AAS Annual Meeting

Korea Session 530

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Session 530: Colonial Modernity Revisited: New Approaches to Religion, Society, and the State in Occupied Korea, 1910-45

Organizer: Todd A. Henry, University of California, San Diego, USA

Discussant: Robert E. Buswell, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Although the last decade has seen the growth of new research on the relationship of modernity to imperialism, questions surrounding religion have often been missing from discussions of colonial Korea. This panel seeks to remedy this situation by considering how various spiritual traditions – Buddhism, Shamanism, Christianity, and Shintō, for example – intersected with the rise of a bureaucratized colonial state, the dynamics of local society, and the transnational positioning of Japan’s empire on the peninsula. Together, these papers demonstrate the important role that religion played in shaping the policies and practices of Japanese rule as well as the various strategies that non-state actors pursued in articulating new religious identities in colonial Korea. On the one hand, the negotiated appointment of a controversial Korean Protestant to Seoul’s YMCA during the first decade of colonial rule (1910-19) and the hurried project to enforce Shintō rituals as part of wartime mobilization (1937-45) suggest the recurring character of Japanese efforts to manage Korean spiritual life. On the other, nationalists’ gendered engagement with Korean shamanism to challenge its co-option by colonial assimilationists and the use of an officially-sponsored celebration of the Buddha’s birth by both Japanese and Korean monks to promote competing agendas of religious modernity reveal how the colonial context informed “national” formulations of religious meaning. Through these examples, our panel contends that spiritual life is an essential, if overlooked, dimension of Korea’s colonial modernity.

Between Mission and Empire: Yun Ch’iho and the Young Men’s Christian Association in Colonial Seoul, 1916-20
Michael I. Shapiro, Doshisha University, Japan

As the sole non-Western, non-Christian power among the modern empires, Japan faced a unique challenge in extending its political rule over Korea, a country whose populace was experiencing an extraordinary wave of Christianization at the time of its colonization. The volatility inherent in this encounter was made apparent by the Korean government-general's unconcealed use of force to contain Christianity’s influence on the peninsula. Yet there were limits to how far Japan could go in suppressing the missionary presence in Korea without risking castigation from the other modern empires. Thus, negotiating a resolution to the position of this “foreign” religion in Korea was an integral part of the colonial project of establishing Japanese hegemony in Korea. In order to develop this point, I will focus on the appointment of the preeminent Protestant Yun Chi’ho to become the first Korean (i.e., non-missionary) secretary of the Seoul Young Men’s Christian Association (Seoul YMCA) in 1916. Yun’s appointment to this position is particularly intriguing because it occurred in spite of the fact that he had only recently been pardoned from a prison term served for “masterminding” an alleged plot (which was, in fact, fabricated by the government)to assassinate the Korean Governor-General. My presentation further complicates this picture by demonstrating that Yun took up leadership of the Seoul YMCA at the urging not only of Korea’s Christian missionary leadership, but also of the Korean government-general. Both parties, I argue, now saw Yun’s leadership of the YMCA as the key to mediating between the interests of colonial government and Christian mission. My presentation explores the multiple levels at which Yun’s biography made him uniquely qualified to play this role.

Transgendering Shamans: A 1927 Historical Revisionist Project by Ch’oe Nam-sŏn and Yi Nŭng-hwa
Merose Hwang, Hiram College, Canada

