The First Phase of Japanese Rule, 1910-1919

The First Phase of Japanese Rule, 1910-1919

The history of Korea is unlike any other modern nation and in the 19th Century very few nations could match the institutional and territorial stability of Korea as well as its ethnic unity, isolation and historical continuity. Korea was a victim of imperialism and its colonial experience was typical. It was ruled by Japan, a neighbor with which it shared several familiarities and cultural affinities. Korea’s unique modern history was characterized by its division by Soviet Union and U.S. The division had no historical, cultural, geographical and economic logic. Before the division, Korea was ethnically homogenous with several years of political unity and boundaries that were older than any other state.

The history of imperialism in Korea began in 1910 when the Japanese forced Korea to sign a written agreement between the two countries, which triggered the conquest of the Korean territory. Over time, the treaty made it difficult for Korea to engage in building its national identity and after some time it changed into forced colonization. It is during the first phase of Japanese rule that the initial movements aimed at achieving independence took place.

Numerous changes took place in Korea under the first phase of Japanese rule. Even before the formal conquest Japan had already forced King Kojong to renounce the throne in favor of his son who was later became a peer for consideration of leadership in Japan. Japan then ruled Korea under a general and later a governor general who reported to the Japanese authorities. Over time, the governor generals became highly ranked military officers. Theoretically, the Koreans who owed allegiance to the Japanese enjoyed the same status as the Japanese but the reality was that the Koreans were treated with some level of suppression. The Koreans did not enjoy some freedoms, for example, they were not allowed to organize any political groups. There was a lot of military control that denied the Koreans the rights of association, assembly, speech and press. Failure of schools to meet certain unrealistic standards led to closure of several private education centers and the Japanese owned schools as a means of promoting values and excluding those of the Koreans.

The Korean economy also experienced crucial changes. The colonial plan of action was to enhance agriculture in Korea so as to meet Japan’s increasing demand for rice. The primary industries in Korea during the early periods of Japanese rule were forestry, fishing and agriculture. Between 1910 and 1912, the primary industries contributed approximately 85% of the total production. Later, Japan started building large scale industries in Korea as part of its program to prepare for war and to promote economic sufficiency.

The growth of the economy that occurred in Korea during the initial phase of the Japanese rule had little impact on the Koreans. Nearly all commercial enterprises were owned by Japanese corporations and the entrepreneurs of Korean descent were charged higher interest rates compared to their Japanese counterparts and this made it difficult for their entities to flourish. Such actions were meant to prevent Koreans from taking part in commercial activities. Over time, more farmland was taken by the Japanese and most Korean farmers ended up becoming sharecroppers or moved to Manchuria and Japan. The increase in the quantity of rice exported to Japan led to reduction in the per capita consumption among the Koreans. The farmlands that were taken by the Japanese were jointly owned by clans and villages because no individual could claim them. Large parcels of the farmlands taken away were sold to the Japanese at cheaper prices.

During the period between 1910 and 1919, effects of intellectual approaches were different from the Buddhist and Confucianist beliefs that were widespread across Korea. This period marked the introduction of western style painting and literary trends of social unrest followed models from Europe and Japan. The educated Koreans read the works by authors from European countries and the Korean writers adopted the literary ideas and forms from the West. The most common themes were political and social ones. For example, in 1917 The Heartless by Yi Kwang-su was published and it emphasized the need for Western science, widespread education and renunciation of old social and family systems.

Nationalist views led to demonstrations by Korean students in Japan and a Proclamation of independence by some leaders in Korea. The March First Movement and street demonstrations led to evolution of the movement and different groups came up to protest the Japanese rule. The protests led to considerable freedoms to Korea. The protests during the First March Movement served as a turning point in Korea’s resistance. The events of the movement were necessitated by the death of Kojong, a former emperor and mourners from all corners of Korea had come to pay their last respect. A declaration was made leading to protests by several citizens and students who demanded for self-rule. Approximately two million citizens took part in the peaceful demonstrations and this appealed to the sense of right conduct of the Japanese.

The Japanese reacted by brutalizing and unleashing their navy units to inhibit the demonstrations. As a result, thousands of the Koreans were injured and killed, several homes, as well as public spaces and places of worship, were destroyed.  Despite the Japanese suppression of demonstrations, thirty three Korean activists read the Korean Declaration of Independence. In 1919, the activists gathered and established the tentative government of the Republic of Korea after avoiding surveillance by the Japanese.

In conclusion, the beginning of the first phase of Japanese rule in Korea marked the beginning of the history of imperialism in the country. It began as a treaty but later became forced colonization which made it difficult for Korea to establish its identity. The freedoms of the Koreans were suppressed and they were not allowed to associate and assemble freely. The Japanese charged higher interest rates on their businesses and this made it almost impossible for them to engage in commerce. Over time, there farms were taken by the Japanese and later sold to other Japanese at cheaper costs. The Japanese made the moves so as to impose their rule and to leave the Koreans at their mercy. Following the death of a former Korean monarch, nearly two million Koreans went to the city to attend the funeral and this marked the beginning of their resistance to Japanese rule. A declaration was made on the 1st of March, 1919 leading to protests by students and activists who were demanding for self-rule. In as much as the protests led to death, injuries, destruction of homes as well as worship centers, the First March Movement marked the turning point in the history of Korea.


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