Japanese victories in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) — both partially fought in Korea — left Korea without any foreign powers willing to oppose the Japanese annexation of Korea. Following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, in which Japan was victorious, Russia recognized Japan’s paramount rights in Korea. Unchallenged internationally, Japan formally annexed Korea and turned into its colony in 1910. [Source: Library of Congress]

In 1876, the Japanese naval fleet forced Korea to sign a trade treaty. To offset the Japanese influence, trade agreements were also concluded with the United States and European nations in the 1880s. By 1900 the Korean Peninsula had become the focus of an intense rivalry between the foreign powers then seeking to carve out spheres of influence in East Asia. Japan and Russia sought to divide their interests in Korea by dividing the kingdom in two at the thirty-eighth parallel.

During the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), Japanese troops moved through Korea to attack Manchuria. These troops were never withdrawn, and Japan declared a virtual protectorate over Korea. Soon after the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed in July 1905, formally ending the Russo-Japanese War, Japan stationed large contingents of police and army units in Korea and disbanded the Korean army. Korea became a Japanese colony in August 1910. This also spelled the end of the Chosun dynasty, which had ruled Korea since 1392.

The Japanese instituted vast social and economic changes and built modern industries and railroads, but their rule — from 1910 to 1945 — could be harsh and exploitative. The first three decades of Japanese occupation alternated between cycles of strict repression and periods of relative openness. In the first decade of occupation, Koreans were not allowed to publish newspapers or form political groups. Sporadic Korean attempts to overthrow the Japanese were unsuccessful, and after 1919 a provisional Korean government, under Syngman Rhee, was established at Shanghai, China. In 1938 Koreans were encouraged to take Japanese names and the exclusive use of the Japanese language was introduced in schools.

Japanese Take Over of Korea

The Korean Peninsula, a strategically located feature critical to the defense of the Japanese archipelago, greatly occupied Japan's attention in the nineteenth century. Earlier tension over Korea had been settled temporarily through the Treaty of Kanghwa in 1876, which opened Korean ports to Japan, and through the Tianjin Convention in 1885, which provided for the removal from Korea of both Chinese and Japanese troops sent to support contending factions in the Korean court. In effect, the convention had made Korea a co-protectorate of Beijing and Tokyo at a time when Russian, British, and United States interests in the peninsula also were on the increase. [Source: Library of Congress]

In June 1894, Korea sought help from China in putting down a peasant revolt known as the Tonghak Uprising. Japan viewed this as a provocation and sent in its own troops, setting the scene for a confrontation between China and Japan. In the ensuing Sino-Japanese War of 1895 Japan and China fought each other for possession of Korea and Manchuria. Japan won and promised Korea independence. Not long afterward, Russia — coveting warm water ports and taking advantage of China’s weakness — moved into the Korean peninsula.

The Russo-Japanese War in 1904 was also party fought over Korea. The Japanese won again and drove the Russians out of Korea. Their victory demonstrated that they were the unrivaled power in east Asia and the western Pacific. The seizure of Sakhalin island provided a stepping stone from Japan to Korea and Manchuria.

As part of the Treaty of Portsmouth deal that won Teddy Roosevelt a Nobel Peace Prize, Imperial Japan was given a free hand in Korea. According to the secret Taft-Katsura Agreement Roosevelt approved Japan’s takeover in Korea in return for Japan’s acquiescence to the United States take over of the Philippines, which it had won from Spain in the Spanish-American War. [Source: Seoul Tribune. January 11, 2015]

The Japanese essentially took control of Korean in 1905 and annexed the country in 1910 after brutally putting down a guerilla insurgency. After the annexation, the Korean army was disbanded, the Japanese resident-general was put in charge of Korea, and a colonial government was established in Seoul, whose name was changed to Keijo.

Sino-Japanese War

In the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), Japan easily defeated China in a war that would decide who would control the Korean peninsula. Known as the Jiawu War in China, the Sino-Japanese War lasted only a year. The decisive moment was the surprising defeat of the Chinese navy at the Battle of the Yalu River in 1894.Weakened by decades of foreign occupation, China was forced to sign a series of unequal treaties with Japan. The Treaty of Shimonoseki forced China to cede Taiwan and the Penghu Islands, pay a large indemnity, allow Japanese industry into four treaty ports and recognize Japan's hegemony over Korea (even though the Korean peninsula was officially granted the independence). China also ceded Port Arthur and the Liaotung peninsula in southern Manchuria to Japan.

