Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910-1945


This remarkable book examines the complex history of Japanese colonial and postcolonial interactions with Korea, particularly in matters of cultural policy. E. Taylor Atkins focuses on past and present Japanese fascination with Korean culture as he reassesses colonial anthropology, heritage curation, cultural policy, and Korean performance art in Japanese mass media culture. Atkins challenges the prevailing view that imperial Japan demonstrated contempt for Koreans through ...

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Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910-1945

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This remarkable book examines the complex history of Japanese colonial and postcolonial interactions with Korea, particularly in matters of cultural policy. E. Taylor Atkins focuses on past and present Japanese fascination with Korean culture as he reassesses colonial anthropology, heritage curation, cultural policy, and Korean performance art in Japanese mass media culture. Atkins challenges the prevailing view that imperial Japan demonstrated contempt for Koreans through suppression of Korean culture.
In his analysis, the Japanese preoccupation with Koreana provided the empire with a poignant vision of its own past, now lost—including communal living and social solidarity—which then allowed Japanese to grieve for their former selves. At the same time, the specific objects of Japan's gaze—folk theater, dances, shamanism, music, and material heritage—became emblems of national identity in postcolonial Korea.

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Editorial Reviews

Japan Times
“Atkins succeeds in illustrating the many anxieties and self-contradictions that shaped the Japanese reception, handling and discussion of Korean traditional and popular culture throughout the official, anthropological, curatorial and popular spheres.”
Int Journal Of Cultural Policy - Joowon Yuk
“An asset not only to scholars of Japanese and Korean studies but to readers interested in colonial histories, postcolonial studies, racial studies and cultural studies in general, thanks to its comparative interdisciplinary approach.“
Korean Studies - Todd Henry
“The author is to be commended for amassing a wide range of cultural productions . . . and shaping them into a more general claim about the relationship between colonialism and culture within the context of modernity.”
Journal Of Japanese Studies
“Atkins’s study offers a refreshing new perspective.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520266742
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 8/25/2010
  • Series: Colonialisms Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

E. Taylor Atkins is Professor of History at Northern Illinois University and the author of Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan.

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Read an Excerpt

Primitive Selves

Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910â?"1945

By E. Taylor Atkins


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94768-9


A Long Engagement

The headlines in U.S. newspapers in late August 1910 were nothing less than cataclysmic: "'Hermit Kingdom' Near End"; "Corea [sic] Ends Existence Soon"; "Korea as a Nation to End This Week"; "Corea No Longer a Nation"; "Korea Now Japanese." Reporting the dramatic events of the week of August 22–29, American news stories adopted a tone of resignation, finality, and inevitability. "Throughout the negotiations, the mass of the Koreans have been kept in entire ignorance of what has been going on," the New York Times stated. "It is not believed, however, that annexation by Japan will involve disturbances in any section of Korea, which is thoroughly policed.... The vast majority of the people of Korea realize that conditions in their country will be improved by annexation, and it will be impossible for the malcontents to arouse sufficient feeling to create uprisings."

American journalists portrayed the annexation of August 22 and the abdication of the Yunghi Emperor Sunjong (1874–1926) on August 29 as the logical, inescapable outcomes of the Portsmouth Treaty of five years earlier, the terms of which allowed Japan to establish a protectorate over the peninsula then formally known as the Taehan Empire. Their reports presumed that nothing could be done to prevent a Japanese takeover, and focused rather on the issue of whether or not Japan would honor extraterritorial rights and previous tariff agreements Korea had made with Western powers. A New York Times editorial acknowledged how imprudent it would be for imperial powers (including the United States) to reproach Japan for its actions.

