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  • Writer's pictureRKPROST

Modernized Colonist

As a result of Japan’s modernization efforts, it was inevitable the country would become a colonizer. Japan’s rule over Korea fits the view of the colonial experience as a state of industrialization and forward momentum. This perspective focuses on pre-World War II, the second phase of Japanese colonialism because it highlights the certain degree of freedoms they granted to the Koreans. Acculturation of Western ideas, economic development, and higher learning opportunities within Japan required expansion abroad, therefore constituting Japan’s inevitable role as a colonizer. The Japanese equated modernity with Western values.

As Japan strived to be taken seriously in the international arena, they blended their mindset, social structure, and cultural values with those of the West. For example, “To use Western technology, it was more efficient to wear Western-style clothes.”[1] Furthermore, the alteration in appearance may gain “the respect of foreigners who flaunted their cultural superiority.”[2] The Japanese underwent acculturation to modify their lifestyle based on the Western model. Additionally, “By selectively adapting Western foods, Japanese people developed a much more varied diet…[and] made people stronger and healthier.”[3] Not only did they change their clothing style, eating habits, and technological innovation, but also the societal roles of women. The Japanese women observed the Western countries granting their women the right to vote, so they “convinced some politicians and bureaucrats that political rights for women were a mark of an advanced society.”[4] Japan noticed they needed to catch up with the West to be seen as equal to other empires, so they changed themselves. As a result, they grew powerful, and expanded, conquered, and changed the culture of their new colony.

Japan adopted and modified the Western ideas they borrowed and pushed this adapted version onto their colonialists. For instance, “Entrepreneurs and artisans developed intermediate technologies that adapted Western machines to Japanese circumstances.”[5] They also altered their mindset to value “the importance of entrepreneurship and achievement,” which Japan observed as a high priority in the Western social culture.[6] Industrialization and economic expansion was the event catalyst, which prompted the Japanese government toward power and success through colonialism. They perceived Korea as “a weak, backward nation,” so they tried to weave their modernized Japanese culture into their lives.[7] Not only did Japan aim to elevate themselves comparable to Western standards, but to be better colonizers than them. They accomplished this through economic expansion and educational opportunities.

Japan modernized and expanded their economy to maximize their profits. To do so they needed to acquire more resources, so “Japan took an economic interest in Korea to obtain raw materials and markets for its exports.”[8] Because of their drive for modernization in conjunction with economic development, they became a colonizer. Korea provided an increase in labor, better control over the market, and natural resources to manufacture goods. Japan intended to economically exploit their colony, but they needed to invest in the advancement of Korea to do so. For example, “They built telegraph lines and railroads to improve communications and foster unity.”[9] Although Japan profited from Korea, they also industrialized the country to accomplish work more efficiently. Koreans utilized the newly created railroad trunk line and hydroelectric power plants not only to support Japan’s war effort but also for Korean industry.

Koreans “owned about a fifth of metal, machine, tools, and chemical plants…” Because of the improved welfare, a new Korean middle class formed and companies began to hire women workers. For instance, “Rubber factories outnumbered the Japanese thirty to seventeen.” Although many Korean companies sprouted and sometimes outnumbered Japanese ones, they still relied on Japanese assistance to expand or split their market with those companies. This “opened the eyes of some Koreans to economic development without liberal democracy.” However, Korea depended on their colonial master. The success of small companies “could not have prospered or survived unless they cooperated with Japan.” Due to the increased number of businesses, new technology, and complex processes, Japan needed more educated laborers to operate the economy.

Japan aimed to reform and improve the Western colonialist tactic to deny education. They strived to do better than Western’s colonialism, so they did the complete opposite of the Western model in that aspect. However, they formed their education system after Western-style schooling and subjects. Japan increased the number of public, private, and higher education opportunities. They invested in mass education for their colonists to “prepare citizens to serve the nation” and “train citizens in civic virtue.”[10] The reformed education system gradually transformed Koreans into “loyal Japanese subjects equipped for modern but humble life and work.”[11] They simultaneously created a group of elite, highly educated colonists and “were never afraid to educate the lower orders” as well.[12] Additionally, education increased Korean obedience and made it easier to communicate orders or policies.

The empire attempted to accomplish their goal of devotion to Japan through integration and assimilation within the education curriculum. The 1929 reform required government-general textbooks and mandatory classes to teach “Japanese ethics and loyalty to the emperor.”[13] While schools offered a variety of subjects, which included “music, physical education, vocational studies,” and domestic housework for girls, the teachers urged “the Japanese spirit” in all their lessons.[14] Although the empire granted Japanese education to their colonial subjects, they were careful about how much to provide them with. Too much knowledge may empower the Koreans and “provoke nationalistic inclinations.”[15] Japan strengthened the Koreans economically and socially, but within the colonial experience comes revolt.

Japan’s modernization efforts not only made themselves powerful but also their colonists. Korea flourished due to Japan’s “models for successful enterprises,” changes in societal norms, and educational advancement.[16] With the colony’s newfound strength and “awareness of the long history of Korea’s subordination,” their rebellion furthered defined Japan as a colonizer.[17] However, Korea would not have been able to instigate their dissatisfaction toward the colonial experience without Japan’s desire for expansion. This motivation for colonization abroad came from acculturation of Western ideas and their drive for economic development through the prioritization of higher learning opportunities.


[1] Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Anne Walthall, and James B. Palais, East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 357.

[2] Ibid., 358.

[3] Ibid., 348.

[4] Ibid., 388.

[5] Ibid., 356.

[6] Ibid., 357.

[7] Ibid., 360.

[8] Ibid., 407.

[9] Ibid., 351.

[10] Ibid., 359.

[11] Patricia E. Tsurumi, “Colonial Education in Korea and Taiwan,” in The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia: A New History, ed. Ramon Hawley Myers, Mark R. Peattie, and Ching-chih Chen (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), 294.

[12] Ebrey, 275.

[13] Ibid., 298.

[14] Ibid., 300.

[15] Ebrey, 303.

[16] Ibid., 414.

[17] Ibid., 409.

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