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Thursday, April 21, 2005

Japan's Colonization of Korea and its Effect on Korea's Modernization

Okay, some ground rules before reading this. First, this isn't an a paper to be turned into a professor or published in a journal. So, I don't have citations and that crap through-out the posting. If you are interested in a certain number I give or chart, ask me and I can get you the reference. Also, I expect EVERYONE TO BE POLITE. This is a divisive and potentially provocative topic. KEEP IT CIVIL. That means me too. So, if I respond to a comment with rudeness, let me know.

Next, this is a work in progress. If someone makes a good point, I'm likely to change the posting to reflect this new information. If I forget to give someone credit for this, let me know and I'll correct it.

I'm genuinely interested in what others think!

As many of you know, this posting, along with myself, was visciously attacked on another website. Recently, a new posting on a different blog has gone up, defending my view and destroying the opposing one. This well-researched piece is a must read if you truly want to understand this period of history. I applaud the author and his amazing work.


The colonization of Korea by Japan had a major impact on the direction and development of Korea. The effects of it can be felt today as Koreans take to the streets to protest the lack, or perceived lack, of an effectual apology from Japan and for the cavalier way this period is portrayed in their history books.

But, the question remains, what impact did the colonization have on the modernization of Korea? There is no disputing that it changed Korea’s history and caused a major upheaval in Korean society. What is disputed is whether or not any good came of this brutal period from Korea’s past. The debate continues and has provided a plethora of material and research for those interested in learning more.

Having read a great deal of this material, I have come to the conclusion that little good came of the colonization of Korea by Japan and that it has had little impact on the success of Korea in modern times. I am NOT saying it had no positive impact, but that the amount was insufficient to warrant any praise over the condemnation they so rightly deserve for the brutal conditions Koreans had to endure.

With that introduction, let’s begin.

One of the commonly held misconceptions is that Korea was a backward, dirty, uncivilized nation before Japan came and rescued it. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Korea was in the process of modernizing on its own. It was slow, problem filled and difficult, but calculable progress was being made.

1873 was the end of the isolationist period in Korea’s history. It was during that year that Kojong gained power along with his strong-willed wife, Queen Min. With the removal of the Taewongun from power, as well as the staunch isolationist, Che Ik-hyon, the major obstacles holding Korea back were gone. Korea began to sign treaties, some good, some forced, with other countries and send representatives around the world to help in their modernization plans.

Soon, Korea had relations with Japan, China, the US and Russia. Japan was looked at closely to see just how they were modernizing and what aspects of western culture they were incorporating. In particular, the growth and modernization of the Japanese military was of great interest to Korea.

Meanwhile, Korea pursued its interests with other countries as previously mentioned. In 1882, a treaty was signed with the US providing each with the ability to trade with the other. Immediately following this treaty, Korea sent a diplomatic mission to the US to help strengthen ties and to garner loans, as well as Americans to advise Korea in other matters.

Soon after this treaty was signed, Korea signed treaties with Britain, Germany, Italy, Russia, France, and Austria-Hungry, all of these within a 6 year period. Korea soon had advisers, teachers, businessmen and tradesmen from all over the world. While Japan continued to dominate trade in Korea, trade with other nations was expanding and diversifying. Korea was on its way to becoming a modern country.

In 1904, an American by the name of Angus Hamilton visited Korea. After doing so, he wrote a book about his experiences. He said of Korea, “The streets of Seoul are magnificent, spacious, clean, admirably made and well-drained. The narrow, dirty lanes have been widened, gutters have been covered, roadways broadened. Seoul is within measurable distance of becoming the highest, most interesting and cleanest city in the East.” He continued on to say, “Seoul was the first city in East Asia to have electricity,
trolley cars, water, telephone and telegraph systems all at the same time.” Much of this was thanks to trade with the United States. Seoul Electric Company, Seoul Electric Trolley Company and Seoul Fresh Spring Water Company were all US owned.

