Doing Your Duty: Constructing a Korean Colonial Subject

Paper presented at the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs, 2006

In late colonial Korea, we may ask a seemingly simple question about both the identity of Korean citizens – who had the agency to act on behalf of the nation – and their relationship to the Japanese state. For whose benefit were young Korean men enlisting in the Japanese army – or being conscripted – to fight and die at the end of World War II? A May 10, 1942 Asahi newspaper report celebrating the announced conscription of Koreans into the Japanese army touted the event as a “response to the ardent loyalty of heart shown by Koreans” to Japan, but the situation was surely not so simple. How was the Japanese empire able to convince substantial numbers of young, able-bodied Korean men to volunteer for their army or to acquiesce to conscription – in other words, to make the sacrifice of their very blood not for their own nation, but for a colonizing power? And ultimately, what did this sacrifice for the colonizer mean for the identity of Korean colonial subjects?

In order to begin to answer this question, I would like to examine two editorials that appeared in Korean newspapers near the end of the war. These editorials give us insight into the discourse surrounding the motivations and even identity of the ideal national subject at this time, in terms of class, gender, and even occupation. They also give us a glimpse of the complex relationship of the national subject, and indeed the nation itself, to the Japanese empire. Under the names of Kim Yonsu and Kim Songsu, Korean brothers and businessmen thoroughly involved in the Japanese colonial state, these editorials strongly encouraged students to enlist as soldiers in the Japanese army. Kim Songsu’s editorial, entitled “Dying for a Righteous Cause: The Responsibility of Imperial Citizens is Great,” appeared on November 16, 1943 in the Korean-language daily Maeil sinbo, while Kim Yonsu’s “Absolute Victory” appeared in the January 19, 1944 edition of the Japanese-language Keijō nippō, in a special section celebrating student-soldier conscripts. I would like to note that I will be using Carter Eckert’s English translations of these editorials from his book Offspring of Empire throughout this paper.

I would also like to note that the actual authorship of these editorials is a difficult question. But, while these editorials may not contain the actual intentions or politics of the Kim brothers, they exist as texts produced within the discursive world of late colonial Korea, with the consent of the colonial state and presumably in line with its agenda of assimilating Koreans and promoting Japanese imperial interests. I will refer to them as authored by these men for simplicity’s sake throughout this paper, but with the knowledge that this is problematic.

As the colonial subjects of Japan during the first half of the 20th century, the relationship of Koreans to their “nation” was complex. Even such basic elements of the nation as community, sovereignty, and boundary, are complicated in the situation of late colonial Korea. It was a period in which the colonial state was attempting to both keep Koreans separate from the Japanese while also emphasizing that the colonized Koreans should “become” Japanese. How is it possible to speak of the boundaries of the Korean nation at a time when the policy of naisen ittai, literally “Japan and Korea as One Body,” was being pursued, and while Koreans were being given the duties but not the rights of “mainland” Japanese? Did Koreans belong to their own separate national community – Korea – or after being forced to take on Japanese names and speak Japanese in school, were they now part of Japan? How did Korea fit into the larger community of “Greater East Asia” which was the Japanese empire? In this situation, Korean national identity itself was made problematic. Through analyzing the appeals to student-soldiers attributed to Kim Yonsu and Kim Songsu, we may get some sense of the issues of identity faced by Koreans in the late colonial period, and of the complicated relationship of Korea with regard to the Japanese empire.

What did it mean to inhabit this space of doubled identity, as a citizen of colonized Korea and a subject of the Japanese empire? One was not quite Japanese, and was reminded of this fact constantly by structural inequality, but there was no way to escape the powerful discourse of assimilation in the colonies. The boundaries of “Korean” and “Japanese” were becoming blurred, and the very meaning of what it was to be “Korean” had become a site of struggle. An entire generation of children had grown up during this period of assimilation, speaking Japanese at school and using Japanese names. Coming of age at the very time when the Japanese empire required that they give the ultimate sacrifice for its survival – their own lives – would have presented a confusing dilemma. With the sameness and difference of Japanese and Koreans stressed simultaneously a student might be left wondering where his allegiance should lie. Moreover, when he is called to battle to die – and the subject of these editorials is decidedly male – for whom is he shedding his blood?

