Making the Trains Run on Time
Reading through Choi In-Hoon’s “End of the Road”, I noticed a repetitive symbolism that I had sometimes seen in other short stories. Trains and train tracks popped up with surprising frequency, even for stories from a country, like Korea, with an excellent train system. Additionally, the symbol is rarely integral to the plot, rather it is clearly meant to stand for something, and something a bit menacing, impersonal, perhaps even evil. I didn’t initially get the exact meaning but as I thought about it, I guessed it likely had something to do with Korea’s history as a Japanese colony.
The story itself, which I will write about later, focuses on journeys of several kinds – from one place to another, from college to job, from job to nowhere, and from life to death. The train tracks parallel the story, threatening, impassive, and steely.
In the blogosphere you can’t help but notice (in fact it is impossible to miss) tension between Japanese and Korean bloggers. This tension follows from the colonial period, and is far from limited to blogs. One of the regular arguments that arises with respect to this tension is whether or not Japanese colonialism was “good” for Korea. The arguments tend to be Manichean, with the Japanese claiming that they “modernized” or “civilized” Korea. After all, the name of the Japanese greater plan to rule all of Asia was the “Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
Which is a hell of a polite way to say, “bow down and serve us.”
To see a rather remarkably incoherent example of this kind of argument, you can check out. (EDIT – alas, the page was so stupid it was apparently taken down) whose “author” basically argues that since Korea made progress from 1897-1930, the Japanese were benevolent despots. His argument, so much as he makes one, seems to be that if Japan had not invaded Korea, Korea would have remained trapped in some kind of amber and not changed one iota. On the flip side, Koreans are often prone to ignoring any progress that might have been made while the Japanese colonized them because Koreans seem to fear that admitting any progress would be to give credit to the Japanese.
I am far closer to the latter position, partly because I think that colonization is generally a bad thingTM, and because progress, well, progresses sometimes without respect to who is in charge. The Japanese probably did speed up some modernizations (the ones that worked for their colonial enterprise). I think on balance, however, the Japanese did far more harm than good and that much of the modernization would have occurred no matter who was ruling Korea and the social distortions introduced by the Japanese would never have taken root..
In any case, Google revealed that it is inarguable that the railway systems improved under Japanese rule. Not, of course, for particularly benevolent reasons. Japanese scholar Nakano Akira notes that:
Public records from that time (Early 1900s) clearly show the Japanese government’s intentions. For example, in a document that then Foreign Minister Komura Jutaro submitted to the Prime Minister Katsura Taro in 1902 for Cabinet approval includes the following:
“If Japan constructs the Gyeongui Line on our own and connect to the Gyeongbu Line, all major railways will be in the hands of our empire, in effect keeping Korea under our influence.
This focus on railways was also a part of Japan’s strategic response to the first Sino-Japanese war. Akira also notes that development of the railways included Japanese confiscation of farmland, project management largely by, and profit largely for, Japanese businesspeople, and the impression of local Koreans into forced labor gangs.
Fun stuff, and just the kind of loveliness that seems to typically attend colonization.
Still, Choi’s writing was, even in translation, strong enough that I could recognize that the train and train tracks had a totemic implication far beyond their physical reality. I suppose I note this here, on morning calm, and before I even review the story, because it is interesting to me that even in translated literature a symbol can come through so forcefully that even a semi-casual reader is forced to pay some attention, sit up and say, “hang on, this has to have some kind of meaning.”
With luck, that reader then goes to the Wikipedia (Pace, MAF) and all is revealed. 😉
Akira’s article can be found at
(LINK HAS DISAPPEARED) and the truly dedicated train (and colonization) buff can find “Japanese Imperialism and Korean Railroads (1892-1945)” a 742 page book on the topic of Japanese imperialism and railroads at the Seoul National Press