Resistance in Tokyo encouraged the March 1 Movement

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Resistance in Tokyo encouraged the March 1 Movement


Top: Korean overseas students in Japan proclaimed the Declaration of Independence of Feb. 8, 1919, at the Tokyo Korean Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) building. Bottom: The building now has become a dry cleaning shop located in Chiyoda, central Tokyo. [TOKYO KOREAN YMCA, JOONGANG ILBO]

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Korea’s March 1 Independence Movement, the peaceful, nationwide demonstrations of 1919 that led to the establishment of a provisional government in Shanghai. People in both cities and rural towns came together to call for “Manse” - an old rallying cry that took on a brand new meaning - and proclaimed the independence of the country from Japanese colonial rule. In a three-part series, the Korea JoongAng Daily will reflect on the significance of the movement on modern Korea and global history through the eyes of scholars and the media of the time.

On Feb. 8, 1919, nearly 600 students gathered at the Tokyo Korean Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Hall to denounce Japanese oppression and declare Korea’s independence.

The event served as a catalyst for the mass movement proclaiming Korea’s independence that would launch three weeks later on March 1 in Seoul. It mobilized people across the social spectrum and spread nationwide in the form of peaceful “Manse” demonstrations, in which protesters called out the slogan, “Long live the independence of Korea.

Over the past several months, World War I had ended, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference proclaimed the principle of national self-determination in his Fourteen Points speech, and Emperor Gojong (1852-1919) the last king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), died abruptly.

Activists in Korea and abroad - especially in China, Russia and Japan - were waiting for the right opportunity to rise up after nine years of oppressive Japanese colonial rule.

Around 2 p.m., the student leaders unveiled to the young crowd gather at the Tokyo Korean YMCA’s old hall the Declaration of Independence of Korea, signed by 11 representatives, which rejected Japan’s occupation.

The declaration read, “The Korean Young People’s Independence Organization declares, on behalf of the 20 million Korean people, the independence of the Korean nation, doing so in front of all the countries in the world, which have already secured the triumphs of justice and freedom.”

They demanded that Japan and other countries offer Korean people an “opportunity for self-determination.” The declaration said the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 did not originate from the “free will” of the Koreans and “disturbs the peace in East Asia.”

Around 60 students were arrested by Japanese police, including the representatives who signed the declaration. The leaders attempted to send a copy of the declaration to the Japanese Diet, but failed because of the arrest.

The Feb. 8 declaration is now seen as a critical event that helped lay the groundwork for the March 1 Independence Movement, which marks its centennial anniversary this year.

The group of students in Japan, on their oppressors’ turf, set the early stage for the organization of the independence movements at home and abroad and the establishment of a provisional government of Korea in Shanghai.

Doh See-hwan, a research fellow at the Northeast Asian History Foundation and director of the Research Center for Japanese Military Comfort Women, said, “The independence leaders and students in Korea learned of the Feb. 8 independence declaration immediately, and this became a decisive moment that enabled the March 1 movement.”

“As students, they weren’t able to make a direct impact on Japan, but through the Feb. 8 declaration, these young activists were able to ardently convey, through their strong demand for independence, the pain of the Joseon people amid their struggle against military rule in Korea,” said Lee Soon-ja, a chief researcher at the Institute of the History of Christianity in Korea.

Korea’s March 1 mass movement for independence against the Government General in Korea and the central Japanese government failed to bring about immediate liberation. Korea had everything stacked against it at the time, as it had lost its sovereignty and lacked political organization, armed forces, resources and support from other countries.

The liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule came at the end of the six-year World War II in 1945, and it took another two decades for the countries to normalize bilateral ties.

The two countries today are close neighbors with vibrant exchanges but remain riddled by their complicated history stemming from colonization, such as the issues of wartime sexual slavery and compensation for forced labor victims.

But as Korea commemorates the 100th anniversary of the March 1 independence movement, scholars, in keeping with the vision of the the leader then, see this as an opportunity to reflect on the future direction of Korea-Japan relations.

Doh said, “The global recognition of the spirit of the March 1 movement is an opportunity to shed new light on the importance of the settlement of peace in Northeast Asia.”


Top: The leaders who planned the Feb. 8, 1919 Declaration of Independence in Tokyo, Korean students studying in Japan, pose for a photograph. The declaration helped inspire the March 1 Independence Movement of 1919, where people of all walks of life took part in nonviolent mass demonstrations nationwide. Bottom: A copy of the Feb. 8 Declaration of Independence, signed by 11 representatives at the old Tokyo Korean YMCA Hall. The leaders were later arrested by Japanese authorities. [INDEPENDENCE HALL OF KOREA]

A message for Seoul

The Korean Young People’s Independence Organization, formed by students studying in Japan, was at the center of the move toward independence in Tokyo. It was partially influenced by the principle of national self-determination advocated by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919.

