1 KOREA’S MOBILIZATION IN CONTEXT
Japan’s wartime mobilization of Korea during the Asia-Pacific War (1937–1945) was an unprecedented event in Korean history that affected every aspect of its society and economy: Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were uprooted and sent overseas to work and fight in foreign countries, Japanese and Korean industries proliferated throughout the peninsula, and state control extended more completely to the local levels. Korea underwent social and economic change that greatly effected subsequent history. Remarkably, despite the extent of this mobilization, the Korean nation was, by Japanese standards, not prepared for the demands placed upon it by the Japanese war machine. In order to better understand the unpreparedness of Korea, and its position within the Japanese wartime empire, it is necessary to review the history of colonial Korea.
THE COLONIAL GOVERNMENT: ITS CHARACTER AND POWER
Japan made Korea a protectorate in 1905 and a colony in 1910, establishing the Government-General of Korea (GGK) as the sole policymaking organ in Korea with legislative, judicial, and executive powers. The GGK was a powerful, highly institutionalized bureaucratic regime headed by a governor-general who was appointed by the central government in Tokyo. The GGK generally acted independently of the cabinet and diet, but on matters of importance worked in conjunction with them to determine colonial policies, especially after the outbreak of war with the United States.
The nature of Japan’s colonization of Korea, like all colonial ventures, was designed to politically, economically, and strategically bolster the
colonizer, often at the expense of the colony. Japan’s demands on Korea grew increasingly burdensome over the thirty-five years Korea was a colony. Initially, Japanese colonization was a preventive measure to forbid Korea’s colonization by another imperial power; later, Korea became a supplier of raw materials to the Japanese metropole as well as a market for Japanese products. In the 1910s, Japan acquired Korean land for Japanese farmers; in the 1920s, it exploited Korea for rice; in the 1930s, it requisitioned labor for Japanese-owned industries; and in the 1940s, it asked Koreans to sacrifice their lives for the Japanese empire. Yet the GGK invested insufficient resources in the prewar era to prepare Korean society for industrial and martial contributions to a total war.
The GGK, like most structures of domination, was not static. The colonial administration was not a unified, single-minded organism; instead it was plagued by innumerable contradictions and internal debates.1
It adapted to new circumstances in response to Japan’s evolving economic and political needs. Japan utilized wartime policies and organizations to meet its own needs, but the use of Korean human resources was mitigated by a fear of igniting Korean nationalism, pushing Koreans into the arms communist agitators, or sparking another demonstration similar to the March First Independence Movement in 1919.
Japan’s rule in Korea was predicated upon a strong military presence. In fact, all governor-generals were career generals or admirals. The Imperial Japanese Army stationed an army unit in Korea (Chōsen-gun, referred to hereafter as the Korean Army) to safeguard Japanese rule. The blatant use of force early in the colonial period, as well as the Koreans’ long-standing animosity toward Japan, culminated in Korean resistance to colonial rule. The two largest movements for Korean independence were the “righteous armies” (K: ŭibyŏng) and the March First Movement. From 1907 to 1912, small bands of righteous armies took up arms to fight against Japan’s colonization of Korea. Upwards of 17,600 Korean soldiers and civilians were killed during the suppression of these armed groups. After the formal colonization of Korea, effective policing rooted out most nationalist resistance, with notable exceptions.
The second movement, the March First Independence Movement of 1919, was a peaceful peninsula-wide demonstration with nearly a million participants. Demonstrators hoped, in vain, to win international recognition
for Korean self-determination, in accordance with Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The Japanese military and police brutally suppressed this demonstration, killing at least 553 demonstrators and arresting another 12,000.2
These two incidents, and numerous smaller ones, reflect Koreans’ widespread discontent with Japanese colonial rule. More importantly, Japan’s leaders recognized that Japan could not rely solely on naked coercion to govern Korea; instead, the colonial regime needed Korean agents to gain the compliance of other Koreans.
In Korea, the GGK controlled nearly all avenues to economic, social, and political power. Prasenjit Duara’s concept of the “cultural nexus of power” offers insight into state-society relations in colonial Korea. Analyzing the state’s use and control of cultural symbols and norms (religious, kinship, and social networks) to control society in Republican China, Duara argues that social status and community influence were equally important for individuals who sought leadership positions.3
And in Korea the Japanese dominated all avenues to power. The GGK permitted Koreans of all socioeconomic classes to take part in the cultural nexus, but at the will and whim of Japanese bureaucrats who gained cooperation through the manipulation of Korean culture; Korean values were twisted, and the purse strings threatened in some cases. As a result, the colonial regime gained the cooperation of subaltern agents through financial and social inducements.
