Where do Ajosshis Come From? Part 3: Manchukuo and The Militarization of Daily Life in South Korea

(Movie poster for “The Longest 24 Hours,” (기다리다미쳐, 2007), a lighthearted look at military service from the perspective of conscripts’ girlfriends; also known as “Crazy4wait.” Source: 여자도 모른는 여자이야기)

It’s been quite a while, so to remind readers, in Part One of this series I argued that a virtual gender apartheid existed in modern Korea, with women excluded from economic and political life here to an extent much more reminiscent of Middle Eastern countries than what one would expect in a modern liberal democracy. If that sounds like mere hyperbole to new readers, then sure, it probably would to me too(!), but by all means examine the evidence given there, to which I would now add that Korea has the lowest number of working women of all developed countries also, and that spousal rape isn’t even a crime here (see #2 here).

(Update, February 2014: Part One has since been deleted sorry)

How to explain this? Well, naturally many specific elements of Korean women’s disadvantaged position in Korean society are no great mysteries: decades of salaryman male-breadwinner forms of employment for instance, explain a great deal about the lack of women in senior positions in companies (a parallel is how the Cultural Revolution four decades ago resulted in an “intellectual skills gap” that still affects the Chinese economy), and deeply hierarchical and sexist Neo-Confucianism has had a profound influence on Koreans’ worldviews, even extending to how men’s and women’s bodies are perceived and valued differently, and from which it is no great leap of the imagination to see echoes of in – amongst other things –  the widespread use of doumi (도우미) or female “assistants” and scantily-clad “narrator models” (나레이터 머델) here to sell mundane household items or open even the humblest of new stores and restaurants respectively.

korean-doumi-shop-assistants-and-narrator-models-도우미0-나레이터-모델(With apologies to Michael Hurt for the use of the top image, but like he says, despite their ubiquity most doumi are embarrassed by their jobs and very reluctant to have their photos taken; after half an hour of looking (in Korean!), this is the only similar one I could find. Bottom image taken from shytiny)

But both those and many other factors commonly cited are by no means confined to Korea, and while going into greater detail would undoubtedly tease out plausible reasons why Korean women are worse off than, say, their counterparts in Japan or even China (hardly well-known for gender equality in themselves), here I am more concerned with the systematic nature of women’s exclusion in Korea. Ergo, however cliched it sounds, this series is all about seeing the forest rather than the trees.

With that in mind, based on my readings of especially Kwon (2001) and Moon (2005) and on my own nine years’ experience of the militarism that is still inherent to many Korean institutions (especially schools) in particular, then I laid the blame for that exclusion squarely on the continuation of and widespread public acceptance of the universal male conscription system, and all that that entails: nothing else seems adequate to explain so widespread and pervasive a phenomenon.

Again, that may well sound somewhat exaggerated at first: after all, South Korea is by no means the only country in the world to have conscription, and while I’d venture that a cross-country comparison would undoubtedly demonstrate at least a tendency towards lower levels of women’s empowerment in those countries that had it, that the “feminist paradises” of Sweden and Norway also have it, for instance, shows that any link would by no means be clear-cut. But then for most of the brief history of South Korea the military has had a uniquely pervasive role in society, one not revealed by any casual comparisons with other military regimes, and this really needs to be fully appreciated and understood before some of my more outlandish sounding claims about the effects of conscription on gender roles here can be assessed objectively. Hence, while it will take us far in time and space from what would normally come under the rubric of “Korean gender issues” – and which explains the 9 month hiatus, for unfortunately my beginning to write the series coincided with my wanting to examine more “traditional” aspects of that subject – I realized that the Korean military itself needed to be studied first, and so Part Two was about its origins in the Japanese colonial state, again much greater in size, scope and ambitions than a simple conflation with its European and US counterparts would suggest.

This post continues where that left off, focusing on the short-lived Japanese colonial state of Manchukuo (Manchuria region, 1932-1945), which eventual nreturnees to Korea among the  720,000 Korean immigrants there (from 1932-1940) and a sizable proportion of the South Korean bureaucracy, armed forces, and police of the 1950s and 1960s had some first-hand experience of living in and working for. In particular, Manchukuo was where president Park Chung-hee (1963-1979) above (source) spent most of his formative years as an officer in the army (even going so far as to sign an oath of loyalty to it in his own blood), and, as we shall see, is what he would effectively recreate in South Korea in the 1960s and 70s.