This essential question leads to a more complex answer than simple allegiance to the Japanese emperor. Despite official Japanese rhetoric, the Koreans who volunteered for the army were likely not doing so because the Japanese had recognized their “ardent loyalty of heart” and given them the gift of conscription. Giving up one’s own life in the service of one’s nation requires great commitment, and an identification that is so strong and personal that the act seems necessary for self-preservation. In this context, would dying in the service of the Japanese emperor – the symbol of a colonizing power – qualify as self-preservation to young Korean men? We might assume that this would mean preservation of Korea, not Japan, but given the circumstances, fighting on behalf of Japan could ensure a better future for the nation to which the soldier felt a sense of true loyalty.

Kim Yonsu’s Keijō nippō editorial emphasizes this urgent sense of self-preservation in a literal sense. This strongly worded piece does not dwell on whether the student-soldiers preparing to go to the front did so for the preservation of Korea itself or the future of its place in East Asia. Rather, it states bluntly that “this is literally [a time of] war.” In this editorial, there is no question of anything other than Korea’s physical protection from attacking enemies. While the editorial admonishes Koreans for being too individualistic and not committed enough to the nation, it attempts to convince them to enlist by threatening what might happen to Korea if it is not protected. What is not addressed is how the participation of student-soldiers in the war would reflect upon Korea’s relationship to Japan and its other colonies after a presumed Japanese victory.

Kim Songsu’s editorial maintains a much more nuanced approach regarding for whom, exactly, the soldiers are fighting. By addressing them as “imperial citizens,” Songsu renders their allegiance less than clear even as he appeals to their loyalty to Korea. “Just imagine [what things would be like],” Songsu warns the students, “if you fail to rally to the Greater East Asia holy war, and the construction of a new order in Greater East Asia is completed without our [Korean] participation. As beings who turned rotten even as they received [the gift of] life in Greater East Asia, we will never be able to redeem our existence in this historic period.” Here, for what are the students giving their lives? They are contributing toward the construction of an order in “Greater East Asia” – with Japan at the head – and yet they are participating in this as Koreans, on behalf of other Koreans. This editorial does not ask the students to shed their blood for the good or preservation of Greater East Asia in general. It does not, unlike the Asahi newspaper report, appeal to the students’ “ardent loyalty of heart” for Japan and its emperor. Despite all of the efforts made to assimilate Koreans into Japanese culture, when this editorial looks for a convincing way to motivate Koreans to lay down their lives for their colonizer, it invokes their loyalty to Korea, not Japan. In this sense, despite its sometimes grandiose and patriotic language, this editorial, like Kim Yonsu’s, is strikingly practical and realistic in its examination of what is worth dying for.

Still, Kim Songsu’s editorial contains another warning, one that is wrapped up in a complex message about nationhood and citizenship. It threatens that if the students do not do their duty, Korea will not be able to claim a favored place within that order. It envisions Korea at the very top of the social order, and promises them that they will “live on in this land and be able to enjoy, as a part of the Empire, exactly the same treatment, indeed, rights, as [people] in Japan.” Here, alongside stern warnings that “the future of Korea rests solely on your course of action,” the editorial also suggests that the students will no longer be quite so Korean once the war has been won. It does not promise the students that they, as Koreans, will enjoy rights that the Japanese enjoy; rather, it specifically points out that that they will gain rewards for doing their duty as imperial subjects. This promise of rights within the context of the Japanese empire brings up another aspect of self-preservation. The student-soldiers are not only literally protecting Korea from enemy armies, but are also protecting Korea’s position within Greater East Asia vis-à-vis Japan’s other occupied territories. If Korea does not show enough patriotism now, Kim Songsu warns that it could fall into disfavor after the war. Not only is Korea’s protection required in the mundane physical defense of the nation, but also in the symbolic act of giving up one’s life for the Japanese emperor.

Given both editorials’ equation of citizens with soldiers, we are left to wonder what else they can tell us about the larger discourse of Korean identity. Kim Yonsu reveals his sentiment clearly when he writes, “the correlation between ‘soldiers’ and ‘Koreans’ has truly deepened to a heartening degree.” Kim Songsu makes this connection more subtly. Doing one’s duty, according to that editorial, entails the greatest sacrifice a citizen can give for the nation, “[putting] these words into action with your bodies” by becoming soldiers. The editorial further warns that without the commitment of death from each of these young students, they will lose their ability to “become in an honorable fashion a part of the Empire as imperial subjects.” Despite their emphases on different aspects of preserving national interests, both editorials agree that the national subject is best described as one bound by duty and obligation to serve the nation as a soldier. But what other clues do their editorials give us about the identity of this ideal national subject who has the privilege to act on behalf of the nation while others are rendered invisible?

