Between Metropole and Colony: Japanese Settlers, Liminality, and Korean Nationalism. A Review of Jun Uchida’s Brokers of Empire

By | November 01, 2012 | No Comments

Between Metropole and Colony: Japanese Settlers, Liminality, and Korean Nationalism. A Review of Jun Uchida’s Brokers of Empire

Jun Uchida,[1] Brokers of Empire: Japanese Settler Colonialism in Korea, 1876-1945 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center / Harvard University Press), November 2011.

by Steven Denney

Jun Uchida’s Brokers of Empire opens the discourse on a long forgotten or purposefully ignored group of individuals: Japanese colonial settlers. Having all but “vanished from the public memory of Japan’s presence,” Uchida’s focus on Japanese colonial settlers shines light on a world until now consigned to the archives.[2] Her historical analysis looks “behind the official organs of state and military control” to the cohort of Japanese “who actively mediated the colonial management of Korea as its grassroots movers and shakers.” Uchida opens within the historical discourse on Japanese imperialism a concept normally reserved for postcolonial writers and critics such as Homi K. Bhabha and Samuel Rushdie: the “liminal space.”[3]

A liminal space is, by definition, “an in-between space or territory in which cultures mix and interact to create new hybrid forms.” By illuminating the in-between space between metropole and colony, Uchida identifies the colonial space wherein Japanese and Korean cultures clashed and interacted to form new, hybrid forms of identity and ideology. The Japanese colonial settlers—a ragtag group of entrepreneurs, journalists, and the occasional vagabond—represented a group who were neither fully Japanese nor ethnic Korean, their collective identity falling somewhere between Tokyo and the Governor-General on one side and Koreans (both aristocrats and common person) on the other. As the bridge that connected metropole to colony, Japanese settlers are depicted by Uchida as the medium through which the interaction of culture and ideas took place.   

Uchida describes the Japanese settlers in Korea as “brokers” of the imperial mission. Through a combination of capitalist drive and Japanese nationalism, settlers sought to both advance their own cause and that of the Empire’s. More importantly though, in their capacity as interpellators of colonial/imperial subjects [instruments of the imperial/state institution(s)], the brokers of empire produced in the colonial subjects an example of the hybrid ideology, par excellence.

The confluence of traditional Korean roots with Japanese modernity produced the always-controversial “collaborator,” the ghosts and children of who haunt Korean politics today. Moreover, the hybrid ideology of the collaborator highlights the failure of doka sesaku (making Koreans like Japanese, i.e. assimilation) and isshi doujin (impartiality and equality for all)—two “official” policies of the Japanese empire towards its colonies (though, and as Uchida indicates throughout the book, invocations of these policies, by colonial authorities and influential settlers, was more political boilerplate than a reflection of genuine policy-advocacy).

Korean Nationalism: the Ultimate In-Between Space | The interaction between broker and colonial subject is best captured by Uchida in her retelling of the “compromise” between nationalists and doka seisaku (referred to in short as doka) supporters, the former represented by Song Chin-u and the latter by Shakuo Shunjo, both journalists writing during the colonial period. Through the medium of print journalism, one can see the emergence of an “imagined (Korean) community,” a la Benedict Anderson, and an answer to the question “can nationalism exist without a newspaper?”

In the chapter “The Discourse on Korea and Koreans,” Uchida identifies the liminal space between the broker’s mission to objectify the colonial other as imperial subject and the revulsion felt by many Koreans towards feelings of foreign subjugation. Though both were ardent defenders of one of two extremes [assimilation into the empire (Shunjo) or Korean national liberation (Song)], by way of an unexpected meeting and one-to-one conversation, both were able to reach an “unusually ‘moderate’” position which, according to Uchida’s analysis, reveals that “some rapport did develop between the two sides even as they continued to take each other to task.” In other words: a colonial space was created through which pragmatic thinking could occur. Though several are identified by Uchida, one such collaborator that stands out is Korean aristocrat Pak Young-hyo.

Collaboration and Assimilation: The Case of Pak Young-hyo |  Pak Young-ho (박영효/朴泳孝; 1861-1939) comes to the forefront at multiple points throughout the book. Appearing first in the chapter on discourse on Korea and Koreans, Pak is associated with those intellectuals who view doka as both an impossible and degrading policy. Assimilation, according to Pak and his compatriots, was “‘impossible,’ given that the Korean people possessed an ‘ineffaceable ethnic consciousness…’ nurtured through 4,000 years of history”—a consciousness that was acutely realized in response to the imposition of an entirely different one.

