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 some of Korea’s economic historiography, a facile dichotomization has been made between major landlords and poor tenants, supposing a simple opposition of two disparate classes. In fact, Korea’s rural realities during the colonial era involved great diversity in social status, with absentee landlords, managerial farmers, owner-cultivators, semi-tenants, landless laborers and so forth. The multiplicity and potentially exploitative facets of varied relationships among cultivators have been found even in accounts a South Korean village in the 1970s, where wealthy kin fostered the children of poorer family members, utilizing them as labor without adequate compensation. Gi-Wook Shin argues against the common claim that Japan’s cadastral survey of 1910-1918 radically altered the land tenure system or polarized economic classes, presenting evidence that changes in land ownership and social status continued to be gradual through the first half of the colonial era. During this time, from 1910 to the late 1920s, the policies of the Japanese Government General of Korea sought to exploit the peninsula’s agricultural capacity, and as a result, production, crop prices, and exports to Japan all saw dramatic increases. In spite of this inflow of wealth, however, evidence indicates that the welfare of the lower rural strata did not increase overall.

To render rural poverty more tangible, one should look to personal accounts. The story of a family in a small mountain village that regularly ate tree bark and acorns stands out as an extreme example of subsistence living. More common, however, were stories of payments that could barely be satisfied without risk to a family’s nourishment – rice and crops paid to fulfill tenancy agreements, repay debts, or to put children in school. Because rents were due in autumn, springtime was most often when starvation struck, as families’ food stores ran out. Poverty might be seen in these situations as the absence of essential needs or the risk of losing essential needs, due to a lack of opportunities or material resources. Using this definition, it becomes apparent that poverty in rural Korea was not timeless or invariable: Rather, poverty could appear and disappear from season to season, or from year to year as harvests varied in success; it might change suddenly with the decision of a landlord, or very gradually as new conditions became apparent. Beginning in the 1920s, after the historic March First movements, tenancy disputes became far more frequent, appearing where there were strong populations of mid-level landlords who were challenged by large-scale collective tenant organizations. The groups used collective action such as threats not to harvest or the withholding of rent in order to negotiate lower rents and better practices, and frequently they succeeded, winning their arguments with the colonial authorities or more often reaching a compromise. When agricultural prices dropped after 1926, however, the majority of Korean farm households sunk into debt, and starvation obtained in the spring that was described in a Seoul daily as “a living hell,” where the peasants “live because they cannot die.” In the following years, polarization of classes and inequalities in land ownership would appear as never before.

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.

Through the 1930s and the Pacific War, women factory workers became symbolic of the circumstances experienced by Koreans who labored for the Japanese Empire and the enterprises under its aegis. Nationalists, communists, and others would characterize these women as out-and-out victims, but while they did suffer extreme abuses and hardships in some cases, they also benefitted from greater employment opportunities, organizing to improve working conditions, changing gender norms, and acting as pioneers. In some sense, these mixed and nuanced experiences remain indicative of the latter half of the colonial period as a whole: Korea industrialized, much of its population introduced to new jobs and skills, new labor relationships, and even new parts of the world. Nevertheless, Korea’s enduring basis in agriculture cannot be underemphasized, as 70% of the population continued to take their livelihood from cultivation in the 1940s. This familiar but ever-evolving agricultural context remained the location of the vast majority of impoverished Koreans during the colonial era and afterward, arguably lasting in North Korea to this day and in South Korea until 1990, when it became the only East Asian nation with more poor in cities than in rural areas. In this context, relations between landowner and cultivator, between agents and laborers, and between families that lived in the same village for generations formed the baseline of struggles against poverty, struggles for survival and for potential success.

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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