The conference "Between Colonialism and Nationalism: Power and Subjectivity in Korea, 1931-1950" was held at the University of Michigan, May 4—6 . The following article provides some highlights from that conference. Henry Em, organizer of the conference and a faculty member in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, teaches courses on Korean history and does research on modern Korean intellectual history, with focus on colonialism, nationalism and historiography. Currently, he is working on a book on historians and history writing in modern Korea.


    Until the mid-1980s, the history of colonialism and nationalism in 20th century Korea was conceptualized, for the most part, as a struggle between two nations: a colonizing Japan that was racist, exploitative and non-modern, opposed by a resisting and enduring Korean nation. The Cold War system commanded by the United States accommodated this form of anti-colonial narrative and worked to marginalize alternative views: keeping North Korean and Japanese nationalist historiography beyond the realm of credibility and, like stealth technology, keeping the United States invisible in much of the discussions about colonialism in East Asia.

    From outside the mainstream, then, nationalist historians in Japan rejected this way of narrating Japan's (and America's) imperial past, insisting that Japan need not be apologetic for attempting to drive out Western colonial powers from Asia and arguing that colonial rule had ushered Korea into the modern age and that many Koreans had actively supported the Japanese colonial government and the goal of expanding Japan's empire. With the end of the Cold War, while Japan's Self Defense Forces remained locked in an American embrace, nationalist historians in Japan have begun to move into the mainstream, finding an increasingly receptive audience for their efforts to establish an autonomous national identity based on a "positive" view of Japan's imperial history.

    In South Korea, until the mid-1980s, the National Security Law and the Korean Central Intelligence Agency had kept dissident intellectuals in line, and few historians dared question how South Korea came to take on its geopolitical role as an anti-Communist bulwark. Starting in 1987, however, after decades of struggle against U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes, the democracy movement succeeded in bringing about a democratic transition. In tandem with the democratic movement, a number of historians and political scientists at leading universities began to acknowledge the role played by Korean communists in the independence struggle against imperial Japan and the pivotal role played by the United States in dividing Korea along the 38th parallel (1945) and establishing the South Korean state (1948) staffed by many who had actively supported colonial rule.

    Thus, by the late 1980s, a deep cleavage had appeared within nationalist historiography in South Korea over how to tell the story of Korean resistance. Anti-communist historiography played down the problem of collaboration. Dissident historiography, critical of the South Korean state, drew attention to it, implicating the propertied classes with collaboration-first with the Japanese, then with the Americans-and complicating the simple binary of colonizing Japan versus a resisting Korean nation. It was from a nationalist position, then, that a younger, more radical generation of historians differentiated Korean responses to Japanese colonial rule along class lines.

    New Approaches

    In the 1990s, a growing number of scholars in South Korea, Japan and the United States began to conceptualize the problem of colonial domination and nationalist resistance in more multifaceted ways. In the Introduction to Colonial Modernity in Korea (Harvard Asia Center, 1999), the editors Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson called for a new approach that would challenge the "unitary focus, artificial unity, and binary-producing tendencies of older assumptions about nationalism that too often dominated Korean historiography." Rather than treat colonialism, modernity and nationalism as "separate and isolated variables," Shin and Robinson called attention to the "multiple possibilities of their interrelationship." By moving beyond the dichotomizing conceptions of colonialism, modernity and nationalism, Shin and Robinson argued, we can better appreciate complex issues such as colonial modernity, cultural hegemony and the formation of non-national identities.

    Indeed, a number of articles in Colonial Modernity in Korea challenged simplistic interpretations of Japanese colonial rule. Chulwoo Lee, for example, pointed out that the legal-governmental system established in colonial Korea was justified in highly "modern" terms, with its power and control extending to minute details of life untouched by the traditional Korean state. From a position more critical of modernity, Lee pointed out that the Japanese colonial police, as agents of modernity, supervised public hygiene, exhorted Koreans to take side-jobs and to save money, acted as conciliators in private disputes, enforced court judgments and so on. Lee's study of the police and the legal system in colonial Korea set itself apart from conventional histories that unproblematically associate modernity with freedom and even redemption, and thus Japanese colonialism as pre-modern, or at best, producing a "distorted" modernity (Lee, 1999).

    To enable a more critical understanding of contemporary Japanese society, a growing number of scholars in Japan have also revisited the question of modernity and empire. Yasushi Yamanouchi, for example, argued that colonialism and wartime expansion provided the basis for the creation of social and economic institutions that continued to serve Japan's growth in the postwar period (see Tess Morris-Suzuki, 1998). For South Korea, similar continuities from the colonial period were identified earlier. In the political realm, far from encouraging a reexamination and reassessment of the Japanese imperial value system and institutions, the American occupation (1945-1948) instead helped sustain the colonial mechanisms of discipline and repression in South Korea (Cumings, 1981). In the economic realm, South Korea's state-controlled financial system that used control over access to capital to ensure economic performance in the 1960s and 1970s was shown to have its origins in the colonial period (Woo, 1991).