Korea’s Wild Wild West?

(Source: 이것저것 연습장)

Okay, first the big picture:  what were Japanese motives in occupying what was to become Manchukuo? Well, primarily because it greatly expanded the Japanese imperial empire, still much smaller, weaker, and younger than its European and American counterparts as explained in Part Two. But more practically speaking, it also provided:

  • A bridgehead for the invasion of China, well connected by rail and road links to Korea even before the 1930s
  • A buffer-zone between the USSR and both the more developed and crucial colony of Korea, and indeed there would be several clashes between the two on the Machukuo border in the late 1930s
  • An important source of particularly mineral resources in its own right, without which the later invasion of Southeast Asia wouldn’t have been possible
  • And finally, an escape valve to ease Japanese (and Korean) domestic agrarian population pressures and poverty, exacerbated by the depression.
(The Prewar Expansion of the Japanese Empire. Source: Wikipedia)

The 2008 movie The Good, The Bad, The Weird (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈) in the poster above happens to be set there, and by all accounts it is fun to watch, but unfortunately its depiction of life there in the 1930s as Korea’s version of the Wild West is probably exaggerated at best. While it’s true that the Chinese Warlord Era as a whole is not exactly well known for the stability or internal coherence of its various regimes, and that things would have been quite chaotic around the period when warlord Zhang Xueliang withdrew his forces from the region and ceded it to the elite Kwangtung Japanese Imperial Army after the Mukden Incident of September 18 1931, that strategic retreat was largely dictated by forces beyond his control, such as Chiang Kai-Shek being unable to provide assistance. In fact, his regime was far more coherent than most of that era, being able to effectively wipe out opium-trafficking and internal corruption in the previous decade for instance. Moreover, much of the state bureaucracy was bequeathed to the new Japanese colonial state, and as soon as April of 1932, it was one of the most controlled, regimented regimes in Northeast Asian history.

Don’t worry if that was all above your head: suffice to say that Manchukuo state organs were in many senses grafted onto the preexisting ones of Zhang Xueliang’s regime, but with the crucial difference that recent events meant that there were no longer any substantial non-state actors like a business or landed class to impede them in instilling notions of loyalty and nationalism in their new pool of workers and soldiers.

And whom were by no means unwilling victims of the process either. For example, writing about the Korean “Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization under the Japanese Imperialism (sic)” in 2006, Michael Breen said:

The Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization under the Japanese Imperialism (sic) announced on Monday that 83 of the 148 Koreans convicted of war crimes were victims of Japan and should not be blamed….

[But they] were not tried as soldiers or POW camp guards who had done their jobs. They were tried for over-zealousness, for decisions and actions over and above the call of duty. They were the thugs, the brutes, the monsters, the most horrible of the ”horrible people”….By what authority does the Truth Commission have to remove their individual responsibility with its class act defense of nationality? Such skewed morality led to the crimes against the lowest class– ”prisoners” — in the first place. People who committed crimes against humanity are not innocent by virtue of being Korean any more than Japanese who brutalized Koreans are innocent by virtue of being Japanese.

….[the Truth Commission] should recognize that the idea that Koreans were all unhappy citizens of imperialism bar a few collaborators is a myth. Koreans were Japanese citizens, and it did not occur to many to support the allies against their own country. Ask anyone who lived in that period, and they will tell you that the political correctness of the post-colonial generation is distorted.

They will also tell you that from 1937-42, Koreans in the Japanese army were volunteers — who included King Kojong’s son, an army general — and that large-scale forced conscription only started in 1944. The Commission should know that those rounding up comfort women were Koreans and those torturing people in police stations were mostly Koreans. Koreans, in other words, were more ”horrible” to Koreans in many cases than the Japanese were. The solution to this dilemma is to accept the notion of individual responsibility.

