Busting the Myth of Jeju Island’s Topless Divers

Estimated reading time: 25 minutes. Image source: KpopStarz.

Imagine for a moment, there’s a bona fide reason to open a post about Korea’s female sea divers, known as haenyeo, with this image of iconic K-pop group Girls’ Generation promoting Gangnam.

Many of you will immediately recognize its age: Jessica, in the center, left the group in September 2014, two and half years after they were appointed as honorary publicity ambassadors for the district. Yet still their aura of stylishness, cosmopolitanism, and confidence remains so vivid, and district officials’ desire to link that aura to Gangnam so powerful, that this eight year-old advertisement can still be seen in airports even today.

Now imagine if, at the same time it was produced, it was an open secret that the Seoul Metropolitan Government had begun collaborating with a foreign government to set up brothels in Gangnam. Not necessarily K-pop themed, but brothels nonetheless. That by the time Covid-19 struck, the majority of overseas visitors to the district would not be the starry-eyed hallyu fans you’d expect from the sub-heading on the ad, nor medical tourists. Rather, they’d be stressed businessmen from that foreign country, encouraged by both their government and their companies to let off steam by going on sex tours to Gangnam. For some of the more high-ranking among them, their liaisons with Korean sex workers would even be arranged by Seoul government officials themselves, to better facilitate trade and investment deals.

That sexing-up of Gangnam’s image with Girls’ Generation? One hell of a coincidence. Whatever your feelings about sex work, you could ask serious questions about what choices the members had in their image being used to promote it. So too, if they ever made any profit from doing so, rather than all of it going to SM Entertainment.

You can guess where I’m going with this.

A sex tourism industry really was developed throughout Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, but especially on Jeju Island.

On the mainland, its history is complicated by that of the parallel sex industry set up for the USFK, and complicated further still by the earlier industry for (primarily) Japanese officials and male tourists in the 1930s, as we’ll delve into later. But on Jeju, the story after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan in 1965 is relatively simple.

There, according to Dr. Caroline Norma of RMIT University, prominent Japanese businessmen, private companies, and even the Japanese Ministry of Infrastructure, Transport, and Industry were directly involved in the setting up of tourist facilities and infrastructure in the 1970s—all for the explicit purpose of gambling and sex tourism for Japanese businessmen, and all with the full support of Korean president Park Chung-hee who wanted to develop the island as a tourist resort. Certainly, there was opposition in both countries. Yet by 1986, over 1000 women would be working in the 4 ‘kisaeng houses’ established, and the industry would come to be so integral to the island’s economy that the Jeju prefectural government would ask to be exempted from the anti-prostitution law of 2004—and saddled with swathes of abandoned buildings when that request was refused.

You can also guess that Jeju’s tourist brochures from the 1970s would be replete with glamorous photos of youthful models posing as Jeju’s haenyeo. For example, this one below, which at least features realistic outfits for the time (as I’ll explain in detail later):

Source left, cropped: hansoo7007; the highest quality image I’ve been able to find. Source right: National Folk Museum of Korea via Google Arts and Culture. Unfortunately, the only definitive dating of this image I’ve found is from a 1974 postcard, but it probably dates to at least several years earlier.

Here’s another with different models, superimposed over a background of local landmark Dragon Head Rock. This photo was likewise featured on the cover of a tourist brochure, on postcards, and on souvenirs:

Source: Prof.dr. R.E. Breuker, Leiden University, Marginalia on Northern Korea. Used with permission.

But forget about the burgeoning sex tourism industry behind the scenes for a moment. So too, the affected poses. Besides those, what is “off” about about these photos exactly? Which isn’t off about this one below, of genuine haenyeo from the early-1960s?

Source: Jeju Provincial Self-governing Haenyeo Museum via Google Arts & Culture.

Recall that I described them as “glamorous.”

It’s true the word can have many meanings, including—ironically for our titular subject—“busty” in Korean. But in this particular case, the first two photos are glamorous because their emphasis is on the models as women, not as haenyeo. It’s on their femininity. That’s why they still look like models, despite the authentic outfits and the equipment. Whereas in the last picture, all but one of the haenyeo are too busy to care less about the photographer, which is a good indicator they’re the real deal. If there’s any emphasis in the photograph at all, it’s on the profession.