    But the most contentious challenge to conventional narratives about the colonial period may have been in the realm of culture, and national identity. Contrary to conventional nationalist accounts of Japanese colonial authorities pursuing a systematic policy of eradicating Korean identity, I have argued that the Japanese colonial state actually endeavored to produce Koreans as subjects-subjects in the sense of being under the authority of the Japanese emperor and in the sense of having a separate (and inferior) subjectivity. In fact, there was a steady proliferation of discourses concerning Korean identity emanating from the Japanese colonial state: studies of Korean history, art, music, language, religion, customs, geography, etc. Simultaneously, the Japanese colonial state waged campaigns to assimilate Koreans into Japaneseness. To say the least, this simultaneous process of transforming peasants into Koreans (chosenjin), while assimilating them into the colonizing culture, created a complicated relationship between the colonizer and colonized (Em, 1999).

    The Conference

    It is this complicated relationship between the colonizer and colonized that Takashi Fujitani addressed in his conference paper. Fujitani acknowledged that there is, on the one hand, a great deal of truth to the argument that even as the colonial authorities sought to convince Koreans that the Emperor believed in their fundamental equality to the Japanese, racist policies and discriminatory attitudes continued to be directed against Koreans.

    It is well known that tens of thousands of Korean women (as well as women from other countries) were forced into sexual slavery, and hundreds of thousands of men from Japan's formal colonies and China were put to work, against their will, in mining, construction and other strategic industries throughout the empire. It is also well known that in the last decade of the colonial period, colonial authorities pursued a policy of forced assimilation under the banner of Naisen Ittai (Interior [Japan] and Korea as one body): eliminating the use of Korean in school instruction (1934), requiring attendance at Shinto ceremonies (1935) and forcing Koreans to adopt Japanese surnames (1939).

    The slogan of Naisen Ittai, however, reveals the ambivalence of Japan's racial policy throughout the colonial period: the ambivalence marked by Japan as the Interior (Nai), excluding Korea (sen) as the "outside," while at the same time this outside (Korea) must become one with the Interior which is always already there.

    Fujitani argues that, despite this ambivalence, the Japanese elite became caught up in the very discourse of equality they promoted. Especially in the post-1937 era, when the Japanese imperial army invaded north China, the looming necessity of waging total war set loose a set of contradictory discourses regarding race or ethnicity that enveloped colonizers and colonized alike. In this context, Fujitani argues, a racial "common sense" emerged that made it increasingly obligatory to proclaim equality and made it difficult for Japanese elites to openly express their racism. Japanese elites felt increasingly bound to act and speak toward Koreans as if they believed in their fundamental equality. They also found it necessary to speak with each other and toward the metropolitan population at large in the same way and to even begin addressing Korean demands that they be treated equally.

    The practical necessity of mobilizing Koreans for the war effort also had profound effects on mainstream Japanese articulations of race, ethnicity and culture. In a very dramatic way, newspapers, radio, film and literary works that were read, heard or viewed by large numbers of Japanese circulated images of Koreans and particularly Korean soldiers as inherently, if not always culturally, the equal of Japanese. As Kyeong-Hee Choi argued in her paper, this was a radical departure from racist characterization of Korean men as being unqualified to volunteer or to be drafted to fight. In preparation for total war, exhortations directed at Korean men, urging them to fight for the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, appealed to their desire to re-normalize their emasculated male sovereignty.

    While Kyeong-Hee Choi demonstrated how discourses on race and gender evolved in and through each other in colonial Korea, Jin-Kyung Lee focused on the relationship between ethnicity and class. Lee's careful reading of the left-wing literature produced in the 1930s reveals how representations of class were invested, divested and re-invested in the notion of ethnicity. In stories about the Korean proletariat, for example, Korean supervisors are represented as being indistinguishable from their Japanese counterparts; Korean workers resent these Korean supervisors for associating with the Japanese and for the way they speak and act-as if they were Japanese. On the other hand, in stories about the peasantry, poor illiterate peasants view their relation with the colonial authorities as something not altogether different from their relation with the traditional Korean officialdom (kwan).

    What Jin-Kyung Lee finds in these texts is that the identities and positionings of colonizer and colonized were not stable or unitary and that negotiations marked the colonial divide. The representation of class in these particular texts sometimes subverts and sometimes affirms the notion of ethnicity as the privileged ground for anti-colonial resistance. Lee's paper implies that the earlier focus on nationalism as the primary form of opposition to colonialism obscured class and gender as alternative sites of resistance, closing off the possibility of imagining forms of resistance that is subversive of nationalism's totalizing claims.

    This questioning of nationalism as the privileged form of opposition to colonialism emerges in the work of Korean Marxists like Paek Nam-un. As I argue in my paper, Paek set out to demolish the epistemological foundations of both colonialist historiography and Korean nationalist historiography-asserting that they shared a common epistemological ground. In Chosen shakai keizaishi (The Social Economic History of Korea), published in1933, Paek was highly critical of nationalist historians like Sin Ch'ae-ho and Ch'oe Nam-son who traced Korea's ethnic and cultural origins as far back as possible, to the mythical figure Tan'gun. Paek argued that their particularist view of history actually reified the hierarchies and categories of knowledge established by the Japanese colonial state.

