[KS] KSR 2002-02: _Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945_, by Hildi Kang

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Thu Feb 28 23:32:14 EST 2002

_Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945_, by Hildi
Kang. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press. 2001. 166 pages, xviii.  ISBN: 0-8014-3854-3.  Cloth, $25.00.

Reviewed by Mark Caprio
Rikkyo University, Tokyo

Hildi Kang developed the idea to write _Under the Black Umbrella:
Voices from Colonial Korea_ while listening to her Korean father-in-law
tell stories of his experiences during the period of Japanese occupation.
Missing from these memories were the accounts of Japanese atrocities
preserved in the "passionate stories of martyrs" that she had come to
expect.  In conducting the research that culminated into her book, Kang
came to realize that "under the shade cast by the Japanese presence, some
people, some of the time, led close to normal lives" (p. 21).  The
recollections that she collected contribute an essential (but to date
neglected) ingredient to our understanding of Korea's colonial history.
Their contents disturb the neat package that pits the colonizing (Japanese)
aggressor against the colonized (Korean) victim.

_Under the Black Umbrella_ is essentially a volume compiled from a
collection of authors - fifty-one to be exact.  Kang's contacts also tell
stories that they heard from parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents and
thus enable her readers to gain a sense of Korean life before annexation as
well.  Kang's interview style appears informal: rather than preparing a
list of questions she left the direction of the discussion to her
informants.  In addition to providing personal insights to newsworthy
events, such as the 1919 March First Movement, their memories allow us a
glimpse of the mundane: daily Korean-Japanese interactions, work
experiences, income and expenses, and overseas travel.  Attitudes that the
Korean harbored toward their Japanese subjugators, both negative and
positive, embroider the tapestry Kang weaves of the everyday life that many
residing on the peninsula endured over this period.

To date the majority of English language accounts by Koreans of
their lives during the thirty-six years of colonial rule have been written
by individuals committed to exposing the atrocities committed by the
Japanese.  Their stories tell of patriotic efforts trampled by the heavy
foot of the omnipresent colonizer, an oppression that forced many of these
writers to flee their country.  Two of the more popular accounts of this
genre are Richard Kim's _Lost Names_ and Peter Hyun's _Man Sei!_.  Earlier,
Louise Yim (_My Forty Year Fight for Korea_) and Induk Park (_September
Monkey_) introduced us to the lives of female participants in the March
First Movement.  More recently painful first-hand recollections of the
plight that the comfort women faced in the latter part of this history have
added a valuable (albeit terribly sad) dimension to our understanding of
this period.  Other second-hand scholarly accounts that have incorporated
discussion of Korean daily life include Carter Eckert's _Offspring of
Empire_ and Soon-won Park's _Colonial Industrialization and Labor in
Korea_.  Kang's work represents the first book written in English devoted
specifically to the oral histories of a wide variety of ordinary Koreans
under Japanese rule.

The stories contained in _Under the Black Umbrella_ complicate not
only the neat picture of colonial life in Korea but colonial situations
more generally.  The multiple voices that Kang amplifies reflect the
Japanese arrogance and brutality found in the majority of portrayals of
this period.  They also append positive experiences, however, including the
kindness and respect that a number of Japanese extended toward the Korean.
We can expect that the majority of the people residing on the Korean
peninsula during the Japanese occupation would identify with the response
that Kang commonly heard when she asked her informants to talk about their
experiences: "nothing much happened to me." Indeed, she had to discard a
number of her interviews because the informant apparently had nothing
extraordinary to relate.

Those who felt their stories worth preserving, though, offered
experiences from both extremes: some endured terrible hardships and
repression at the hands of the Japanese resident in Korea while others
remember this encounter in more positive terms.  Watching a Japanese
inspector force a farmer to eat the worms that inhabited his grass roof
left ChOng T'ae'ik with a bitter impression of the colonizers (p. 104).
The help and advice that Hong Ulsu received from his yakuza (Japanese
gangster) boss encouraged the businessman through to his graduation from
Tokyo's Aoyama University in 1932 (pp. 31-2).  It was not always the
Japanese who left them their most bitter memories.  Yi HajOn, for example,
complained that it was the Korean prison staff members who tortured him (p.
91).  Clever Koreans, reported Hong Ulsu, participated in robbing their
fellow countrymen of their land, as well (pp. 12-3).

These oral histories are especially helpful in adding to our
understanding of Korean participation in Japanese institutions.  Statistics
of Korean participation in these institutions were used by the Japanese to
demonstrate the success of their assimilation policies.  Kang's informants
interject doubt into such a conclusion.  Many remember their participation
as stimulated by a desire for personal gain; others felt compelled to
cooperate.  Kim P. (anonymous) reported that she used her father's
employment and connections to secure entrance into a better (predominately
Japanese expatriate) school.  Kang PyOngju remembered the Japanese
"child-catchers" patrolling neighborhoods to "round up children and force
them to attend primary school," although education was voluntary at the
time (p. 51).  His attendance in a Japanese-administered school was decided
after his Korean teacher was shot in the leg during the March First
Movement.  His father, a doctor, had to formally enroll his son in school
before he was allowed to administer aid to the injured man (p. 52).

