Anarchy and Assimilation: A Review of Recently Published Books in East Asian Studies

By | January 23, 2015 | No Comments

Jongno, Seoul in 1903 | Image: Lacont/Wikipedia, Creative Commons 3.0

Jongno, Seoul in 1903 | Image: Lacont/Wikipedia, Creative Commons 3.0

In the first of a new series of roundtable or double-headed review articles for Sino-NK, Robert Winstanley-Chesters and Steven Denney consider two recent works addressing the formation of East Asian subjectivity in the modern era: Sho Konishi’s Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan and Todd Henry’s Assimilating Seoul: Japanese Rule and the Politics of Public Space in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945.

While the transnational flow of anarchist thought through its translation from Russian into Japanese and the hygienic politics of the later Japanese colonizer may seem to be some intellectual distance apart, the narratives told by both of these books explore the negotiation of modernity in difficult, tenuous, and radical times. Inhabitants of the Korean peninsula would be faced with, and subjected to, the outcomes of these urgent, sometimes coerced negotiations and their consequences between 1910 and 1945. Accordingly, many Koreans would seek to deploy similar political and personal strategies to counter (or, in some cases, to further) the impact of colonial praxis and naisen ittai impetus in those challenging years. Given the difficult birth of Korean modernity under this imperial yoke, in the disparate spaces of dislocated exile, or in furtive Communist resistance, empirical and archival work which considers the background and hinterland for these strategies and encounters should be vital for any Koreanist. — Adam Cathcart, Editor in Chief

Anarchy and Assimilation: A Review of Recently Published Books in East Asian Studies

by Sino-NK

Konishi, Sho. Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 2013. 426 pp. ISBN: 9780674073319.

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

If the reader has ever encountered the stories of early Korean nationalists and proto-democrats and their seemingly ceaseless questing and traveling in the late 19th century, the extent of their internationalism surely cannot have escaped attention. Even at the death of Korean independence and annexation in 1910 the ability of Koreans to leverage emergent transnational connections in traveling to Paris to present their case for independence (unsuccessfully), strikes me as extraordinary. In our era when the globe can be crossed and connected in a matter of fourteen hours or so, politically active Koreans must have undertaken epic journeys of tenuous precarity using routes and facing dangers we cannot imagine from the window of our railway carriage or aeroplane. Sho Konishi, in this extraordinary work of scholarship, uncovers and reconfigures the journeying and interaction of a politically and intellectually active grouping of international individual actors, whose travels and exchanges have been buried and lost by the vagaries of historiography and by their own repertoires of skillful activist technique and technology. While the individuals Konishi describes have much in common in terms of their enthusiastic, sometimes desperate encounters with modernity, those Koreans focused on independence and reform, the focus of their work and ambition was rather to deconstruct and resist the rise of the modern nation state.

History is not always about big or famous men as Niall Ferguson or David Starkey would have it; it is often about glitch, cracks, disconnections–or in the words of Koen de Ceuster, it is about social process. Konishi’s narrative is necessarily about chance meetings and the willful endeavor of individuals. Rather extraordinarily, in 1868, following hot on the heels of the Meiji Restoration, legendary anarchist and author of “Statism and Anarchy,” Mikhail Bakunin, escaped from a prison camp in Siberia via Hakodate to a Japan in the midst of the turmoil sparked by its uncomfortable encounter with modernity. While Bakunin’s time in Japan was short and he soon crossed the Pacific to San Francisco en-route eventually to Europe and status as a revolutionary legend, the political potential of the chaos he found there made a real impact on his imagination which he was happy to share with other similarly minded Russians on his return.

Revolutionary, chaotic Japan is next recounted by Konishi as central to the mind of a revolutionary apparently directly inspired by Bakunin. Lev Mechnikov was the brother to (and rather intriguingly, conceptually connected to) Ilya Mechnikov, the theorist of pro-biotics and winner of the Nobel Prize for his work on gut flora and micro-organisms. Lev Mechnikov’s arrival in Yokohama in 1874 heralds only the first impactful  connections tracked by Konishi within his expansive narrative field. Seeing “Revoliutsiia” in the “Ishin” of the Meiji period, Mechnikov sought to build new possibilities for Japanese interaction with the nation state through a cooperative form of civilization, doing so through the processes and productions of linguistic exchange and translation praxis.

