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Korean-Japanese Romance in Korean and Japanese Literatures, 1890s-1920s

Posted By admin On May 31, 2013 @ 9:10 am In Abstracts for 2013, History, Philosophy and Religion, Literature and the Arts | Comments Disabled

Vladimir Tikhonov, Professor

Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages

Oslo University


My presentation will focus on the diverse meanings invested into the descriptions of the Korean-Japanese romance by both Korean and Japanese authors in late nineteenth – early twentieth century (pre-colonial period and the epochs of “saber rule” and “cultural policy” in colonial Korea). In the majority of the cases, the descriptions are explicitly politicized. In a number of works by the Japanese authors, romance between a Japanese male and Korean female was an explicit metaphor for the Japanese “guidance” in “leading backward Korea to the civilization”. For example, in a popular novel, The Wind Blowing Yellow Sand (Kōsafuku Kaze, serialized by daily Asahi in 1891-1892) by journalist-turned-writer and a “Korean hand” of Late Meiji Japan, Nakarai Toshui (1860-1926), a son of Meiji loyalist and a Korean woman, Hayashi Masamoto (Lim Chŏngwŏn), marries a Korean woman he falls in love with, and concomitantly heads a “Korean revolution” and achieves a grand “East Asian alliance” against Russian penetration in the course of his Korean adventures. Love between a male Japanese activist and a Korean woman depicted mostly as a passive object of the “rescue” by her Japanese sweetheart, denotes here Japan’s position as Korea’s “savior”.

It has to be noticed that the inferior position of the Korean part in the Korean-Japanese romance descriptions was not limited to the Japanese works only. The first ever Korean literary work to portray a Korean-Japanese marriage was arguably Yi Injik’s (1862-1916) Japanese Beauty Married to a Poor Korean Man (Pinsŏnnang ŭi Ilmiin, serialized by Maeil Sinbo in 1912), where a Korean man has to listen to the complains of his Japanese wife who married him – when he still was a promising young student back in Japan – in hope for a comfortable life in Korea, but ended up living in miserable penury. Apart from being poor, the Korean man is depicted as indolent and prone to empty bragging, surrounded by superstitious good-for-nothings. His suffering wife, interestingly enough, is depicted as speaking only Japanese in the family – Korea was colonized by Japan in 1910, and the colonizers did not feel too pressured to learn the language of the colonized. Some critics argue that Yi Injik’s narrative of an “inferior colonial man” is partly autobiographical (he was married to a Japanese himself), although given Yi’s literary fame and relatively high social position (by 1911, the director of the Confucian academy, Kyŏnghagwŏn, in the Korean colonial capital), the exaggerated “inferiority” of Japanese woman’s Korean husband might have been inspired mostly by a deeply-seating inferiority complex of a colonial intellectual.

This Orientalist/self-Orientalising construction was, however, challenged by the Korean writers of the 1920s. Many of them were educated in Japan; however, harsh colonial realities made them to take a more critical view on the Japanese claims of mission civilisatrice and Japanese’ self-positioning as the colonial herrenvolk.  Kim Tong’in (1900-1951), in his description of his obsession with buxom Japanese girl in Tokyo in 1918-1919 (monthly Pyŏlkŏn’gon, February 1930), puts himself into the privileged position of voyeur. While the Japanese girl the crash on whom he develops, rejects him on ethno-racial grounds (as an “inferior Korean”), he is primarily obsessed by her seductively plump body (“a good pig to make some ham of”) – female plumpness being his personal sexual fetish – rather than by her presumed “civilizational” credentials. Interestingly, Kim’s rather physical obsession with the Japanese girl sharply contrasts with his purely platonic love for a girl of mixed Western-Japanese parentage, whom he met as a 15-year old during his first year of study in Tokyo. Red hairs and “Western” looks inspire romantic expectations, while the Japanese sexuality is described in a rather denigrating way. The inferiority complex towards the (imagined, rather than real) “West”, common to both Japanese and Korean intellectuals of the time, becomes a “weapon” of sorts in the discursive struggle against the Japanese presumptions of superiority.

In a word, ‘romance’ became a playing field for the national(ist) sentiments and ambitions, both colonialist and anti-colonial. Japanese authors, following the common Orientalist stereotypes, tended to feminize Korea as such. And even in the writings of the Japanese left-wing authors – Sata Ineko’s (1904-1998) well-known poem Korean Girls (“Chosen no shōjo”, – Roba, May 1928) – Korea depicted as a pitiful woman looks more like an object of (condescending) sympathy than a equally placed comrade in a joint struggle. In the Korean writings, by contrast, Japanese women are sometimes depicted as sexually attractive but less culturally sophisticated, or as seductress/calculating luck-hunters. As such, they threaten the existing patriarchal order in Korea; at the same time, such a portrayal works to subvert the colonialist “superiority” claims.


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