The act of annexation will be severely criticized, doubtless, as the manner of administration previously has been. But it would be extremely difficult to select the Government which would comply with the scriptural condition for casting the first stone. Japan has taken over Korea with little pretense that it is not actuated by its own interests. It has sufficiently valued those interests to fight two bloody and costly wars [against China and Russia] in their defense. The position of Great Britain in Egypt, of France in Madagascar, of Germany in East Africa, of the United States in the Philippines does not rest on bases any more clearly democratic than that of Japan in Korea. And if it be true, as it unquestionably is, that the wishes of a great part, possibly of the great body, of Koreans are disregarded in the annexation of the kingdom, the Japanese answer would be precisely the answer of the United States in the case of our Oriental possessions. Three ways only were open: abandonment, with the certainty of chaotic disorder as a consequence; surrender to some other power, or complete rule. Japan took, as the United States took, the third way.... The prospect, therefore, at present for any foreign criticism of the annexation of Korea is not very formidable.

S.H. Kimm (Kim Sik-hun), former attaché of the Korean Legation in Washington, D.C., and president of the Korean Patriotic Association in New York, told the New York Times that Korean resistance fighters continued guerrilla assaults against the Japanese, with the expectation that the United States would in fact come to their aid. "Everywhere, he says, there is a patriotic uprising burning fiercely despite frequent defeat of the Koreans by the better-equipped Japanese soldiers, and kept aflame by the hope that in the near future Japan will find herself with a more powerful enemy on her hands, when Korea can regain her 4,243-year-old independence and throw off the yoke of annexation." The cavalry never came.

In this chapter I provide a narrative overview of the intense historical engagement between Japan and Korea, culminating in the imposition of colonial rule. I review the most significant moments of Korea's colonial history and the administrative and discursive adjustments Japan's Government-General of Chosen (GGC) made over the course of its forty-year rule. Because subsequent chapters are organized thematically rather than chronologically, this recounting provides a necessary sense of time and place in which to contextualize the analysis that follows. Finally, I revisit this historical narrative with insights gleaned from the research in later chapters, with a particular aim to reconsider the conventional depiction of Japanese indifference and contempt for Korean culture. Usually historians regard any Japanese lenience toward expressions of Korean identity during the colonial period as an ephemeral peculiarity of the decade of "cultural rule" (bunka seiji) that followed the national uprising of spring 1919. I argue to the contrary, that the impulse to study and comprehend, document and record, preserve and exhibit distinctively Korean cultural traits was consistently present throughout the colonial period, despite the various significant modifications made to colonial policies over four decades. Without question, whatever official support the GGC offered for such projects was motivated by its desires to better pacify and manage the colony and to shore up the ethnohistorical ideologies by which it justified colonial rule. As later chapters demonstrate, however, other Japanese constituencies who took an interest in Koreana did so for different reasons, some of which did indeed complement official aims, some of which did not. For many Japanese, Koreana offered the pleasure of the exotic, aesthetic or affective fulfillment, and/ or a means for reflection on the viability of their own cultural integrity and identity in the modern age.


For Japanese, annexation was the culmination of a decades-old dream to secure its borders and preserve its sovereignty while European imperial powers ripped into the rest of Asia; securing the Korean peninsula had long since become a canonical element of the Meiji leadership's defensive, besieged worldview. For Koreans, the events of late August 1910 marked the beginning of a long national nightmare. They would never know if the reforms implemented in the previous two decades might have borne fruit, enabling their nation to march into the modern age with sovereignty and pride intact. The new Japanese government watched smugly as some Koreans engaged in heated finger-pointing after the annexation treaty was signed, lending credence to the Japanese charge that the indigenous government was too beleaguered by factionalism and cronyism to rule responsibly.

