[Review] “Uncontrollable Forces: Christina Yi’s Colonizing Language: Cultural Production and Language Politics in Modern Japan and Korea” by Ilaria Maria Sala

{Written by Ilaria Maria Sala, this review is part of Issue 42 (January 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Christina Yi, Colonizing Language: Cultural Production and Language Politics in Modern Japan and Korea, Columbia University Press, 2018. 248 pgs.

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In this study of Korean authors writing in Japanese under Japanese colonisation of the Korean peninsula, Christina Yi, assistant professor of modern Japanese Literature at the University of British Columbia, explores in depth a not widely researched topic. In so doing, she problematises the relationship between Japan and Korea, opening it up as much more complex and layered than we are used to seeing. The tendency to look at that relationship as a black and white issue is understandable: the Japanese colonisation of Korea was hardly commendable, and the scars of Japan’s military adventurism—in Korea and in other parts of East Asia—are still in plain view. As always, though, individual lives find a way to exist through political turmoil. Writers seek to express themselves, looking for the right language in which to do so. And the forced hybridity of the colonised produces unexpected linguistic wealth and possibility.

Colonizing Language: Cultural Production and Language Politics in Modern Japan and Korea helps nuance some of the most common assumptions about Korean intellectuals under Japanese political control, in Korea, Japan and further afield.

It is a fraught issue, often exploited for political expediency in Tokyo, but also in Seoul and Pyongyang. The need for a fast national narrative in a divided Korea has meant that collaboration and wartime responsibility have often been approached in highly simplified descriptions. And Japan has managed to avoid looking at itself squarely in the mirror partially thanks to the “reverse course” policy of the occupying American forces, stationed in defeated Japan from 1945 to 1952. The Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces (SCAP), General MacArthur, who was obsessed with anti-Communist containment after Mao Zedong’s victory over the Nationalists in 1949, put a rather hurried stop to the de-fascistisation of Japan. MacArthur promoted political and social reforms aimed at preventing future militarisation of Japan, but the priorities of the “reverse course” allowed the country to skip the level of soul-searching that characterised post-war Germany. By 1950, a deep economic crisis and the consolidation of the Communist victory in North Korea made the SCAP decide to suspend whatever political reckoning had been put in place and proceed with a peace treaty. The Treaty of San Francisco of 1952, signed without representatives from the two Koreas and China, established what compensation Japan should pay to those who had been victims of war crimes and attempted to close the book on Japanese imperialism. Many festering wounds remained wide open.

This brief historical summary leaves little room for complexity, but Christina Yi reminds us that “Japanese-language literature by Korean writers both emerged out of and stood in opposition to discourses of national language, literature and identity. She looks at both the Korean writers in Korea who worked in Japanese and at the literature produced by those referred to as zainichi—Korean residents of Japan—both during and after the occupation.

The works analysed, written mostly in the 1930s up to the 1950s, by authors whose very decision to work as writers when the only language openly available to them was Japanese, show how colonialism unleashes forces it cannot control. In spite of what Japanese colonial ideology was decreeing, the boundaries between language, nationality, identity and subjectivity became blurred—in a manner that couldn’t be orchestrated exclusively by the Japanese authorities, but, also partially at least, by colonial subjects too.

The writers discussed are diverse: there were those like Chang Hyokchu, who would write left-wing critiques of both capitalism and empire for Japanese left-wing magazines. For Chang’s Japanese readers, though, who appreciated his novellas like the award-winning Hell of Hungry Spirits, the priority was opposing capitalism as the source of all evil, and not racist discrimination against Koreans. Just like feminist writers all over the world would discover, Communist intellectuals—whether Japanese, Chinese or Russian—saw class struggle as the paramount issue that would magically solve everything else.

Yi Kwangsu, author of The Unenlightened and Record, or Kim Saryang, who wrote Pegasus, could even become a commodity for Japanese publishers: “The value of Koreans (…) was their universalisation as consumers of Japanese literature as well as their simultaneous particularisation (and commodification) as producers of Japanese language literature.”

These were authors seduced (or pretending to be seduced) by the promise of equality between Japanese and Koreans under Japanese rule, left to explore the many layers of hypocrisy of all colonial projects: “in its challenge to the West, kokumin bungaku (national literature comprising writing from the colonies) depended upon the inclusion of colonial writers, but in doing so it also denied them an autonomy outside the domain of the Japanese language.” Japanese was imagining itself as a world language and in so doing lost control over what people wrote through it. However, things changed after 1941 when general Hideki Tojo took power and imposed much stricter levels of censorship on everything printed in Japanese in both Korea and in Japan.

Japan’s claim of wanting to spread progress and development were inextricability linked to the language, called at this point kokugo, “national language,” and not nihongo, “Japanese.” This definition encompassed also those Korean and Taiwanese absorbed into the empire and given the ambiguous status of “citizens” (even if overtly second-class ones) for as long as the fiction of a shared citizenry lasted. This has interesting parallels with the use of guoyu, putonghua and hanyu: all words that mean Mandarin Chinese, more literally translated as “national language,” “common language” and “language of the Han.” A political project is implicit in all these definitions, whether openly acknowledged or not.

If publishing in Japanese was the only choice, it allowed scant space for constructive criticism: in Korean, it would have meant certain incarceration. In Japanese, it could be accepted (within limits) as an attempt at being a “useful colonial subject.”

The question didn’t end with the war, as Yi’s discussion of zainichi writers who remained in Japan shows. Going back to Korea wasn’t always possible: some zainichi were born in Japan, others were from what had become North Korea. They stayed on—familiar strangers with whom Japan still had a complicated relationship. Among these authors, the most famous is doubtlessly Lee Hoe Sung, awarded the Akutagawa Prize (Japan’s main literary prize) in 1972 for The Cloth Fuller.

Colonizing Language is fascinating: it dwells in detail on this complicated play between language, ethnicity and political domination. While it offers an excellent analysis of Korean writing in the Japanese language, it also allows room to reflect on how other colonial languages—English, French, Spanish or Mandarin—affect and are affected by the (former) colonial subjects still using them.

At the end of Yi’s work, I thought of a conversation I had in Dakar with Ndiaye Tabara Korka, a young essay writer who uses French. “We paid very dear for this language. We should keep using it. Wolof is understood by less than half of all Senegalese,” she told me. This speaks to the problematic issue of the relationship people may chose to have with a language, and a culture, they elect as part of them, even if it came on the back of a conquering army. It is a hybrid relationship lasting for longer than colonialism itself.

Yi’s very words for this hybridity and linguistic appropriation of a formerly imposed language expresses it clearly: “Examining the continuities of colonialism not only helps us to reevaluate the position of Koreans in Japan; it also foregrounds the mutually constitutive relationship between Koreans and Japan—whatever and wherever ‘Japan’ may be.”



Ilaria Maria Sala is an award-winning journalist and writer. She has been living in East Asia since 1988, and calls Hong Kong home. Sala has written for a number of international publications, from Le Monde to The New York Times. She is currently a columnist for Hong Kong Free Press, and writes regularly for Quartz. She is the author of two books in Italian, and is on the Executive Committee of PEN Hong Kong.


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