The Enduring Battle Wounds of the Japanese Annexation

by Charlotte Eun-Ji Kim Brearley School (12th Grade)

“Unless They Repent, They Should Be Punished, Harder This Time.” This was my grandfather, Kong Chun Choi’s, powerful response when I asked if he still harbors resentment towards the Japanese. Japan held Korea as its colony from August 22, 1910 to August 15, 1945. During the occupation, the Japanese considered their actions fair and legal, while the Koreans felt wronged and abused. Toyokichi Iyenaga, a professor at the University of Chicago, published an article in 1912 that reflected Japan’s initially glorified vision for its occupation of Korea. This annexation period was and still remains a point of contention between the two nations, as reflected by my grandfather’s emotionally-charged quote. My Korean-born grandfathers, Kong Chun Choi and Kim Chin Yang, harbor vivid memories of Japanese colonialism during the 1930s and 1940s. Starkly contrasting with Iyenaga’s claims, Choi and Kim’s accounts of the Japanese occupation reveal the suppression of Japanese judicial, academic, and cultural reforms, and shed light on the resentment towards Japan that lingers among Koreans today.

Iyenaga declared that the Japanese reformed the flawed Korean judicial system that had existed prior to Japanese annexation. Choi and Kim, however, observed Japanese injustice and a stifling of Korean liberties. They explained that the invasive Japanese police force suppressed anti-Japanese sentiments, with Choi recalling, “anybody who spoke out against Japan [was] arrested on the spot and put into jail.” Kim added, “when Japanese policemen knew [that a Korean had spoken out against Japan,] they arrested [him] and brought [him] to the police station.” The Japanese also banned all Korean political organizations, meetings, and even the publication of most Korean newspapers, magazines, and textbooks. Between August 1910 and 1918, the Japanese arrested and tortured over 200,000 Koreans, whom they ambiguously classified as “malcontent and rebellious.”

In contrast to Iyenaga’s assertions of Japanese assistance in the development of the Korean education system, Choi and Kim described Japanese academic suppression. The Japanese Education Ordinance of 1911 stated that education in Korea was intended to produce “loyal and obedient” Korean subjects of Japan. To achieve this end, the Japanese allowed only a few Korean private schools to remain open, all of which they carefully monitored to suppress any anti-Japanese activity. The Education Ordinance also made studying the Japanese language mandatory and forbade classes on Korean history and geography. In 1922, the colonial government published a textbook titled History of Korea that glorified the Japanese and justified their colonization. Choi recalled how the Japanese strictly monitored the curriculum, explaining, “They stopped teaching me the Korean language when I was a primary school second grader.”

Iyenaga harbored confidence in the plausibility of cultural assimilation, which he viewed as one of the ultimate goals of Japan’s annexation. Countering Iyenaga’s projection of the ease of cultural amalgamation, Choi and Kim recounted the oppressive nature of the process. In 1939, Japan issued Ordinance No. 20, “allowing” Koreans to replace their Korean names with Japanese ones. As Kim Chin Yang, whose Japanese name was Kane Ja Shing Yo, explained, this policy in which “Korean[s had] to have Japanese names…was [in fact] mandatory.” In the words of Kong Chun Choi, whose Japanese name was Kimio Makiyama, “The Koreans traditionally swore on their names. Their names were sort of holistic to them. So it was extremely shameful to change their names.” Choi asserted that the Japanese also attempted to squash Korean cultural identity by “deliberately buil[ding] Japanese-style edifices…in Korean royal palaces and gardens to dilute the traditional beauty, harmony, and atmosphere.”

Perhaps most difficult for Koreans to swallow is the way in which the Japanese stubbornly defended their actions throughout the occupation period and beyond. Choi recalled that during the occupation, “There was Japanese propaganda everywhere that Japan [was] Korea’s benefactor, helper, the strongest protector in the world [and] the most righteous.” Even as recently as 2013, the Japanese Prime Minister Abe paid a controversial visit to a World War II shrine commemorating Japanese war criminals. The Japanese have also refused to formally apologize to the South Korean “comfort women”, whom Japanese soldiers forced into sexual slavery during World War II. Although Japan has struck a deal with the Korean government, many feel that the deal is a mere expedient to silence the comfort women and the South Koreans. When asked if he and most Koreans still harbor resentment towards the Japanese, Kim answered, “Yes…The new generations…know our Korean history [and] remember Japan[‘s] bad conduct…during the Japanese occupation.”Choi responded, “Two yeses. Unless they repent, they [the Japanese] should be punished, harder this time.”

Born and raised in New York City, I have always struggled to connect with my Korean identity. I do not speak Korean and possess little knowledge of Korea’s rich history. Prior to writing this speech, I knew very little about Japan’s occupation of Korea. Upon researching this topic and hearing my grandfathers’ first-hand experiences, I immediately sympathized with the Koreans and resented the Japanese injustice during the occupation. It is undoubtedly difficult for me to view the issue objectively when presented with my own grandfathers’ recollections. Yet, the rapidity with which I, who am not familiar with Korean culture, became incensed may explain why strong tensions remain between Japanese and Koreans. Although the occupation ended nearly seventy years ago, those who lived through it still harbor vivid memories, and their stories instill deep pity and bitterness in those who hear them. Koreans preach reverence for one’s elders and ancestors, as traditions like bowing to one’s grandparents and parents on the Korean New Year reflect. This ingrained respect causes the younger generations of Koreans to empathize with the sufferings of their grandparents and parents, thus furthering Korean resentment for the Japanese. As my grandfather’s responses and my own emotions demonstrate, many Koreans still view the Japanese occupation of Korea as an unresolved issue, and the two nations may find it difficult to improve their relationship without additional apologies and reflection.