Some of the less judicious observers of Korean history have argued that Japanese harbored millennia-old territorial ambitions to conquer the peninsula. For them, the 1910 annexation was the foreseeable result of a transgenerational conspiracy to subjugate Korea dating back to antiquity. The ancient Japanese chronicles, Kojiki (712) and Nihon shoki (720), recount an apocryphal conquest of Korea by Empress Jing (ca. 169–269 C.E.), in which the vanquished Silla "bowed their heads to the ground, and sighing, said:—"Henceforth for ever, these lands shall be styled thy western frontier provinces, and will not cease to offer tribute." In the seventh century the Yamato court did in fact send troops to the peninsula, but at the request of the kingdom of Paekche defending itself from the onslaught of its neighbor Silla (in alliance with Tang China). Seafaring marauders (waegu; wako) from the Japanese archipelago relentlessly tormented the coastline of Koryo (918–1392) for much of the medieval age. The Mongol empire used the peninsula as the launch point for its assault on Japan in 1274 and 1281, forcing reluctant Korean mariners to ferry them across the Tsushima Straits and provide logistical support for the campaign. Although these attempts to subjugate Japan failed, their imprint on Japanese minds persisted well into the modern era: many Japanese were convinced that the "divine winds" (kamikaze) that decimated the Mongol fleet indicated heavenly protection, but they were equally persuaded that if anyone wanted to attack Japan, Korea was the place from which to do it.

The worst conflict between Koreans and Japanese came in the 1590s, when the supreme warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–98) dispatched some 158,800 samurai—hardened by a lifetime of near-constant civil warfare—to slash and burn their way through the Korean peninsula to subdue the Chinese Ming emperor in Beijing. Boasting of the peace and prosperity he had brought to Japan after more than a century of civil warfare, Hideyoshi informed the Korean king Sonjo (1552–1608), "I have in mind to introduce Japanese customs and values to the four hundred and more provinces of [China] and bestow upon it the benefits of imperial rule and culture for the coming hundred million years.... I have no other desire but to spread my fame throughout the Three Countries, this and no more." Sonjo ignored Hideyoshi's request that Japanese troops be allowed to pass through his kingdom to attack the Ming and paid dearly for it. The devastation of the ensuing Imjin War (1592–98) was unimaginable. Hideyoshi's "scorched earth" policy destroyed four-fifths of arable land; by some accounts starvation claimed more lives than battle. Census data, land registers, and slave records were destroyed (the latter by the Korean slaves themselves), making revenue collection virtually impossible and property ownership difficult to determine. Women suffered indescribable horrors at the hands of Japanese, Ming, and even Korean troops. In a culture in which female chastity was insistently prescribed, women who managed to kill themselves before being violated were eulogized, while those who survived unspeakable sexual violence were dishonored and deserted by their husbands and families. With so few "chaste" marriage partners left available to elite Korean men, Sonjo was forced to issue a decree ordering them not to abandon their wives and concubines.

Hideyoshi's successor, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, sought to normalize relations with the Choson government, in an effort to gain diplomatic recognition for his new regime and to keep abreast of continental affairs (particularly the impending collapse of the Ming). However, he and his descendants tended to depict Korean embassies as congratulatory or tributary missions comparable to those Choson had habitually sent to the Ming court, so as to impress domestic warlords. Rather than continue to nourish such delusions of grandeur on the part of the Japanese regime, Choson eventually stopped sending such delegations, though trade relations persisted throughout the early modern period.

A resurrection of Japanese interest in Korea occurred with the opening of Japan to trade with the Western powers in 1854, the overthrow of the Tokugawa, and the creation of the Meiji state in 1867–68. The Choson government initially refused to recognize the imperial status of Japan's restored sovereign Mutsuhito (1852–1912) and rebuffed Japanese overtures for trade and diplomacy on terms of international conduct set by the Western powers. To have accepted these terms would have been at variance with the explicitly Confucian hierarchical standards for international relations in East Asia, by which Korea accepted the transcendent authority of the Chinese sovereign. There could not be two emperors. An internal dispute over how to respond to Choson's "arrogance" caused a major rift in the new Meiji government (Seikan ron, 1873); in fact, the venerated samurai Saigo Takamori (1827–77) parted ways with his fellow restorationists over this very issue. In correspondence with his colleague Itagaki Taisuke, Saigo argued,

If ... we send an envoy to tell the Koreans that we have never to this day harbored hostile intentions, and to reproach them for weakening the relations between our countries; at the same time asking them to correct their arrogance of the past and strive for improved relations in the future, I am sure that the contemptuous attitude of the Koreans will reveal itself. They are absolutely certain, moreover, to kill the envoy. This will bring home to the entire nation the necessity of punishing their crimes. This is the situation which we must bring to pass if our plan is to succeed. I need hardly say that it is at the same time a far-reaching scheme which will divert abroad the attention of those who desire civil strife, and thereby benefit the country.

