The empire that strove to silence a nation

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The empire that strove to silence a nation

Japanese became the official language for schooling in Korea shortly after the annexation of the short-lived Korean Empire in 1910. The Japanese imperial government mandated the use of Japanese reading books and science textbooks in primary schools here in Korea.

The newspaper of the Korean Empire, the Daehan Maeil Sinbo, wrote, “The hidden intention behind making Korean youths study in Japanese is to drill a hole in the students’ brains and inject the so-called Japanese nationalist spirit there.”

Education in imperial Japan was aimed at providing basic knowledge and nurturing pro-Japanese sentiment and Japanese language acquisition.

In 1911, in accordance with the new education law, textbooks of all subjects other than Korean language were published in Japanese, and administrative and legal documents were required to be written in Japanese, too.

Subsequently, Korean was degraded to a language for daily conversation only. It was deprived of its status as an official language. Until 1938, when the third revision of the education law was enacted, however, Korean continued to be taught as a subject in school.

On March 15 the same year, imperial Japan changed its language policy from the joint use of Korean and Japanese to Japanese only.

The purpose of the policy was to turn Koreans from colonial subjects into imperial subjects, or “complete Japanese,” by depriving them of their language and writing.

The Japanese authorities cried out that “Japan and Korea are one nation!” and they made Japanese language and history required subjects in Korean schools. They also dropped the Korean language from the list of mandatory subjects.

When imperial Japan expanded its war of invasion, declared ostensibly to create a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” they took colonial subjects to the front line as conscripts. For the practical purposes of battle, it was necessary for these conscripts to speak and understand Japanese. This necessity was one pressing reason why imperial Japan required all its subjects to learn Japanese.

The government’s policies meant that Japanese not only became the language of education, but also of daily conversation.

Violent incidents of suppression, such as the closure of Korean language newspapers in 1940 and the mass imprisonment of the members of the Korean Language Academy in 1942, were committed by the Japanese imperialists.

Thanks to the efforts of such patriotic scholars as Lee Yun-jae, Choi Hyeon-bae and Lee Hi-seung, who were imprisoned for compiling a Korean dictionary in opposition to the Japanese attempt to obliterate the Korean language, we Koreans were able to save our language and writing, in which live the spirit and the soul of the Korean people.

The imperial government charged these men with the supposed crime of “cherishing the Korean national spirit.”

*The writer is the dean of the school of liberal arts at Kyung Hee University.

By Huh Dong-hyun
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