Koreans at this time were also purchasing items imported from abroad. They imported kerosene, purchased US cigarettes, California fruits and wine, Eagle Brand milk, Armour meats, other canned foods and much more. Add to this that Korea had begun to build its own rail system, private schools were flourishing and government was being reformed.

When discussing whether or not Japan modernized Korea, or at least contributed to the modernization of Korea, you have to take into consideration what Korea was able to do on its own. Because Japan stepped in and derailed the process, it is impossible to get firm answers. But we can extrapolate on what was happening prior to the annexation. Doing this, we can relatively safely conclude that Korea was on track to becoming a healthy, modern nation. By no means am I trying to imply that everything was perfect, only that it was on track.

It isn’t only these things mentioned above that we need to consider when deciding on the extent of the benefits of colonialism under Japan.

At this point, I would like to take a closer look at the education system. Some colonization apologists like to claim that they greatly improved the education of the general population of Korea. They point to this as one of the ‘successes’ of that time. This is a fallacy.

Before Japan’s colonization, Korea’s education system was swiftly improving. Education had been important in Korea since the 14th century. It was one of the few ways one could better oneself and obtain a higher position in life. It was through attending the National Academy that civil servants gained their positions. In 1907, missionaries ran 508 primary schools and 22 high schools. Japan’s colonization destroyed much of this system. By 1917, the number of schools run by missionaries was halved and by 1937 only 34 remained. Outside of the missionary schools, other private schools were developed. Over 2,250 private schools were in operation before the annexation.

Japan had no use for the education the students were receiving at these schools. They weren’t turning out the proper kind of Koreans, those sympathetic to Japan’s cause and willing to work in a subservient role to their ‘betters’, the Japanese. The private schools were based on western models of learning and thought. They taught history, geography, politics and law, as well as the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. They were also a hotbed of nationalistic thought and ideology. Finally, once Korea was colonized, a law was passed saying that private schools could only operate if they used texts that were approved by the government. This brought about the demise of most of these schools.

Japan began to found schools based on their government approved curriculum for colonial subjects. One of the goals of the policy was to destroy the Korean culture and to restrict the use of the Korean language. On a positive note, enrollment of young men in school jumped greatly. In 1912, enrollment rates were at 20% of young men. This climbed to 60% by 1940. But, this number is a bit deceiving. Most of the high enrollment came after 1935, meaning a relatively short period of time that a majority of Korean young men were enrolled in school and being educated in the Japanese system. In 1944, less than 14% of the entire population of Koreans had received any sort of education, only 2% had advanced beyond a primary level education.

It was only AFTER the demise of colonial rule that educational gains can really be seen. By 1960, nearly 20% of all Koreans had education past the primary level and 56% of all Koreans had received at least a primary education. Beyond this, the education that the Koreans received under colonial rule is suspect. It was based on educating Koreans to be good citizens of the Japanese empire and giving them the basics needed for the work they were to perform. It was not the broad based education that they had been receiving through the private schools and missionary schools of the years before the annexation.

The education provided by Japan was an impediment to the modernization of Korea. It was designed to keep Koreans subject to Japan and make them citizens, albeit of a lower level, of the empire. It could be said that the education system was one of the tragedies of
the colonial period.

Colonial apologist also love to cite the economic record of Korea as proof that Japan modernized this ‘backward’ country. In order for this to be true, it must be shown that there was significant improvement in the Korean economy over the period of colonization and that this improvement was an enduring one. We will be exploring these things.

First, with recent research, the long accepted thought that the Korean economy was a vibrant one during the colonial period has been brought into question. As the economic numbers from the time have been studied by a Japanese scholar, they show a decrease in agriculture. Kimura found that while real average farm income changed little during the 1915-37 period, real wages for agricultural labor declined, and consumption of major staple foods and caloric intake from them fell. But, even without that, to say that Japan’s efforts were enduring is difficult to show considering the events directly following the end of the colonial period and the events that were occurring during the last years of that period. At the end of that period, you had WWII, followed by a difficult US occupation and then the Korean War. It is hard, nearly impossible; to explain how any positive economic achievements during the colonial period could have lasted the episodes mentioned above and affected the economic growth of Korea that exploded in the 60s. It was only because of a fundamental change in policy and people in the early 60s that the economic miracle came about.