Background of the war: Japan was the dominant power of Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Meiji reforms and the rise in Japanese military strength helped allow Japan to abolish foreign treaty rights and bypass China to become the leader in Asia. The origins of the war lay in the Korean question. In the Tientsin Convention of 1885 Japan and China had averted a war that had seemed probable by agreeing to withdraw their troops from Korea , where both parties had been building up sizeable contingents in Seoul , and by agreeing that if either country's future interests required intervention in Korea then the other country was to be forewarned and permitted to dispatch a comparable number of troops. [Source: Navy & Marine Living History Association, (NMLHA), navyandmarine.org]

A crisis was precipitated in 1894 when a leading pro-Japanese Korean political figure was assassinated in Shanghai with Chinese complicity. Prowar elements in Japan called for a punitive expedition, which the cabinet resisted. With assistance from several Japanese nationalistic societies, the illegal Tonghak (Eastern Learning) nationalistic religious movement in Korea staged a rebellion that was crushed by Chinese troops. Japan responded with force.

The Sino-Japanese War erupted in August 1894. In 1895, the Japanese virtually annihilated the Chinese navy in a single day, aided by their Chinese adversaries, whose first cannon shot of the war landed firmly on their own commanding admiral. After nine months of fighting, a cease-fire was called and peace talks were held.

Aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War

The victorious Japanese established their hegemony over Korea via the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) and dictated to the Korean government a wide-ranging series of measures to prevent further domestic disturbances. In response, the government promulgated various reforms, including the abolition of class distinctions, the liberation of slaves, the abolition of the ritualistic civil service examination system, and the adoption of a new tax system. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Russian influence had been on the rise in East Asia, in direct conflict with the Japanese desire for expansion. In 1875, Russia and Japan agreed on how to divide the islands east of Russia. Russia got Sakhalin Island and the Japanese got the Kuril Islands. Disagreement arose on "spheres of influence" in which Russia wanted Manchuria and Japan wanted Korea. Tokyo moved to gain influence over Korean banks, opened its own financial institutions in Korea, and began constructing railroads and obstructing Russian and French undertakings on the peninsula.

After the Sino-Japanese War, Russia, in alliance with France and Germany, forced Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula to China (which Japan had seized during the First Sino-Japanese War) and then promptly leased the territory from China and continued to develop it. The secret Sino-Russian treaty signed in 1896 also gave the Russians the right to build and operate the Chinese Eastern Railway across northern Manchuria, which served as a link in the Russian Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok. Russia proceeded to acquire numerous concessions over Korea's forests and mines.

In 1900, Japanese forces intervened with the other imperial powers to put down the Boxer Uprising, a xenophobic conflict in China against Christians and foreigners. Russia continued to develop the railroad system in Manchuria and to exploit forests and gold mines in the northern part of Korea. The United States, fearing complete exclusion from the region — especially from China — had declared its open door policy in 1900, but lacked the means to assert its will. During this period, however, Americans also were given concessions for rail and trolley lines, waterworks, Seoul's new telephone network, and mines. Japan briefly pulled back from the peninsula, but its 1902 alliance with Britain emboldened Japan to reassert itself there. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Russia and Japan initially sought to divide their interests in Korea, suggesting at one point that the thirty-eighth parallel be the dividing line between their spheres of influence. The rivalry devolved into the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) when Japan launched a successful surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur (Dalian; or Japanese, Dairen). Japan electrified all of Asia by becoming the first nonwhite country to subdue one of the "great powers."

Russo-Japanese War

In 1904-1905, Japan defeated Russia in Russo-Japanese War, showing that the world that Japan was major world power and that Czarist Russia was on its last legs. The Japanese attacked the Russians in Korea and Manchuria. Despite tremendous loss of life on both sides, the Japanese won a series of land battles and then decisively and unexpectedly crushed Russia's Baltic Sea Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905. The Japanese lost 60,000 men and the Russians, 30,000. One general described the war as a “mountain of corpses."

The Russo-Japanese War was the first major war of the 20th century. The use of barbed wire, trenches and land mines gave a hint of things to come in World War I. There were also major anti-war protests. At the beginning of the war Russia was considered one of the world's super powers and the Japanese army was still regarded as second rate. Most people thought that Russia would easily win. Some saw the conflict as the first modern war. It at least was the first modern naval war in which ironclad navies with long-range guns faced one another. But it was also a war of old-style military maneuvers such as a Cossack charges, the scaling of ancient city walls and elaborate courtesies between commanders.

War broke out in February 1904 with Japanese surprise attacks on Russian warships at Dalian and Chemulpo (in Korea, now called Inch'on). After the Russians refused to leave Manchuria and a timber concession in Korea, the Japanese launched a Pearl Harbor-like, pre-emptive surprise attack against the Russian Pacific Fleet in Port Arthur, Russia's only ice-free port on the Pacific.

Aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War

Under the peace treaty signed in September 1905, Russia acknowledged Japan's "paramount political, military, and economic interest" in Korea. A separate agreement signed in secret between the United States and Japan at this time subsequently aroused anti-American sentiment among Koreans. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

As part of the Treaty of Portsmouth deal that won Teddy Roosevelt a Nobel Peace Prize, Imperial Japan was given a free hand in Korea. According to the secret Taft-Katsura Agreement Roosevelt approved Japan’s takeover in Korea in return for Japan’s acquiescence to the United States take over of the Philippines, which it had won from Spain in the Spanish-American War. [Source: Seoul Tribune. January 11, 2015]

The Taft-Katsura Agreement was cynical by modern standards, exchanging what amounted to a lack of interest and military capability in Korea on the part of the United States (Japan was given a free hand in Korea) for a lack of interest or capability in the Philippines on the part of Japan (Japanese imperialism was diverted from the Philippines). Given the diplomatic conventions of the times, however, the agreement was a much weaker endorsement of the Japanese presence in Korea than either the Russo-Japanese peace treaty or a separate Anglo- Japanese accord. Two months later, Korea was obliged to become a Japanese protectorate. Thereafter, a large number of Koreans organized themselves in education and reform movements, but by then Japanese dominance in Korea was a reality. Japan annexed Korea as a colony on August 22, 1910.

Japanese Rule in Korea

In 1905, Japan installed a resident-general and, two years later, ended the Korean monarchy. ▪. Tokyo imposed a Japanese ruling elite, a new central state administration, a modern non- Confucian education system, Japanese investment, and even the Japanese language. This unwelcome imposition was considered illegitimate and humiliating by Koreans and built on a traditional love (by some of the elite)/hate relationship with the island empire. Significant Korean resistance followed this deposition, spreading through several provinces as local yangban organized militias for guerrilla warfare against Japan. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Japanese occupation alternated between cycles of strict repression and periods of relative openness. In the first decade of occupation, Koreans were not allowed to publish newspapers or form political groups. Korean resentment of such treatment led in the spring of 1919 to a series of protests that became known as the March First Independence Movement. The colonial authorities responded with violence, killing an estimated 7,000 Koreans.
Korea underwent drastic changes under Japanese rule. Even before the country was formally annexed by Japan in 1910, turning Korea into its colony and extinguishing Korea's hard-fought independence, which had first emerged over a millennia earlier with Silla and Koguryo resistance to Chinese pressures. The Japanese forced the last ruling monarch, King Kojong, to abdicate the throne in 1907 in favor of his feeble son, who was soon married off to a Japanese woman and given a Japanese peerage. Japan then governed Korea under a residency general and subsequently under a governor general directly subordinate to Japanese prime ministers. All of the governor generals were high-ranking Japanese military officers. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

The Japanese had hoped to export Japanese settlers and make Korean into a mini-Japan. The Japanese irrigated land and, introduced new seeds and doubled rice yields. Most of the rice was shipped off to Japan, while Koreans went hungry and in some cases survived by collecting wild plants in the mountains.Coal, forests and other resources were harvested to feed the Japanese economy. Industry was developed with Japan’s interests in mind not Korea’s.

The Imperial Japanese government built roads, ports, dams, power plants, roads, hospitals and schools, improved agricultural output, created an industrial infrastructure and improved health care. Seoul's central train station was built under Japanese imperial rulers in 1925. Some conservative Japanese politicians are angered that Koreans are not grateful for all that the Japanese did for them.

The relation between Japan and Korea is sometimes compared with that of Britain and India. The Japanese general generals lived in huge colonial buildings and were chauffeured around in Rolls Royces and horse drawn carriages and escorted by guards with long ceremonial swords. But some argue Japanese rule in Korea was much more brutal.

Japanese Colonialism in Korea

Korea did not escape the Japanese grip until 1945, when Japan lay prostrate under the Allied victory that brought World War II to a close. The colonial experience that shaped postwar Korea was intense and bitter. It brought development and underdevelopment, agrarian growth and deepened tenancy, industrialization and extraordinary dislocation, and political mobilization and deactivation. It also spawned a new role for the central state, new sets of Korean political leaders, communism and nationalism, and armed resistance and treacherous collaboration. Above all, it left deep fissures and conflicts that have gnawed at the Korean national identity ever since. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Colonialism was often thought to have created new countries where none existed before, to have drawn national boundaries, brought diverse tribes and peoples together, tutored the natives in self-government, and prepared for the day when the colonialist power decided to grant independence. But all this had existed in Korea for centuries before 19l0. Furthermore, by virtue of their relative proximity to China, Koreans had always felt superior to Japan and blamed Japan's devastating sixteenth-century invasions for hindering Korean wealth and power in subsequent centuries.

