The day that light returned – Today, the 15th of August, is Independence Day in Korea, so I thought I’d break another two-week silence here at Liminality with a look at the history behind the holiday.
Although the Japanese colonial period lasted less than half a century, it was not something that happened overnight. Japan had long coveted Korea and sought to exercise influence over the Korean peninsula—she invaded the Korean peninsula as early as the 4th century A.D., and continued to invade Korea through the years. After completing the unification of Japan in the late 16th century, Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea in 1592 to prepare for an attack on China and the formation of a Japanese empire that would cover all of Asia. A second invasion in 1597 faltered with his death in 1598, and for a long while Japan made no attempt to invade Korea again.
Two and a half centuries later, though, Admiral Matthew Perry forced the opening of Japanese ports, and Japan was rudely introduced to Western imperialism. In 1868 the Tokugawa government was overthrown and the Meiji Restoration ushered in a new age for Japan. The Japanese realized that they were far behind the West in industrial strength and colonial power, and decided to make up for lost time as quickly as possible.
Like Japan, Joseon (the name for Korea at the time—the term “Korea,” in fact, was derived from Goryeo, Joseon’s predecessor) also realized that the world was getting smaller, but it was a case of too little, too late. By the time King Gojong came to power in 1864, Joseon had weakened considerably and was in no shape to face Western aggression. The new king was only twelve years old, and so his father, known as the Daewongun, exercised royal power in his stead.
The Daewongun strengthened royal authority, which had been diluted by the growing power of the aristocracy. He also adopted an isolationist policy, hoping to avoid confrontation with the West (which had been pressuring Korea since the early 19th century) by refusing to trade. The Western religion of Catholicism was also rejected—although it was officially prohibited, it had been tolerated, but under the Daewongun Catholics were severely persecuted, and thousands were martyred.
Certain Western powers took exception to these actions. French missionaries were among those Catholics that had been martyred, and in 1866 the French took military action in retaliation, but were ultimately turned back. In 1871 the U.S. decided to resort to force when diplomacy had no effect in opening up Korea’s ports. Although a U.S. force managed to capture some Korean forts, the show of force did not have the same effect on Korea that it had had on Japan, and U.S. forces ultimately withdrew. These attacks, of course, only made Joseon even more isolationist.
The Daewongun finally gave power back to his son, King Gojong, in 1873. Not long after, Japan deliberately sent a ship into Korean waters, where it was fired upon. This was used as a pretext by Japan to send troops to land on Ganghwa Island (off the west coast of the peninsula, not too far from Seoul) and force Korea to sign the Treaty of Ganghwa. Gojong elected to appease Japan and sign the treaty, thus taking the first step toward the fall of Joseon.
It was at this point that Korea set about trying to bring itself into the modern world, adopting the way of “enlightenment”—that is, Western ways. Korea took Japan as a model of enlightenment, and the Korean government sent delegates to Japan to learn what they could. Gojong also signed treaties with many Western powers, effectively opening Korea to foreign trade. This brought about a backlash from the anti-foreign elements in Korea, though, and after some plotting and rioting, they forced Gojong to reinstate the Daewongun.
Both Japan and China reacted strongly to this return to isolationism. Japan sent troops to Korea and China followed suit, and both began interfering in Korea’s internal affairs. Chinese troops abducted the Daewongun, and in response Japan negotiated a new treaty with Korea that would ostensibly allow them to defend their diplomats in Seoul—but in reality gave them an excuse to permanently station troops in the city.
Tension grew between Japan and China on the Korean peninsula, ultimately leading to the Convention of Tientsin in 1885, a proposal by Japan that both sides remove their troops from the peninsula. This eased tension for the time being, but Japan had no intention of giving up on its designs on Korea. Tension began to grow between Japan and China yet again, this time leading to the Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895). The war ended with a Japanese victory, bringing about the end of Chinese influence on the Korean peninsula.
For its part, Korea knew that something had to be done, but it did not have the strength to stem the tide. Now free of the centuries-old yoke of Chinese suzerainty, Gojong founded the “Great Korean Empire” in 1897. It was a merely a cosmetic change, though, a poultice applied to a cancer that had already spread through the body and begun strangling vital organs. The only foreign power left in Asia that had any say in Korean affairs was Russia, and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) gave Japan another victory and ended Russian influence on the peninsula.