Although it is widely assumed that Korean shamanism was used to legitimize Japanese assimilation policies (particularly related to Shintō policies), what has garnered less attention is how shaman subjects were also used in a colonial intervention to further a nationalist agenda. This paper examines a prime example of such a project with a 1927 “Treatise on Korean Shamanism,” written by Ch’oe Nam-sŏn and Yi Nŭng-hwa. By elevating prehistoric, male shaman figures, Ch’oe and Yi offset the insidious notion of a weak and feminine Korea. The transition from what was perceived as the nation’s masculine origins to its feminized colonial present was explained through a social phenomenon of transgenderism as a pre-modern social force. In the 1920s, shaman groups like Sungsiningyo Chohap (Devotees Church Guild) were under heavy scrutiny by the Korean press for feigning allegiances to the colonial government, expressing journalists’ anxieties around colonial assimilation. Ch’oe and Yi, seeing themselves as the vestiges of a country in crisis, believed they could invoke an ethnically distinct shaman patriarch in order to overcome the haunts of an emasculated nation. Their discussions were a manifestation of modern sexual regulation as sex was made central to national sovereignty. Utilizing a new science of sexology, gendered differentiations in Korean shamanism was established to place Koreans in a path of progress and modernity. I argue that Ch’oe and Yi’s gendered evaluations of shamans helped map a hinterland population among Koreans as sexual dissidence became a way to articulate power imbalances within the colonized population.

Festival of the Buddha’s Birthday in Colonial Korea
Hwansoo Kim, Duke University, USA

During the late 1920s and 30s in colonial Korea, Korean and Japanese Buddhists came together every May to celebrate the birth of the Buddha in a huge, daylong festival in the capital Seoul. In part because of the colonial government’s sponsorship, this festival has been viewed as a means of assimilating the Korean populace through the two countries’ shared religion. I argue that seeing this event in only political terms misses the true complexity of how each side—the Korean monastics, the Japanese lay Buddhists, and the colonial government—used the festival to promote their interests, to shape their public identities, and thus to establish their version of Buddhism as the uncontested religious, cultural force in colonial Korea. This paper explores the different visions that each of the three sides had for the Buddha’s Birthday festival in the context of colonialism, modernity and religion. Japanese lay Buddhists considered the event to be a vital opportunity to create a new, modern, family-centered Buddhism that Buddhisms of Korea, Japan, and other Asian countries had failed to establish. While these lay Buddhists also used the event to advance the interests of imperial Japan, they were likewise motivated by their alarm at Christianity’s breathtaking success in Korea. As for Korean Buddhists, this festival provided an ideal platform to present their religion as sociable, urban, and thus modern in the eyes of the country’s elite. The centuries’-long marginalization of Korean Buddhism during the Neo-Confucian Joseon dynasty (1392–1910) had greatly weakened the clergy’s social, institutional, and political status. Thus for Koreans, the festival was a way of promoting the identity of Korean Buddhism, long considered the mother of Japanese Buddhism. In sum, the colonial government found the festivals useful for assimilation, Japanese lay Buddhists for creating a new form of Buddhism, and Korean Buddhists for reasserting their tradition in the capital city. More broadly, the paper shows how important Buddhism was in the culture and politics of colonial Korea.

The Culture of State Shintō in Late Colonial Korea, 1937-45
Todd A. Henry, University of California, San Diego, USA

This paper will consider how the late colonial government attempted to use State Shintō as a spiritual technology of mass mobilization during the Asia-Pacific War (1937-45). In particular, I will argue that the Government-General engaged in a more general process to “sacralize politics” – a strategy used by other wartime regimes, both liberal and especially fascist. By imbuing everyday life with reverence for the imperial line, government officials, with assistance from Shintō clergymen and neighborhood leaders, forced colonized Koreans and Japanese settlers alike to subordinate their religious beliefs to a public creed aimed at uniting the multi-ethnic members of the wartime empire into a hierarchical community of loyal subjects. In my presentation, I will pay special attention to the spectacular fanfare associated with this form of spiritual mobilization (or “imperialization”) during 1940 – the year in which the emperor’s subjects were enjoined to celebrate the Japanese archipelago’s mythical founding 2,600th years earlier. These festivities will demonstrate the ways in which the culture of State Shinō came to penetrate the lived geographies of late colonial Korea in unprecedented ways. To the degree possible, I will also consider the agency of subjects called upon to demonstrate their loyalty as the central indicator of imperialization’s effectiveness.