Poverty in Korea under Japanese Colonialism
Koreans Without Sovereignty – Survival or Success?
Poverty in Korea under Japanese Colonialism
The Land is no longer our own
Does spring come just the same
To the stolen fields?
“Does Spring Come to Stolen Fields?” by Yi Sang-Hwa (1900-1943)
Poverty appears infrequently in narratives of the Korean past, despite the central place of scarcity and economic struggle in a vast number of Koreans’ lives. As remains true for many eras and world regions, the historiography of modern Korea has focused on political systems, dramatic conflicts, and prominent personalities, rather than emphasizing the experiences of those most marginalized by society. This paper aims to respond to such stilted emphases, engaging with the history of poverty during Korea’s thirty-five years of Japanese colonial rule, from official annexation in 1910 through the harrowing experiences of the Empire’s long Pacific War, ending in 1945. A number of central questions arise in the exploration of this story: How far and how deeply did continuities in the nature of Korean poverty extend through the colonial era? What capacities did impoverished Koreans possess to challenge existing conditions of life in a colonial state? And lastly, could the experiences of poor Koreans and of Korea as a whole from 1910-1945 be characterized better by acts of survival or achievements of success? Struggles for survival, and for success, were conditioned and constrained by institutional factors that kept many Koreans in poverty for decades after the end of Japanese colonialism. Nevertheless, this paper aims to demonstrate why such struggles should form the bedrock for understanding Korea’s colonial history, and how such experiences informed Koreans’ opportunities throughout the 20th century and even to the present day.
In 1910, over 84% of all Korean households engaged in agriculture, indicative of the country’s overwhelmingly rural nature. It is within that rural, agricultural context that much of Korea’s poverty before and during the colonial period should be understood. In the late 19th century, Chosŏn Korea’s weak state structure provided little to the population in terms of organizational support or technological development. Opening of Korea’s ports had increased trade exponentially, but this aggravated tensions and inequalities in agriculture as access to markets remained highly restricted to privileged yangban and rich landowners, and the number of large-scale landholders increased. In 1898, King Kojong initiated a land survey that would confer exclusive ownership rights to such landowners. At the same time, this was balanced by the affirmation of cultivation rights – the “real right” of a tenant to stay with their land and restrict a landlord from fraud or arbitrariness. Nevertheless, this attempt to calm some of the turmoil created by rapid land commercialization cannot have improved conditions for bankrupt tenants or impoverished landless laborers. As Japanese interests took full hold a decade later and established a colonial state, they would align with the landholding elite, exacerbating even further the existing dynamics of increasing social differentiation and growing inequality.
In the 1930s, common histories will relate that Korea found itself in the midst of what has been named the “cultural period” of its colonial era, characterized by the government permitting Koreans to engage in broader political expression, civic organization, and cultural activities. However, such pursuits became further removed from Koreans’ realities of life the further one moved from urban and bourgeois environments, and Korea as a whole remained fundamentally neither: In 1928, 80.6 percent of the employed population continued to work in agriculture. Rural conditions continued to worsen, with the number of absentee landlords – mostly Korean – and their agents growing. Nevertheless, the 1930s heralded many trends of change in how rural Koreans might lead their lives and in how they might experience or even escape from poverty. From the 1910s to 1930s, the proportion of peasants working as wage laborers grew from 13 to 35.4%. In 1933, wage income also constituted 33.5% on average of a tenant household’s income. The surplus in rural labor force had steadily accelerated, attaining perhaps a million workers at the end of the 1920s. These marginal laborers in both rural and urban areas lived in a vicious cycle of job insecurity, living off of low wages and often on the edge of starvation. Japanese industrial policy in the colony, however, began drawing heavily on this reserve of Korean labor, resulting in rural out-migration of around 300,000 men total in the first half of the decade, increasing to a rate of over 200,000 per year from 1935-1945. At the same time, Japan’s seizure and occupation of Manchuria in 1931 had repositioned Korea toward the center of an expanding empire. 1.3 million Koreans migrated voluntarily to Japan and Manchuria between 1930 and 1940, and one million more were forcibly mobilized for labor after 1939.
Studies have demonstrated that Koreans likely consumed a decreased number of calories and a decreased amount of staple grains – especially rice – from the beginning to the end of the colonial period. Agricultural wages and farm income declined as well. Simultaneously, however, Koreans readily increased their consumption of consumer goods – 35.9% from 1921 to 1940 alone. Mortality rates also decreased as better sanitation practices spread, and literacy rose. While highly useful and informative, such econometrics remain limited in the extent to which they can satisfy the fundamental questions of Japanese colonialism’s influence on Korean society and on Korean poverty. Concluding whether Koreans became “worse off or better off” does little to advance academic conclusions on the colonial era, when it stands as obvious that there were some who clearly benefitted under the Japanese, others who clearly suffered, and many, including farmers of modest means or working women in the factories, whose struggles, successes and fates could all create an ambivalent image of what colonialism may have provided.
Undeniably, the Japanese Empire exploited Korea, for thirty-five years of colonial rule and longer. The Government General denied Koreans’ sovereignty and bent Korean society and economy to the needs and desires of Japan, using it as a rice basket and then increasingly as a pivot for expansion and a source of cheap labor for light and heavy industry as the capitalists of the metropole demanded. In many ways, colonial institutions exacerbated poverty and caused a great deal of suffering. Nevertheless, pre-colonial ways of living, thinking and working persisted, and in agriculture especially, the Japanese could not create new institutions from whole cloth. Indeed, impoverished Koreans did not live as mere recipients of hardship or advancement in accordance with the exploitations or initiatives of governments and elites. Rather, modern Korean history has been strongly characterized by the participation of common people in creating, changing, and responding to social and economic institutions, particularly those affecting poverty. It was disputes between tenants and landholders that pushed the government to instate and readjust policies of arbitration and settlement – not the other way around.
While in power, the Japanese could never rest easy without taking account of Korea’s living undercurrents of nationalism and resistance, and Koreans’ willingness to fight for change in their lives. That said, many Koreans, including the impoverished, could take advantage of opportunities provided by industrialization and wartime expansion, as they demonstrated in their massive migrations from rural to urban areas and in movement abroad. Koreans could also take advantage of one another, as between landlords and tenants, factory owners and workers, or in other unequal relationships, particularly between men and women. Through it all, however, some were able to improve their lives, find success, and take pride in their actions. Ultimately, the Koreans who struggled to survive through the colonial era would again face violent transformations and cataclysms as they struck the peninsula in the following decades. Such upheavals sprang from experiences under colonialism, and they flowed from Koreans continued experiences of poverty.
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