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Linguistic Nationalism in Korea Under Japanese Occupation Essay

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Updated: May 28th, 2021


People’s identities can be expressed through various means, such as qualities, beliefs, or social group belonging. Apart from these ways, identity views of a person as a member of some nation can also be manifested through language. Usually, this type of identity is vividly expressed in the countries that have been under some other nation’s occupation for a long time. Korea, which was Japan’s colony in 1910-1945, applied linguistic nationalism as an attempt to reach political liberation during that time. The present paper focuses on the review of studies dedicated to the Korean language’s status during Japan’s colonization and discusses how Koreans tried to defend their language and nation’s rights.

Historical and Political Background of the Issue

Linguistic nationalism in Korea emerged during the 35-year occupation of the country by Japan which started in 1910 and ended in 1945. Scholars divide the Japanese rule into three major periods: subjugation, cultural accommodation, and assimilation. Subjugation, also known as the “dark age,” lasted from 1910 until1919, and it was known as a military-ruled phase full of violence (Kang 2). Cultural accommodation started in 1919, after the Korean Independence Movement in March. This period, which lasted until 1931, was prominent for some freedoms in the press, education, and business.

Assimilation, which dominated between 1931 and 1945, brought a renewed “tightening of controls” along with the forced participation in the Japanese military campaigns (Kang 2). Although Japanese rule brought some positive changes for Koreans, the progress was not primarily aimed at the prosperity of the colonized country. The enhanced infrastructure of roads and harbors, a modernized educational system, and the transformed economy (from an agrarian into a semi-industrial one) did not bring much delight to Koreans (Kang 2). The actual rationale behind those changes was the promotion of the Japanese expansion.

During the occupation, Koreans were deprived of many things that used to form their national identity. The Japanese took away the most traditional food, rice, and made them eat millet, barley, or beans (Kang 2). Along with rice, such an important commodity as cotton was exported from Korea to Japan. Above all, political and social alterations affected occupied Koreans most of all. While the Japanese constituted only 2.5% of the population in Korea, over 80% of government positions were taken by them (Kang 2). Other crucial changes were associated with social and cultural life.

One of the most difficult aspects concerned the attempt of the Japanese to make Koreans speak Japanese instead of Korean (Caprio 6). As Cumings mentions, the Japanese not only “made Koreans speak their language” but even “took away their names” (215). While economic and political processes could be more or less accepted by the occupied country, language was something they could not give up so easily.

Hence, people insisted on using their language as a way of sustaining their identity. The application of linguistic nationalism was most vividly expressed during the period of cultural accommodation when Koreans expressed their nationalistic ideas through various movements and protests.

Scholarly Approaches to the Problem

Cultural Nationalism in Korea as a Background of Linguistic Nationalism

Any nationalistic movement emerges from the dissatisfaction of people with the conditions in which they find themselves. In Korea’s case, nationalism was initiated as an “elite project” at the end of the nineteenth century and lasted for the first few decades of the twentieth century (Robinson xiii). Scholars note that the beginning of the colonial rule was not marked by much freedom for Korean people (Caprio 6; Kang 2; Y.-J. Kim 76). Therefore, the increased need and desire to defend their national identity encouraged Koreans to defend their culture and language. However, it was not the whole colonial period that could be named nationalistic. The most active period was in 1919-1931, during which many prominent events and movements happened.

Y.-J. Kim supports Robinson’s opinion about cultural nationalism being connected with elites (89). In particular, Y.-J. Kim remarks that there existed a confrontation between the agents of the colonial ruling ideology and nationalist cultural elites (89). Japan’s official ideology was “a policy of extension of the imperial territoriality” (Y.-J. Kim 89). While it was mentioned that the efforts were made to eliminate discrimination between Japanese and Koreans “at all policy levels,” the very idea of assimilation employed by Japan contradicted the concept of equality (Y.-J. Kim 89). According to that ideology, Japan was to “civilize” and “guide” those races of East Asia which were regarded as “the lesser” (Y.-J. Kim 89).

