Colonial Korea

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  • Japanese: 朝鮮 (Chousen)

Korea was a Japanese protectorate from 1905 to 1910, and an annexed colony of Japan from 1910 until 1945, ruled by a semi-autonomous and rather authoritarian government based at Seoul (renamed Keijô). Under Japanese rule, Korea saw considerable industrial and economic development, but suffered "draconian and vindictive"[1] military rule, which destroyed many native Korean political and social institutions and replaced them with Japanese ones, as well as oppressing the people, severely damaging Korean cultural traditions and setting the stage for profoundly negative Korean attitudes & views towards Japan down to the present day.

Background and Prologue

Samurai armies under Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea in the 1590s, and though they ultimately were unsuccessful and withdrew entirely from the peninsula, the damage they caused continues to be remembered today, and associated by some with the much later actions by a very different Japanese government in very different times and circumstances.

Though formal friendly relations between the Joseon Dynasty and Tokugawa shogunate were eventually established, and maintained throughout most of the Edo period, there were some Japanese intellectuals who advocated invading Korea as early as the early to mid-19th century. Citing the decline of Qing Dynasty China (especially after the Opium War of 1840-1842) and the threat of Russian encroachment (especially beginning around 1800), they argued for the invasion of Korea in order to help ensure the security of Japanese land, waters, and interests.

This discourse continued into the Bakumatsu and Meiji periods, as many Japanese policymakers expressed concerns about Chinese and Russian influence in Korea, and sought to protect Korea's independence from those and other powers, in order to keep Korea available for trade and relations with Japan. This would remain a prominent theme in Japanese attitudes and actions towards Korea well into the 20th century.

Debates over how to pursue such a policy culminated in the 1873 Seikanron, a major debate which split the leaders of the Meiji government; while some advocated invading Korea, for a variety of reasons including a desire to protect Japanese interests in Korea, and the feeling of a need, on the basis of national security, to ensure Korea not fall into the hands of Russia or any other Western power, others disagreed vehemently. In the end, the decision was made not to launch any such military expedition, and Saigô Takamori, among others, famously resigned from government, returning to his native Kagoshima prefecture, where he would several years later lead a major rebellion against the government.

The Japanese managed to secure modern diplomatic relations with Korea in the 1876 Treaty of Ganghwa, which stipulated Korea's identity as an independent nation, free to engage in its own foreign affairs, and which opened three Korean ports to Japanese trade. This was all done without notifying or negotiating with Beijing, which had still seen Joseon Korea as a tributary state. This also placed the final nail in the coffin, so to speak, of the traditional relationship between the Korean Court and the Sô clan of Tsushima han, following the abolition of both the samurai class and of the han domains in the preceding years. A formal Japanese embassy in the modern mode was established in Seoul in 1880.

In the 1880s, a number of Japanese traveled to Korea in a variety of capacities, some as independent adventurers and the like, others as filibusters or activists, and others in more official capacities as diplomats or government officials. A great many of them, across all of these categories, aimed in one way or another to persuade Korea to distance itself from China, to pursue modernization reforms, and/or to allow for some considerable degree of Japanese involvement in Korean governance. Some of the more official visits involved attempts to secure for Japan concessions, such as the opening of ports, the establishment of a foreign settlement, and exclusive rights to construct and maintain telegraph lines and railroads. None of these attempts were ultimately successful, some being blocked by representatives of the Western powers. In 1895, for example, representatives from the US, UK, Germany, and Russia agreed that Japan should not be given exclusive rights to railroad or telegraph concessions. The Koreans then granted such concessions to Westerners, as part of attempts to "play barbarians against barbarians," using the Westerners to block out the Japanese.[2]

Some of these efforts also spurred considerable Korean resistance or opposition, and in a few cases direct violence against Japanese individuals. Both China and Japan, on a number of occasions over the course of the decade, sent small military missions into Korea to suppress rebellions and uprisings, and after Japanese ambassador to Korea Takezoe Shin'ichirô was injured, and a number of Japanese killed, by Korean activists, Foreign Minister Inoue Kaoru led a mission to Seoul in 1884 to discuss addressing these incidents. Tensions between China and Japan over influence in Korea nearly led to war during this decade, but negotiations between Mori Arinori and Li Hongzhang ultimately avoided (or delayed) violent conflict; both countries then agreed to inform the other if they were to send troops to Korea again.

However, in 1894, the Korean king requested Chinese and Japanese aid in suppressing the Tonghak Rebellion, and after the rebellion was ended, the Japanese troops remained, looting the royal palace and capturing the king and queen. Chinese forces responded, and the Sino-Japanese War broke out.