Thus the Japanese engaged not in creation, but in substitution after 19l0: substituting a Japanese ruling elite for the Korean yangban scholar-officials, colonial imperative coordination for the old central state administration, Japanese modern education for Confucian classics, Japanese capital and expertise for the budding Korean versions, Japanese talent for Korean talent, and eventually the Japanese language for Korean. Koreans never thanked the Japanese for these substitutions, did not credit Japan with creations, and instead saw Japan as snatching away the ancient regime, Korea's sovereignty and independence, its indigenous if incipient modernization, and above all its national dignity. Koreans never saw Japanese rule as anything but illegitimate and humiliating. Furthermore, the very closeness of the two nations — in geography, in common Chinese cultural influences, and in levels of development until the nineteenth century — made Japanese dominance all the more galling to Koreans and gave a peculiar intensity to their love/hate relationship.

Japanese Justification for Their Rule in Korea

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In order to understand Japanese colonial rule in Korea, and the reactions of Koreans, it is useful to see the ways in which Japanese officials sought to justify the takeover to Koreans, to themselves, and to the rest of the world. The article excerpted here is a transcript of a talk given by an official of the Japanese foreign ministry, Komatsu Midori, to resident foreign members (mostly British and American) of Seoul’s Royal Asiatic Society shortly after annexation. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ^^^ ]

In a speech called “The Old People and the New Government”, Komatsu Midori said: “It is stated in two famous Chinese histories, the Wei Chi (History of Wei) and the Hou Han Shu (Book of Later Han) that Korea is bounded on the east and west by sea and borders Japan on the south. If Japanese territory had not extended to the Korean peninsula over the sea in those days, such record would never have been written; but the sea would have been represented as circumscribing Korea not only on the east and west but also on the south. It is thus reasonable to infer that Japanese dominion extended to the Korean peninsula beyond the sea. In the reign of Emperor Ojin, son of Empress Jingo, as well as in the reign of Emperor Yuiyaku, who ascended the throne about two hundred years later, envoys were sent by the Japanese Court to China then under the Wu dynasty. These facts are recorded in a contemporary Chinese book, in which it is mentioned that one of the credentials presented by the Japanese envoys bore the signature of “King of Wa (Japan) and Great General giving peace to the seven countries of Wa (Japan), Packche, Silla, Mimana, Kala, Chin.Han and Ma.Han.” The latter six are the names of the states in Korea at that time. Further it is mentioned in the same book that Japan subjugated northern countries beyond the sea to the number of ninety-five. [Source: Komatsu Midori, “The Old People and the New Government,” in Transactions of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 6(1), 1912: 3-4, 7-8 , 8-9]

The number given is evidently an exaggeration, but the reference seems to confirm the belief that prior to and after the Korean expedition of Empress Jingo, the southern part at least of the peninsula was in Japanese hands. Judging from the facts so far pointed out in general outline it is not unreasonable to conclude that the Japanese and Korean peoples formed for a long time one and the same nation. The recent annexation of Korea by Japan is therefore not the incorporation of two different countries inhabited by different races, but, it may rather be said to be the reunion of two sections of the one and same nation after a long period of separation. Indeed it is nothing nor less than the old state of things restored. …

“In developing the industry of an infantile nation, it is advisable to begin the work by undertaking the improvement of the agricultural industry, and this has been diligently carried on since Japan assumed the protectorate of the Korean Empire. This may be a task easy to accomplish in other countries. In Chosun, however, the improvement of agriculture must be accompanied by the afforestation as a preventive against floods as well for facilitating irrigation. But afforestation is not a work which can be accomplished within a short time.

“Moreover, in order that it may be successfully carried out it is not enough for a government to undertake it of itself, but the general public must be trained to appreciate its benefits and importance. The Governor General issued for that purpose an instruction to name the anniversary of Emperor Jimmu, April 3, as Arbor.day for Chosun. On that day, all students of schools are to plant young trees. The district magistrates were also enjoined to induce members of public organizations as well as individuals to cooperate in the plantation. Seedling nurserieswill be established for the cultivation of young trees; but for the time being young trees or seedlings are to be distributed by the Provincial administration. …

“The wonderful new machinery, the command of new powers of steam and electricity, have produced a new era in Japan, bringing about a remarkable change not only in political and material conditions but also in the moral and intellectual spheres. In a territory like Chosun, of great distances, of great natural difficulties, high mountain chains, wide spreading forests and waste lands, and therefore of great obstacles to personal travel and the transportation of commodities; an industrial development of the same kind would be followed by the same results. Now, in Chosun, farmers living in distant places are obliged to resort either to pack horses or human carriers for sending their surplus products to distant markets. This entails much time and expense, and the proceeds raised often do not cover the expense so incurred.

“Under these circumstances farmers cannot be blamed for their reluctance to raise abundant crops by adopting imposed agricultural methods. Such a state of things however is not confined to agricultural products alone. The same or rather more difficulty would be experienced in the trade of not a few manufactured articles as well as of heavy minerals such as coal, copper, iron and graphite. This accounts for the inactivity of not only agriculture but also of industry and commerce, except in places along the existing railways and the sea coast.”

