The Japanese who fought for Korea's freedom

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The Japanese who fought for Korea's freedom

Soestu believed that the shape and texture of Korean pottery and even earthenware reflected Korea's inner strength and beauty. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

By Amanda Price

As the ever-changing tension between Japan and South Korea tugs and pulls at opinions, there is a victim that few pay any attention to. That victim is history.

In Japan's re-telling of the colonial and war years, history's gray areas have often been smudged, if not completely erased. Sanitized and made palatable for Japanese sensitivities, this less-offensive history minimized facts and maximized perceptions. Despite changes, Japanese history remains incomplete.

It is little wonder that so many young Japanese express remorse for their country's past actions but cannot clearly articulate what those actions were.

In contrast, South Korean history has largely become about absolutes. The black and white narrative that runs through discourses is that the Japanese were "evil colonizers" and the South Koreans the "powerless but impassioned victims."

Of course, there is truth in this absolute, but that does not make the absolute entirely true.

When history is remembered as either black or white or with watered down grays, truths are forgotten, stories fade and those at the center of them all but disappear.

In those disappearances we not only lose parts of history, but parts of ourselves.

Hidden among the lost pages of history are the Japanese who fought for Korean independence.

It is hard to lay blame on the Korean educational system for these untold stories as the colonial Japanese government worked tirelessly to censor or simply silence these protests.

The Japanese government, however, has no such excuse.

Despite Korea's present lack of knowledge, these protests were known by Korean academics and the media during the colonial period. As the need to overcome the invaders grew, however, information referring to Japanese resistance appeared irrelevant, if not counter-productive.

Some anti-Japanese freedom fighters also found it hard to accept that any Japanese citizen could be on their side, let alone actively fight for their independence.

Since the 1950s, the journals, essays and news articles testifying to their efforts have been available for all to read. With the translation and digitization of historical records, they are now easily accessed by anyone who cares to look.

What these records reveal is that, during the colonial era, a notable minority of Japanese citizens, predominantly academics and other critical thinkers, vehemently opposed their own government's policies and actions, fighting in whatever capacity they could for Korean independence.

As Japanese soldiers carried alarming amounts of ammunition through The Independence Gates, Japanese dissents called Japan's colonial front "the mask of a ruthless regime." Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

As early as the late 19th century, the Japanese government's expansionist ideologies drew sharp criticism from liberal Japanese leaders. Despite these criticisms coming from a small sector of society, they would sow the first seeds of opposition.

The first voices of dissent arose from those who believed that Japan had a responsibility to pass on the advancements that she had made, but to do so through alliances built on trust, not assimilation based on Japanese supremacy.

The most vocal of these dissenters were those who objected to colonialization on moral grounds. These protests were based on principles of justice and equality. Moral dissenters included Christian groups and pacifists who saw enforced colonialism as an assault on human dignity and individualism.

These critics remained on the fringe, however, until 1910, when those with more influence were added to their number.

The following individuals are but a selection of those who campaigned for Korean independence.

Among prominent protesters was Yoshino Sakuzo (1878-1933), a professor of political science at Tokyo Imperial University. Yoshino's transformation was gradual and came from time spent listening to Korean students. Yoshino warmly invited Koreans to his classes, seminars and to his home, where young Koreans were encouraged to articulate the cause for independence.

Having been affected by these students, Yoshino invited them to "the Dawn Society" (Reimeikai) meetings for academics and liberal thinkers such as Professor Fukuda Tokuzo. At these meetings Korean students found allies and supporters for Korea's independence.

But as the news of increasing Japanese brutality reached the island of Japan, the Japanese government and wider media shrouded events in silence. Sakuzo and other academics faced dense political walls as they sought to make these events known to the public.

Protesters, however, inspired new critical thinkers, who in turn became protesters. Though their voices would not prevail against the shouts of the military, they continued to speak.

Yanagi Soestu (1989-1961), a well-known artist and philosopher, became aware of the colonial condition through visits to Korea and friendships with Koreans. Soestu decried not only Japan's inhuman treatment of Koreans, but also their attempts to destroy Korea's rich and unique cultural heritage.

