School Strikes in Colonial Korea: 1937-1939

I had a chance to look into two primary sources on ‘school strikes (同盟休校)’ (mostly in common schools) in the colonial period of Korea (the Kominka period in particular), and translated some of the records from Japanese to English. The documents I looked at are: 高等外事月報 (朝鮮総督府警務局) and 朝鮮思想運動概況(朝鮮軍). It is quite interesting and I would like to share some of the anecdotes here.

<Students’ Complaints in 1937-1939>
The main complaints throughout these years were about the excessive amount of ‘practice (jisshū)’ classes at the expense of academic training. Many went on strike because they perceived that they were not receiving adequate education or were not provided with qualified teachers. In many of these cases, the quality of education mattered more than ethnicity. To give a few examples;

  • 69 male students out of the total of 80 fourth graders were discontent about the educational policy of the new Japanese principal who emphasized only ‘practice’ classes and disregarded academic courses. The class president and 5 other students gathered all the male students and decided to go on school strike during that week. They carried out the strike the next day. But after the local police and the school caught the six instigators, all the rest attended school the following day. (Kyŏnggi, Common School, May 1937)
  • 32 forth graders went on strike in the hope that the school would hire an additional teacher and reduce the number of self-study hours. The police detected the plan, and dissuaded them from carrying it out. (North Ch’ungch’ŏng, Common School, March 1937)
  • Students were discontent with a Korean teacher of Buddhism and the Korean language for his short temper and ineffective pedagogy. 32 students went on strike for two days. (South Kyŏngsang, Buddhist School, May 1937)
  • Civil engineering students were discontent with the Japanese principal’s decision to hire a new Japanese teacher to replace a resigning Korean teacher since the new teacher lacked adequate educational background. 101 students went for strike, but after the principal explained his intention to promote school reform and discipline by hiring a Japanese teacher, and promised to hire another Japanese teacher with higher technical knowledge, the students were satisfied and resumed attending school. (South Ch’ungch’ŏng, 1939)

Many school strikes were triggered by a punishment carried out on the students;

  • When the school principal led third and fourth graders to see off a soldier departing the village, the fourth grade students messed up the marching line, so the principal ordered them to do running as punishment. 24 students out of them did not follow the order, and went for strike the next day. (South Ch’ungch’ŏng May 1939)
  • The Korean principal and a teacher suspended 5 male six graders (age 16) for putting a mouse in a female student’s desk for 2 days. 3 among these students were discontent with the punishment, and instigated the rest of the class to go for strike. Local police officers intervened and the students showed up at school the following day. 4 students were expelled from the school. (Ch’ungch’ŏng, Common School, February 1937)

In some cases, students were concerned of politics between teachers;

  • 299 students planned on a school strike to show their discontent about ongoing conflicts between different cliques among teachers. (North Ch’ungch’ŏng, Common School, June 1937)
  • Recently a Japanese teacher and the principal, both of whom were popular among students, were transferred to Japan. Students interpreted it as a result of power struggle between teachers, and 117 students between the second and fourth grades went on strike. (Kangwon, Agricultural School, June 1937)
  • The principal attempted to assign the post of the teaching director to his own son, and it created a conflict between the principal and the incumbent director. 75 second and third graders went on strike for a day out of sympathy with the incumbent director. (North P’yŏngan, private school, May 1938)

Some cases show that students faced a dilemma between the Korean social norms and the system of the Japanese modern education. The gender role was a common issue-area in which the difference between the two was manifested most saliently.

  • 8 female students in the fifth grade planned on a school strike because a Japanese teacher treated males and females in the same manner, making female students wear ‘pants’ and exercise together with male students during physical education. (South Chŏlla, Common School, June 1937)

School strikes were certainly the major means available to students to get their voices heard. However, probably because there was a concern of losing educational opportunity by skipping classes and being expelled among students, the leader in each school strike faced a classical collective action problem (which you probably remember as ‘prisoner’s dilemma’). Many cases were discovered in advance, and most of the strikes, when they carried out, only lasted a few days.

  • 51 students in the fourth and fifth grades decided to go on strike to show their complaints against the school principal’s strict policies, but 8 students broke the promise and showed up at school, and others came to class half an hour late. (North Ch’ungch’ŏng, August 1937)

Almost all of these incidents, at least in the official records, were students’ spontaneous actions, and did not have an ideological group that guided them behind the scene. Their demands were immediate and specific to their contexts, rather than developing into a more abstract level to challenge the Japanese colonial rule. The only exception was a series of cases in Ch’unch’ŏn where an outside socialist group (常緑会) instigated school strikes between 1937 and 1939. In the cases in Ch’unch’ŏn, students cited the Japanese slogan of Hakkōichiu and Naisen Ittai to highlight the contradiction between these slogans and the reality. For example;

  • 12 students of the fifth grade were caught by a teacher while they were eating at a restaurant in downtown, and punished for going to a prohibited area. Pointing out the fact that two Japanese students in the group only received an admonition, students claimed that such discriminatory treatment was a blasphemy to Naisen Ittai, and planned on a strike of the whole school. [Later it was found the student who led this planning was connected to the socialist group.] (Ch’unch’ŏn Public Middle School, October 1938)


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.