Japanese Governance in Colonial Korea

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “During their first decade as Korea's colonial overlords, the Japanese changed many things. They abolished the monarchy, bribed many of the yangban to win their support, rounded up and shot many former Korean soldiers who had become part of a resistance movement, and tried to intimidate everyone who did not accept or support their dominance. At the head of the colonial government was a governor-general, an army officer who was in effect the new king of Korea. He ruled as he saw fit, with little supervision from the Japanese government in Tokyo. He took a land survey that resulted in many Korean farmers having to sell their land, usually to Japanese who came over from the more crowded Japanese islands. To enforce his edicts he used a military police force known as the kempeitai and a system of courts that paid scant attention to human rights. Korea was reorganized to serve Japan, and the Koreans themselves were reduced to being low-paid workers in their own country. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Japan built bureaucracies in Korea, all of them centralized and all of them big by colonial standards. Unlike the relatively small British colonial cadre in India, there were 700,000 Japanese in Korea by the 1940s, and the majority of colonizers worked in government service. For the first time in history, Korea had a national police, responsive to the center and possessing its own communications and transportation facilities. The huge Japanese Oriental Development Company organized and funded industrial and agricultural projects, and came to own more than 20 percent of Korea's arable land; it employed an army of officials who fanned out through the countryside to supervise agricultural production. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

The official Bank of Korea performed central banking functions such as regulating interest rates and provisioned credit to firms and entrepreneurs, almost all of them Japanese. Central judicial bodies wrote new laws establishing an extensive, "legalized" system of racial discrimination against Koreans, making them second-class citizens in their own country. Bureaucratic departments proliferated at the Seoul headquarters of Japan's Government-General of Korea, turning it into the nerve center of the country. Semiofficial companies and conglomerates, including the big zaibatsu (commercial conglomerates) such as Mitsubishi and Mitsui, laid railroads, built ports, installed modern factories, and ultimately remade the face of old Korea.

Japan held Korea tightly, watched it closely, and pursued an organized, architectonic colonialism in which the planner and administrator were the model, not the swashbuckling conqueror. The strong, highly centralized colonial state mimicked the role that the Japanese state had come to play in Japan — intervening in the economy, creating markets, spawning new industries, and suppressing dissent. Politically, Koreans could barely breathe, but economically there was significant, if unevenly distributed, growth. Agricultural output rose substantially in the 1920s, and a hothouse industrialization occupied the 1930s. Growth rates in the Korean economy often outstripped those in Japan itself; one estimate suggested an annual growth rate for Korea of 3.57 percent in the 1911-38 period and a rate of 3.36 percent for Japan itself.

Koreans have always thought that the benefits of this growth went entirely to Japan and that Korea would have developed rapidly without Japanese help. Nonetheless, the strong colonial state, the multiplicity of bureaucracies, the policy of administrative guidance of the economy, the use of the state to found new industries, and the repression of labor unions and dissidents provided a surreptitious model for both Koreas in the postwar period. Japan showed them an early version of the "bureaucratic-authoritarian" path to industrialization, and it was a lesson that seemed well learned by the 1970s.

Japanese Development in Korea

Before the Japanese arrived there was hardly any industry in Korea. Most of the industry the Japanese introduced was built in the north near coal and metal sources. The location of industry there played a role in dividing the north and south. Before the Japanese occupation both had traditionally been agricultural.

Seoul got its first electricity, running water and modern hospital in 1908, thanks to the Japanese. It was one of the first cities in Asia to have trolley cars, a water system, telephones, and telegraphs. In 1910, the Japanese made Seoul the capital of colonial Korea and changed its name to Keijo. Much of the old city was razed, partly in attempt to obliterate Korean culture, and all but 10 of the 200 buildings that made up the Chosun Dynasty's Kyongbok Place were destroyed. In 1926, the Japanese built the governor's palace between the Chosun throne and the gate of the city, breaking the city’s feng shui line of power on which the city was founded.

The Korean economy underwent significant change under the Japanese. Japan had also begun to build large-scale industries in Korea in the 1930s as part of the empire-wide program of economic self-sufficiency and war preparation. Between 1939 and 1941, the manufacturing sector represented 29 percent of Korea's total economic production. The primary industries — agriculture, fishing, and forestry — occupied only 49.6 percent of total economic production during that period, in contrast to having provided 84.6 percent of total production between 1910 and 1912. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

The economic development taking place under Japanese rule, however, brought little benefit to the Koreans. Virtually all industries were owned either by Japan-based corporations or by Japanese corporations in Korea. As of 1942, Korean capital constituted only 1.5 percent of the total capital invested in Korean industries. Korean entrepreneurs were charged interest rates 25 percent higher than their Japanese counterparts, so it was difficult for Korean enterprises to emerge.