With characteristic bravado, Saigo offered himself as the sacrificial envoy. Mark Ravina describes Saigo's stance as "either inchoate or contradictory," sometimes bellicose, sometimes restrained. His suggestion that hostilities with Korea would have the added benefit of distracting internal dissenters certainly echoed one of Hideyoshi's motivations for the invasions of the 1590s: that escapade got thousands of restless warriors out of the country, where they could seek thrills and booty without disturbing the recently established, fragile peace Hideyoshi had imposed. But Ravina contends that Saigo's "quest was moral rather than strategic. In Saigo's mind, the most pressing matter was to determine the Koreans' true intentions and ascertain whether they intended to impugn the Japanese imperial house." Saigo ended his life a turncoat in 1877, having (reluctantly) assumed leadership of a rebellion against the imperial state he had helped establish.

Japan was not the only foreign power pressuring Choson to open its borders to trade and diplomacy, but it was the first to succeed. In February 1876, following a skirmish several months earlier between the Japanese warship Un'yo and Korean land-based artillery, the Choson court relented and signed the Treaty of Kanghwa, opening three ports (Pusan, Inch'on, and Wnsan) to Japanese trade and granting Japanese extraterritorial rights. The terms replicated almost to the letter the Treaty of Kanagawa (1854) between Japan and the United States, as well as the Ansei Treaties (1858, with France, Britain, the Netherlands, the United States, and Russia), which the Meiji government found so demeaning as to make their revocation its primary mission. Undisturbed by the hypocrisy of imposing such demands on another state, Japanese used the Kanghwa treaty to drive a wedge between Choson and its traditional suzerain, Qing China, and worked tirelessly to guarantee that Korea kept Japan's best interests at heart.

Enthusiasts for an aggressive Korea policy could be found outside the government and the military, even in the most politically liberal circles. The foremost intellectual exponent of "civilization and enlightenment," Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1901), held the Korean and Chinese governments in such contempt that in 1885 he famously suggested Japan bid both adieu:

We do not have time to wait for the enlightenment of our neighbors so that we can work together toward the development of Asia. It is better for us to leave the ranks of Asian nations and cast our lot with civilized nations of the West. As for the way of dealing China and Korea, no special treatment is necessary just because they happen to be our neighbors. We simply follow the manner of the Westerners in knowing how to treat them. Any person who cherishes a bad friend cannot escape his bad notoriety. We simply erase from our minds our bad friends in Asia.

Fukuzawa mentored a handful of Koreans who came to Japan to study the Meiji model of modernization. He tacitly supported political sedition at the Korean court, offering assistance to Kim Ok-kyun (1851–94), a conspirator in the failed Kapsin Coup of December 4–7, 1884. Kim's Enlightenment faction (Kaehwap'a) found clear inspiration in Meiji Japan's embrace of Western science, technology, and political ideas and institutions. Their revolt against the conservative, pro-Qing faction in Seoul had middling Japanese support, but did not prevail against three thousand Chinese troops who marched in to restore their partisans to power. Another Fukuzawa protégé, Yu Kil-chun (1856–1914), was an important figure in the ambitious Kabo Reforms of 1894–96. Modern Japan's most prominent public intellectual thus played a provocative role as inspiration and advocate for those who agitated against the reactionary Choson regime.


Excerpted from Primitive Selves by E. Taylor Atkins. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Note on Transliteration xv

Introduction 1

1 A Long Engagement 13

2 Ethnography as Self-Reflection: Japanese Anthropology in Colonial Korea 52

3 Curating Koreana: The Management of Culture in Colonial Korea 102

4 The First K-Wave: Koreaphilia in Imperial Japanese Popular Culture 147

Epilogue: Postcolonial Valorizations 187

Notes 201

Bibliography 235

Index 257

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