Thursday, August 05, 2010

Yi Kwangsu's Japanese nationalism

A few months ago I wrote about the development of Yi Kwang-su's nationalism, and the influence his ideas have had on both North and South Korea. This debt to Yi is mostly forgotten or willfully overlooked due to his actions later in life. Those actions - and his writings - in service of the Japanese empire are the subject of this post.

Michael D. Shin's essay "Interior Landscapes and Modern Literature" (in Colonial Modernity in Korea) opens with this quote by Kim Hyeon: "Yi Kwangsu is like a wound that grows more painful the more one touches it." This is because, despite his nationalist past, from 1940 to 1945 "Yi demonstrated unusual zeal in producing pro-Japanese propaganda. He extolled Korean youth to volunteer for the Imperial Army, and eulogized the greatness of the Japanese emperor," as Andrei Lankov notes. It was a description of this propagandizing (accompanied by the slide below) in a lecture by B.R. Myers that first got me interested in Yi (Hwarang were Silla-era warriors, and were invoked in much the same manner as the Kamikaze - the 'divine wind' that protected Japan from Mongol invasion - was).

Yi Kwangsu is quoted in Shin's essay writing about why he chose to change his name to a Japanese one:
In "Changssi wa na" (The change of the name and me), originally published in the Maeil Sinbo on Apr. 20, 1940, Yi wrote: "The state allowed Koreans to experience 'Japan and Korea as a single body (naisen ittai).' The ones who should lead this movement are indeed Koreans. What else can we desire for other than our becoming not different from those in the naichi [Japan]. [p.421]
Beongcheon Yu's Han Yong-un & Yi Kwang-su: Two Pioneers of Modern Korean Literature, also quotes from Yi's writings about changing his name in 1940:
Now we are all subjects of the Japanese empire. It would seem most natural to have Japanese sounding names rather than Chinese sounding ones. Determined to be Japanese, I have adopted Kayama for my family name and Koro for my personal name, my wife and children following suit. All this, I believe, is part of my loyalty. [p. 98]
Later that year, he went even further:
At last I have reached this conviction: The Koreans must forget that they are Koreans; they must become Japanese in flesh and blood, to the bone; and this is our only way of perpetual preservation. Under the new system, Korean writers and intellectuals have a threefold objective to pursue: Firstly they must have themselves Japanized; secondly they must devote themselves to have all other Koreans Japanized; and thirdly they must be warriors uplifting Japanese culture and spreading it the world over. Here lies the future of Korean culture for which the Koreans will have to bring about the gradual dissolution of their national sentiment and tradition. And this gradual dissolution we call the Japanese-Korean unity. [p. 98]
This was written before the beginning of the Pacific War in December 1941, when the Japanese organized associations like the Rokki Renmei (Green Flag Alliance) and drafted formerly nationalist writers like Yi Kwang-su, Choe Nam-seon, Yu Chin-o, Yun Chi-ho, Helen Kim into propagating Japanese imperialist ideology and justification for the Pacific War. More than others, Yi threw himself totally into collaboration and wrote novels in praise of Japan’s war efforts in China, as well as other collaborationist literature which depicting the positive relationship between Korean and Japanese characters (in tune with the naisen ittai campaign) As is noted here, "Yi Kwang-su’s “pro-Japanese” novels, written in a combination of Korean and Japanese or entirely in Japanese, reveal a sense of deep anxiety about the Japanese accepting Koreans as their equals, and make Japanese characters “apologize” to the Korean characters for their practices of ethnic discrimination."

This anxiety was not really so obvious in some of the articles he wrote in places like the Maeil Sinbo, as noted in this worthwhile essay:
Yi Kwang-su was in his non-fiction writings promoting a Japanese style of living: “We must work vigorously towards the goal of reconstructing ourselves in our everyday lives as imperial subjects. The new spiritual system will only come to be completed in as much as it manifests itself in everyday life”.