And according to Suk-Jung Han in his July 2005 Japan Focus article “Imitating the Colonizers: The Legacy of the Disciplining State from Manchukuo to South Korea,”  similar senses of citizenship were instilled in new Manchukuo citizens by means of:

  • State-Sponsored Confucianism
  • Mourning Rituals and Ancestor Worship
  • State-foundation Gymnastics
  • Anti-Communist Rallies

A combination which will probably sound very familiar to those of you even with just the most basic of knowledge of South Korea’s history. Indeed, as Han’s article is only 14 pages long and very readable in its own right, rather than provide a detailed discussion of what you many of you will go on to read there regardless, it’s probably wiser if I just provide some excerpts here, starting with:

The legacy of Manchukuo can be seen in numerous “naturalized” events in South and North Korea. So-called “national ceremonies,” such as paying a one minute silent tribute to the war dead in front of monuments, marching, lectures on the “current emergency situation”, movie-showing, poster making, student speech contests, rallies, big athletic meetings, and so on- largely related to anti-communism, and all too familiar to South Koreans for several decades from the 1950s- were originally national events of Manchukuo in the 1930s.

For state-sponsored Confucianism, some crucial clues as for how South Korea has come to be known as “More Confucian than China”:

South Koreans grew accustomed to the Confucian ideology of loyalty and filiality (choong-hyo) stressed by Syngman Rhee’s regime (1948-1960) as well as Park Chung Hee’s (1961-1979). The post-liberation ideology was different from the Confucianism of the Chosun dynasty, which had been not only the official ideology but also the basis of ethics and cosmic philosophy. The former was less intense than the latter. But Confucianism was still influential in the post-liberation era. Important Confucian concepts, like loyalty to the nation, were instilled in students. It was Manchukuo that energetically patronized Confucianism. Manchukuo differed from mainland China where Confucianism was severely attacked by the May 4th intellectuals and their heirs. Also, Manchukuo differed from Japan in the 1930s when Shinto was deployed as the state religion.

About the importance of mourning rituals and ancestor worship, which might sound outlandish to many outside of Korea, but intimately familiar to anyone who’s ever experienced either of the two biggest occasions of the year Seollal or Chuseok in an actual Korean home, and learned first-hand just how morbid they can be, at least symbolically:

Although monuments for the war dead began to supplement Confucian shrines as the site of important ceremonies, the mourning ceremony, either for ancestors or soldiers, was long essential to Confucian practice inside and outside the home. In April, 1935, officials and army officers attended a great mourning ceremony (zhaohunji, shokonsai), held at the newly built monument in the capital. The assembly, opening ceremony, invocation of the spirits, enshrining of the dead, offering of food, and tributary speech solemnly proceeded. This was simply one example of numerous mourning ceremonies of subsequent years, particularly after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war.

The mourning ceremony for dead officials, policemen and soldiers was an important an event, next only to one worshipping Confucius. Although prewar Japanese society also had ceremonies for the war dead at Yasukuni shrine, they were not equal to those in Manchukuo. In Japan, all the war dead (except those who died in hospitals, rather than at the front) were enshrined at Yasukuni. Ceremonies for all were held there at fixed dates. In Manchukuo, by contrast, ceremonies were held at numerous places and at various times. Each ministry of the central government, central police board, army district, province, and county office organized a committee for constructing monuments. Monuments and plazas for the war dead were built across the nation.

seollal-shrine(Offerings of food and drink at a temporary mini-shrine devoted to the spirits of dead ancestors, to whom male members of the family must bow to in ceremonies on Seollal and Chuseok. Source: DiscoverKorea)

For state-foundation gymnastics:

Most middle-aged and older South Koreans remember Jaegun gymnastics from the 1960s. “Jaegun chejo shiijak (let’s start Jaegun gymnastics), one, two, three, four!” The song was broadcast in the early morning across the country in the 1960s following Park’s military coup. [9] Most family members woke up to this song-like command and practiced Jaegun gymnastics, still practically asleep. Jaegun, meaning reconstruction (of the state or nation), was the catch phrase of Park’s regime. Several other songs about Jaegun were written and propagated for citizens and students to memorize. The model for Jaegun gymnastics was the Jianguo (state foundation or construction of the nation) gymnastics of Manchukuo. Jianguo and Jaegun had the common Chinese character of foundation or construction (“jian” in Chinese, “gun” in Korean). Jianguo was the essential word in Manchukuo, from “Jianguo spirit”, “Jianguo celebration day” to “Jianguo University” and “Jianguo exercise.” Hence, construction and reconstruction were the key words for Manchukuo and South Korea.