It is true that the Korean economy grew under Japanese rule. It grew and changed from 1910 to 1940. During the beginning and end of the colonial period, both mining and manufacturing grew at great rates, far more than during the middle period of rule. Yet, even with this, Korea was primarily an agricultural country. At the end of the colonial period, only 5.4% of employed workers were in manufacturing. Most of these workers were in menial jobs, the higher paying, higher skilled jobs all being filled by Japanese workers who left at the end of the colonization period.

Distribution of net commodity product by industrial origin by percentage

Agriculture & Fishing



























While the economy grew, the riches went to the Japanese. This was pretty much across the board, whether we are talking about agriculture or manufacturing.

Korean and Japanese ownership, 1940 (by percentage of paid-in capital)

Korean %

Japanese %








Less than 1%


Electrical & Gas









Lumber and wood






Printing & Publishing









Above and beyond this, Japan dominated the lighter industry with ownership of 83% of rice mills and 93% of food production.

Koreans played only a small part in this economic ‘modernization.’ The companies were owned by the Japanese and were funded by the Japanese. Koreans were used as unskilled, cheap labor. Furthermore, much of the heavy industry was located in the northern regions of Korea, areas that were completely decimated by the bombing of the US during the Korean War. Nearly 85% of all chemical, metal and ceramic production was done in the North. The South only dominated in the light industry and manufacturing arena.

Even before the Korean War, with the end of the Japanese occupation, the economy in Korea collapsed. Total industrial output in 1948 was 1/5 of the 1940 levels. Textile production dropped 74%, foodstuffs 93% and machinery 84%. From June of 1945 to December 1949, the number of manufacturing firms decreased by almost 50% and employment by 60%, falling from 300,520 to 122,159.

The departure of the Japanese was a very important cause of the postliberation depression that set in. Japanese managers and workers left a huge vacuum, one which Koreans just couldn’t fill. Plus, they left the banking and financial system in utter chaos. Postwar trade sunk to near record low levels where it stayed until the reforms of the early 60s.

The final death knell to this line of modernization thinking is the Korean War. Following the war, the Korean Bureau of Statistics made detailed estimates of the war’s damage, by sector, in 1953 prices. They estimated the total damage at 412 billion won, nearly twice the total national production of South Korea in 1953. Housing, government facilities and industry were the hardest hit. Private industry and banking accounted for ¼ of the losses. Half of that is accounted for by the manufacturing sector evenly split between loss of machinery and buildings. 43% of manufacturing facilities, 41% of electrical generating capacity, and 50% of the coal mines in South Korea were destroyed.

By the mid-1950s little remained of the Japanese economic machine. From 1953-60, US aid became central to Korea’s growth. Aid financed nearly 70% of total imports and 73% of the government’s borrowing requirements. It was through the influence of US aid that manufacturing and commerce got on its feet again in Korea in the 1950s. Yet, it was a slow, uneven recovery. It wasn’t until 1963, and the politics and policies of President Park, that Korea began its true economic boom and modernization.

Another misconception in Korean modernization is that Japan gave Korea the government, the bureaucracy needed to have a modern state. They say the Japanese form of imperial bureaucratic government was superior to the indigenous Korean institutional structure that preceded it. Bureaucratic reforms, including both internal incentives as well as patterns of recruitment, permitted the colonial state to penetrate and control society and pursue Japan’s economic interests.