    Nationalist intellectuals did not take kindly to such criticism, and Paek's anxiety over his doubly marginalized position vis-à-vis both the colonial state and conservative nationalists is quite evident in an interview he gave following CSK's publication. Paek expressed sadness over the fact that he had the "freedom" to assert that Tan'gun was merely an honorific title for a primitive aristocratic chieftain. Here, Paek was referring to the "freedom" granted by the colonial authorities to debunk nationalist claims about Korea's ancient past, a freedom that did not extend to debunking Japanese claims about its role in colonial Korea. But, Paek also felt obliged to make the point that a rigorous and critical approach to understanding Korea's past was the true manifestation of a love for Korean history.

    Until the beginning of the Pacific War, nationalist historians (those who resisted capitulating to Japanese colonialism) focused their effort on defending (and inventing) Korean identity, to accentuate difference and particularist claims in the face of assimilationist policies, while Marxists like Paek Nam-un set their hopes on revolution from below based on universalist assumptions. With liberation in 1945 and divided occupation by American and Soviet troops polarizing the political terrain even further, the intellectual and cultural disputes of the 1930s provided the vocabulary for ideological struggles in a new political context.

    As the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) took measures to establish a separate state south of the 38th parallel, Marxist intellectuals in southern Korea, including Paek, went north, pushed by anti-communist repression and pulled by offers of employment and the excitement of taking part in socialist construction. Paek Nam-un understood "national liberation" to be the unfulfilled, most pressing political task and soon came to see the American intervention in Korea and elsewhere in Asia as an effort to re-create Japan's Co-Prosperity Sphere-this time under American hegemony. In this context, Paek championed a broad united front for national liberation against Syngman Rhee and the United States.

    The Korean War that broke out in 1950 brought tremendous suffering and psychological shock. Land and flesh were torn apart. With over three million dead and tens of thousands of families separated by the Demilitarized Zone, the ceasefire in 1953 brought neither reconciliation nor peace. In spite of this history, most Korean intellectuals, Left and Right, refused to question the notion of modernity as a universal and emancipatory project; refused to associate modernity with any aspect of the colonial period and holding on to their vision of modernity's "forward" trajectory promising a reunified, strong and self-determining Korea that can stand on an equal footing with Japan and the West.

    In terms of intellectual production, however, a number of scholars have shown how the scholarship on which postwar South Korean social science was established did not originate in resistance to total war, but rather in the process of contributing to the rationalization of the Japanese wartime system. This kind of scholarship was supported by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation made to academic organizations like the Chindan hakhoe before and after the Korean War. As Myoung-kyu Park noted in his conference paper, in terms of memory, as the Left and Right clashed in the immediate post-liberation period over how to commemorate nationalist resistance under Japanese colonial rule, the USAMGIK played a crucial role in establishing a nationalist/anti-communist historical memory in South Korea.

    But at this conference, a number of historians from Korea expressed misgivings about an emerging scholarship that sees imperialism and racism as fundamental aspects of industrial modernity. Moreover, while these historians endorsed the critique of organicist conception of the nation and essentialist myths of origin, they remain wary when scholars in the U.S. mobilize that critique indiscriminately, ignoring crucial differences between competing nationalist positions. Tae-hern Jung, an economic historian at Korea University, called attention to the huge American flag that is flown on the Michigan diag and asked, how can you (referring to scholars in the U.S.) criticize nationalist epistemologies in places like Korea when power still tends to operate politically through the medium of the nation-state, and the United States wields this power in such a unilateral way?

    Jung's question reminded the conference participants of how cultural nationalism helped end the era of formal colonialism and how it might still play a part in resisting dominant global orders. Conference participants were reminded that a very thin line separates informed critiques of nationalist narratives from indiscriminate attacks on the authority of local epistemologies and modes of representation. Whether that distinction can be maintained might depend on whether this emerging scholarship maintains a self-reflective stance, critical of various forms of colonial and neo-colonial domination.

    It is readily apparent that this new scholarship does not celebrate the direction of late colonial understandings of Korea and Koreans. The point made by Fujitani is that, by the end of the war, Japan had entered into a historical moment when racism needed at least to be camouflaged. By thus calling attention to the similarities between late-colonial policies toward Koreans in the Japanese empire and wartime policies toward minorities in liberal democracies such as the United States, Fujitani's research offers a fresh and critical comparison for America's postwar racial "common sense." Further research along this line of inquiry should bring to our attention different forms of resistance against colonialism and neo-colonialism and recognition of the paradox of our modernities as oppressive and violent but also enabling.


    Cumings, Bruce. The Origins of the Korean War, vol. 1. (Princeton University Press, 1981).

    Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. Reinventing Japan. (M.E. Sharpe, 1998).

    Shin, Gi-wook and Michael Robinson, eds. Colonial Modernity in Korea. (Harvard University Asia Center, 1999).

    Woo, Jung-en [Meredith Woo-Cumings]. Race to the Swift: State and Finance in Korean Industrialization (Columbia University Press, 1991).