Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and the Japanese Annexation of Korea

At the beginning of this year, I read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Admittedly, I was drawn to the book’s colourful cover (despite the classic adage) and its reputation, without knowing what the book was about. As it turns out, the book is a poignant generational story chronicling a Korean family’s history. The plot covers points such as death, babies out of wedlock and associated social stigma, and the impact of the Japanese annexation of Korea. The latter was most significant to my reading experience – though the other issues were emotionally impactful. Korean history (beyond a cursory consideration of the Korean war at GCSE) is something I had previously (regrettably) not given much consideration to. However, I think this is a period of history that deserves greater attention and appreciation. Pachinko deals with the experience of Koreans in Japan during the period of Japanese rule of Korea, and the associated discrimination and how the effects of the colonial period permanently altered Korea itself. Another book I recently read that manages to effectively and memorably discuss Korean culture is Miracle Creek by Angie Kim. This novel is a tension-filled courtroom drama, but some of its’ characters’ identities are strongly tied to their Korean origins and language.

Korea was ruled by Japan between 1910 and 1945. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea, without their consent, expanding the Japanese Empire. Japan focused on the Japanisation of Korea, and suppressed the independence movement. As a colony, Korea was ruled militarily consequently cultural changes ensued. 1907 saw the passing of the Japanese government’s Newspaper Law, preventing local papers’ publication. For the first ten years of the Japanese rule, there were no Korean-owned newspapers; even following relaxed rules in 1920, newspapers were seized by the government with no warning. In 1940, Japan stopped all Korean newspapers again. Japan implemented a Japanese-style school system in Korea, with a focus on ‘the Imperial Citizen’ and assimilation. The ruling state stole 10,000s of artefacts from Korea, and proposed the need to modernise ‘backwards’ Korean villages. Thus, Japanese rule permeated Korean culture and life. 

Notably, despite the suppression, which was relaxed following protests in 1919, Korea rapidly industrialised: when Japan surrendered the Second World War in 1945, Korea had become Asia’s second-most industrialised nation – after Japan. This is not to say that the Japanese rule was a positive period, or one of freedom. Industrialisation was a symptom of Japanese rule – the process was started by the Gwangmu Reform, pre-Japanese rule. The Reform was a series of events seeking to modernise and westernise the Korean Empire. Thus, industrialisation under the Japanese rule should not be perceived as a blessing on Korea, a nation which had already begun to industrialise.

The legacy of this rule can be seen today. In 1940, 80% of Koreans (by choice) changed from Korean to Japanese names – an erosion of Korean culture. Additionally, the use of ‘comfort women’ is particularly notable. These women served in Japanese soldiers’ brothels as sexual slaves. Up to 500,000 comfort women are thought to have been taken, including an unknown number of Korean women. In 2012, Japan proposed an apology to surviving comfort women, seeking amends with South Korea. The latter state has repeatedly asked Japan to acknowledge their responsibility. In 2015, the states decided to settle the issue with reparations paid by Japan to victims and their families. Yet there was no in-person apology from a Japanese governmental representative. Furthermore, this year it was reported that the Japanese Industrial Heritage Information Centre displays information which breaches the countries’ 2015 agreement. Though Japan agreed to present the truth about Japanese use of Korean forced labour, this promise was broken in under two years since its conception. The newest violation resides in the use of testimony by a Hashima Island resident who stated that Korean mine workers were not discriminated against on the island. It is understood that the exhibit portrays the notion that, as Korea was a colony of Japan, they were enabled under international law to mobilise Korean labour. Evidently, Japan seems unwilling to truly accept responsibility for their treatment of Koreans during the colonial period – events that are no doubt ingrained in the Korean national psyche.

Today, anti-Korean sentiment resides in Japan. The BBC found in a 2014 poll that Japanese people have the most anti-North Korean attitude in the world – 91% of people had negative feelings. As conveyed in Pachinko, Koreans face discrimination in Japan, for instance by ultranationalist groups such as ‘Zaitokukai’. This group is the ‘Association of Citizens against the Special Privileges of the Zainichi’ – ‘Zainichi’ is the Japanese word for foreign citizens in Japan, with implications of temporary stay in Japan. In November 2019, one of the group’s senior members was fined ¥500,000 (approximately £3,700) for anti-Korean hate speech and publicly targeting Korean schools in Japan. This suggests a lack of tolerance for anti-Korean hate speech on an official level – yet most argue that the sentiment remains, despite the 2016 Hate Speech Act passed by Korea to limit racial discrimination. This is in part related to trade tensions between the states, but is indubitably justified in the Japanese mindset by their colonial exploitation of Koreans. Japanese media is reported to demonise South Korea, likely igniting racist sentiments and making racists feel validated.

Evidently, more than unfulfilled promises from the Japanese government is needed to amend the damage done to Korea by Japan during the colonial period, whose remnants are evident in ultranationalist groups today. The treatment of Korea has left an indelible mark in the history of both states, which is overlooked – at least here, in the UK. I am grateful to Min Jin Lee for presenting this part of history so poignantly in her novel, which encouraged me to consider the implications of colonialism in Asia. I recommend the novel, and urge readers to fully appreciate the real-life basis of its events. 

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