-1941” argues “…that Japan before 1854, far from being in progressive economic and social decay or political crisis, was obalance a successful society led by rational policymakers. He also shows how when an external threat emerged after 1793 the country became on balance more open rather than more oppressive and that Japan displayedremarkable success in negotiation with the western powers in 1853–68. In the twentieth century, however, with the 1889 constitution failing to control the armed forces and western and American interests encroaching in Asia and the Pacific, Japan abandoned realism and met her nemesis in China and the Pacific.”

  13. Although I agree with Jonathan that speculation about what might have happened is fairly meaningless, it can of course be a fun thing to do.

    I do think that current research is pointing to rather a large divergence between Japan and Chosŏn economically and socially in the 19th century. It seems that the crisis of Chosŏn was very deep through much of the century and previous economic growth was probably being reversed. Of course many many other factors must have figured in the different path to modernity taken by these two countries, but I think if you look at the mid-nineteenth century we can say with some confidence that they weren’t at similar point economically and socially.

    One bit of caution about what Mod Mephisto is saying/quoting above. As I understand it, the Meiji Restoration (ie the establishment of a capitalist state/independent centre of capital accumulation/modern nation-state or whatever you want to call it) came about as the result of a political struggle. It represented a break, not an organic process of transition from favourable conditions to favourable outcome. So while the conditions were probably more favourable for this to happen in Tokugawa Japan, it was not an inevitable outcome, just as the failure of such attempts in Korea (ie the Kapsin chŏngbyŏn) was not inevitable (although it was likely).

  14. At some point we’ll have to distinguish between “failed state” and “social crisis”: the Tokugawa state was indeed a failure in many respects, not least of which is its inability to lead the relatively independent daimyo domains through much-needed fiscal reforms, and the preservation of the samurai as a ruling class. The economy of Tokugawa Japan was indeed a model of Early Modern efficiency (Susan Hanley’s book has lots of good comparative detail).

    To define the unequal treaty system created in Japan in the bakumatsu era (1853-1868) as successful is very much a relative term: it did not, in the end, prevent Japan from modernizing, and it did not result in the profound loss of sovereignty which China and Korea experienced after similar interactions, but it was still a series of nearly unmitigated surrenders which prompted great unrest and hampered policy development.

    I haven’t read Cullen either (I skimmed it as a possible textbook at one point, but it was a couple of years ago), but the definition of early 19c Japan as “more open and less oppressive” is not too helpful in the abstract: there are ways in which both local and national governments became both more open and more oppressive….

    There are actually three, as I see it, kinds of arguments which might be implicit in discussions of Japanese development in Korea: as Mod Mephisto notes, the argument that Choson was a failed state and, as Owen notes, that it was a failed economy, is contrasted with effective development under Japanese rule; Second, there is the argument that, even if Choson was not a failed state, that Japanese economic development represents an improvement over what would have happened otherwise; third, there is the backwards-looking argument about the roots of post-liberation economic development, which ignores the question of Choson development and looks instead at the proximate connections between pre- and post-liberation society.

  15. Two points to Owen:

    1. I don’t want to disparage economics, but I would be remiss if I didn’t state my preference for political science. I tend to view economics by reference to Mancur Olson. However, there is a place in history for leadership and contingency, as Mahan argued. Regardless of Choson’s economic development, politically it increasingly appears through these conversations and allusions, that it was politically inept. The epithet, “most beloved loser’ in the world, means nothing to those who died because of the Choson leadership’s failure.

    2. I don’t view this as just a mere “fun” counterfactual, but as a way to devise a standard by which to judge the current state of Korean political development. It’s possible given the volitility of the region, that Korea could be challenged politically again.

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