Book Review: Brokers Of Empire: Japanese Settler Colonialism In Korea, 1876–1945 by Jun Uchida

Jun Uchida, Brokers of Empire: Japanese Settler Colonialism In Korea, 1876–1945. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. 500 pp. ISBN: 978-0674492028. £22.95.

Book review by Steven Denney, PhD Candidate at University of Toronto.

Jun Uchida’s Brokers of Empire opens the discourse on a long forgotten or purposefully ignored group of individuals: Japanese colonial settlers. Uchida’s focus on Japanese colonial settlers shines light on a world until now consigned to the archives. Her historical analysis looks past the (imperial) state to the cohort of Japanese who acted as interlocutors between metropole and colony. Uchida opens within the historical discourse on Japanese imperialism a concept normally reserved for postcolonial writers and critics such as Homi K. Bhabha and Samuel Rushdie: the “liminal space.”

A liminal space is a space in-between; a grey zone where cultures, peoples, and ideas interact to create new, hybrid forms. By illuminating the liminality between metropole and colony, Uchida identifies the colonial space wherein Japanese and Korean cultures clashed and interacted to form unique composite identities and ideologies. The Japanese colonial settlers—a ragtag group of entrepreneurs, journalists, and the occasional vagabond—represented a group who were neither fully Japanese nor ethnic Korean, their collective identity falling somewhere between Tokyo and the Governor-General on one side and Koreans (both aristocrats and common person) on the other. As the bridge that connected metropole to colony, Japanese settlers are depicted by Uchida as the medium through which the interaction of culture and ideas took place.   

Uchida describes the Japanese settlers in Korea as “brokers” of the imperial mission. Through a combination of capitalist drive and Japanese nationalism, settlers sought to both advance their own cause and that of the Empire’s. More importantly though, in their capacity as interpellators of colonial/imperial subjects [instruments of the imperial/state institution(s)], the brokers of empire produced in the colonial subjects an example of the hybrid ideology, par excellence.

The confluence of traditional Korean roots with Japanese modernity produced the always-controversial “collaborator,” the ghosts and children of who haunt Korean politics today. Moreover, the hybrid ideology of the collaborator highlights the failure of doka sesaku (making Koreans like Japanese, i.e. assimilation) and isshi doujin (impartiality and equality for all)—two “official” policies of the Japanese empire towards its colonies (though, and as Uchida indicates throughout the book, invocations of these policies, by colonial authorities and influential settlers, was more political boilerplate than a reflection of genuine policy-advocacy).

The interaction between broker and colonial subject is best captured by Uchida in her retelling of the “compromise” between nationalists and doka seisaku (referred to in short as doka) supporters, the former represented by Song Chin-u and the latter by Shakuo Shunjo, both journalists writing during the colonial period. Through the medium of print journalism, one can see the emergence of an imagined (Korean) community, à la Benedict Anderson, and an answer to the question “can nationalism exist without a newspaper?”

In Chapter 4, “The Discourse on Korea and Koreans,” Uchida identifies the liminal space between the brokers’ mission to objectify the colonial other as imperial subject and the revulsion felt by many Koreans towards feelings of foreign subjugation. Though both were ardent defenders of one of two extremes [assimilation into the empire (Shunjo) or Korean national liberation (Song)], by way of an unexpected meeting and one-to-one conversation, both were able to reach, according to Uchida, some form of compromise. In other words: a colonial space was created through which pragmatic thinking could occur. Though several are identified by Uchida, one such collaborator that stands out is Korean aristocrat Pak Young-hyo.

Pak Young-ho (1861–1939) comes to the forefront at multiple points throughout the book. Appearing first in chapter four, Pak is associated with those intellectuals who view doka as both an impossible and degrading policy. Assimilation, according to Pak and his compatriots, was “‘impossible,’ given that the Korean people possessed an ‘ineffaceable ethnic consciousness…’ nurtured through 4,000 years of history” (p. 223)—a consciousness that was acutely realized in response to the imposition of an entirely different one.

Yet, this ineffaceable ethnic consciousness did not prevent figures like Pak from passing up an opportunity for profit and, in the process, pushing along a nascent industrialization in Korea. If the postcolonial-cum-deconstruction critique holds its weight here, then the colonial “liminal space” through which the settler-colonial subject “rapport” emerged can be interpreted as paving a genuine “third way.” As has been noted elsewhere by scholars like political scientist Atuhl Kholi and Korean historian Carl Eckert, this third way was largely forged by business cooperation amongst the elite—a group to which Pak certainly belonged.

The point at which Pak, a dedicated pro-West and Japanophile enlightenment thinker, distinctively enters the scene is in the chapter “Industrializing The Peninsula” (Chapter 5). This chapter describes Japanese-Korean cooperation for means of economic development and industrialization, an effort which culminated in the Industrial Commission of 1921 under the guise of Governor-General Saito’s pro-cooperation agenda.

Through Pak and other collaborators’ efforts to push for cooperative development (albeit with a “Korean centeredness” approach), they were able to foment an “uneasy partnership between Korean and Japanese businessmen” from the metropole and within the settler community. Through “cooperative capitalist development,” so-called settler lobbyist would work together with local Korean businessmen to foster what Uchida portrays as Korea’s first industrial revolution, albeit limited and executed under the gaze of the Governor-General and the imperial government in Tokyo. (pp. 223–226)

Using Pak as a key figure in her colonial history, Uchida fails to portray him as the embodiment of the ultimate contradiction (i.e. utilizing cooperation with Japanese as a means of Korean advancement). Though it is certainly implied—Uchida recounts Pak’s ascension to the Japanese House of Peers (p. 296) during the height of the Korean suffrage and self-rule movement—nowhere is it stated explicitly. In fact, much of Pak’s history goes unmentioned, such as his central role in the Kapshin rebellion and other “progressive” efforts. Given Uchida’s primary focus, that of colonial settlers, the omission was likely a conscious decision. More detailed histories of Pak were left for others to explore.