Both editorials emphasize the education of the student-soldiers, as we might expect from essays praising the sacrifices of the nation’s educated youth. Specifically, they stress the ethical training that might come with a high level of education. Within the texts, education and ethical behavior go hand in hand, and proper education is portrayed as a direct cause of morality. According to Kim Songsu’s editorial, “education, [proceeding] from these two directions [of intellectual endeavors and ethical cultivation], will develop you into a complete human being.” Likewise, Kim Yonsu exhorts the student-soldiers to “ground [themselves] in what is ethically and morally right and give [their] full measure of service to the country.” The students are praised for their intellect as well as their ability to tell right from wrong. Here, the imperial citizens who are valuable material for soldiers are those who were educated, and who therefore have the ability to act in a moral and ethical manner.

We are also left with the question of the gender of this national agent. While masculinity is not explicitly discussed in the two editorials, gender is an essential aspect of the national subject being structured and created here. The image of the learned, moral scholar-soldier is hardly one that evokes thoughts of educated women. Truly, it evokes thoughts of a very specific kind of educated man. Despite the reality of education for both boys and girls in Korea at this time, the image created by Kim Songsu’s editorial of the ethical intellectual is hardly that of a contemporary man or woman who had had the benefit of public education. It is full of elitism and a sense of being a member of a small, privileged group. There is no mention of the less glorious image of the conscript labor who farmed and mined coal in dangerous conditions, and who died in service so that the Japanese empire could live on. Moreover, in neither editorial is a space created for female participation. There is no praise within the editorials of students who yearn to become army nurses, as many women did. They focus instead on a masculinized and elitist protection of the nation.

At this time, I would like to bring in a theoretical framework that will help us to make sense of this national subject and his relationship to the Japanese empire. In her article, “Doing It for Daddy,” bell hooks analyzes representations of black American men in a system of white male domination. She looks at the complex relationship of those men to a system in which, in order to succeed, they must perform in ways that support and reproduce the very system which oppresses them. While the historical circumstances of their oppression are obviously quite different, the idea of competing with others for the approval or favor of the oppressor is useful in our analysis of the student-soldiers as Korean “national subjects.” In this case, the national subject is a certain type of Korean inextricably positioned in relation to a colonizing power. He is not concerned only with his own nation, but with that nation’s place within the colonizer’s empire as well. With the policy of naisen ittai, Koreans were promised a favored place within the Japanese empire in exchange for cultural assimilation and material sacrifice during the war. While the benefits of that relationship had not yet been realized, the promise of a better position in the empire could serve as motivation for Koreans to act in the interest of their colonizer. By sacrificing their lives for the interests of the Japanese empire, these Korean student-soldiers paradoxically worked to preserve their own national interests as well. bell hooks describes this situation well with when she speaks of what she calls the “neocolonial black male ... reenvisioned to produce a different stereotype: he works hard to be rewarded by the great white father within the existing system.”

The Korean national subject created in these editorials is positioned in a paradoxical, contradictory place between Korea as an independent nation and a Korea subsumed culturally into the Japanese empire. He destroys his own independent identity as “Korean” even as he preserves it, by supporting a system which suppresses that identity. We can appreciate the complex and contradictory position of the national, colonial subject, who simultaneously protects his own nation, positions it in relation to Japan and its other colonies, and sacrifices his life in the interest of Japanese goals and policies. He gives his life for both his own countrymen and for the Japanese empire. While he may be preserving Korea’s place in the Japanese empire with his enlistment and “glorious death,” this very act is simultaneously preserving the system itself, and Korea’s oppression within it. The Korea envisioned in these editorials is one which is simultaneously sovereign and subject to an outside system, one whose citizens retain their own identity even while becoming Japanese subjects. Indeed, Kim Songsu’s editorial embodies this conflicting relationship when it states that “only when [the student-soldiers] fulfill the duty mentioned above will [they] live on in this land and be able to enjoy, as a part of the Empire, exactly the same treatment, indeed, rights, as [people in] Japan.” The national subject of Korea will live on in his own land, separate from Japan, and yet at the same time he will have become “exactly the same” as a Japanese citizen. The Korean subject posited in these editorials lives in the midst of two identities, and aligned with both Korean and Japanese interests simultaneously, he gives us a glimpse into a new kind of Korean colonial state.