The most controversial part of this argument is that the political form forced upon Korea by Japan endured past the liberation. A prominent revisionist, Kohli, acknowledges, “while Koreans did not occupy senior positions in the colonial government, there can be little doubt that, over the four decades of colonial rule, they became an integral part of a highly bureaucratic form of government. This sizeable cadre of Japanese-trained bureaucrats virtually took over the day-to-day running of a truncated South Korea.” He also suggests they formed the nucleus of the state that was responsible for the postwar growth.

Looking at the actual makeup and responsibilities of the various levels of Japan’s bureaucracy in Korea gives little support to this argument. Under the Colonial Governor-General, the highest bureaucratic rank was Shinnin. No Korean was EVER appointed to this rank. The next rank was Chokunin and below that Sonnin. In 1910, 55 Korean officials held the rank of Chokunin, something like a bureau chief. By 1914, 49 had been dismissed, leaving only six Koreans at that level. By 1942, the number of Koreans working at this level had not returned to its 1910 level even though the overall size of the government had increased exponentially. The percentage of Koreans at the Chokunin or Sonnin level dropped from 65% in 1910 to 18% by 1942. Korean participation in government was concentrated on the Hannin level, that being mostly clerks and lower level functionaries. The numbers of these ranks grew rapidly during the colonial period. Yet even at this low level, Koreans never exceeded 1/3 of all employees.

It was similar in the police department. Much has been made over Koreans being employeed as police during this time, and it is true that many were. Nearly 8,000 Koreans were employeed in some sort of police work during 1942. Yet, the sad fact is that Koreans never held more than 3% of the jobs in the police department above the lowest levels.

Some of Kohli’s contentions are upheld when looking at the initial makeup of President Rhee’s government. Upon his assumption of the presidency, many of those bureaucrats who had colluded with or just worked for the Japanese government were given roles and jobs in the Rhee government. Up to 30% of his cabinet were former collaborators. Yet, with the Japanese gone and most of their workers fleeing as well, there was a great void in the Korean government, one which many wished to fill. It has been suggested that many of these new bureaucrats came from the Korea Democratic Party (KDP), a very right-wing group.

Revisionists might want to claim this period of time in Korea as the continuation of what was begun during the colonial period, but it was more a time when bonds were formed with the US and a very conservative, anti-communist relationship began. The interests and concerns of this new group of Korean politicians were very different than those of their colonial predecessors. This group was mostly concerned with their own survival and the main reason for wanting political power was to crush their opponents and rivals.

Government positions at this time were also a way of granting favors to sycophants and friends. Ability, education and qualifications had little to do with positions filled. During the period of 1946-61, only 336 government officials passed qualifying tests to gain the positions that they held. Another 8,263 were ‘special appointments’ to their jobs. The US tried to change this and pushed to have all government personnel trained and qualified. Unfortunately, they failed at this and a US government official at the time said, “[it] was difficult to find any effect of the American effort on the personnel system in Korea.”

The Rhee government was concerned with attacking those that opposed them, Rhee’s personal whims, unifying Korea, and getting the maximum amount of aid from the US with as few concessions as possible. It wasn’t until 1958 that serious domestic planning began and programs started to improve the economy and living conditions of the everyday Korean. Even that was a wasted effort as the president has little interest in the plans and was soon replaced by President Park.

Studying the Rhee government shows little continuance between the Japanese colonization period and the one that followed. In fact, it seems to highlight the obvious discontinuities. While there were personnel that maintained government positions from the time of the colonization, few held high positions and those were subject to the whim of Rhee. Most were doing what every other Korean citizen at the time was doing, just trying to survive. Finally, those that opposed Rhee and his government could not be considered to have been influenced by the Japanese system of colonial bureaucracy. The average age of the four major reformers Lee Han Bin, Cha Gyun Hui, Yi Gi Hong and Jong Jae Sok was only 36 in 1960.