The importance of analyzing colonial society is also emphasized by Ha (39). The scholar mentions that t is crucial to realize the “inherent contradictions” made up by the conflicting needs of the two parties (Ha 39). The analysis of only one dimension of the conflict cannot provide an adequate notion of the difficulties of the colonial period. Thus, Ha suggests that cultural and social sides of the colonial control are necessary for the comprehensive examination of the issue (39). Since the key concept of the present analysis is language nationalism, it seems relevant to agree with these scholars. Indeed, only the combination of various aspects of the colonial rule can serve as a solid basis for the understanding of language nationalism as a way of political liberation.

Language Planning and the “Dark Age” of the Subjugation Phase

During the first years of occupation language, as well as almost every other aspect of life in Korea, underwent severe reformations. Not only land and economic changes were implemented but also education and language suffered much (Pieper 62). Force and cruelty were employed by the Japanese military men to punish those Koreans who did not want to agree with the new regulations. Among the most dramatic effects was the absence of respect toward Korean ruling class representatives and scholars (Pieper 63). Pieper remarks that two of the most crucial innovations were concerned with the system of education and the publishing industry (63).

That was the beginning of the language problem that later led to the rise of linguistic nationalism. Private newspapers were shut down, and the most influential paper Korea Daily News was sold forcefully and became “an organ paper” for the Governor-General of Korea (Pieper 63). Moreover, newspapers printed in Japan were forbidden to be distributed in Korea (Pieper 64). As a result, there appeared a shortage of Korean-language writings of that period, which gradually raised people’s dissatisfaction and inclination to express their national interests through linguistic means.

Apart from restricting Korean publications, the Japanese also changed the image of the colonized nation through their printed materials. According to Lee through the use of language, the Japanese created a set of images about Koreans which presented the latter as “the colonial Other” (1). At the same time, despite such activities, no decisive moves against the Japanese were made by Koreans.

Neither students (Ha 57) nor peasants (D.-N. Kim 150), who were active participants of further nationalistic actions, arranged serious protests during the subjugation period. Still, Rhee remarks that the Korean language served as “an autonomously contested medium for reaction” during the occupation (87). The author notes that even though Korean scholars criticized the colonial period, they did not pay enough attention to the analysis of all processes related to language (Rhee 88).

One of the factors contributing to such a state of affairs, according to Rhee, was the belonging of both Japan and Korea to the old East-Asian world order (88). Because of the tributary relationship with China, Japan had to manipulate Korean cultural attributes in a very sensitive way. Thus, language planning policies were employed by Japan (Rhee 88). One of such policies was the dichotomization of the dominant (Japanese) and dominated (Korean) languages (Rhee 89). Japan intended to “extinguish” the Korean language and create a monolingual population who would speak the Japanese language (Rhee 89). However, by the end of the subjugation period, Koreans expressed more and more dissatisfaction with such policies, which led to protests among the population.

Cultural Accommodation Period: Protests and Resistance as Elements of Linguistic Nationalism

Linguistic nationalism, as well as other significant protests related to Koreans’ national identity, was most vividly expressed in the accommodation period. The March First Independence Movement gave way to different social groups’ demonstration of their dissatisfaction with the occupational regime. After the protest, students became leaders in Korea’s political actions against Japanese rule (Ha 58). However, while in the beginning, students were organized as a nationwide community, by the end of the 1920s, their efforts were mostly focused on local measures.

The development of linguistic nationalism during the accommodation phase was promoted by the “rebirth” of Korean political magazines and newspapers (Y.-J. Kim 76). Such changes were initiated by Governor-General Saitō, who admitted that the absence of media, social, and political rights in Korea was not a sign of success but the reason for the former governments’ failure (Y.-J. Kim 76). However, as it appeared later, Saitō’s revival of the vernacular press was turned from the means of expressing the views of the colonial society into “a sophisticated system of manipulation and control” (Y.-J. Kim 77).

