Beyond the legacy of Japanese rule

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Beyond the legacy of Japanese rule


Yang Sung-hee
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Friday marked the centennial of the March 1 Independence Movement, when Koreans rose up en masse against Japanese colonial rule. April 11 also marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Korea’s provision government in 1919. The landmark year is brimming with ceremonies to reflect on the significant events in history.

The government upgraded a posthumous honor for Yu Gwan-sun, the symbolic independence fighter of the 1919 March 1 Independence Movement, to a Republic of Korea Medal — the highest medal of honor for contribution to national foundation. The additional honor comes amid criticism that less recognition was given to female and student activists in the independence movement.

The education and administrative communities have been busy removing the remnants of colonial days. School songs written by pro-Japanese musicians and names of Japanese connotations or architectures and statutes have been removed. Goyang in Gyeonggi banned the song of the city, which was composed by pro-Japanese songwriter Kim Dong-jin. A local education district office even set up a task force to investigate the surviving vestiges of colonial days. There has been a suggestion of changing the Korean word youchiwon for kindergarten because it comes from Japanese. Some have also called for stripping the recognition of architecture from the colonial period as national heritages.

In his Independence Movement Day address, President Moon Jae-in vowed to root out traces of the Japanese colonial era to ensure a true beginning of a “fair society.” While chairing a meeting to reform the law enforcement and intelligence authorities, he claimed that political influences over these organizations — the National Intelligence Service, police, and prosecutors — and practices undermining human rights were part of the legacies of Japanese colonial rule.

However, the clampdown to wipe out all traces of Japanese rule is somewhat worrisome. Modern concepts such as freedom, rights, individuality, democracy, constitution, philosophy, culture, social science, and arts, all arrived in Korea through Japanese translations. What should be defined as pro-Japanese — and whether remembering and preserving the history from the colonial period as it is a better way to overcome the humiliating and milestone period in Korean history — still cannot be answered. The wave of so-called “new-tro” — a combination of the words “new” and “retro” — design has become fashionable among young people, enthralled with the colorful styles of the early 1900s. Why is that history celebrated, but elements of the colonial era an issue?

If wiping out traces of all things Japanese and becoming enraged again about the brutalities of the Japanese is all we do for the centennial celebration of the March 1 Movement, our society can never move forward. As many historians have pointed out, Japanese invasion and colonial rule helped create a turning point of modernization in Korea whether we like to admit or not. Like neo-Confucianism, it has hugely influenced the Korean identity. Correcting the wrongs of the colonial era and denying everything from those times is simply not realistic.

The significance of the March 1 Independence Movement is the rise of an ad-hoc Korean government and a watershed moment in the transformation of our nation to a civilian republic from a monarchy and to a modern society from a feudal one, according to Yonsei University professor Kim Ho-ki. The 100th anniversary of a civilian democratic republic should serve as another turning point for Korea in the coming century, he stressed. Park Myung-lim, another professor of Yonsei University, added that people 100 years ago were a part of the global community acting on their freedom, equality, rights and peace. Instead of restricting Koreans to “fighting against Japan for independence,” their actions must be understood in the global context, he urged. Korea must have their eyes on the future and world, not in its bitter past with Japan.

At an event to commemorate the March 1 movement, the Seoul city government covered the walls around the Deoksu Palace with white fabric in mourning for King Gojong, whose sudden death after confinement in the palace by the Japanese served as a catalyst for the March 1 Movement. The sea of white flags formed quite a sight, but a “funeral for the monarch” in today’s world is also a bizarre idea.
What good can come from bringing up rage from the past and sadness for losing the king in today’s world?

JoongAng Sunday, Feb. 2-3, Page 30
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