Impact of Japanese Colonialism and Korean Agriculture and Winemaking

Japan's initial colonial policy was to increase agricultural production in Korea to meet Japan's growing need for rice. More and more farmland was taken over by the Japanese, and an increasing proportion of Korean farmers either became sharecroppers or migrated to Japan or Manchuria. As greater quantities of Korean rice were exported to Japan, per capita consumption of rice among the Koreans declined; between 1932 and 1936, per capita consumption of rice declined to half the level consumed between 1912 and 1916. Although the government imported coarse grains from Manchuria to augment the Korean food supply, per capita consumption of food grains in 1944 was 35 percent below that of 1912 to 1916.

Katarzyna J. Cwiertka wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”: “A large variety of homemade wines (which are strictly speaking ales) flavored with ginseng, pine needles, chrysanthemum, cherry, plum, or apricot blossoms, herbs, and fruits were popular before the turn of the twentieth century. The ban on homemade wines during the Japanese colonial period (1910–1945) had a devastating effect on this part of the Korean tradition. The use of rice for wine making continued to be prohibited after the liberation, due to the shortage of rice. The ban on rice wine was lifted in 1971, and various efforts have been undertaken since to revive local wine making in Korea. In 1985, for example, the government designated many traditional wines as cultural assets. [Source: Katarzyna J. Cwiertka, “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

The Korea Herald reported: “Before the colonial Japanese government imposed its liquor tax law here in 1909, the country’s alcohol scene was varied and vibrant, with local breweries concocting their own beverages. Korea’s rapid, centralized modernization in the postwar years produced a handful of drinks — soju, beer and makgeolli in particular — that quenched the thirst of industrialists and salarymen alike. Korea’s traditional liquors, including takju (opaque, coarsely fermented drinks), yakju (filtered rice wine), soju (distilled liquor) and gwasilju (wine made with fruit), were, for a long time, relegated to the shadow of their Western competitors. [Source: Korea Herald, November 11, 2016]

Japanese Colonial Buildings

Seoul's central train station was built under Japanese imperial rulers in 1925. City Hall near the station is often considered the city center. Located on the main downtown area, it is was a huge stone-and-cement structure built by the Japanese. National Museum (at the end of Sejongpo Street) was an impressive domed building built by the Japanese and torn down in 1995 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Korea's liberation from Japan. This commanding stone building, entered through Kwanghwamun palace gate, was built in the 1920s and was originally the home for the Japanese governor. Explaining why the building was torn down, former president Kim Young Sam said in a speech, "It is wrong to preserve our cultural artifacts, which are the culmination of our ancestor's magnificent heritage, in a former Japanese colonial building."

Some Japanese structures that remain include: 1) A wooden colonial-era warehouse in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do, now a parking garage; 2) the Old City Hall shaded by the much larger new Seoul City Hall; 3) the former Customs House in Gunsan, a town in Jeollabuk-do that has successfully revitalized itself by preserving its many colonial buildings; 4) the Old downtown Ganggyeong, which is trying to preserve remnants of its own colonial architecture; 5) Sonnae Onggi Cafe, located in a colonial-era house in Jeonju, Jeollabuk-do; 6) a Japanese villa in Busan. The office of the Government General during Japanese rule, later turned into the National Museum of Korea was razed in 1996 to make way for the restoration of Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul. The former War College in Jinhae is slated for demolition. The brand-new Dongnae Eupseong fortress in Busan is still considered ‘restored.’

Nate Kornegay wrote in Korea Expose: “At the turn of the twentieth century, Western architecture had just started to penetrate the former hermit kingdom. This initially came in the form of legations, hotels, missionary homes, and port facilities, but it was also introduced through the Japanese, who developed a penchant for imitating Western designs. By the 1940s, European red-brick homes, Renaissance-inspired government centers, flowery Gothic churches, American styled schools, gabled warehouses and modern Japanese wooden buildings had come to dominate Korea’s major urban cityscapes. Even designs typically used in Chosun architecture, like those with tile roofs and stone slab foundations, took on new shapes as they were adapted for city life and built in grid form in some neighborhoods, creating a melting pot of traditional and foreign architecture that Korea had never seen before. [Source: Nate Kornegay. Korea Expose, April 11, 2016]

“For some people, early non-Korean modern architecture became a symbol of Japanese imperialism. For instance, socialist writer Cho Myeong-hui once characterized a piece of Japanese architecture as something disdainfully overlooking its chogajip neighbors in his 1927 narrative, Nakdong River...Casualties of the post-colonial demolition wave include a former tax building north of Deoksugung in Seoul, a colonial Japanese villa near the hot spring area of Oncheonjang in Busan, the Japanese styled Deokhwan Gwaneum-sa temple in Jinhae, and the mid-century Bethel Church in Masan.