As Pieper notes, such intensive surveillance only increased the antagonism of the oppressed people (68). Particularly, uprisings became numerous among the working class: peasants, who were subdued at the beginning and the end of the colonial rule, were raised to the Red Peasant Movement (D.-N. Kim 150).

Rhee notes that the promotion of the Korean language gained its peak in the 1920s (93). One of the most prominent ways of resisting Japanese language policies was enacted through the standardization of Korean grammar and orthography. Among other principles that were introduced, there were guidelines for writing Chinese letters in Korean phonetic script (Rhee 93). Also, the language of Seoul was selected as a Korean standard language. Such changes promoted Koreans’ nationalist movement and increased their desire to escape from Japan’s numerous restrictions.

Language and Colonial Education

The discourse of the Korean language was particularly relevant in the system of education. As Ha remarks, education became “one of the most intense fields of perceived threat” to the Japanese authorities (53). Japan wanted to increase the usefulness of Koreans, and it needed schools to “teach unquestioning respect for authority” (Ha 53). Meanwhile, Korea needed a modern education as a means of creating a successful life for its people.

Thus, when Japan made schools selective, it led to limited local orientation and acculturation (Ha 54). At the same time, the artificial scarcity created by the Japanese inevitably raised the perceived value of the increased political sophistication and knowledge of the wider world (Ha 54). When Japan limited the number of educated Koreans artificially, it also developed the “perceived charisma” and authority of those individuals who preferred to employ their education to serve Korean nationalism and anti-Japanese resistance (Ha 54).

In research on Korean females during the occupation, Yoo notes that girls and women were particularly interested in receiving education and enriching their knowledge (52). As well as Ha, Yoo remarks that one of the most severe measures undertaken by the Japanese government was implementing their system of education for the Koreans (61). A new system was created for colonial schools, which presupposed four years of primary education and then, four or three years for boys and girls, respectively. A particular feature of the new schools was Japan’s endeavor to make the use of the Korean language limited. Yoo notes that one of the purposes of the new system was “the extended use of national language” (61).

In an attempt to enhance his position with the people, Governor-General Saitō allowed a group of missionaries and Koreans to express their concerns about school management. One of the suggestions made by the group was removing restrictions on the use of the Korean language (Yoo 66). However, this demand, as well as some others, was not met, and a compromise was offered. Secondary students would be taught science and Western languages on the condition that Japanese be a compulsory subject in their schools (Yoo 66). Thus, despite the language nationalist movement in some spheres of life, Koreans did not have an opportunity to keep their language dominance at schools. Still, the very fact of letting more Korean children in general and girls, in particular, attend schools and gain education was quite a positive achievement.

Linguistic Nationalism in the Assimilation Period

While the phase of cultural accommodation phase brought at least some options for the freedom to choose language, the last period of Japanese colonial rule was known for its severe restrictions. As Rhee mentions, education in the first half of the 1930s was performed in the Korean language at various informal activities, such as private companies’ sponsorship of lectures (94). However, by the end of the decade, the Korean language’s position was considerably weakened. Instead of the previously popular bilingual policy, Japan introduced the monolingual one intending to arrange effective wartime preparation (Rhee 94).

Apart from forbidding to use of the Korean language at schools and media publications, Koreans were forced to change their surnames to Japanese ones (Cumings 215; Rhee 94). The 1938 educational ordinance aimed at the Japanization of Korea, which also included cultivating loyalty to the Japanese emperor (Rhee 94).

As such, the linguistic nationalism during the third period of occupation had no opportunity to be promoted. The Korean language obtained the “proscribed” status, and mother-tongue education was discouraged entirely (Rhee 94). Such restrictions led to the complete elimination of Korea’s national identity. While the accommodation phase not only inspired Koreans to defend their nationalism but also gave some possibilities for doing so, the late 1930s were the times of surrendering linguistic preferences and nationalistic ideas. Not only were there strict measures applied to language but Koreans were also forced to change many aspects of their social life (Rhee 96). Resistance at that point was not successful and was suppressed by Japan quickly and violently.