Nor were Korean visits to Japanese Shinto shrines always undertaken
to demonstrate acceptance of Japanese assimilation policies.  Informants
remember these visits for reasons other than their respect for Japanese
deities.  Yi Okpum recalls the visits as necessary for survival: the shrine
served as the distribution center for food ration tickets (p. 113).  Yi
OkhyOn, and other Koreans on Japanese police black lists, took part in
Shinto ceremonies to avoid endangering their already fragile existence (p.
114).  Ch'u Pongye recalls the beautiful view from the shrine site that
overlooked the city of Pusan as ideal for her picnics (p. 114).

Japanese discrimination against the Korean people is evident from
statistics and other second-hand accounts left from the period.  Kang's
informants offer first-hand experiences of this injustice.  Ch'oe P'anbang
felt discrimination in his job at the Ministry of Communication: the
Japanese got stipends for "hardship assistance" and housing that augmented
their already inflated salaries; Koreans were assigned the less popular
graveyard shift more frequently than their Japanese counterparts; and the
Japanese promoted their kind more readily than the Korean worker (p. 70).
Yang SOngdOk complained that the Japanese received permits to open stores
quicker than the Korean merchants did.  This advantage placed them in a
better position to eliminate any future Korean competition (p. 70).  Korean
students attending colleges, reports Kang PyOngju, faced (and insisted on
preserving) segregation in all aspects of their lives, from their
out-of-school activities to their living arrangements: they did not mix in
student committees and resided in dorms segregated by building.  Opposition
to attempts to mix the two peoples forced plans for integrated rooms to be
downgraded to integrated dorms segregated by hall (pp. 53-54).

A number of informants, however, do not recall this time as laden
with anti-Korean discrimination.  Kim WOngOk, who worked alongside Japanese
on an opium farm, felt that he received equal pay, promotions, and
treatment (p. 67) and that he enjoyed a similar experience after being
transferred to another job in a different city during the war.  His boss,
Kim recalls, "looked like a typical Japanese.  But he did not talk or act
typical," for he criticized his country's "narrow island mentality,"
likening the Japanese to a "little frog in a little pond." Even more
strikingly, Kang PyOngju was so respected in his village that even the
local Japanese police chief would bow to him whenever they passed on the
street (p. 59).

Some stories told by Kang's informants reveal encounters on a basic
human level that blur the distinctions generally separating Japanese and
Korean.  The two peoples, united by a shared fate, at times found affinity
in their desire to lead a normal life rather than hostility over ethnic
differences.  One such experience is reported by Kang Sang'uk who recalls
exchanging comic books, attending birthday parties, and playing marbles
with his Japanese neighbors.  He even joined his Japanese friends in poking
fun at the Emperor's speeches, although not in public (p. 116).  Even
people hounded by the Japanese secret police managed to develop a humane
relationship with their pursuers.  Yu HyegyOng's family fed the detective
assigned to watch over her father and eventually they all became good
friends.  After all, she recalls, "we were all humans" (p. 108).

Hildi Kang's work injects a much neglected human dimension into our
understanding of the thirty-six years of Japanese rule in Korea by
attaching voices to the statistics, reports, memos, and other documents
generally used to recreate Korean-Japanese interactions during this
difficult period.  She has produced an essential supplement to other works
that have appeared on this history, as well as a companion to be read in
conjunction with the oral histories of other colonial situations.  Those
not familiar with Korean colonial history, however, may find the book
troublesome.  The author does provide a thumbnail sketch of political and
social developments at the beginning of each new section of her book, but
these summaries only contextualize her informants' recollections; they are
not intended as a conclusive history of this period.

Those familiar with this history might question points raised in
these brief summaries, such as Kang's periodization of the era.  Labeling
the 1931-1945 period as the "years of assimilation" without explanation is
misleading: in the eyes of the Japanese, assimilation policy characterized
the entire period.  The last fifteen years represented an intensification
of this policy during a wartime situation rather than a change in the way
the colony was to be administered.  Similarly, Kang simply borrows her
figures for casualties of the March First Movement from Lee Ki-baek's
well-known _A New History of Korea_ (p. 344), even though he does not cite
his sources, rather than referring to the more thorough work of such
scholars as Frank Baldwin (_The March First Movement: Korean Challenge and
Japanese Response_, Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1969, p. 233).

Readers might also find Kang's endnotes frustrating: to use they
are limited in number (only 30), and many of them contain careless mistakes
in page numbers and misquotations.  Kang's bibliography does offer us an
adequate list of the essential works published in English on this history,
although she neglects Soon Won Park's very informative history of the Onoda
Cement Factory mentioned above.  Kang readily acknowledges limitations
(such as subject selection) in her research methodology that prevent wider
conclusions being drawn from her study.  Her sampling is limited to Koreans
who had accumulated the means to move to the San Francisco Bay Area, and
this does not necessarily represent a fair cross-section of Koreans.
Furthermore, she has collected accounts in which informants recall events
and feelings experienced over a half-century previous.  As is the case with
oral histories in general, we have no way of knowing the extent to which
the period that separates the event from its retelling has dimmed our
informants' memories, or the extent to which postwar interpretations of
this history have influenced their accounts of this time.  These caveats,
though, should not distract the reader from the richness of the memories
Kang's efforts have preserved.  Instead, we should lament the fact that
such a project has not been carried out previously, when potential
informants were not as distanced from their experiences.

Caprio, Mark 2002
Review of _Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea,
1910-1945_, by Hildi Kang._ (2001)
Korean Studies Review_ 2002, no. 2
Electronic file: http://www.koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr02-02.htm

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