One ought to “keep one's back straight,” “children should remain silent,” and meals should be treated as “important events and at the same time as rituals.” Yi remarks that “at meal times, it is the Japanese spirit to first make an offering to the gods and Emperor and then eat.” He argues that this is due to the fact that “every grain, every drop of liquid is thought to be changed into something given by the gods and His Majesty the Emperor, and at the same time one should think of the hardships endured by one's ancestors and brethren and give thanks, expressing true feelings of appreciation.”
He wasn't always so certain, however.
This ritual of kyūjō yōhai, in which one turns to face Japan – or more precisely, the emperor in the Imperial Palace – and bows, began in tandem with the Third Chosŏn Educational Act (1938), which had been amended by Minami Jirō, the Governor General in Korea, and which was enforced with a siren in the cities that rang out at 7:00 am every morning. Yi Kwang-su describes it as follows:

"I first opened my eyes at 6:00 in the morning. The 6:00 a.m. siren rang. It was the siren that told all Japanese nationals (Nihon kokumin) to get out of bed. Nothing like this had happened before. We were free to choose when to sleep and when to get up. From now on, the fatherland (sokoku) told all nationals (kokumin) to get up at 6:00 am. If we didn't do it, the great work being carried out by the state (kokka) would be difficult. I finally opened my eyes at 6:30 in the morning. I couldn't hear the 6:00 a.m. siren anymore. I got to sleep late because I was working on my manuscript last night. The manuscript is also something for the state, but that still no excuse to oversleep. As I was told by the mother's association (mama-kai), I read a book after cleaning. Another siren rang out. “What do you think it's for?” Since I still haven't gotten used to this type of national life (kokumin seikatsu), I didn't realize that it was the 7:00 am siren for worshiping the Imperial Palace from afar. When you hear that siren, the whole family, even servants, immediately clean up and stand in place, worshiping with all their hearts. [...] Yesterday, at the Great Chosŏn Fairgrounds, I heard the noon siren and thought to set my watch, but I forgot to offer a silent prayer. I'm still not that good at national life. I suppose you've probably got to really try for years before you learn how to live like this."
The last paragraph helps to show how invasive the Japanese state was in the lives of Koreans (at least those living in urban areas). As the 1940s wore on, everyone on the street car passing the entrance to the Shinto shrine in Seoul had to bow as they passed it, and at least one member of the neighbourhood association had to visit the shrine daily. In an essay in which he emphasizes individual responsibility toward the nation-state, Yi makes clear how the central the state was in the lives of the emperor's subjects:
In other words, if you eat the grain of the nation-state, you should work for the nation-state. In the new order, there will be nothing like your own body, your own property, or your own son. Everything will belong to the nation. The way of thinking which says – this is mine, so I will do with it what I like – is inexcusable, it is individualism, liberalism, and it is incompatible with the ideology of the new Japanist value system (Nihonshugi shintaisei shiso).
Reading this, it may start to explain the poverty of liberalism in post-liberation Korea (both north and south). It's also worth examining a passage from Yi Kwang-su on the concept of “Japan and Korea as one body” (naisen ittai):
Until now, “Japan and Korea as one body” meant throwing away that which is Korean and learning from that which is Japanese. This in the first place means cultivating the spirit of loyalty towards the Imperial Household. The feelings of Japanese people towards the Imperial Household are truly unique, and it will require a great amount of study for Koreans to approach this level. It is not the same thing as what we used to call “loyalty to the ruler and love of country” (chūkun aikoku).

The feeling of loyalty of Japanese people cannot be explained merely with the Chinese character “loyalty” (chū, 忠), but rather resembles the loyalty of the Jews to Yahweh. Japanese people think of all good fortune bestowed on them as something that stems from the Emperor. One's land belongs to the Emperor, one's household belongs to the Emperor, one's children belong to the Emperor, one's body and life belong to the Emperor. Because your body belongs to the Emperor, if the Emperor calls upon you, you happily give up your life. The Emperor is a living god. This is an entirely different relation from that found in China or Europe between the ruler and subject.
Having written so much in service of the Korean nation, and then so much in service of the Japanese state/emperor, one may be curious as to why he 'betrayed' the nation. Over the years, Yi offered different reasons. One turning point for Yi was, according to Yu, the arrest of his mentor and surrogate father Ahn Chang-ho in Shanghai in 1932, and Ahn's imprisonment in Korea from 1934-36. As I noted in the last post, in February 1922, Yi had organized the Suyang Tong'uhoe, a version of the Heongsadan (Society for the Fostering of Activisists) founded by An Chang-ho in LA in 1913. By the mid 1930s, the Suyang Tong'uhoe was one of the last nationalist groups still openly operating (as it had been organized as a non-political group), but it was under increasing pressure by the Japanese government. Yi met Ahn to discuss its future in 1937 (after Ahn's release from prison), but both were arrested when the key members of the Suyang Tong'uhoe were rounded up that year. Yi and Ahn were released due to ill health, but Ahn died in 1938. Some of Yi's biographers have pointed to Ahn's last words (which were passed on to Yi) which reportedly were, "Chunwon [Yi's pen name], save our comrades!" It was after this that Yi began to cooperate with the Japanese authorities.