With all the pieces now in place, Japan moved quickly. They drafted the Protectorate Treaty of 1905 and demanded that Korea sign it. The prime minister refused, so the Japanese jailed him, stole the official seal from the foreign ministry, and used it to stamp the document themselves. Japan thus illegally made itself Korea’s “protector,” giving itself complete control over Korean foreign affairs. Five years later, Japan officially annexed Korea, securing the first piece of what they hoped would become the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
For the next thirty-five years, Korea suffered under Japanese colonial rule. The first decade was particularly harsh, and the Japanese attempted to assimilate Korea into their empire through heavy-handed rule. At the end of this decade, in 1919, Korean activists united to carry out the March First Independence Movement. Although it failed in its ultimate goal of freeing Korea from Japanese colonial rule, it served to unite the independence movement both in Korea and in exile, and it made the Japanese reconsider their approach to ruling the Korean peninsula. For the next decade, they sought to improve the image of the colonial government in Korea, and at the same time strengthen its control.
Although World War II is considered to have begun in 1939 in the West, Japan began its aggression in the Pacific in 1931. They opened with an attack on Manchuria, and for the next fifteen years fought in an attempt to make the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere a reality. For Korea, this meant mobilization as part of Japan’s war machine. Japan also stepped up their efforts to assimilate Koreans into the Japanese Empire. Koreans were forbidden to use the Korean language and forced to use Japanese, and they were forced to attend Shinto religious services. In 1937 all Korean organizations were disbanded and thereafter forbidden, and in 1940 all Korean newspapers except the official colonial paper were closed down. One year later, all Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese style names.
Paradoxically, though, even as the Japanese sought to erase all differences between Koreans and Japanese, they continued to treat Koreans as inferior in all ways. Even those who tried to succeed within the system were discriminated against, and so Koreans were faced with a dilemma: to remain true to their heritage and accept the fact that they would never be allowed to achieve anything, or to shun their heritage and embrace the system, still knowing that they would never be fully accepted.
As the war progressed, though, it soon became apparent that Japan was losing, and that, by extension, Korea would soon be freed from Japanese rule. Russia (now the Soviet Union) sought to reestablish its influence on the Korean peninsula, and in the last days of the war they moved through Manchuria and into Korea. The United States, wary of their allies, had no cards to play, but proposed a division of the peninsula into two occupation zones—the upper half would be occupied by the Soviet Union, the lower half by the United States. Even though the United States had no troops in the area, the Soviet Union agreed.
A few days later, on August 15th, 1945, Korea was declared independent from Japan. In Korean this holiday is known as Gwangbokjeol—literally, “the day that light returned.” The long darkness of Japanese rule was over, and a new light was dawning on the Korean peninsula. Sadly, this light would not last long, as ideological differences between the two occupying forces would lead to the Korean War and the permanent division of the nation. Nonetheless, it is a day for celebration, a day to remember when the light returned.
I only know what I’ve written above because of what I’ve read and heard—in fact, the same goes for most Koreans I know. But the experience is so ingrained in the Korean spirit that it could be said to be part of the Korean collective consciousness. I once read in a newspaper an amusing article that listed a number of ways you could tell if, as a foreigner, you had been in Korea for a long time. The first item on the list was: “You hate the Japanese for no particular reason.” This may sound a bit harsh to outsiders, but after living in Korea for a while you begin to understand that no part of Korea was left untouched during the colonial period.
It’s easy to say that these things are in the past, and it’s time to move on, but wounds like these do not heal quickly (especially considering the fact that Japan has been notoriously slow to admit to its past wrongdoings). The wounds are handed down from generation to generation, and although they are healing, it will take some time yet.
Practically speaking, today is a welcome day off from work, and many will not stop to think deeply about the history behind the holiday. I have chosen to do so because, even though it is not my native land, Korea has become a part of me. It may not be my heritage, but it is the heritage of my wife and her family, and it will be the heritage of our children. So today I’ll be remembering the day that light returned to Korea, and hope for a day of greater rejoicing to come.