Konishi establishes that through Mechnikov, Japan made its first tentative steps in linguistic expansion, reconfiguring conventional conceptions of its first encounter with modernity, so that it is Russian through which the emergent Japanese academy encountered “Western” thought. Fascinatingly, Konishi traces the history of the current Tokyo University of Foreign Studies to Mechnikov’s foundation in 1873 of the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages (TSFL). Academic and intellectual exchange spurred on by the TSFL enabled Japanese translations, or rather rewritings of the works of Bakunin, Recluse, Plekanov, and perhaps jointly most important for the Japanese audience and narrative, those of Peter Kropotkin (especially Mutual Aid), and Leo Tolstoy.

The agitators and revolutionary Japanese, Konishi recounts were not focused on violent revolution as portrayed in many clichéd representations of Anarchist possibility and as theorized and longed for in Bakunin’s work, but on a process of social, temporal, spiritual re-ordering. The massive popularity of Tolstoy and as Konishi describes the co-option of a nascent Orthodox Church by Tolstoyan convert Nikolai (Ivan Dmitrievich Kasatin), for the emergent, centerless, semi-humanist spirituality, the development of a “Non-War Movement” to counter the drive towards conflict with Imperial Russia, the enormous popularity of Esperanto in Japan at the beginning of the twentieth century and Japanese encounters with Darwinism are all coherently and cogently argued to be the direct or indirect products of this re-ordering.

While any Koreanist, of course, will be painfully aware of the eventual victory of Japan’s nationalist, militarist, and imperialist tendency over these more diffuse movements, Konishi’s work is a key example of the efficacy and ability of social and intellectual movements to utilize lines of flight or cracks in a perceived hegemon to find alternative ways through, around, below and beyond. While those engaged in contemporary interaction, exchange and engagement with North Korea and North Koreans both outside and within the limits of its institutional and state sovereignty cannot surely have as complex or difficult a connection to navigate or manage as Mechnikov and those revolutionaries seeking passage and interaction with the Japan of the post-Meiji era, Konishi demonstrates amply the power and possibility of non-state actors and networks and the terrain of true transnational relation. A landmark work and surely of use to scholars focused on Korea and the development of political and conceptual modernity both before and after Japanese annexation.

Todd A. Henry. Assimilating Seoul: Japanese Rule and the Politics of Public Space in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945. University of California Press: Berkeley, 2014. 320 pp. ISBN: 9780520276550

by Steven Denney

Todd Henry’s Assimilating Seoul is the first book written about Seoul during the colonial period. It adds to the scholarship in the English-language on Japanese colonial governmentality, such as Jun Uchida’s work on Japanese settlers in Korea and Prasenjit Duara’s study of Manchukuo. Henry uses a self-described ethnographical approach to explore “Japanese assimilation as contested experiments of colonial governmentality.” More specifically, he looks at the “various forms of assimilation… operated on the grounds of colonial society and in its public spaces” in Keijo (colonial Seoul; pp. 2-4). The book will be of interest to those studying colonial-era “collaboration” and geographies of imperialism. It will be of particular value to those interested in colonial governmentality (especially hygiene, or “biopower”) and spatial perspectives on (colonial) assimilation a la Henri Lefebvre. There are three forms, or modes, of assimilation that Henry dissects: the spiritual, material, and civic. So as to peruse Henry’s analytical gaze over colonial-era Seoul, I will focus on the third mode: civic assimilation.

In the fifth chapter Henry investigates the politics of “colonial hygiene.” Herein we find the civic form of assimilation. Efforts to change daily habits and improve general health of Koreans were spearheaded by the Governor-General as part of its goal to bring “civilization” to its imperial subjects on the peninsula. This was not, of course, an exercise in benevolence or the actions of a “good” government; it was, as Duara explains in his work on Manchukuo, where the Japanese made similar efforts, an exercise in imperial “biopower.” That is, it was an attempt to subjugate, regulate, and control the populace through the implementation of new hygiene laws and norms–because a healthy and well-groomed imperial subject is a productive and controlled subject.

