E. Taylor Atkins


On his book Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910-1945

Cover Interview of November 23, 2010

The wide angle

My first book was a sweeping history of jazz music in Japan.  I also edited a collection, entitled Jazz Planet, that attempts to “globalize” jazz historiography.

So Primitive Selves is a real departure for me.  The book required that I catch up in several fields in which I had little or no prior training: modern Korean history, historiography and theory of colonialism, history of anthropology and ethnomusicology, cultural resource management and museology, and public remembering and commemoration.  I have joked that it was like being in graduate school again, but without the time to devote to my studies (this makes overworked graduate students cringe).

Still, Primitive Selves has its origins in my fondness for some genres of Korean folk music, specifically p’ansori (solo narrative singing) and p’ungmul drumming.  I was introduced to these at a professional development institute on Korean culture and society at the East-West Center in 2000.  As a Japan specialist, I naturally wondered how the colonial government responded to Korean expressive forms, especially since so much of their content had traditionally been satirical, subversive, and critical of authority.  Undocumented, cursory references to the “suppression” of p’ansori sparked my interest further, and I ran with it.

In terms of its broader meaning, I do hope that the book will open up more dialogue between Koreans and Japanese about the colonial period—and dialogue also among the scholars who study them; dialogue less impassioned and indignant, and more reflective and nuanced.

It is striking how much nationalistic vitriol still poisons the exchanges between the two nations with regard to their shared history.  Some enraged Koreans continue to castigate Japan for virtually every woe, while haughty Japanese rightists regard the Koreans as ingrates, who don’t appreciate the “leg up” Japanese colonial development gave them to become a major industrial power.

rorotoko.com Postcard showing a Korean kisaeng and a Japanese geisha, two iconic figures rarely juxtaposed in visual media.  Reproduced in the book Kiisen: “mono iu hana” no bunkashi by Kawamura Minato (Tokyo: Sakuhinsha, 2001; plate 10).

I believe historical investigation is a moral enterprise, not in the sense that it guides us specifically what to do or not do to address quandaries we face, but rather to lay out for us problems our ancestors encountered, and what worked and did not work in their efforts to address them.

In the case of the Japan-Korea relationship, most people speculate counterfactually about whether or not Koreans could have modernized on their own, without imperial interference—from Japan or elsewhere.  This seems to me to be the wrong question; it is certainly not answerable in any persuasive way.

The problem here, for both countries, was the threat of imperial exploitation and violence from Europe and the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, which provoked Japan to embark on its own campaign of imperial posturing and intimidation.

Once colonial annexation occurred, some Koreans reacted violently—assassinating the first Resident General, engaging in guerilla warfare, and attempting even to murder the Japanese emperor.  All of these simply made Japanese tighten their grip.

The point is, then, the counter-productivity of retaliating against violence with violence—a moral dilemma we see illustrated daily in the contest between self-proclaimed jihadis and their enemies du jour.