And still as big a part of the collective Korean psyche that there are still many references to it in popular culture, even that explicitly catering to young people that would barely remember it, if at all. One recent example of which was in a commercial for an eyeliner, as I discuss here:

Also of note:

In Manchukuo, exercise and sanitation were important fields in which the regime invested. There were special weeks of exercise and street cleaning. During this time, the human body came under the jurisdiction of the state. One month after its foundation, the regime prepared an athletic meeting….Imitating the German fascists, the rulers of Manchukuo were interested in the physical training of citizens….Through sports, Manchukuo sought international approval, for which the regime was so thirsty.

This importance of this will become apparent in later posts when I discuss Korea’s population control policies of the 1960s and 1970s, only marginally less rigorously pursued and personally invasive than their Chinese counterparts, and a good illustration of which is the withdrawal troops from the DMZ at the height of tensions with North Korea in order to implant IUDs and perform (voluntary, but rather highly encouraged) sterilizations on citizens in remote rural areas and islands. No, really.

crimson-dawn-by-spargett(“Crimson Dawn” by Spargett. Source: A Muchness of Me)

And finally, for anti-Communist rallies:

South Koreans became sick and tired of anti-communist rallies (bangongdaehue) or “Great gathering for destroying communists” (myulgongdaehue) under Syngman Rhee’s and Park Chung Hee’s regimes. Old folks and housewives were led by officials of city districts and neighborhood districts, and students led by teachers gathered in great stadiums and shouted anti-communist phrases. Again, the model was Manchukuo. In prewar Japan, of course, there was mass mobilization (through such organizations as the Military reservist association and National youth association). After the Manchurian Incident, in particular, jingoism spread among news media, magazines, movies, and literature. According to Louise Young, however, neither government repression nor market pressures can entirely explain the enthusiasm in the 1930s. It was voluntary. Journalists of Asahi or Mainichi supported the army, because they had conviction (Young 1998: 79). Also, the main enemy in Japanese society was not necessarily communist Russia (although it may have been for the Japanese army). Hence, there were no anti-communist rallies in Japan. By contrast, there were myriad anti-communist rallies in Manchukuo. Also, Manchukuo had many more occasions for rallies. Manchukuo was a pioneering place of maximum mobilization, summoning people day and night. The fascist gatherings of Germany and Italy flowed to both North Korea and South Korea through Manchukuo.

Hell, for all its anti-Japanese rhetoric, even at least one of South Korea’s national holidays (until 2005) ultimately comes from Manchukuo too:

In 1936, “tree-planting day” was added. There were other celebrations such as, those for Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations, the entry of Japanese soldiers to Manchuria, the visit of Japanese royal family members, and the abolition of Japanese privilege, even one for the founding of the post office.

For a little more on the national-security mania of South Korean military regimes, see here, but that will be the main topic of *cough* a much bigger Part Four.

But let me stop this post here, for Han’s section on “Inheritors in the 1970s,” in which South Korea sounds like a carbon copy of all the above, really needs to be read in its entirety, and my amount of copying and pasting has already become a little excessive. Apologies for that, and I don’t like looking lazy either, but I confess that the question of how to summarize an article that most readers would go on to read regardless proved such a stumbling block for me that it’s taken me nine months to return to it. And that was despite the fact that the next post in the series will be about something I read in 1997 which – in no uncertain terms – was such a revelation to me that without having done so I literally wouldn’t be in Korea or even East Asia today too, let alone have started this blog (but hence its title). Better then, to be a little lazy in this one post then to procrastinate any longer!

democracy-park-monument-busan(Source: Brian Yap (葉); CC BY-NC 2.0)

15 thoughts on “Where do Ajosshis Come From? Part 3: Manchukuo and The Militarization of Daily Life in South Korea

  1. having worked in Korean Public schools and hagwons, and even universities, I’d have to agree — there’s a whole psedo-military cultural at work complete with hierarchy / physical punishments / obeying before thinking

    Great post, real informative of the roots of this phenomenon.