Assimilation and Thought Conversion

One of the strongest forms of assimilation was thought conversion, and it impacted both the colonized and colonizing countries. K. Kim remarks that while thought conversion is a term that can be employed in various spheres of research, it played a prominent role in the third phase of Japan’s colonization of Korea (206). Recalcitrant Koreans’ ideas were “winnowed out of their heads” by dictatorial ways of interrogation until the moment they agreed to “confess” their political “sins” in a written form (K. Kim 206). Thought conversion had two polar aspects: on the one side, it was repressive and forceful, and on the other side, it was conciliatory and paternalistic (K. Kim 208). The punished individuals were not necessarily punished by force. Rather, they were “absorbed into the system” (K. Kim 208). Understanding thought conversion from both countries’ points of view helps to explain the politics of assimilation during the 1930s-1940s.

The Japanese Experience

It is possible to interpret thought conversion through the traditions of pre-Meiji Restoration Japan (K. Kim 209). The response to Western penetration at the end of the 19th century demanded accommodating Western culture based on Japan’s traditions. The initial passion for Western culture was soon overtaken by Japan’s desire to preserve its own culture and traditions (K. Kim 209). At the end of the 19th─the beginning of the 20th century, the majority of the Japanese were used to the traditional social order which involved parochialism and group solidarity. Individualism, which was promoted by Western culture, was alien to the Japanese (K. Kim 210). Thus, the country tried hard to expel the Western traditions, and that endeavor was especially ardent in the 1940s.

Thought Conversion in Korea

In its turn, Japan established thought conversion in Korea during the colonization period. The colonizer used that method for controlling the colonized (K. Kim 213). Still, even upon conversion, Koreans did not stop being interested in social and political issues or caring about their national identity (K. Kim 217). The main difference between Japan’s and Korea’s conversion was that the former was forced to accommodate Western traditions while the latter had been forcefully annexed. Japan tried to present the conversion as a means of making Korea its extension and not a colony (K. Kim 218). However, in any way, Koreans were deprived of the right to have their own identity and history. Thus, thought conversion, in that case, was a much more complicated issue than it had been in Japan.

The Aftermath of the Occupation’s Impact on the Korean Language

Historically, the Korean language and literature were affected by diglossia ― the use of two or more languages, one of which is regarded as superior to others (Cho 3). Up until the end of the 19th century, such a “superior” language in Korea was Chinese. Still, there was no threat to the Korean language to lose its value since the Chinese never gained “real currency” (Cho 4). However, after Japan’s occupation, the situation became much worse since the Japanese implemented too many restrictions on the Korean language.

At the end of the 1980s, the process of modernization in Korea was associated with the rise of nationalism and faith in scientific progress (Cho 6). Thus, Japan’s nationalist attempt to create “a national language” during the oppression period was a serious threat to the Korean linguistic consciousness (Cho 8).

As Cho remarks, the identification of Koreanness through literature was more prominent than through any other form of identification (11). As a result of a lengthy suppression of the Korean language, even after liberation from Japan’s rule in 1945, it took Korea many years to recover its language identity. While the country became free from Japan’s control, Chinese characters were still used in many social spheres and published materials. Thus, language activism in Korea is not less popular nowadays than it used to be during Japan’s occupation.

How My View Relates to the Reviewed Studies

My opinion about linguistic nationalism in Korea during Japan’s occupational regime coincides with the views expressed in scholarly papers. Indeed, applying linguistic nationalism promoted the political liberation of Koreans during some periods of colonization. However, it is necessary to emphasize that only one of the three phases of Japan’s occupation was productive for the Koreans. It was the cultural accommodation stage (1919-1931), during which Koreans were able to defend some of their ideological views and promote their native language at schools and in the press.

