Dilemma in Teaching Japanese Colonialism with a Postnational Approach

In schools, Korean modern development has been taught with the theories of Korean internal development and Japanese colonial disruption and exploitation. Korean history transfused with these theories has formed an anti-colonial, Korean subjective identity. High school students learn the ideological implication of the Japanese colonialist theories of heteronomy and stagnation and Korean nationalist scholars’ refutation of those theories in the colonial period. However, in the 2000s and the 2010s, the postnational, ‘new rightist’s’ revision of the colonial period has prompted a vigorous debate on the teaching of modern and contemporary history.

The postnational approach analyzes social movements under Japanese colonial rule beyond the dichotomy of anti-colonial nationalist and pro-Japanese colonialist and explores political, social, and economic institutions beyond the dichotomy of colonial versus modern. Scholars of the postnational approach attempt to illustrate complex historical processes of identity formation and to recover suppressed memories beyond the dichotomies. However, in doing so, they inevitably, and sometimes intentionally, emphasize the positive role of Japanese colonialism in modernizing Korea while attenuating and sometimes disclaiming Japanese colonial oppression. They also have a critical attitude toward colonialism. However, their interpretations of some issues in the colonial era transcending the dichotomy of Korean anti-colonialism and Japanese colonialism have been controversial.

During a televised round table discussion in 2004, a postnational revisionist scholar provoked public wrath and condemnation for his analysis of ‘comfort women’ as a gender issue transcending the dichotomy of Korean antiJapanese colonialism and Japanese colonialism. In the 2010s, a high school history textbook written by the new rightists was criticized for resuscitating Japanese colonialist plot lines in their narrative of colonial rule (Lee, 2013). The new rightists elaborated on the theory of colonial modernization, similar to that of the Japanese colonialist scholars, rejecting the possibility of Korea’s self-transformation to modernity by the nineteenth century. The history textbook emphasized Korea’s modern transformation, including industrialization and the adoption of a liberal democratic system during the colonial period. It also enunciated the Rhee’s and Park’s regimes’ successive development of democratic and capitalist systems as a defense against communist North Korea (Hong, 2013). The problems of colonialism and authoritarianism in the textbook, critics claimed, were obscured. The textbook was severely criticized for its political use of history teaching, ‘making history the maid of political power’ to legitimize the Rhee and Park regimes’ authoritarian suppression from the perspective of new liberalist capitalism.

Postnational historiography warns against the danger of subsuming all other identities within national identity. The general categories of gender, class, or region would encourage more expansive exploration of multilayered structures and power relations that cannot be analyzed with nation as the sole analytic category. However, teaching Japanese colonial rule with the postnational approach in school is much more controversial than researching from a postnational approach, because teaching modern history involves present politics and public memories. Furthermore, unresolved issues in Korea and Japan’s colonial relationship such as ‘comfort women’ make teaching Japanese colonialism more sensitive than other forms of colonialism.

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