    1. Thank you very much, but if you’re interested then I (and many commentators) talk much more about specifically that in Part 1, as opposed to the historical background I cover here and in Part 2 (and Part 4, to come).

      I’ll eventually return to the more contemporary, “micro” level (as opposed to the historical “macro” one here) in Part 5!


  2. Another fine piece of writing here James.

    I work in a high school that focuses on Art and Music. Much to my surprise they treat the students like military conscripts –even art teachers whacking painters, chewing them out for a slight wave or curl in their hair and all other forms of public humilation.
    Thankfully, the artisitic light shines through and these kids produce some phenomenal pieces of art.

    At the orientation day ceremony the new art students (conscripts) are gathered in the auditorium. The opening is the school’s dean barking orders into the mic for them to stand up, then sit down, stand up, then sit down. It is a sickening site.

    It is not what I would have imagined it to be like at an art school, where –in most places– the individual gift is to be nurtured not beaten into submission of the larger group coherence.


    1. Thanks Bobby. And good to hear about the creativity displayed by your students: although it doesn’t really have much of a place on the blog any more, that used to be a big thing of mine (see here), and I’m always dismayed by the technically competent but otherwise generally uniform and uninspired things produced by students at art hagwons here.

      For me also, it’s the orders being barked into microphones at schools that first gave me an idea of the whole militaristic vibe that this series is about, and even back in 2000 I thought when listening to things like that that probably NK and SK weren’t all that much different.


  3. Manchukuo as an historical and political topic has interested me for a while, probably since I saw “The Last Emperor”. Can you recommend some English-language books – preferably in e-format – or articles available online?

    On a lighter note, I can attest to the persistence of Confucian rituals, having had to attend jaesa on average once a month – including one memorial that occurs just days after the major Seollal ceremony that always irks all the women in the family especially – for over eight years. My younger brothers-in-law do not seem to want to continue their elders’ filial piety.


    1. Unfortunately, my own specialty has always been postwar South Korean history, and although I’m learning more and more about the Japanese colonial period by virtue of all the research I’ve had to do for this series, Manchuria is still very much at the limits of my knowledge I’m afraid, and to be completely honest the detailed paragraph on its conversion to Manchukuo above cobbled together mostly from Wikipedia sources.

      Other then the two articles online I mention then, the only other source I used (in Part Two) is the chapter “Colonizing Manchuria: The Making of an Imperial Myth” by Louise Young, in Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan, ed. by Stephen Vlastos, 1998, pp. 95-109. Sorry that’s not much help, but as I recall there are several books at least mentioned in the Wikipedia article on Manchukuo that would be as good a starting point as any, and there may be some online sources mentioned also.


  4. Louise Young has a monograph as well: Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (1998).

    I’ve been catching stray references to Manchukuo in fiction lately–Murakami’s Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Fumiko Enchi’s Masks–and becoming interested by its long arm, historically speaking. Thanks for writing and posting these essays! Looking forward to the next instalment.


    1. Forgive me if my brevity here somehow belies my gratitude, but nevertheless thank you for those everyone, and I’ll definitely try to look at them all once I have the time!


  5. Although its focus is on the contribution of the Manchurian experience to the formation of the NORK state and society, Two Dreams in One Bed: Empire, Social Life, and the Origins of the North Korean Revolution in Manchuria by Park Hyun-ok contains a lot of very useful information regarding the experience of Koreans in Manchuria generally. Ken Kawashima, a Zainichi, similarly provides an informative account of the experience of Korean workers in the Japanese metropole in his The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan, although you have to negotiate Kawashima’s rather Orthodox Marxist analytical frame.


  6. What you mention mirrors my own anecdotal observation of one of the great ironies of the modern South Korean society: for a country that has loathing Imperial Japan as a part of its national identity, it is perhaps one of the truest descendants to the old Imperial Japanese society. I would almost argue that it’s more so than modern Japanese society: even though the Japanese bureaucracy remained intact for the most part in the post-war era, the dismantling of the military took out a vital part of that heritage. For Korea though, they pretty much copied the old IJA template, and that heritage is still seen today.


  7. I’m so sorry that I missed this when it first came out. Very interesting indeed. It’s not often someone gives me so much information about 20th-century Korean history that’s completely new to me.


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