When inducements failed to effect the desired response, the GGK resorted to coercion to control and mobilize the Korean masses. “Coercion” must not be confused with the use of brute force or destruction.4
“Coercion” is the process of getting another to act in a certain way without resorting to actual force. It is one step shy of brute force, although it can be difficult to differentiate between the two.5
And so it was with Japan’s coercion of wartime Korea. The Japanese found the appropriate social and economic pressure points and manipulated them to gain compliance to mobilization policies.
Following the March First Movement, Japan initiated a decade of cultural rule (J: bunka seiji
) that allowed Korean nationalists an open forum, but in a strictly regulated environment. The moderacy of the cultural rule was tempered by an expanded police force and surveillance of suspected Korean patriots. In the 1930s, Japan’s militarist adventurism in northern China resulted in the rise of martial rule and the suppression of Korean
Furthermore, expressions of Korean nationalism were banned, and Korean-language newspapers and journals were closed. Individuals targeted by the state were subjected to random police visits, groundless arrest, long periods of imprisonment, and even torture without legal recourse. Renowned Korean scholar Yi Ki-baik wrote in a tone reflective of the national historical paradigm,
The leading figures in the Korean Language Society were arrested in October 1942, on charges of fomenting a nationalist movement, and as a result of the severe torture to which they were subjected by the Japanese police, Yi Yun-jae and some others among the Korean linguists died in prison. Novelists, poets and other creative writers were forced to produce their works in Japanese, and in the end it was even required that Japanese be exclusively used in the schools and in Korean homes. Not only the study of the Korean language but also of Korean history was regarded as dangerous.7
One reason for the suppression of the Korean ethnicity was that the Japanese government advocated the spiritual unity between the Koreans and Japanese to legitimize its rule and to reduce dissent. The Japanese were concerned that another rebellion (similar to the March First Movement) would erupt if disaffection among Koreans was too great. The GGK was forced by political and military considerations to strike a balance between incentives, flowery propaganda, and outright oppression. Consequently, bureaucrats preferred to enforce policies through moral suasion and indoctrination instead of nightmarish oppression, massacres, and banishment to Sŏdaemun Prison.8
Moral suasion entailed the use of corporatism, the organization of government-sponsored groups that acted as intermediaries between the state and the people.9
In other words, the colonial regime established a plethora of semiofficial organizations, such as the Chōsen League (J: Kokumin Sōryoku Chōsen Renmei), to propagate state-sponsored policies and apply coercion to ensure state supremacy.
Additionally, Japan had a strong legal tradition that inclined the GGK to avoid overt oppression by establishing an intricate law code through which it exercised and legitimized its power. The Japanese legalist tradition and mentality impelled the Japanese to create, revise, and enforce laws to internally and externally legitimize the mobilization of Korea, if for no other
reason than appearance. The military conscription of Koreans was delayed over two years because the GGK needed to straighten out bureaucratic red tape. However, by the end of the war, Japan was so desperate that it did not bother to alter laws to justify its coercion and underhanded recruiting methods in Korea.
Laws in Korea were enforced by a police force of 22,715 (in 1943), of whom one-third were Korean.10
The police performed a broad spectrum of tasks in order to maintain Japan’s hegemony in Korea. Officers collected data, spread propaganda, enforced laws and court decisions, improved public health, and visited the homes of average Koreans.11
Furthermore, police compelled physical and spiritual obedience by subduing Korean nationalists and enforcing mobilization policies. The Peace Preservation Law empowered the police to make preventive arrests and to suppress anything they deemed heretical or a threat to the Japanese national polity.12
The colonial apparatus had uncontested control over the colony’s nexus of power, namely the economic, social, political, judicial, and educational systems. The GGK used its resources to buy, bully, and belittle individuals to comply with state policies. The colonial bureaucracy and its affiliated organizations used a carrot-stick approach, offering enticements such as a stable salary. If inducements failed, the state then resorted to iron-fist measures. The name-change policy is a prime example. During the state’s push to make Koreans take Japanese names, Koreans were first given the option to change their names—an act presented as a gift from the emperor—then those who were reluctant to comply faced increasing pressure from bureaucrats. For example, students were harassed at school as a way to pressure families to take Japanese names. Some government-run schools even refused to allow Korean students to attend school unless they had Japanese names.