Soestu wrote: "If this is what is known as the way of 'assimilation,' it is terrifying."

When the colonial rulers attempted to destroy the Kwanghwa Gate at Kyonbok Palace, Soestu was outraged on behalf of Koreans. Determined to change the minds of Japanese bureaucrats, he published a compelling essay in which the destruction of the wall symbolized the suffering of Korean citizens.

His impassioned protest achieved a measure of success. Though oppressive imperial decisions were still imposed, the gate was dismantled and rebuilt rather than destroyed.

Soestu repeatedly spoke of the kinship and affinity he felt with the citizens of Korea, who he viewed as brothers, equal in every sense. Breaking with common consensus, he believed that Japan was neither inferior to America in the West, nor superior to Korea in the East.

Following in this vein was Yanaihara?Tadao, the youngest professor to become Chair of Colonial Studies at Tokyo Imperial University. Tadao publicly and repeatedly condemned Japan's occupation of Korea as a "despotic regime."

But Tadao was far from alone. Records and journals have revealed that the majority of academics in the field of colonial studies held similar opinions, and these opinions were passed on to their students.

Tadao was motivated by a strong sense of justice. He asserted that though Korean protesters in the March 1st Movement were horrifically slaughtered, the Korean people were still the victors, having won a war of conscience.
The Japanese Imperialist Government was like an unmoveable mountain, but Japanese who were led by their conscience chose to fight against it regardless. Unsplash

Because of Tadao's overtly hostile stance toward the government and the military, he was placed under a professional ban and dismissed from the university.

When the massacres at Kanto began, academics from imperial universities publicly condemned the government and the police for their role, even writing to inform as many as possible that the pogroms had been incited by officials. Their protests reached cabinet members who then demanded an end to the violence.

Despite the government's attempts to distance itself from the horrific mass murders, claiming they had sent in police, Japanese activists responded, accusing the police of having committed "repugnant" crimes.

A Japanese student paper wrote an article condemning the massacres, mournfully concluding, "try as we may, we can never erase what happened."

Though academics led the fray in arguing for Korea's independence, they were not the only ones outraged by their government's actions.

Ishibashi Tanzan, the accomplished editor-in-chief of Japan's Far Eastern Economic Review, used his position as a one of Japan's foremost journalists and economic analysts to attack the government's "absurd" expansionist and colonizing ideology. He accused the government, which bizarrely consulted him on economic policy, of behaving with marauder-like aggression toward Korea and China.

Tanzan argued that Japan had no right to lay claim to Korea and that Korean resistance was the "natural" response to a Japanese regime.

"The Korean people are one people," he wrote. "They have their own language. They have a long independent history. Some may find it regrettable, but there is not one single Korean who is glad that his country has been annexed by Japan. Until Koreans finally regain their independence they will naturally and repeatedly resist Japanese rule."

Tanzan's influence was considerable as he presented a dual argument that Korea's emancipation would not only be morally right, it would help Japan. Rather than being continually censored, Tanzan was able to pragmatically confront issues by offering solutions that came with benefits. Under the guise of economics, Tanzan's protests reached the elite in government.

As mentioned earlier, though protests most often came from Japan's intellectual elite, they were never able to drown out the demands of those who justified their oppression with repressive expansionist policies.

Some may say that their efforts were for naught, but the very existence of Japanese dissenters and protesters changes the way in which colonial history should be read.

While the Imperial Japnese Government "assimilated with the sword", academics protested with their pens. Many of the atrocities perpetrated against Korean citizens would have been unknown to the wider world if not for these men. Unsplash

Small as this thread of protest was in comparison to the imperial majority, it nevertheless ran through Japanese society both before and after the colonial era. As a testament to its strength, the thread was never broken but rather strengthened as others picked up the slack.

