Thursday, September 08, 2011

Yi Gwang-su: Pro-Japanese?

Yi Gwang-su
(Image from

Professor Kim Seong-kon published another interesting article in the Korea Herald today, "Humans between angels, demons" (September 7, 2011), which again lamented the Korean tendency toward extremes:
Koreans tend to think that the world is made of left-wing progressives and right-wing conservatives only, and do not realize the existence of neutral liberals and moderate traditionalists.
Kim finds this tendency especially characteristic of the Korean left:
Historically, leftists have always been extremely exclusive and hostile toward non-leftists. And they always want a scapegoat they can condemn, so they can be immune from criticism and look honest instead.
For that reason, suggests Kim, Koreans -- especially Korean leftists -- are harshly critical of Yi Gwang-su:
Perhaps this is why Korean leftists began condemning Yi Kwangsu in the 1970s and 1980s as an unpardonable pro-Japanese intellectual. There were so many pro-Japanese Korean intellectuals during the Japanese occupation. Why, then, does only Yi Kwangsu have to be blamed and condemned so severely as if he was an unpardonable sinner?

Obviously, Korean leftists chose Yi Kwangsu, the father figure of modern Korean literature, as a scapegoat, so they could be safe and looked absolutely righteous and truthful. Besides, leftist writers surely wanted to deny the authenticity of modern Korean literature by claiming that it was wrong from the beginning and thus invalid, because it was tainted by unpatriotic activities of its leader Yi Kwangsu.

Then, they wanted to replace authentic Korean literature with left-wing literature, which they thought was the absolute truth. Once again, the "we're always right; all others are invariably wrong" mentality prevailed in the ruthless leftist campaign to criticize Yi Kwangsu.
This is an intriguing argument concerning bias among literary critics. I'm too ignorant of Korean history and Korean literature to hold a firm opinion, but Kim's point is plausible. Perhaps the Korean left did attack Yi Gwang-su not merely because he was pro-Japanese (though the degree to which he was pro-Japanese is disputed) but also because he was the founder of modern Korean literature, which needed -- or so leftists thought -- to be replaced by socialist literature. I'd be interested in knowing more on this point. At any rate, Kim goes on to mount a defense of Yi Gwang-su by drawing upon Lee Joong-o's psychological analysis and citing Yi Gwang-su's own words:
In his insightful, thought-provoking book, "Apology for Yi Kwangsu," Lee Joong-o, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus of SUNY/Buffalo points out that . . . [the "either/or" mentality of excluding others] is, in fact, a mental disease that requires therapy. Intellectuals and writers should say, "No!" when all people say "Yes!" However, many Korean intellectuals and writers do not seem to have the courage to speak up and thus remain silent, even though they know something is seriously wrong. Other people, who are opportunistic, choose to join the trend and collaborate with the leftists in condemning Yi Kwangsu, which heightens what Lee called "the national frenzy."

Granted Yi Kwangsu was undeniably pro-Japanese, we still need to listen to what he had to say. In "My Confessions" Yi writes: "When I returned to Korea at the age 30, I dreamed of being a Gandhi for my country. Therefore, my pro-Japanese activities had nothing to do with my own personal benefits, safety or political power. Naively, I thought I did it for my people; I wanted to save the 38,000 Koreans whose name was on the Japanese colonial government's elimination list at the cost of my honor."
I wouldn't go so far as to label the mentality of "either/or" as a "mental disease," nor would I entirely trust Yi Gwang-su's confessional self-justification, but I do have some empathy for the man after a year-long struggle editing his novel The Soil, which my wife translated. Based on that novel alone, I wouldn't consider him whole-heartedly pro-Japanese, for his depiction of the Japanese is mixed. I realize that he changed, however, and became more of an apologist for Japan in the latter 1930s, though I know too little about that transformation to evaluate it properly. The man is a difficult case. See the Wikipedia entry on Yi Gwang-su concerning this complex issue of his fluctuating politics. Even during his nationalist period, he was strongly critical of Korea and Koreans, so a common thread might be traced through all his political changes. We should probably recall that he had been an orphan raised by followers of the Donghak religion, which carried out guerrilla attacks against the Korean government beginning in the 1892, the year he was born, so his earliest memories would have been of conflict with the Korean state several years before the Japanese colonial period.

I suppose the crucial question to consider in reflecting upon the critics of Yi Gwang-su is which Yi Gwang-su the critic is talking about. I don't think that we will get a rounded picture of the man until Koreans come to terms with the fact that "[t]here were so many pro-Japanese Korean intellectuals during the Japanese occupation," as Kim points out, and that rounded understanding will require Koreans to develop a less exclusivist "either/or mentality."

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At 6:44 AM, Blogger dhr said...

especially characteristic of the Korean left: (...) extremely exclusive and hostile toward non-leftists. And they always want a scapegoat they can condemn, so they can be immune from criticism and look honest instead

Italian leftists are exactly like that. Or, as a friend of mine pointed out some days ago, "They are just the same as the others. Just, more hypocritical."

The problem arises with French 'commies' too. While things are probably different, i.e. better and much more civilized, in countries like Germany or Great Britain. --- As to the USA, the word "progressive" has a completely different meaning. As a joke says: European leftists love Barack Obama, but his ideas would be labelled as right-wing by them, if he happened to be a European leader.

The supposedly 'true' leftist views have deeply influenced culture and the teaching of history in Italy after WWII. Even now, in the area where I live, which has been ruled by the leftist parties nonstop for more than 60 years, it is very difficult for non-leftist intellectuals, professors etc., to 'come up for air.'

At 6:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The radical Left, along with all of its orthodoxies, is in irreversible decline. It now aligns itself with Islamists! The enemy of my enemy is my friend -- I suppose that's the Left's thinking in this alliance.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:06 AM, Blogger dhr said...

It now aligns itself with Islamists! The enemy of my enemy is my friend

You're right, again, as far as I can witness it.

At 7:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good to know . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:36 PM, Blogger Charles Montgomery said...

Yi Kwang-su was Pro-Japanese in the sense that he was anti-Korean-history and I think the just attached himself to any project that he thought would create that schism. "Modernism" and "Love" in Heartless and then the Japanese modernization project when that came along. I just linked a great lecture by Ann Choi Wan on KTLIT, and she discusses this in the middle of it.

I am intrigued by the idea that leftists would attack Yi Kwang-su as a way to dent the new literary world and, theoretically, supplant it. Humans are complicated little shits, and I'm sure all of these explanations have truth to them.

At 4:06 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I had the impression from The Soil that Yi Gwang-su especially disliked Confucianism's influence on Korean history.

Thanks for the notice about the lecture.

Jeffery Hodges

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