The colonial regime exercised extensive power over the lives of individual Koreans but was far from omnipotent. The GGK’s greatest weakness was that it was unpopular among the Korean people. On the surface, Koreans complied with colonial policies, but, in their hearts, most resented the heavy-handed governance of the GGK. Herein is a paradox of Japan’s mobilization of Koreans during the Asian-Pacific War: Japanese bureaucrats needed to marshal Koreans to defend Japan’s wartime empire, but knew that Koreans harbored antipathy toward Japan. Historical animosity
between the Koreans and the Japanese was at the foundation of the Koreans’ unwillingness to give their full support to Japan during the war. The average Korean harbored distrust of and disdain for the Japanese, whom they considered shifty, condescending, and untrustworthy. This animosity can be traced back to the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, as well as to Japan’s meddling in Korean politics after Korea and Japan established modern diplomatic relations in 1876. Furthermore, Koreans blamed Japan for the assassination of Queen Min in 1895 and for the dethronement of King Kojong in 1907. Korean nationalists felt humiliated and infuriated by Japan’s colonization of Korea in 1910 and the subsequent imposition of heavy-handed colonial policies.13
Essentially, many Koreans viewed Japan as a historical enemy.
Conversely, the Japanese in Korea exhibited an ethnocentric (if not xenophobic) attitude toward Koreans and were uneasy with relying on “peninsulars” (J: hantōjin) for national defense. Discrimination and ethnic prejudice are at the foundation of all forms of colonialism, and Japan’s colonization of Korea was little different. While Korea’s proximity to Japan, coupled with the cultural ties between the two peoples, mitigated some of the more extreme colonial racial discourses and practices that are found among Europeans in African and Asia, ethnocentrism was an inherent part of Japan’s colonial rule.
Nevertheless, given the historical ties between the two countries, Japan promoted racial unity as part of its colonial discourse, but into the 1930s highlighted Koreans’ cultural shortcomings (such as crudeness, clannishness, and talkativeness), which Japanese officials claimed was caused by centuries of social stagnation.14
Up to the late thirties, the Japanese asserted that Koreans had defects in their character, intellect, and abilities that justified the colonization of Korea and exempted Koreans from military service. These negative portrayals complemented the first wave of Koreaphilia that swept Japan in the 1930s, in which the Japanese populace was drawn to elements of exotic Koreana.15
While some Koreana was positive, much of it reinforced negative stereotypes of Koreans. The negative discourse contributed to discrimination against and distrust of Koreans in the workplace. Japanese managers stereotyped Koreans as lazy and poor workers. One colonial-era journal claimed that Koreans “habitually transgress the law, run away, have a brutal character, are kleptomaniacs, gamblers, or
Another author regarded the Koreans as “having an anti-Japanese consciousness.”17
In Japan, the Japanese bureaucracy viewed the Koreans as a special social problem, which it called the “Korean problem” (J: Chōsen mondai
). At the heart of the Korean problem were the distinctive features of Korean culture, language, and social habits that the Japanese considered threatening to public peace and security.18
Japanese businessmen and officials used these negative perceptions to justify paying Koreans less than Japanese for the same work and depriving them of equal political rights. The cabinet denied citizenship to Koreans until late in the war. This discrimination also contributed to uneasiness among Japanese officials and the general public about mobilizing Koreans, especially as soldiers, during the Asian-Pacific War.
Japanization had been a long-standing goal of the GGK, but little effort had been invested in enacting it as a full-fledged policy. But in the late 1930s Japanese authorities implemented in earnest assimilation policies to correct the Koreans’ supposed shortcomings, and the war brought an even greater urgency for a more forceful assimilation. Japanese colonizers reasoned that if Koreans were made loyal subjects, Korea’s twenty-five million people would offer less opposition and, more importantly, would more willingly labor, sweat, fight, and die for the empire.19
Unfortunately for Japan’s war efforts, the GGK’s prewar social policies contributed to the lack of preparedness among Koreans to fill industrial positions requiring technical training or to become war-ready soldiers.
Assimilation efforts were based on assertions of universal brotherhood (J: isshi dōjin
) between Koreans and Japanese. Propagandists, playing on pan-Asianism, claimed that a common racial and cultural heritage (J: dōbun dōshu
) between the two people made possible Korean nationalization into the larger Japanese society.20
Japan’s pan-Asianism attempted to build a unified Asian identity by hearkening to the cultural similarities of Asian peoples, the racial kinship of all Asians, and the...