Another favorite argument of revisionists is that the miracle of Korean capitalism began during the colonial period. They say that its roots, its origins are pure Japanese. In my opinion, this is the strongest argument that the revisionists have, yet, again in my opinion, it is still weak and strains credulity. Some Korean economists say that you have to look even further back in history to find the seeds of capitalism. They say that you have to go back to the late 1800s and the reformation taking place at that time. Others say that both are looking too far back in history and that you only need to see the period of US occupation to find the roots of capitalism.

We have already shown that the majority of businesses were owned and/or capitalized by Japanese during the colonial period. Yet, there were a number of Korean businesses that began at this time as well. Eckert writes, “…from 1876 on Korea saw the emergence of a native entrepreneurial class that eventually turned its attention to industry. Far from stifling such growth, colonialism advanced it…the Japanese permitted and abetted the development of a native bourgeoisie class.” Other Korean scholars have written similarly.

It is with these giants of Korean history and economy-McNamara writes along the lines of Eckert as well-that we must do battle. In order to properly analyze this, we have to decide what proves the hypothesis that the colonial period gave birth to Korea’s capitalism. Just having companies that started during this period and lasted until today does not prove the point. What we must show is whether or not the colonial period fostered this kind of entrepreneurial growth or if these companies grew despite Japan’s rule. We also need to show the importance of these companies and if that importance continued after Japan’s rule.

There is one aspect of this argument that I will deal with immediately. That being the notion that even if a chaebol was founded after the rule of Japan ended, the founder of said chaebol received his training either directly because of the rule of Japan or by working for a company that prospered because of Japan. Bluntly speaking, at this current time, there is no way to prove or disprove this argument. Maybe 20 or 30 years from now, detailed records of the lives of those that started the major chaebols will emerge and a comprehensive study of this can be conducted. Until that time, neither side can lay claim to this argument. There are just too many variables that at this time, can not be determined. An example could be of a person that gained experience in a Japanese factory. Yet, it took an independent Korea, with the business climate of President Park, to allow this person to blossom, something that would have been impossible under the last stage of Japanese colonialism. On the flipside, this person might have been of the proper personality or had the right contacts to allow them to have flourished in either environment. This is one of those arguments that neither side can win at the present and so will be discounted and set aside until future scholars gain access to better information.

When Japan annexed Korea, its initial objectives were to transform Korea into a land of commerce coinciding with their military interests. Rail lines would be built which would complement their expansion into Manchuria and other areas. Exclusive export markets would be developed and a new area for surplus population would be exploited. In order to do this, two central ideas needed to be established. First, other major powers that until now had some sway and power needed to be eliminated from the market and a privileged position for Japanese firms needed to be established.

At first, Japan decided to not enact laws and tariffs to accomplish their stated goals. A coalition of Japanese manufacturing, trading and banking interests organized themselves to achieve a similar outcome and to drive out foreign companies. Their first target was western textile companies with which they had great success in eliminating. The unfortunate companion to the departure of these western companies was the decline of the local industry that had been supported by them. A similar process was used to secure a monopoly on the rice trade in Korea.

Finally, the Corporation Law of 1911 was passed insuring monopolistic powers to Japanese companies in Korea. This law gave the colonial government the power to license new firms and restrict investments outside of agriculture. Japanese domination of business in Korea was assured. From this point on, in the aggregate, the average size of Korean owned factories decreased and even with the war effort of the 1940s, the size of Korean factories never regained their pre-Corporation Law levels.

With the passage of this law and the actions of Japanese business working in concert before this time, we can safely conclude that the early period of Japanese rule was counter to the establishment of Korean businesses. Ekert too acknowledges this, and gives two reasons for a change in Japan’s attitude towards the growth of Korean businesses. First, larger imperial objectives dictated a more developmentalist policy towards the colonies, along with the problems demonstrated by the March 1, 1919 demonstrations against colonial rule. With this in mind, the 1911 law was rescinded in 1920 and Koreans were included in the industrial commission in 1921.