The Sino-Japanese War ended the following year with the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which gave Japan control of Taiwan, among other spoils. Japanese and Russian influence in Korea continued to expand over the period from 1898 to 1904, eventually resulting in the outbreak of another full-on war. The Russo-Japanese War, like the Sino-Japanese War before it, was fought largely in and around, and over control of, Korea. It ended in 1905 with the Treaty of Portsmouth, and was shortly followed by a separate treaty with Korea which granted Japan control over the Korean peninsula as a "protectorate." This came as the result of a May 31, 1904 cabinet decision that in order to ensure Korea's independence and territorial security, it needed to be placed under Japan's protection; the Korean royal family, court, and governing structures were left relatively intact and at least nominally independent, while Japan took over responsibility for Korea's foreign relations, defense, and finances.[3]

Protectorate (1905-1910)

Itô Hirobumi, who had some years before ended his term as Japan's first modern prime minister, became the first Resident General in Korea. Historian Mark Peattie describes Itô as having "attempted a series of well-intentioned reforms while at the same time systematically liquidating Korean political institutions and substituting Japanese ones."[1]

The first objective of Japanese rule in Korea was to consolidate power and attempt to eliminate the ability of the people to mount effective resistance. Among the steps taken towards this objective were the establishment of Japanese in advisory posts within the Korean army, followed by the downsizing of the army and its eventual dismantling in 1907, at which time the best Korean officers were then incorporated into the Japanese army. Peattie compares the resulting mutinies amongst Korean soldiers to the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, in which samurai rose up against the destruction of their elite warrior class; both were powerfully and successfully suppressed by the Imperial Japanese Army. Other major objectives in the earliest stages included the establishment of telegraph lines, railroads, a postal system, and telephone lines, integrating Korea into the Japanese domestic communications and transportation systems.[4]

Japanese rule in Korea continued to inspire Korean resistance, which led to open rebellion in 1908 to 1910. The assassination of Itô Hirobumi in 1909 by activist An Jung-geun spurred Japanese authorities to move forward with the culmination of plans already underway to formally annex Korea; this they did the following year, marking the end of Korea as "protectorate" and the beginning of Korea as "colony." A formal treaty, signed on August 22, 1910,[5] ended the Korean Empire and the monarchy, and established the Governor-Generalship of Korea. Numerous placenames were officially changed, including referring to Korea as Chôsen, Pyeongyang as Heijô, and Seoul as Keijô.

Colony (1910-1945)

Peattie describes the administration of the first Governor-General of Korea, Terauchi Masatake, as "iron-fisted," as the full power of the Japanese military was deployed to violently suppress further rebellions with "savage reprisal[s]."[1] As throughout the empire, the scale and pervasiveness of military might, used to enforce obedience to Japanese authority, was a key element of the Japanese colonial operation in Korea. In 1919, Korean frustrations grew to a climax, exploding violently in the March First Movement, to which the Japanese colonial government responded brutally, against protestors and others who, most of them, had been relatively peaceful in their resistance. Following this uprising, martial rule was replaced by a fundamental policy of "cultural rule" (J: bunka seiji) under Governor-General Saitô Makoto, who served as Governor-General from 1919 to 1927 and again from 1929 to 1931.

While still trying to effect Korean compliance through pure military force, the colonial authorities from 1919 onward turned to efforts to gain Korean support through education and cultural efforts, in the hopes of turning them to seeing Japanese rule as a source of modernity, civilization, culture, order, and prosperity.[6] After 1920, two of Japan's best divisions were stationed in northern Korea, and numerous kenpeitai (military police) units were distributed throughout the peninsula. Yet, at the same time, the colonial administration was transformed into a powerful engine for change, aimed at reshaping entirely Korea's political, economic, educational and social systems, imposing Japanese values, and at eliminating or profoundly altering Korean national or cultural identity. By the 1930s or '40s, the teaching of Korean language or history was banned in the public schools, Koreans were obliged to use Japanese pronunciations for their surnames, and State Shinto was imposed upon the populace.[7]

Japan's takeover of Korea came just at the time that a unified Korean national identity was emerging, making nationalistic, emotional opposition to Japan's rule all the stronger. What was for the most part acquiesced to by the Japanese public as necessary steps towards modernization was violently opposed by Koreans as being imposed by a foreign invader. While there were surely efforts to explain the goals and advantages of modernization, these were ignored or rejected (and quite understandably) as propaganda. Where Japanese had themselves negotiated and debated Confucian vs. Western values, and any number of other similar debates as to the character and direction of modernity, now, several decades later, the Japanese did not engage in any such discussions with Korean scholars or officials, but simply saw them as stubbornly conservative, and so, dragged the Koreans kicking and screaming, so to speak, into conformity with Japanese "modern" attitudes and practice without consideration for their feelings or desires, or intellectual opinions.

In 1942, the administration of Korea was shifted from the jurisdiction of the Colonial Ministry to that of the Ministry of Home Affairs (Naimushô), as Korea was formally declared an integral part of Japan.[7]


  • Mark Peattie and Ramon Myers (eds.), The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945, Princeton University Press (1984).
  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Peattie, 17-18.
  2. Peter Duus, "Economic Dimensions of Meiji Imperialism," in Peattie and Myers (eds.), The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945, Princeton University Press (1984), 139.
  3. Duus, 140.
  4. Duus, 141.
  5. Gallery labels, Gonnyeonghap Hall, Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul.[1]
  6. Hye-ri Oh, "Invisible Surveillance: Photography as a Colonial Art and Cultural Rule," presentation at Association for Asian Studies annual conference, Washington DC, 22 March 2018.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Marius Jansen, "Japanese Imperialism: Late Meiji Perspectives," in Peattie (ed.), 77.