Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Would an apology for the Kanto Massacre be futile?

There was an article about the slaying of Korean migrant workers in Japan in the aftermath of the 1923 Kanto Earthquake. Should there be an apology? Have the comfort women proven that Koreans don't accept apologies from the Japanese?


Joel said...

It’s an interesting post. If you’re interested in learning more about the incident and some possible motivations take a look at Sonia Ryang’s The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Massacre of Koreans in 1923, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 4 (2003), pp. 731-748. Ryang is a Japanese-born ethnic Korean who’s done quite a bit of work on Korean identity in twentieth-century Japan. In the article she makes the same 6000 Koreans claim. While I’m not in a position to question her findings in this regard, I can relay to you part of one of her notes on the subject. She claims that the Japanese government originally claimed that there were only between 200 and 300 Koreans murdered after the earthquake (the Governor-General of Korea even lowballed the number to a shocking 2 Koreans murdered). A Korean investigation reached a much higher number of approximately 6500. And another investigation by a group she labels “Japanese conscientious attorneys” reached the much, much higher estimate of 10,000. At first glance it seems as though Ryang merely aimed for the most reasonable of the three estimates—the first being far too low and the third much too high. I caution, however, that within the article she uses several reliable Japanese sources that record actual incidents where Japanese citizens were clearly guilty of unmitigated slaughter. She also notes that 1,052 Koreans were actually killed in Japanese custody.

What motivated the killing? This, unfortunately, is where Ryang’s conclusions fall flat. A trained anthropologist crippled by her own predilection for structural functionalism, Ryang attempts to complicate a rather simple reflexive reaction to foreigners. She relies heavily on Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life to make her point. For Ryang, Koreans in Japan were outside the political order and thus their murder did “not constitute a homicide.” In Ryang’s own words, “in the sense of the term violence as a violation of the person of a free man—there was nothing that was violated in the killing of Koreans, as long as Japanese cultural logic was concerned, since their person was not that of a free man, but that of a homo sacer.”

If this sounds an awful lot like some Foucaultian nonsense, you’re right. Like much anthropological scholarship—in my opinion little more than a collection of theories searching for a discipline—this statement overcomplicates the issue. Why shouldn’t we merely interpret the killings as the xenophobic reaction to a horribly traumatic event? Koreans, the readily identifiable other, were the logical scapegoat. Were Ryang a better historian than a structural functionalist, she might have drawn a connection between the March First uprising in Japanese-occupied Korea (which Koreans will soon be celebrating) and the reactionary assumption that Koreans were responsible for Japanese suffering in the heart of the Metropole. The connection here is obvious; yet Ryang never mentions it.

I once had the opportunity to listen to Ryang give a talk at Smith College on this same topic. During the question/answer period I asked her about some of the imagery and ideas on Koreans that would have informed popular Japanese attitudes and opinions of Koreans prior to 1923. Much to my disappointment, she didn’t really have an answer. If you’re interested, like I am, in WHY the Koreans were targeted, I recommend taking a look at the Japanese historian Todd Henry’s article on Japanese attitudes toward colonial Koreans, Sanitizing Empire: Japanese Articulations of Korean otherness and the Construction of Early Colonial Seoul.

Good luck; and watch out. I hear Koreans are a little sensitive about these subjects. As foreigners, I’m sure you know we lack the biological makeup to truly understand and interpret these issues. 어리 말, 어리 나라, 어리 민족!!!
Keep up the good work. I have no idea where you find the time.

Joel C. Webb

Joel said...

Oops, 우리. . 우리. . 우리. . .