Pak Young-hyo as Patriarch, circa 1907 | Image via Chosun.com

Yet, this ineffaceable ethnic consciousness did not prevent figures like Pak from passing on an opportunity for profit and, in the process, pushes along a nascent industrialization in Korea.[4] If the postcolonial-cum-deconstruction critique holds its weight here, then the colonial “liminal space” through which the settler-colonial subject “rapport” emerged can be interpreted as paving a genuine “third way.” As has been noted elsewhere by scholars like Atuhl Kholi and Carl Eckert, this third way was largely forged by business cooperation amongst the elite—a group to which Pak certainly belonged.

The point at which Pak, a dedicated pro-West and Japanophile enlightenment thinker, distinctively enters the scene is in the chapter on Japanese-Korean cooperation for means of economic development and industrialization, an effort which culminated in the Industrial Commission of 1921 under the guise of Governor-General Saito’s pro-cooperation agenda.

Uchida states that prior to the commission,

Korean organizations had held their own industrial conventions and submitted an array of petitions to the authorities. … The most compelling set of demands came from the Yuminhoe, an organization of Korean capitalists in Seoul led by Pak Yong-hyu. Their petition demanded that the [Occupational Development Commission] ‘end its program of settling Japanese farmers’ and called for immediate protection of [Korean] tenant farmers in addition to urging for the creation of a special bank with a reserve of 20 million yen and an agricultural firm with capital of 1 billion yen.

Through Pak and other collaborators’ efforts to push for cooperative development (albeit with a “Korean centeredness” approach), they were able to foment an “uneasy partnership between Korean and Japanese businessmen” from the metropole and within the settler community. Through “cooperative capitalist development,” so-called settler lobbyist would work together with local Korean businessmen to foster what Uchida portrays as Korea’s first industrial revolution, albeit limited and executed under the gaze of the Governor-General and the imperial government in Tokyo.

Though using Pak as a key figure in her colonial history, Uchida fails to portray Pak as the embodiment of the ultimate contradiction (i.e., utilizing cooperation with Japanese as a means of Korean advancement). Though it can certainly be implied—Uchida recounts Pak’s ascension to the Japanese House of Peers during the height of the Korean suffrage and self-rule movement; how much more of a collaborator could one become?—it is nowhere stated explicitly. In fact, much of Pak’s history goes unmentioned, such as his central role in the Kapshin rebellion and his time spent in exile in the United States and Japan—experiences that certainly shaped his so-called pro-Japanese (re: pro-Western) views. The organization led by Pak, the Yuminhoe, is considered a quintessential pro-Japanese organization. Naturally, given Uchida’s primary focus, that of colonial settlers, the omission was likely a conscious decision.

Source of Ethnic-Identity and Agitation | Though Uchida does well to show the space wherein collaborators like Pak Young-hyo could emerge, she does not adequately address why collaborators, despite their manifold reasons for working with the Japanese, were and are so vilified in national histories and by the Korean body-politic in both the North and South (but especially so in the North).

Aoyagi Tsunataro, another settler journalist and founder of Chosen Kenkyukai (Korea Research Association/朝鲜研究会), an organization responsible for “Korean Studies” (enter critique of area studies!), represents that which is most resented by Koreans: denying Koreans their “spot in the sun.” Aoygai’s goal, under the guise of historical studies, was to prove that “Korea had never been independent in the past,” because “it possessed only a nation and no state.”

Describing these “quasi-scholarly” efforts, Uchida says they were part of settlers’ “ambitious political project of countering Korean nationalism.” The means employed by Aoyagi et al. was, in his words, “to imprint in the heads of [Korean] youth an image of a stupid and ugly homeland, and impel them to discard their thought of recovering it.” Thus, the logic goes, they should accept their subservient, but ultimately better off, condition as imperial subject.

Though such efforts by the Japanese are well-known, efforts by Japanese settlers to serve as “protagonists of an unfolding imperial sage on the peninsula,” in the words of Uchida, are largely unknown. For this, Uchida’s work is invaluable; however, she does not make the connection between an attempt to negate an ethnic ideology/consciousness and burgeoning race-based nationalism, the likes of which an entire state was founded.

That state, of course, is North Korea.