“The case of the old Seoul City Hall building best illustrates officialdom’s cavalier attitude toward colonial-era architecture. The city of Seoul planned for a new city hall building since 2006 and announced in 2008 that the demolition would commence. The city argued that the old building, which dates to 1926, had no value as a cultural heritage site and that its age made it a safety hazard. Pledging to use all of its legal resources to complete the demolition, the city was, however, forced to keep the front half of the old hall and construct the new building behind it.

“The Japanese government began dismantling Chosun fortresses and thousands of royal structures in the 1900s, robbing Korea of its traditional landscape. Gyeongbok Palace reportedly had over three hundred traditional-style buildings in 1910. By 1945, no more than eighteen remained. Some estimate that up to ninety-eight percent of Chosun-era architecture was destroyed during the Japanese occupation. It is then rather poetic that South Korea’s industrialization has since obliterated the colonial buildings that were once so ubiquitous.

“But there is a strong argument for preserving colonial-period buildings considering that much of South Korea’s architectural heritage is actually reconstructed. Some Chosun Dynasty buildings are outright new, having been ‘restored’ in the last decade or two, and these reconstructions – like the Dongnae Eupseong Fortress in Busan, the restored roofs of Deoksugung Palace and the planned stone walkway nearby – are sometimes untrue to their original form. As such, they lack authenticity and run the risk of rewriting history, or at least creating a false representation of what the original looked like.”

Working in the Colonial Era Korea

Kang Pyongju lived during the Japanese occupation of Korea. He said: “I finished college in 1932 and needed a job. I heard that the Japanese government was recruiting managers for the Bank of Agriculture, and had decided to allow Koreans to apply. This was unusual, because the current managers were all Japanese as part of Japan’s long range plan to manage and control the farming in Korea. [Source: “From Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945", by Hildi Kang (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 55-56, Asia for Educators Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ^^^ ]

“The bank planned to select forty people ¯ thirty Japanese and ten Koreans. So regardless of how qualified the Koreans might be, only ten could expect jobs. And though unqualified, thirty Japanese would be Chosun. More than a thousand Koreans applied. I decided to apply. I ranked as one of the ten Koreans selected and began an orientation course. After an accounting class in Seoul came field training in the provinces. I spent two months in North P’ongan Province.

“The base salary of a government position for a graduate of a Japanese public college was fifty-five yen a month and for graduates of private colleges (Korean or missionary) it was forty-five yen. By comparison, the county chief got sixty yen, the police chief got thirty, regular civil servants got fifteen, and policemen got only eight. People assigned to remote areas of the provinces received and extra hardship bonus equivalent of 30 percent of their salary. Also, those living near the northern border, along the Yalu or Tuman rivers, received another seven yen. The salaries for both Japanese and Korean bank managers appeared to be the same, but the Japanese received still another extra 30 percent stipend.”

Japanese Repression in Korea

In theory the Koreans, as subjects of the Japanese emperor, enjoyed the same status as the Japanese; but in fact the Japanese government treated the Koreans as a conquered people. Until 1921 they were not allowed to publish their own newspapers or to organize political or intellectual groups. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

After Korea was annexed, the Japanese used Korean men as slave laborers in the coal mines of the northern Korea. They raped Korean women and dragged them off to brothels in Manchuria, and forced Koreans to renounce their own culture. Much of the old city in Seoul was razed, partly in attempt to obliterate Korean culture, and all but 10 of the 200 buildings that made up the Chosun Dynasty's Kyongbok Palace were destroyed. In 1926, the Japanese built the governor's palace between the Chosun throne and the gate of the city, breaking the feng shui line of power on which the city was founded.

The "strong hand of Japan," one Korean villager told reporter Richard Critchfield, destroyed village after village so that "not a single house was left, not a pot unbroken." Japanese police burst into the Korean homes, demanding that parents supply their children as "volunteers" for "comfort stations" and the Imperial Army. Crops were destroyed and families were made so poor they were forced to eat bark and roots, make soap from rice skins, and wear shoes made from wood and straw. [Source: "The Villagers" by Richard Critchfield, Anchor Books]

Japanese Attempts to Eradicate Korean Culture

From the late 1930s until 1945, the colonial government pursued a policy of assimilation whose primary goal was to force the Koreans to speak Japanese and to consider themselves Japanese subjects. In 1937 the Japanese governor general ordered that all instruction in Korean schools be in Japanese and that students not be allowed to speak Korean either inside or outside of school. During the war years Korean-language newspapers and magazines were shut down. Belief in the divinity of the Japanese emperor was encouraged, and Shinto shrines were built throughout the country. Had Japanese rule not ended in 1945, the fate of indigenous Korean language, culture, and religious practices would have been extremely uncertain. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Under Japanese rule, Koreans were not allowed to speak their language, sing traditional songs or wear traditional clothes. Korean temples and shrines were destroyed, Korean history was banned from schools and Koreans were forced to worship at Japanese Shinto shrines and revere the Japanese emperor. During the Japanese occupation few children finished grade school. Instead they were forced to do things like take part in fly-killing competitions with the students who killed the most flies winning a prize.