The Japanese who fought for Korea's independence were not shot or tortured as Koreans were, but some were detained and imprisoned, many lost their jobs or were followed by secret police. Others were discredited and labeled as "dangerous people".

Still others saw the logic in maintaining friendships with influential members of the Japanese administration. A strategy that proved effective in many ways.

If there is a consistent criticism, it is that these protesters did not do enough. Considering the suffering and the carnage of the colonial years, this is understandable. It is true to say that many Japanese protesters felt the same way.

But as one dissenting journalist wrote: "The Korean people will likely never know how many of us oppose our government, as when we speak we are quickly silenced."

Criticism has also been leveled at individuals who did not directly condemn colonialism. But it must be remembered that this was an age in which anti-colonial movements had not yet gained traction.

Few, if any, Western colonizing nations were apologizing for their actions and few were the voices of Western critics.

It would not be until after World War II that anti-colonial movements would gain full momentum and these movements would largely come from within the colonies, not from the colonizing countries.

In this sense, the Japanese who protested their own government's colonial injustices and argued for Korea's independence were slightly ahead of their times.

It would be unthinkably cruel to say that things could have been worse but for the presence of these dissidents and protesters. It is unlikely that anyone would be able to calculate the impact they had on Korea's situation.

Their legacy, however, was not their achievements in swaying opinion or curtailing government action, but rather in dispelling the belief that Korea was utterly alone and undefended as it fought for independence.

A wise person once shared this thought with me: "In your lifetime you will never know how many people protected you, defended you or made a stand on your behalf, because people who do such things rarely wait around to be thanked".

Perhaps this is true of these men. Perhaps if they had demanded recognition and gratitude they would have made their way into the pages of history.

Hopefully, despite present tensions and accusations, their names may find their way into both Japanese and Korean history books.

We may not be able to thank them, but we can at least remember them.


Amanda Price is the former Director of Hillcrest College's International Student Department. She has a background in science, history and literature and has been consulting on Asian affairs for more than 10 years. Her special interest is world history and she is the founder of Griffith University's History Readers. She writes full time and can be reached at amanda-price@bigpond.com


Soestu believed that the shape and texture of Korean pottery and even earthenware reflected Korea's inner strength and beauty. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

By Amanda Price

As the ever-changing tension between Japan and South Korea tugs and pulls at opinions, there is a victim that few pay any attention to. That victim is history.

In Japan's re-telling of the colonial and war years, history's gray areas have often been smudged, if not completely erased. Sanitized and made palatable for Japanese sensitivities, this less-offensive history minimized facts and maximized perceptions. Despite changes, Japanese history remains incomplete.

It is little wonder that so many young Japanese express remorse for their country's past actions but cannot clearly articulate what those actions were.

In contrast, South Korean history has largely become about absolutes. The black and white narrative that runs through discourses is that the Japanese were "evil colonizers" and the South Koreans the "powerless but impassioned victims."

Of course, there is truth in this absolute, but that does not make the absolute entirely true.

When history is remembered as either black or white or with watered down grays, truths are forgotten, stories fade and those at the center of them all but disappear.

In those disappearances we not only lose parts of history, but parts of ourselves.

Hidden among the lost pages of history are the Japanese who fought for Korean independence.

It is hard to lay blame on the Korean educational system for these untold stories as the colonial Japanese government worked tirelessly to censor or simply silence these protests.

The Japanese government, however, has no such excuse.

Despite Korea's present lack of knowledge, these protests were known by Korean academics and the media during the colonial period. As the need to overcome the invaders grew, however, information referring to Japanese resistance appeared irrelevant, if not counter-productive.

Some anti-Japanese freedom fighters also found it hard to accept that any Japanese citizen could be on their side, let alone actively fight for their independence.

Since the 1950s, the journals, essays and news articles testifying to their efforts have been available for all to read. With the translation and digitization of historical records, they are now easily accessed by anyone who cares to look.

What these records reveal is that, during the colonial era, a notable minority of Japanese citizens, predominantly academics and other critical thinkers, vehemently opposed their own government's policies and actions, fighting in whatever capacity they could for Korean independence.

