The colonial period, which on a larger social level was completely impacted by Japanese colonialization that in fact amounted to invasion and conquest), featured two main literary approaches. One approach, which was partly adaptation to and partly reaction against colonalization was to continue the didactic nature of enlightenment literature. The second approach was more ‘literary’ in the Western sense in that it assigned no task to literature other than to be art, that literature should be entirely autonomous.
As we tour through the colonial period, this schism, which was often quite contentious, should be kept in mind. We will also explore the continued emergence of the modern novel, the emergence of separation and alienation as two major themes of both literary approaches, the slight emergence and rapid destruction of Korean female authors, and always underlying that, the impact that colonialization had on Korean literature, in all aspects.
Although the enlightenment period had displayed several features of modernization, it would be far to simple to say that Korea was in the process of modernizing as the power of the Choseon state remained strong, despite that state’s lack of vision. But the threat to Korea was not internal, rather it was external, and regardless of the attempts of more modern Koreans in the late 19th century, in 1910 Korea was colonialized by Japan, a process which had been taking place for some time. It is useful to break the colonial period into three subcategories, from 1910-1919 (initial colonialization), from 1919 to 1936 (a kind of thawing), and from 1936 to 1945 (during which time Japanese interference became harsher and harsher). What follows is thumbnail sketch of these periods.
Initial Colonization, 1910-1919
The Japanese colonial infrastructure was built with two things in mind; political control, and economic piracy. As part of the first project, freedom of speech and the press were limited, This had effects all across the Korean spectrum, but in an environment in which literature was often first presented serially in newspapers, it had a particular strong effect on literature. The Taehan Maeil Shinbo, which had been an unfettered outlet for Korean authors, was take over the Government General.
False Thaw: 1919 to 1936
On March 1st, 1919, an avalanche of anti-colonial activity swept across Korea. The March First Independence Movement featured masses of Koreans gathering in peaceful rallies. The March First Movement was brutally supressed by the colonial government, but the movement did lead to several important changes, including an increase in freedom of the press (that was later revoked during the second Sino-Japanese War and World War II). The Movement also changed the nature of Korean literature, with many writers adopting more optimistic outlooks and an optimism that was enhanced by the development of new nationalist newspapers. Korean intellectuals, including writers continued to focus on education and extending the principles of enlightment. Korean authors, literature, and schools of though about literature bloomed in this era.
Winter Falls 1936-45
The concluding years of colonialization, however, were far from as opimistic and enlightened. “Cultural nationalism,” as the Japanese saw it, was slowly extinguished and the second Sino-Japanese war and World War II meant new levels of colonial suppression. After invading Southeast Asia and China, Japan began to mobilize for all out war in the Pacific Ocean. This meant that the Japanese planned to squeeze as many humans and as much economic resources as it could out of Korea. The Japanese government’s motto, “Japan and Korea are one body,” was a hint of what it planned. It’s plan was nothing less than the complete cultural obliteration of any traces of a non-Japanese Korean cultural identity. The use of the Korean language was prohibited, meetings were required to kick off with an oath of allegiance to the emperor (Japanese!), and Koreans were assigned Japanese surnames. This attempt at cultural obliteration and with two bangs, one at Hiroshima and one at Nagasaki, and then a whimper. Suddenly, Korea was free, but to do what?
Before we look at that question, let us delve more deeply into the colonial period.