Jung-shim Lee's essay "History as Colonial Storytelling" (found here as a pdf) looks at Yi's later life and the influence his conversion to Buddhism (in 1934) had upon him, especially on his decision to collaborate:
Yi’s awakening to the insight that life is the most fundamental good directly affected his decision with regard to the Suyang Tong’uhoe case. In one of his essays, he remarks:

For what reason did I pose as pro-Japanese? [...] The reason is, in short, to save my compatriots from suppression even though I had to make sacrifices and even though I could save only a few […]. I simply felt an affinity to the Buddhist imperative that if you can save even one living being in exchange for your life, you must consider yourself fortunate.
The main idea he put forward at that time was that saving lives was more importance than loyalty to the nation, and in his essay "Repentance for Korean Literature," (1940), he wrote that, "What I feel deeply remorseful for, looking back on a lifelong creation of literary works, is the underlying attitude to life which I clung to, this being the concept of the nation."

He also notes that after his conversion to Buddhism it helped him become disenchanted with the nation and the narrow-mindedness of nationalism, leading him to write novels and short stories in the late 1930s "in order to outgrow the confused and erroneous concept of the nation."

After liberation, however, his tune changed somewhat, as he wrote, "I only collaborated for the sake of the nation" and "I don’t feel the slightest morsel of shame in saying that I lived and died for the nation."
In his postcolonial text Na-ǔi kobaek [My Confession], Yi gives a detailed explanation of the story behind his overt collaboration. In this text, he emphasizes how important the self-cultivation movement was and how the movement shared a common destiny with the Korean nation. Therefore, if the organization had been dissolved and its leading members had met their deaths, the Tong’uhoe undertaking would have ceased to be. It would have meant that the life of the nation had come to an end. For the survival of the nation, Yi felt responsible for the rescue of the Tong’uhoe’s leaders.
This is somewhat different from what he argued in texts he wrote under colonization, in which "he made it clear that the self-cultivation movement was no more than a superficial remedy for the Koreans". Yu quotes Yi stating elsewhere that he was actually a closet nationalist the entire time:
Great master wonhyo was serialized in the maeil sinbo while I was collaborating with the Japanese. In this novel I, as far as their censors permitted, presented a drama of our traditional spirit, glories, patriotism, and national consciousness to my fellow Koreans who were forced to shout ‘Banzai!’ for and pledge allegiance to the Japanese Emperor. Whatever I had written since Heartless, be it the Tragic History of King Tanjong, Yi Sun-sin, Rebirth, or A Woman’s Life, was just a cover for nationalism. [p. 137]
Jung-shim Lee's essay goes on to suggests other possible reasons for his change of heart:
Another account in Na-ŭi kobaek might furnish us with a different explanation for Yi’s actions. Apparently, although it is impossible to verify, there was a death list drawn up by the Japanese imperial authorities which contained the names of 30,000 to 38,000 national leaders and members of the elite. The rumour of the existence of this list made Yi Kwangsu realize that such a massacre would be the most catastrophic thing a nation might befall next to the entire nation’s collapse. Yi judged that in the case of such a national emergency, non-cooperation might provoke a vengeful massacre. Therefore, he volunteered to collaborate with the Japanese in order to prevent the nation being eliminated before independence was even achieved. By doing so, he sacrificed his reputation as a national leader.
What Yi truly believed will likely never be known. He was arrested after liberation, eventually released, and then arrested by the communists during their rule of Seoul in 1950. They dragged him to North Korea, where was never heard from again. As Agnes Kim notes in I Married a Korean, after the war, "His daughter...came to America for the New York Herald Tribune's Youth Symposium and appeared several times on television with young people of other nations. [p. 153]"

Yi's collaboration has been rather difficult to fit into the Korean nationalist/traitor framework, and its likely for this reason that Yi's contribution to nationalist ideology has been overlooked (while the acceptance of Shin Chae-ho's contributions likely rests on the ignoring of the fact that he later became an anarchist).

In Michael D. Shin's essay "Interior landscapes and modern literature," he writes that
Scholars are still obsessed with explaining how someone so seemingly nationalistic turned into a collaborator. [...] Another motive behind research on Mujeong and Yi Kwangsu's other writings from the 1910s seems to be the hope of finding evidence that his nationalism was not genuine, in the period when he was apparently a 'true' nationalist; such evidence would discredit him and end the controversy once and for all." [p .249]
Now if we read this -
At last I have reached this conviction: The Koreans must forget that they are Koreans; they must become Japanese in flesh and blood, to the bone; and this is our only way of perpetual preservation.[emphasis added]
- it could be argued that this supports the idea that he was afraid of the Korean nation being destroyed, and that he collaborated because he felt it was the only way for himself - and the Korean nation - to survive, at least in some form.