Japan annexed Korea in August 1910 after making the country its protectorate in 1905. The legality of the so-called annexation treaty of 1910 has been disputed later by the Korean government. Japan took part in World War I (1914-1918) on the side of the Allied Powers, alongside imperial countries with colonies in Asia and Africa.

Japan’s authoritarian rule of Korea was maintained by military police and Japanese troops. Koreans were granted no political rights and did not have any elected representation or voice in the Japanese Diet. The Japanese government at that time had complete control of the media in its country, as well as in Korea, and restricted free speech and rights to publication.

The youth activists, frustrated by imperialism and inspired by the principle of national self-determination, called for the independence of Korea.

As preparations for the independence proclamation were underway in Tokyo, Song Gye-baek, one of the 11 signatories of the Feb. 8 declaration, made a secret trip to Korea to inform leaders in Seoul of their activities in Japan and also gather funds to print the declaration.

Religious leaders led the initial stage of the independence movement, mainly through the collaboration between followers of Chondogyo, a Korean religious movement that means “heavenly way,” and Christians, who were generally divided between the Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church in Korea at the time.

Chondogyo and Christian leaders eventually met later in February and agreed to work together. While reluctant to take the helm of the independence movement, they led the planning and organizing in Seoul for the declaration of independence, also called the March 1 Proclamation of Korean Independence, signed by 33 leaders. Their churches, associations and schools served as a vital communication network, especially as religious groups at that time were some of the only private institutions with regional organization.

“Song met with Choe Rin, one of the 33 leaders and a Chondogyo leader, and shared the activities happening in Tokyo,” said Lee Soon-ja, a chief researcher at the Institute of the History of Christianity in Korea. “The Feb. 8 declaration notably was drafted by students and served as a motivating factor for the March 1 declaration.”

Activist and writer Yi Kwang-su, then a student at Waseda University, drafted the Feb. 8 declaration, Song Gye-baek delivered a copy to Choe Rin and Choe Nam-son, leaders of the independence movement in Korea. Choe Nam-son in turn drafted the Proclamation of Korean Independence, signed on March 1, 1919, in Seoul by the 33 leaders.

“Son Byong-hi [an independence fighter who led the Chondogyo movement] requested that Choe Nam-son draft the text of the March 1 declaration moderately, in contrast to the Feb. 8 Declaration which was more provocative and revolutionary in wording because it was drafted by young students,” said Lee. “The Feb. 8 declaration served as the basic reference material when Choe drafted the March 1 declaration. Hence, the principles of liberty, justice and peace promulgated in the Feb. 8 declaration carried over directly to the March 1 declaration.”

The association distributed copies of the declaration to the Japanese media, governor general and embassies in Tokyo.

At that time, there were around 600 Korean students studying in Tokyo. Following the declaration in Tokyo and the arrest of nine of the 11 signatories - the other two had already returned to Korea - there was a surge of students leaving Japan. Records show 491 people returned to Korea from Japan during this period, 359 of whom were students, according to Lee. Many joined the Manse movement back home.

The nine Korean leaders arrested by Japanese police faced a closed trial, and the student activists were sentenced from three months to one year in prison. The two other signatories had already returned to Korea.

Lee said, “After these students returned to Korea, they returned back to their hometowns, and they directly spread word of their experience in Tokyo and the March 1 demonstrations in Seoul to their hometowns.”

The old Korean YMCA building in Tokyo, the stronghold for these student activists, was destroyed in the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, and the original location has only been recently rediscovered. On Jan. 7, the JoongAng Ilbo reported a small dry cleaner shop stands at the former location of the two-story YMCA hall in Nishi-Kanda district of Chiyoda.

“It’s not like they had the internet or phones, so many overseas students congregated at the Tokyo Korean YMCA in order to access various information and partake in gatherings,” said Lee. “It is a location which held a symbolic importance to them, and naturally became the site to declare their independence. Not everybody gathered there was Christian; both Christians and non-Christians worked together, transcending religion.”

Likewise, the Christian and Chondogyo leaders overcame differences in beliefs and collaborated because they chose solidarity and dialogue aimed at a common goal: independence.

“The spirit of the March 1 movement in the big picture can be considered dialogue and solidarity,” Lee said. “Despite differences in religion, in the face of a task of times of the country, they chose dialogue, conciliation, unity, and cooperation.”


From left: The March 21 edition of Los Angeles Times reports on its front page violence during the movement: “Butchery in Korea: Report Says Dead Number 10,000.” The Pacific Command Advertiser on its March 28 edition runs the full banner headline: “Korean Independence Declaration Bared: Japanese Troops Resort to Torture to Curb Uprisings.” [EACH ARCHIVE]

Escalating tensions

The demonstrations in the initial stages were nonviolent, as the organizers were well aware of the superior forces of the Japanese military police and army.