In school, Korean children were forced to take Japanese names and study the Japanese language and they were severely punished whenever they uttered a word of Korean. Recalling those days Korean President Kim Dae Jung said, we "were forced to bow ritually to the picture of the Japanese emperor each day. If we were caught so much as muttering Korean, we were punished, sometimes severely."

Koreans Forced to Change Their Names

In 1939 a Japanese decree "encouraged" Koreans to adopt Japanese names, and by the following year it was reported that 84 percent of all Korean families had done so. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Japanese colonization of Korea continued until the end of the Pacific War in 1945. Many of its aspects are strongly resented by many Koreans to this day, and among these most hated aspects, attempts to coerce Koreans into adopting Japanese names late in the colonial period (as part of an overall wartime material and spiritual mobilization effort) stand out. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ^^^ ]

Pak Songp’il, a farmer and fisherman in South Kyongsang Province born in 1917, said: “I got beaten up many times by the Japanese because I resisted changing my name to Japanese. Everybody around me changed theirs, but I had lost my grandfather and then my father, and had taken over the responsibility of eldest son. That is why I tried not to change my name. But I got tired of being so badly beaten. [Source: “From Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945", by Hildi Kang (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 55-56]

“Out of desperation, I wrote to my aunt in Seoul, the one who had been arrested for the Independence demonstration. I asked her, should I do it? By return mail, she said, “Do you have two fathers? If you have two fathers, then change your name to the name of your Japanese father.” She was furious! So I held out a while longer, but I couldn’t stand any more persecution. I finally changedmy name to Otake. The O in the Chinese characters is Korean Tae, the first syllable of the place where I was born. The take, meaning bamboo, is for the huge bamboo grove behind our house. So my name signified that I was born in Taebyon township in the house with the bamboo grove in back.

Social Changes and Exposure to Western Ideas Under the Japanese Occupation

Under Japanese rule, intellectual influences different from traditional Buddhist, Confucianist, and shamanistic beliefs flooded the country. Western-style painting was introduced, and literary trends, even among writers who emphasized themes of social protest and national independence, tended to follow Japanese and European models, particularly those developed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

The works of Russian, German, French, British, American, and Japanese authors were read by the more educated Koreans, and Korean writers increasingly adopted Western ideas and literary forms. Social and political themes were prominent. Tears of Blood, the first of the "new novels," published by Yi In-jik in serial form in a magazine in 1906, stressed the need for social reform and cultural enlightenment, following Western and Japanese models. Yi Kwang-su's The Heartless, published in 1917, stressed the need for mass education, Western science, and the repudiation of the old family and social system. Ch'ae Man-sik's Ready Made Life, published in 1934, protested the injustices of colonial society.

In the 1920s and 1930s, socialist ideas began to influence the development of literature. In 1925 left-wing artists, rejecting the romanticism of many contemporary writers, established the Korean Proletarian Artists' Federation, which continued until it was suppressed by Japanese authorities in 1935. One of the best representatives of this group was Yi Ki-yong, whose 1936 novel Home tells of the misery of villagers under Japanese rule and the efforts of the protagonist, a student, to organize them. Poets during the colonial period included Yi Sang-hwa, Kim So-wol, and Han Yong-un. But the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War marked a period of unprecedented repression in the cultural sphere by Japanese authorities, which continued until Korea's liberation in 1945.

Korea Before World War II

In the 1930s, the ascendancy of the military in Japanese politics reversed momentum towards the change and reform in Korea. Particularly after 1937, when Japan launched the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) against China, the colonial government decided on a policy of mobilizing the entire country for the cause of the war. Not only was the economy reorganized onto a war footing, but the Koreans were to be totally assimilated as Japanese. The government also began to enlist Korean youths in the Japanese army as volunteers in 1938, and as conscripts in 1943. Worship at Shinto shrines became mandatory, and every attempt at preserving Korean identity was discouraged. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Japanese rule was harsh, particularly after the Japanese militarists began their expansionist drive in the 1930s. Internal Korean resistance, however, virtually ceased in the 1930s as the police and the military gendarmes imposed strict surveillance over all people suspected of subversive inclinations and meted out severe punishment against recalcitrants. Most Koreans opted to pay lip service to the colonial government. Others actively collaborated with the Japanese. The treatment of collaborators became a sensitive and sometimes violent issue during the years immediately following liberation.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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