Taking into consideration numerous attempts of Japan to mute the Korean language at all levels of life, it seems relevant to note that people viewed defending their language as protecting the highest value they had. The constraints on native language use in Korea included very limited teaching, changing family names, and reading news issues in Japanese. However, the outcomes of Koreans’ linguistic nationalism were profound: people became more patriotic, they found faith in their country and language, the literature and science strived to develop, and some social changes were initiated. Therefore, it is possible to note that the ideas and facts expressed in scholarly sources coincide with my understanding of the analyzed problem.


The life of the Korean nation under Japan’s occupation was not easy due to various circumstances. However, political and economical restraints did not produce such a negative effect on Koreans as numerous language policies did. During the colonization period, Koreans tried to maintain their identity by defending their language and the right to educate their children in it. Despite all the hardships and administrative punishments, Koreans pursued their goal of sustaining their language in use. Out of the three phases of colonization (subjugation, accommodation, and assimilation), the middle one was the most productive for Koreans’ attempts.

During cultural accommodation, some several major protests and movements enhanced the position of the Korean language. However, in the last stage, when Japan was actively preparing for military actions, Koreans lost all the privileges they had been able to gain by that time. As a result, language activism in Korea did not lose its significance for a long time after Japan’s occupation regime. Still, it is possible to conclude that linguistic nationalism during colonization helped Koreans to gain political liberation in some aspects.

Works Cited

Caprio, Mark E. Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945. University of Washington Press, 2009.

Cho, Young-mee Yu. “Diglossia in Korean Language and Literature: A Historical Perspective.” East Asia, vol. 20, no. 1, 2002, pp. 3-23.

Cumings, Bruce. “The Legacy of Japanese Colonialism in Korea.” Shōwa Japan: Political, Economic and Social History, Vol. 2, 1941-1952, edited by Stephen S. Large, Routledge, 1998, pp. 215-232.

Ha, Yong Chool. “Colonial Rule and Social Change in Korea: The Paradox of Colonial Control.” Colonial Rule and Social Change in Korea, 1910-1945, edited by Hong Yung Lee, Yong Chool Ha, and Clark W. Sorensen, Center for Korea Studies, 2013, pp. 39-75.

Kang, Hildi. Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945. Cornell University Press, 2001.

Kim, Dong-No. “National Identity and Class Interest in the Peasant Movements of the Colonial Period.” Colonial Rule and Social Change in Korea, 1910-1945, edited by Hong Yung Lee, Yong Chool Ha, and Clark W. Sorensen, Center for Korea Studies, 2013, pp. 140-172.

Kim, Keongil. “Japanese Assimilation Policy and Thought Conversion in Colonial Korea.” Colonial Rule and Social Change in Korea, 1910-1945, edited by Hong Yung Lee, Yong Chool Ha, and Clark W. Sorensen, Center for Korea Studies, 2013, pp. 206-233.

Kim, Yong-Jick. “Politics of Communication and the Colonial Public Sphere in 1920s Korea.” Colonial Rule and Social Change in Korea, 1910-1945, edited by Hong Yung Lee, Yong Chool Ha, and Clark W. Sorensen, Center for Korea Studies, 2013, pp. 76-113.

Lee, Helen J. S. “Voices of the “Colonists,” Voices of the “Immigrants”: “Korea” in Japan’s Early Colonial Travel Narratives and Guides, 1894-1914.” Japanese Language and Literature, vol. 41, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1-36.

Pieper, Daniel. Han’gul for the Nation, the Nation for Han’gul: The Korean Language Movement, 1894-1945. Thesis, Washington University in St. Louis, 2011.

Rhee, Moon-Jhong. “Language Planning in Korea Under the Japanese Colonial Administration, 1910-1945.” Language, Culture and Curriculum, vol. 5, no. 2, 1992, 87-97.

Robinson, Michael Edson. Cultural Nationalism in Colonial Korea, 1920-1925. University of Washington Press, 2014.

Yoo, Theodore Jun. The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea: Education, Labor, and Health, 1910-1945. University of California Press, 2008.

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