Yet, despite the loosening of the laws, there was still an enormous amount of discrimination directed against Korean companies. Japanese companies still enjoyed a special relationship with the government and the military, affording them privileges Korean companies could never hope to gain. Still and all, some large Korean companies did come to gain acceptance and prosper during this time, as Ekert and McNamera show. Unfortunately, what they fail to show is that the majority of Korean companies failed during that time, many of their failures directly due to their inability to gain favor with the government or due to the fact that they were competing with a Japanese company. Many of these companies were too small to gain access to the Japanese financial system and were easy prey for Japanese competitors.

The Japanese system allowed a privileged few Korean companies to gain access to the government and financial systems allowing them to grow and proper. These were very few, while the majority of Korean companies suffered and failed directly because of the colonial policies of Japan.

This aspect of colonial success or failure can also be assessed by looking at the longevity and importance in the modern world of companies that started in the colonial period compared to those that began after the colonial period ended. Due to some recent research, the fifty largest chaebols as of 1983 have been researched as to their size and founding date. The research first looked at the Top 10 chaebols and then at the Top 50. The results can be seen in this chart below.

Founding Date

Top 10

Top 50

Pre – 1910















After 1960



This research is truly enlightening. Of the top 10 in 1983, only one was formed during the colonial period, of the top 50, only six! What this chart also shows is the importance of liberation from Japanese rule to the beginnings of Korean businesses. Far from encouraging capitalism, the colonial period stifled it.

Businesses mentioned by Eckert and McNamera, while profitable and large during the colonial period, did not make an impact on modern Korea. These companies were not positioned to make an impact. Instead of focusing on exports, these companies focused on imports. Most of them ended up going bankrupt during the export driven boom of the 60s in Korea. Companies like Samsung, Hyundai and LG grew from small, insignificant companies to major chaebols by focusing on manufacturing and exporting. These companies weren’t fostered by a so-called developmental state as envisioned by Japan, but by exploiting the opportunities available under the corrupt Rhee government and gaining military and other contracts with the US government and military.

Given the caveats mentioned previously, it is safe to assume that Korea’s capitalistic birth came from freeing themselves from the yoke of Japan and then taking advantage of a government under the leadership of Park that was friendly to those companies poised to help Korea grow. It had little or nothing to do with policies created by the colonial government of Japan. Japan annexed Korea for its own strength and growth. Its policies were tailored to the needs of Japan and to help fuel its future conquests.

Korea’s success has little to do with Japan and a lot to do with its own initiative, independence and opportunities provided later on by the US government and others. The claim that colonial Japan is responsible for modern day Korea is nothing more than a revisionist hope to justify a brutal annexation of an independent nation, one that was on its own road of growth and reform before that was stolen away by an imperialist neighbor bent on Asian domination.

While we’ll never be able to determine what Korea could have done on its own, seeing what it has become despite the obstacles placed in their path gives hope that it would have been a bright and successful future.

UPDATE: I have been asked to provide the materials I used while writing this piece. Here is a list of most of them.

If you are interested in reading some of the journal articles, on occasion, I can help you get a copy or point you to a source.


Korea Old And New: A History
까치: A Journal Of Korean Writings in Translation
A New History of Korea
Colonial Modernity in Korea
Korea Between Empires
The History of Korea
Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History

Journal Articles / Symposium Speeches / Academic Papers

Korea under colonialism: The March First movement and Anglo-Japanese relations
Japanese settler colonialism and capitalism in Japan: Advancing into Korea, settling down, and returning to Japan, 1905-1950
Japanese colonialism and Korean development: A critique
Japanese Colonialism in Korea: A Comparative Perspective
Imperialism, War, and Revolution in east Asia: 1900-1945; Korea as a Colony of Japan
The Korean Community in Japan and Shimane
Between Colonialism and Nationalism: Power and Subjectivity in Korea, 1931-1950
Modernism and Post-colonialism in Korean Architecture


Various News articles
infoKorea Colonial Period
KoreaWeb Mailing List Korea Under Japanese Rule