As Japanese soldiers carried alarming amounts of ammunition through The Independence Gates, Japanese dissents called Japan's colonial front "the mask of a ruthless regime." Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

As early as the late 19th century, the Japanese government's expansionist ideologies drew sharp criticism from liberal Japanese leaders. Despite these criticisms coming from a small sector of society, they would sow the first seeds of opposition.

The first voices of dissent arose from those who believed that Japan had a responsibility to pass on the advancements that she had made, but to do so through alliances built on trust, not assimilation based on Japanese supremacy.

The most vocal of these dissenters were those who objected to colonialization on moral grounds. These protests were based on principles of justice and equality. Moral dissenters included Christian groups and pacifists who saw enforced colonialism as an assault on human dignity and individualism.

These critics remained on the fringe, however, until 1910, when those with more influence were added to their number.

The following individuals are but a selection of those who campaigned for Korean independence.

Among prominent protesters was Yoshino Sakuzo (1878-1933), a professor of political science at Tokyo Imperial University. Yoshino's transformation was gradual and came from time spent listening to Korean students. Yoshino warmly invited Koreans to his classes, seminars and to his home, where young Koreans were encouraged to articulate the cause for independence.

Having been affected by these students, Yoshino invited them to "the Dawn Society" (Reimeikai) meetings for academics and liberal thinkers such as Professor Fukuda Tokuzo. At these meetings Korean students found allies and supporters for Korea's independence.

But as the news of increasing Japanese brutality reached the island of Japan, the Japanese government and wider media shrouded events in silence. Sakuzo and other academics faced dense political walls as they sought to make these events known to the public.

Protesters, however, inspired new critical thinkers, who in turn became protesters. Though their voices would not prevail against the shouts of the military, they continued to speak.

Yanagi Soestu (1989-1961), a well-known artist and philosopher, became aware of the colonial condition through visits to Korea and friendships with Koreans. Soestu decried not only Japan's inhuman treatment of Koreans, but also their attempts to destroy Korea's rich and unique cultural heritage.

Soestu wrote: "If this is what is known as the way of 'assimilation,' it is terrifying."

When the colonial rulers attempted to destroy the Kwanghwa Gate at Kyonbok Palace, Soestu was outraged on behalf of Koreans. Determined to change the minds of Japanese bureaucrats, he published a compelling essay in which the destruction of the wall symbolized the suffering of Korean citizens.

His impassioned protest achieved a measure of success. Though oppressive imperial decisions were still imposed, the gate was dismantled and rebuilt rather than destroyed.

Soestu repeatedly spoke of the kinship and affinity he felt with the citizens of Korea, who he viewed as brothers, equal in every sense. Breaking with common consensus, he believed that Japan was neither inferior to America in the West, nor superior to Korea in the East.

Following in this vein was Yanaihara?Tadao, the youngest professor to become Chair of Colonial Studies at Tokyo Imperial University. Tadao publicly and repeatedly condemned Japan's occupation of Korea as a "despotic regime."

But Tadao was far from alone. Records and journals have revealed that the majority of academics in the field of colonial studies held similar opinions, and these opinions were passed on to their students.

Tadao was motivated by a strong sense of justice. He asserted that though Korean protesters in the March 1st Movement were horrifically slaughtered, the Korean people were still the victors, having won a war of conscience.
The Japanese Imperialist Government was like an unmoveable mountain, but Japanese who were led by their conscience chose to fight against it regardless. Unsplash

Because of Tadao's overtly hostile stance toward the government and the military, he was placed under a professional ban and dismissed from the university.

When the massacres at Kanto began, academics from imperial universities publicly condemned the government and the police for their role, even writing to inform as many as possible that the pogroms had been incited by officials. Their protests reached cabinet members who then demanded an end to the violence.

Despite the government's attempts to distance itself from the horrific mass murders, claiming they had sent in police, Japanese activists responded, accusing the police of having committed "repugnant" crimes.

