Korean-Japanese Marriages in 1920s-40s Korean Prose

Wed, October 30, 2013 | Meyerson Conference Room, WCH 4.118

3:00 PM - 5:00 PM


As is well known, the administrative control over the sexual “mixing” of the colonizers and colonized always constituted an important element in the European colonial policies in Asia. Such “mixing” tended to produce the Eurasian groups, and they were notoriously difficult to neatly place in the rigid system of the race-based hierarchies on which the colonial rule was based. By the late nineteenth- early twentieth century, in British India, Dutch Indonesia and French Vietnam, the “mixing” of the Europeans and “natives” thus came to be perceived as a “problem”; some of its forms, such as concubinage, were often condemned on “moral” and social grounds.

In Korea, colonized by Japanese in 1910, the situation was somewhat different. Not unlike the European colonies in Asia, the administration of the colonial Korea was predicated on the ethno-racial hierarchy in the relationship between “natives” and Japanese settlers (naichijin – literally, “people from the inland”). However, in the perspective the Koreans were supposed to be assimilated into the ranks of full-blown “Imperial subjects”, and intermarriage, seen as a strong assimilation tool, was seen by the colonial administrators in a positive light. The offspring of such marriages, rather than pose a classification “problem”, was believed to hopefully possess the sense of “Imperial” loyalty and fluency in Japanese the majority of Koreans expectably lacked. At the same time, mainly due to the brevity of the Japanese colonial period compared to the colonial rule by the Western powers in India, Indonesia or even Vietnam, there was nothing in colonial-time Korea comparable to the Eurasian metis groups of the European colonies. And since the mixed-race people never could constitute a separate group with its own identity, they usually had to undergo a painful process of self-identification, defining their main reference group of belonging, but at the same time choosing their own strategies for coping with their status as either “half-Koreans” or “half-Japanese”. This process is masterfully described in some of the novels I am going to speak on.

The renewed emphasis was placed on the Korean-Japanese marriages in the end of the 1930s, as Korea’s resources were to be fully used in the all-out war-time mobilization. On November 10, 1939, the registration procedure for such marriages was decisively simplified, and “encouraging” mixed marriages was added to Government General’s policy priorities. The figures for mixed marriages soon soared. There were only 1206 cases of Korean-Japanese mixed marriages in 1920-1937, but already 1005 cases in 1939 and 1416 cases in 1941. By the end of 1941, 5747 mixed couples resided in Korea only; significant number of such marriages, not reflected in the colonial statistics, also took place in Japan proper.

On the Japanese side, the expectation was that “blood ties” between the two ethnic groups would bring a “union of emotions” between them dispelling the anti-colonial nationalist sentiments of the colonized and curbing down the anti-Korean colonial racism of the Japanese settlers. Ideally, ethnic discrimination had no place in the relationship between the fellow “Imperial subjects”. The literary works by the Korean authors dealing with the issues of mixed Korean-Japanese marriage and mixed offspring, which I will analyze in this presentation, show, however, that the reality was distinctively different. Ethnic discrimination often overlapped with the patterns of class-based exclusion and was complexly entangled with the patriarchal customs and legal practices. We will also see that it was sometimes the anti-systemic, “subversive” ideology and practice, rather than “blood ties” per se that could bring the Japanese and Koreans together, to experience solidarity in the ways the colonial administrators certainly would not approve of.   

Kim Saryang’s (1914-1950) famed novel Hikari no naka ni (Into the Light, 1939), nominated in 1940 for the prestigious Akutagawa prize, features two main protagonists: the narrator, a Tokyo-based Korean student of a “Imperial” university who is able and willing to “pass” as Japanese but feels increasingly uncomfortable about his “cowardly” reluctance to acknowledge his ethnic identity, and a mixed-blood child, Yamada Haruo, who is obviously being discriminated and rejected by the other students of the night school where the narrator teaches. Whereas it initially looks that the discrimination grows out of Haruo’s economic inferiority marked by his customary “dirty appearance”, it gradually emerges that the child’s manifold social complexes are also related to his mixed parentage – his formally “Japanese” father too being in reality of mixed Japanese-Korean origins. Haruo father’s violent attitude towards child’s Korean mother indicates the omnipresence of the violence in the relationship between the colonizers and colonized; at the same time, it brings back the Orientalist stereotype of a “weak”, victimized, feminized Oriental. In the end, both the narrator and Haruo find the strength to overcome the “hypocrisy” and admit the fact of being ethnically different. Unlike his father, Haruo chooses to come out into the open (“light”) as a “Japanese of partly Korean descent”; in full knowledge of inherently problematic nature of such a self-identification. While Kim Saryang was not free to fully express it, the idea of “blood ties” between the colonizers and their victims leading to inter-ethnic “harmony” and eventually assimilation seem to belong exactly to the spectrum of “hypocrisy” the narrator painfully acknowledges. Mixed marriage is represented in the novel as reproducing, rather than sublating, the violent structures of the colonial domination.

Ethno-racial discrimination is, however, not the only kind of violence the novels featuring the mixed Korean-Japanese protagonists are dealing with. In Yŏm Sangsŏp’s (1897-1963) novel, Nam Ch’ungsŏ (1927), the protagonist’s Japanese mother, Misao, is unable to secure a stable position in the household of protagonist’s rich Korean father, basically remaining a concubine. In the end, she has to leave Nam Ch’ungsŏ father’s household upon divorce compensation payment; Nam, in the meantime, is being pushed by his father into an arranged marriage with a Korean bride from a family of similar standing, instead of the Japanese girl Misao hopes for. The iron rules of the traditional patriarchal family, combined with the hierarchies of money and status, override the assimilation rhetoric of the mixed marriages: Misao remains alien to Nam Ch’ungsŏ father’s household members, both as Japanese and as a woman from a poorer family. At the same time, the protagonist himself tries to ground his individual identity in the universalist logic of the radical ideas rather than the belief in the equality of the “Imperial subjects”. In the end, he has to acknowledge his failure but he submits himself to the authority of the Korean “blood” and tradition rather than the official colonialist ideology. He chooses the self-positioning of a “Korean with Japanese blood”, while expecting the logic of progress to triumph over the ethno-national particularity at some point.

In the novels by Kim and Yŏm described above, the mixed marriages are ridden with contradictions. Other novels – notably Han Sŏrya’s (1900-1976) Chi (Blood) – describe the physical relationship with the Japanese women as essentially out of reach for the Korean men. In the end, the portrayal of the mixed courtship and marriage in the late colonial Korean prose belies the self-contradictory nature of the official assimilation narrative – in the colonial world, with its rigid and overlapping hierarchies of ethnos, status, class and gender, mixed marriages tended to lay bare the existing inequalities and conflicts rather than to assuage the mutual antagonisms in the name of the “Imperial” ideology. All the rhetoric of assimilation notwithstanding, the ethno-racial groups remained the primary sites of – often essentialized – belonging, critical for forming one’s primary identity. All the “hybridity” of the colonial culture notwithstanding, Koreans and Japanese as coherent ethno-national groups remained worlds apart. Ironically enough, it were the radical anti-systemic ideas that could in some cases bring the colonizers and colonized together across the ethnic boundaries. 


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