Aside from showing biopower at work, Henry’s study also highlights the way colonial hygiene laws, and the agents who implemented them, transformed the “everyday,” for colonial subjects. Japan’s assimilation efforts, though a disingenuous effort at making Japan and Korea “one” (i.e., naisen ittai ), did actually succeed in transforming how life proceeded on an everyday basis for some of Seoul’s population (but certainly not everyone, or even a majority). Vaccinations, new modes of storing of trash and human waste, and the availability of modern medicines altered the way Koreans lived in a way that made their daily lives more compatible with capitalist/colonial modernity. There is here a connection here between Henry’s work on the everyday in colonial Seoul and Suzy Kim’s study of the everyday in postwar North Korea.

The experiment in civic assimilation via the improvement of public hygiene, while largely resisted by most ordinary Koreans (for reasons of habit and financial burden), succeeded in bringing under the imperial fold the local (nationalist) elite, who supported modernizing reforms (and thus the new hygiene regime). This is captured quite well in Henry’s telling of the overlapping prerogatives of the Government-General and opportunistic Korean nationalists (p. 157~). Local elites, who saw Korea’s backwardness (i.e., lack of “civilization and enlightenment”), embraced hygienic modernity as a road towards self-strengthening and of class formation. Thus, writes Henry:

Alongside these government [hygienic] programs, a group of dedicated Korean nationalists promoted their own cultural movement in Keijo and elsewhere throughout the peninsula. Embracing hygienic modernity as one of its pedagogical mantras, this movement draw on many of the same institutions and media used by their colonialist counterparts to advance their goal of strengthening the national body. (p. 157)

Henry illustrates here, that by accepting the method (hygiene improvement), local elites were unwittingly brought in as co-agents of colonial governmentality; they became, in other words, strange bedfellows. Although these nationalists had agendas usually quite different from the Governor-General, cooperative local elites — “collaborators” — were used as agents of Japan’s assimilation efforts. This was largely a consequence, Henry points out, of the post-1919 relaxation of coercive controls by Governor-General Saito Makoto (see the program: “enlist the populace in police duties, while brining the police deeper into the daily lives of the populace,” p. 158). Sanitation cooperatives would bring in local Korean leaders “to lend greater administrative support to state projects.” This cooperation ultimately lead to the strengthening of local elite-state relations. As Andre Schmid shows in his study of the interaction between Korea’s early advocates for modernizing reforms and the modernizing colonial state apparatus, the former found it hard to prevent itself from being coopted from the latter. Henry underlines a similar dynamic in his book. This is “hegemony” at its finest.

There are a few issues that scholars–especially historians—might take issue with.

First: While Henry describes his work as ethnographic, he may be stretching the meaning of such an approach/method. His primary sources of information are colonial-era newspapers and imperial reports. He says he is overcoming the tendency to study this period from the “top-down” by focusing his analysis on Korean “multivocal” agency through “grounded histories of how individuals and groups operated in public places.” (p. 7) Despite his better intentions, he does not seem to actually do this. Elite discourses (local elites, imperial reports, “Orientalists,” etc.) do not constitute a history from the bottom-up. This is, of course, a problem for all historians–how to write a history that is not top-down. But it is not insurmountable. Close textual readings, which take into account much more than Henry does of the conditions for the production of the text itself could a history from the bottom-up. 

Second: Is governmentality and assimilation the same thing? Reading Henry’s text one would be lead to conclude as much. But it is quite possible that in redefining the bounds of assimilation, Henry makes the category/concept of assimilation so broad that anything and everything is assimilation. Japanese efforts to subjugate the colonial population into docile subjects are certainly a facet of governmentality, but they are not always efforts geared towards assimilating said population. Assimilation is a broad tent, conceptually speaking, and it is precisely because of this that scholars doing research on assimilation policies must be crystal clear (or as clear as possible), conceptually speaking. Henry seems to fall short of conceptual clarity.

Despite these minor limitations, Todd Henry’s Assimilating Seoul is a new and insightful perspective on how public spaces in Seoul (Keijo) were used by the colonial government in its various attempts to assimilate Koreans into the Japanese Empire.

Correction: This review originally stated the Meiji Restoration took place in 1861; it took place in 1868.

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