A Japanese student paper wrote an article condemning the massacres, mournfully concluding, "try as we may, we can never erase what happened."

Though academics led the fray in arguing for Korea's independence, they were not the only ones outraged by their government's actions.

Ishibashi Tanzan, the accomplished editor-in-chief of Japan's Far Eastern Economic Review, used his position as a one of Japan's foremost journalists and economic analysts to attack the government's "absurd" expansionist and colonizing ideology. He accused the government, which bizarrely consulted him on economic policy, of behaving with marauder-like aggression toward Korea and China.

Tanzan argued that Japan had no right to lay claim to Korea and that Korean resistance was the "natural" response to a Japanese regime.

"The Korean people are one people," he wrote. "They have their own language. They have a long independent history. Some may find it regrettable, but there is not one single Korean who is glad that his country has been annexed by Japan. Until Koreans finally regain their independence they will naturally and repeatedly resist Japanese rule."

Tanzan's influence was considerable as he presented a dual argument that Korea's emancipation would not only be morally right, it would help Japan. Rather than being continually censored, Tanzan was able to pragmatically confront issues by offering solutions that came with benefits. Under the guise of economics, Tanzan's protests reached the elite in government.

As mentioned earlier, though protests most often came from Japan's intellectual elite, they were never able to drown out the demands of those who justified their oppression with repressive expansionist policies.

Some may say that their efforts were for naught, but the very existence of Japanese dissenters and protesters changes the way in which colonial history should be read.

While the Imperial Japnese Government "assimilated with the sword", academics protested with their pens. Many of the atrocities perpetrated against Korean citizens would have been unknown to the wider world if not for these men. Unsplash

Small as this thread of protest was in comparison to the imperial majority, it nevertheless ran through Japanese society both before and after the colonial era. As a testament to its strength, the thread was never broken but rather strengthened as others picked up the slack.

The Japanese who fought for Korea's independence were not shot or tortured as Koreans were, but some were detained and imprisoned, many lost their jobs or were followed by secret police. Others were discredited and labeled as "dangerous people".

Still others saw the logic in maintaining friendships with influential members of the Japanese administration. A strategy that proved effective in many ways.

If there is a consistent criticism, it is that these protesters did not do enough. Considering the suffering and the carnage of the colonial years, this is understandable. It is true to say that many Japanese protesters felt the same way.

But as one dissenting journalist wrote: "The Korean people will likely never know how many of us oppose our government, as when we speak we are quickly silenced."

Criticism has also been leveled at individuals who did not directly condemn colonialism. But it must be remembered that this was an age in which anti-colonial movements had not yet gained traction.

Few, if any, Western colonizing nations were apologizing for their actions and few were the voices of Western critics.

It would not be until after World War II that anti-colonial movements would gain full momentum and these movements would largely come from within the colonies, not from the colonizing countries.

In this sense, the Japanese who protested their own government's colonial injustices and argued for Korea's independence were slightly ahead of their times.

It would be unthinkably cruel to say that things could have been worse but for the presence of these dissidents and protesters. It is unlikely that anyone would be able to calculate the impact they had on Korea's situation.

Their legacy, however, was not their achievements in swaying opinion or curtailing government action, but rather in dispelling the belief that Korea was utterly alone and undefended as it fought for independence.

A wise person once shared this thought with me: "In your lifetime you will never know how many people protected you, defended you or made a stand on your behalf, because people who do such things rarely wait around to be thanked".

Perhaps this is true of these men. Perhaps if they had demanded recognition and gratitude they would have made their way into the pages of history.

Hopefully, despite present tensions and accusations, their names may find their way into both Japanese and Korean history books.

We may not be able to thank them, but we can at least remember them.


Amanda Price is the former Director of Hillcrest College's International Student Department. She has a background in science, history and literature and has been consulting on Asian affairs for more than 10 years. Her special interest is world history and she is the founder of Griffith University's History Readers. She writes full time and can be reached at amanda-price@bigpond.com


Amanda amanda-price@bigpond.com


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