Historical Memory and the DPRK | Two of the more well-known scholars that have written about the history of the DPRK portray it as a state founded first and foremost upon a hyper-nationalistic, ardently anti-Japanese ideology: B.R. Myers and Bruce Cumings. B.R. Myers, whose most serious work remains relatively unknown outside of the tight-knit North Korean watchers community (attribute this to the tyranny of distance amplified by living in Busan), has patented the description of North Korea as a highly paranoid national-security state founded upon the concept of tanilsong, which, if defined succinctly, means “mono-ethnicity,” and is understood conceptually as “pure race theory” (tanilminjok). Korean pure race theory posits the idea that Korean blood is pure blood and should remain as such—Korea for Koreans. When mixed with nationalism, the result is Myers’ thesis: a North Korean nation founded upon race-based nationalism. This theory supports the notion that the entire raison d’etre for North Korea is to oppose anything Japanese (and American, too; but certainly more Japanese immediately following World War II).

Though Pak Yong-hyo popularized it, Kim Il-sung used the “ineffaceable ethnic consciousness” to found a country, the roots of which were laid in the soil of Manchuria. Bruce Cumings, whose historical work on Korea deals extensively with the Japanese colonial experience, recollects:

The Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945 is akin to the Nazi occupation of France, in the way it dug in deeply and has gnawed at the Korean national consciousness ever since. Manchuria is also ‘greater Korea’” for it was here that “begins Pyongyang’s lineage of critical Korean antecedents for its own republic.[5]

Thus, Kim Il-song’s history as a resistance fighter in Manchuria gave him the “impeccable pedigree,” in Cumings’ words, necessary to justify himself as the changun of an anti-Japanese state. Cumings continues:

After every other characteristic attached to this regime—Communist, nationalist, rogue state, evil enemy—it was first of all, and above all else, an anti-Japanese entity. A state narrative runs from the early days of anti-Japanese insurgency down to the present, and it is drummed into the brains of everyone in the country… .[6]

Kim Il-sung, cutting his teeth in Manchuria, earning his “patriot degree.” (third from the left in the back) | Image via GlobalTravels

The North’s strongly anti-Japanese variant of race-based nationalism can be understood as a negation of hybridity, and a rejection of the liminal space. The result is, ostensibly, tanilsong—a pure and mono-ethnic nation, i.e., a pure race. The North Koreans, under Kim Il-sung, took Pak’s understanding of Korean ethnic consciousness and built an ideology that would justify the existence of a separate Korea.

Opening the Discourse East | By adding another layer to the colonial legacy, Uchida’s book illuminates, and undoubtedly complicates, the history of Korean-Japanese relations, Korean ideology during the colonial period, and the historicity of Korean collaborators. Though the Korean reaction to Japanese attempts at erasing their ethnic identity is largely overlooked, and thus the origins of modern Korean ethnic consciousness during the colonial period left largely unaddressed, Uchida’s book is ground-breaking in the discourse of imperial colonialism insofar as it opens an heretofore discursive black hole on Eastern imperialism. Edward Said would be proud, in an ironic kind of way.


[1] Jun Uchida is an Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University.

[2] As Uchida points out in the opening pages of the book, Japanese colonial settlers have “failed to find a place in [the Japanese colonial] narrative, their culpability paling next to that of them en who drove the machinery of the state, while their suffering has been deemed ‘not equivalent to the suffering of people in the metropole.’”

[3] For a theoretical framework on postcolonial theory see Bhabha’s intellectual tour d’force in The Location of Culture (Routeledge: London, 1994). For a purely literary manifestation of postcolonial theory, see Rushdie’s  Midnight’s Children (Penguin: New York, 1991).

[4] It is interesting the way Uchida finesses the Japanese colonial legacy debate that was kicked-started in the literature by Atul Kohli in his article “Where do High Growth Political Economies Come From? The Japanese Lineage of Korea’s ‘Developmental State,’” World Development 22, no. 9 (1994): 1269-1293. A critique of Kohli’s thesis is undertaken by Stephan Haggard, David Kang, and Stephen Moon in “Japanese Colonialism and Korean Development,” World Development 25, no. 6 (1997): 867-881. Uchida avoids inserting herself into this debate, the reason for which we have to assume is strategic—though the settler community played no small part in Korea’s capitalist revolution, taking a postion in this debate would distract from the objective of her book.

[5] Bruce Cumings, The Korean War (New York: Random House, 2011),  45.

[6] Ibid.

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