In addition to the “Manse” demonstrations, activists circulated publications of leaflets demanding independence, closed businesses and shops in major cities, conducted strikes and boycotted school. Koreans also left for abroad to join the overseas, independence movement namely in Shanghai. Farmers also protested by refusing tax payments to the governor general.

However, as the weeks passed, there were more violent confrontations. Oftentimes, it was in response to the suppression of the protests by the Japanese Government General - including firing at the unarmed crowds, arrests and torture of prisoners. At times, protesters suppressed by force responded with counterattacks against the military police, public facilities and government general personnel, especially closer to April. Koreans reportedly burned down public facilities, such as post offices and police stations, and cut telephone lines.

Suppression of the demonstrations continued in the second stage of the movement, which continued from the latter half of 1919 into 1920. With the suppression of the protests, Japan enforced more efficient security measures and some policy reforms.

Such clashes were covered in U.S. media, and the Los Angeles Times reported on the front page of its March 21, 1919 edition “Butchery in Korea: Report Says Dead Number 10,000; Number arrested by Japanese During the Demonstration Forty-five Thousand; Missionaries Let the World Know How Flocks are Being Murdered.”

The Honolulu-based Pacific Command Advertiser on its March 28 edition ran a full-banner headline: “Korean Independence Declaration Bared: Japanese Troops Resort to Torture to Curb Uprisings.”

It ran several articles covering the events, including: “Martial Law Rules in Korea; Thousand Jailed; Many Killed” and “Right to Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness Demand of Korea: Japan’s Yoke Thrown Off-World Asked to Support Move.”

The March 19 edition of the New York Times carried an article with the title: “Says Korea Needs Japan: Missionary Finds People Unfit for Self-Government.” It said that Rev. Dr. E.D. Soper, a professor of Drew Theological Seminary who made a visit to Korea, described the revolution in Korea as a “wildfire agitation by a people as yet unfit for self-government.” The article added that “Koreans were better off morally, physically and economically under Japanese control than when they were independent.”

This piece spurred appeals from Koreans living in the United States in the next several days, including from Henry Chung, a representative of the Korean National Association in New York. His article, “Korea’s Appeal,” was published in the March 21 edition of the New York Times. He wrote: “If the allied and associated powers permit Japan to keep on oppressing the Korean people...they are trampling underfoot the very principles for which they fought. All the Korean people ask for now is a chance to prove their capacity for self-government.”

The number of participants in the movement ranges from 1 million, according to the Government General records, to 2 million, according to records compiled by historian Park Eun-sik, the second president of the Korean provisional government in Shanghai. This figure would account for around 10 percent of the entire population. Among these, about 7,500 people were killed, 16,000 were injured, and more than 46,000 people were arrested by the Japanese police. In addition, 49 church buildings and 715 private houses were burned by the Japanese authorities. Between March and December of 1919, 19,054 people were indicted and 7,819 were convicted in court hearings.

Records of the the Korean Gendarmerie Headquarters note that there were 587,641 participants in 515 demonstrations in 618 locations between March 1 and 31, 1919, and that 553 were killed and 1,409 wounded, with 324 violent incidents. But figures are noted to be incomplete, with the number of wounded estimated to be much higher. The Gendarmerie records show that nine Government General personnel or Japanese civilians were killed, while 189 were wounded.

Records from the Government General show that during the independence movement, of 19,515 people arrested, 2,283 were affiliated with Chondogyo, 2,486 were Presbyterian, 560 were Methodist and 320 were other Protestants. Other religious groups included Buddhists, Confucianists and Catholics. But 9,304 were recorded as having no religious affiliation.

Likewise, these records show 10,864 farmers were among those arrested, indicating the movement indeed included the masses, not just elites and students. Other occupations included teachers, doctors, monks, Christian ministers and heads of local governments. Government General records show that 9,889 of those arrested were under the age of 30.

Japanese Governor General in Korea Yoshimichi Hasegawa requested troop reinforcements from Japan in early April and tensions continued to escalate as the Korean provisional government was established in Shanghai on April 11, 1919.

Hasegawa served as the Japanese governor general of Korea since 1916. However, in September 1919, Hasegawa and his team were removed and replaced by Admiral Viscount Makoto Saito, a future Japanese prime minister, who served as governor general twice from September 1919 to 1927 and from 1929 to 1931.