On the other hand, the problem may lie in perceiving his actions and writings as being either pro-Korean or pro-Japanese. Looked at from the point of view of nationalism in general, one finds many similarities in what he wrote 'for Korea' and 'for Japan'. For example:
Firstly they must have themselves Japanized; secondly they must devote themselves to have all other Koreans Japanized; and thirdly they must be warriors uplifting Japanese culture and spreading it the world over.
Replace 'Japan' with 'Korea' and perhaps you'll suddenly have visions of the Dokdo riders or full-page ads for Dokdo or the East Sea in the Washington Post or of students studying in the U.S. coming to school with 'Dokdo' shaved into their hair (a lot of Dokdo there, but then it seems that Dokdo has also come to symbolize the nation in a manner similar to Baekdusan). This may also sound familiar:
In other words, if you eat the grain of the nation-state, you should work for the nation-state. In the new order, there will be nothing like your own body, your own property, or your own son. Everything will belong to the nation. The way of thinking which says – this is mine, so I will do with it what I like – is inexcusable, it is individualism, liberalism, and it is incompatible with the ideology of the new Japanist value system.
While this was written in 1940, Yi had been moving in this direction for some time, as noted in Shin Gi-wook's Ethnic Nationalism in Korea. 'In "Basic Morality of Old Koreans", published [in 1932], he lashed out at individualism and liberalism calling for we-ism (uri juui), group-ism (danche juui), and totalitarianism (jeonche juui). This departed from his earlier view that championed western individualism and free will, which he now charged with destroying Korea’s tradition of we-ism and group-ism,' and called for restoring collectivism based on the "communal spirit of villages of old Joseon."'[p. 48, 69]

Yi had been moving in a direction away from western ideals (and a criticism of Confucianism) and towards (literally) totalitarian ideals which stressed the primacy of the group and nation, arguing at one point that "anyone who insults the nation must be denounced as a sinner against the nation." [p. 56] Worth noting is that Yi, while reacting to Japanese colonial policy, was at the same time influenced by Japanese ultra-nationalism, facism, and campaigns in Japan for ‘Japanization’ rather than ‘westernization.’ [p. 56]

What I wonder is if, instead of positioning Yi's Korean nationalism against his pro-Japanese writings, it might be helpful to look at them within a continuum of nationalism. In that case it might not be such a drastic leap to move from anti-western Korean nationalism which bolstered itself with traditions from the past and which stressed the Korean race and the nation itself as paramount, to a Japanese nationalism which was anti-western, bolstered itself with tradition and which stressed Emperor as paramount. Both involved, for Yi, subsuming one's own identity within that of the nation or the emperor. I can't help wondering if looking for similarities between Yi's 1930s Korean nationalist writings and his Japanese nationalist writings might bear some fruit, but have doubts that highlighting such similarities would be well received, seeing how it would challenge the patriot/collaborator orthodoxy that has been in place for sixty years.


Mark Russell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Russell said...

Great essay, as always. Yi Kwangsu's story is always fascinating. As for the question of how a great Korean nationalist could turn into a Japanese imperialist, I would imagine the answer is very similar to how the Japanese right managed to co-opt the left within Japan. In the 1920s, the Japanese left was very strong and doing a good job of opening the country up in several ways. But once the militarists took over, they were able to "convert" most of the left and bring them aboard their nationalist emperor-cult. I have never read a good explanation of how exactly this happened, but I imagine the process and reasons were similar to how Korean nationalists were co-opted.

Charles Montgomery said...

I'm still chewing on this (and rereading your previous post). But "general nationalism" is a theoretical construct outside of nations. Once you get particular, a specific nation need be involved. For Yi to switch from Korean nationalism to Japanese nationalism is a bit like a pig switching to "farmerism" upon the realization he is soon to be slaughtered and ingested.

LOL.. that is far too simplistic, but I will use it in the post you have me working on...

My immediate feeling (bolstered by Yi's conversion to Buddhism) is that he was a classic case of Hoffer's "true believer."

Do you fancy doing a podcast on this? Trust me - I have a voice suitable for silent films, so you will sound golden-throated and wise.


oh yeah.. from

Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking piece. Thanks for posting.