E. Taylor Atkins


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

Cover Interview of November 24, 2010

A close-up

The first chapter, “A Long Engagement,” provides a narrative overview of the Japan-Korea relationship until the end of World War II.

I could have relied exclusively on secondary works by other historians who have written immense amounts about this period of history.  However, I supplemented such work with contemporary reports from the U.S. and Japanese media, to inch somewhat closer in time to the action.

Such sources are not without their own problems, of course.  One easily detects racism and outright contempt in them.  Nonetheless, in these reports I found so much more texture and color, more impassioned opinions and poignant quotations than any historical narrative provided.  This reinforced for me the power of using primary sources as proximate to the events and people as one is able to obtain.  The result is a substantially different narrative of colonial Korean history than one is likely to find elsewhere.

Moreover, I reassess the meanings of the slogan “cultural rule” (bunka seiji), used by the Japanese to characterize a shift in colonial policy after the 1919 national uprisings in Korea.  I also argue that the desire to document and curate Koreana was an imperative throughout the colonial period, rather than an ephemeral, unsustained project of the purportedly “liberal” 1920s.

Some readers might enjoy chapter 4 the most: this recounts how Korean folk music and dance became mass cultural products in 1930s Japan, around the same time that pressures to assimilate Koreans to Japanese culture intensified.