The Saito administration announced policy reforms to restore Japanese order following the March 1 movement, without much apology for the colonial rule itself. Historians remain skeptical on the actual extent and intent of the reforms to colonial rule. But the gendarmerie system was converted to a civilian police system and there were reforms in education and some lifting of the ban on Korean-language publications. A security system was also installed to suppress the independence movement and restore control in the countryside.

“The United States government, and those of other major Allied powers, largely ignored Korean pleas for support in 1919,” said Erez Manela, a professor of history at Harvard University. “The Japanese response, in turn, included violent repression. followed in the 1920s by some efforts to liberalize Japanese rule in order to mute Korean opposition to it. Things got much worse, of course, in the 1930s and ’40s, and the legacies of that era continue to haunt relations between Koreans and Japanese to this day.”

The Korean activists were unable to achieve independence through the March 1 movement and the Manse demonstrations faced brutal suppression. Ultimately, no other Korean nationalist movement had such scope and scale as the March 1 movement during colonial rule, which came to an end after the defeat of Japan by the Allies in August 1945.

In a similarly powerless situation, Korea, liberated from Japan but divided into two, did not have a voice in the Treaty of San Francisco of 1951, which set the terms of Japan’s surrender to the Allied Forces.

Seoul and Tokyo did not normalize diplomatic ties until June 22, 1965, through the signing of the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea.

Korea-Japan relations, 100 years later

Amid continued bilateral tensions over ongoing historical issues, earlier this month on Feb. 6, a group of 226 Japanese scholars signed a statement to recognize the centennial anniversary of the March 1 movement.

The group, led by historian Haruki Wada, professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo, held a press conference at the Japanese House of Representatives in Tokyo. They noted that at the time, Koreans “endured 10 years of pain since annexation by Japan” and that the March 1 declaration called for the independence of Joseon “also for the sake of Japan.”

They also noted a key 2010 statement by former Japanese Minister Naoto Kan on the 100th anniversary of the Japanese annexation of Korea acknowledging that colonial occupation was imposed against the will of the Korean people and “demonstrated by strong resistance,” including the March 1 movement.

Seoul and Tokyo’s bilateral relations remain riddled by issues stemming from Japan’s colonial rule over Korea, including the unresolved grievances of victims of wartime sexual slavery and forced labor.

Japan states the issues of colonial rule were resolved through the 1965 basic treaty.

The Korean Supreme Court on Oct. 30 and Nov. 29 last year ordered two Japanese companies - Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries - to compensate Korean victims of forced labor during World War II. This prompted immediate backlash by Tokyo, as the Japanese government claims the 1965 agreement settled all compensation matters.

But the Supreme Court ruling rejected the 1965 treaty, normalizing bilateral relations with Seoul, settled all compensation matters, pointing out that the Japanese government failed to acknowledge the “illegality of its colonial rule.”

Korea also announced on Nov. 21 that it would shut down the Tokyo-funded Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, which was meant to support women forced to work as sex slaves for the Japanese military during colonial rule.

On Dec. 28, 2015, Korea and Japan signed a deal attempting to resolve the issue of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery. It included an apology from Tokyo and a 1 billion yen fund for the victims, which amounted to about $8.8 million at the time. The Moon Jae-in government has pointed out that the 2015 deal was “flawed,” though it will not scrap the agreement.

Because of the political circumstances of the negotiations, the 1965 treaty signed under the dictatorial Park Chung Hee regime has been criticized by scholars and activists for failing to address major issues, such as Japan’s liability for colonial rule. Likewise, the comfort women issue was not brought to the public sphere until the early 1990s, as victims began to testify about their experiences.

“As expressed in the 2019 statement of Japanese scholars, the March 1 movement is not restricted just to the independence of our people, but advocates the equality of humankind and global peace in a pioneering perspective, and it should serve as an opportunity for Korean and Japanese academics to take the lead in improving relations,” said Doh of the Northeast Asian History Foundation. He encouraged “collaborative research and joint statements based on historical facts, international human rights laws and justice to enable change.”

Park Chan-seung, a history professor at Hanyang University and chairman of the Association for Korean Historical Studies, said “Looking back at the Feb. 8 and March 1 declarations, the writers at that time say that the reason why they are requesting independence is not just for the sake of the people of Joseon but for the peace of Northeast Asia.”

“Going one step further, they say it is for the peace of humankind, emphasizing universal values such as freedom, justice, humanitarianism and equality,” Park continued. “The March 1 movement is not just a national movement of the Korean people, but an emancipation movement of sorts representing countries of the time that were small and weak, that calls to move beyond the imperialist era. The March 1 declaration describes Japan as walking the ‘wrong path,’ and the movement aimed to set right that path, for the stability of East Asia. From a universal point of view, regardless of whether you are Korean or Japanese, we can recognize the significance of the March 1 movement and work together to remember it.”


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