If stressing femininity was the purpose in the former photos however, this raises the question of why it was necessary to use a haenyeo theme. Even on the added justification that the haenyeo symbolized Jeju, whereas, say, generic bikini models wouldn’t, there were significant numbers of haenyeo on mainland coasts who would have begged to differ.

Source: Dolga Dolga@YouTube. This statue of a Busan haenyeo is located in a popular drinking spot in the summer, and gets a lot of attention (and damage) from drunks.

The answer is that the decision was merely the continuation of a long, preexisting history of marginalization, exploitation, othering, and sexualization of Jeju haenyeo, as I’ll discuss later. But it was indeed from the 1970s when this stress on their femininity began in earnest.

Writing in 2013, Shin-Ock Chang from the Department of Sociology at Sungkyunkwan University described the result of four decades of that:

…femaleness is the most mobilized and utilized aspect of women divers in order to please visitors to the island. Women divers’ femaleness has taken the forefront in the island’s tourism development. The femaleness is pervasive in tourism related materials including magazines, posters, basalt sculptures, FRP (Fiberglass Reinforced Plastics) materialized caricature sculptures, and souvenir items. Indeed, the feminine character of women divers is what one comes across most in traveling on the island, and is particularly pervasive in places where tourists are expected to pass through such as hotels, restaurants, museums, shopping centers, coastline car driving roads, and beaches.

Left: K-pop singer Ivy in 2017, via enews24. Source right (cropped): leesangtaek.

Lest this sound like what some would disqualify as typical feminist overreaction over, say, taking harmless funny pictures in front of a couple of statues (a Jeju vacation ritual), consider that “pervasive” means precisely that. For instance, as of 2010, there were 33 haenyeo statues along the coastal roads of Jeju. Thirty-one of these, Chang notes, were the A to C types in Figure 4 below which emphasize and exaggerate the haenyeo’s “female body lines such as breast, hip, and legs.” Also striking was that 19 were of the A type, which she notes bears a strong resemblance to the 1972 photo of a model in a rather inauthentic and impractical bikini in Figure 5 (but still, as indicated through the picture title and equipment, an ostensible haenyeo):

Source: Chang, p. 24.

Moreover, with ubiquity comes familiarity and normalization, and the Korean public, mainland tourists, and foreign visitors alike tending to regard such objectifying as only natural. For example, also consider that last year, the Jeju Women and Family Research Institute released its 2019 Gender Impact Assessment of Jeju Tourism Contents Report (2019년 제주특별자치도 관광 콘텐츠에 대한 특정성별영향평가) in which it identified problematic gender and sexual stereotypes in those contents, and made recommendations on how to correct them. Among the many mentions of haenyeo, one example given was the unnecessary use of those sexualized statues of them used in the background of a video for children shown in the Jeju Dialect section of the Jeju Education Museum (pp. 55-56):

시청각 영상물에서 해녀의 이미지 가성적으로 표현됨. 유두, Y존, 섹슈얼한 포즈 등 지나치게 여성의 신체 일부를 드러냄으로써, 해녀의 신체 에대해 성적인 이미지를 강조하고 있음. 아울러 단어와 문장에 맞지않 은이미지를 사용하고 있음. 해녀에 대한 섹슈얼한 이미지 활용에 대한 문제제기는 이미 많이 진행되어 왔고 개선되고 있는 상황임. 이러한 변화에 맞추어 개선 필요. 특히 어린이/청소년 대상 전시물의 경우 미래 세대에 미치는 영향에 대한 고민 필요

☞ 특정성, 특히 여성에 대한 외모를 강조하는 이미지 활용은 지양. 이미지 개선 필요.

My translation:

The video includes likenesses of haenyeo. But those likenesses are in sexual poses and show off female body parts such as nipples and crotches, stressing an overly physical and sexual image of the haenyeo. Moreover, they are completely unrelated to the words and phrases of the Jeju dialect that are the video’s focus.

There have been many improvements made in the use of overly sexual imagery of haenyeo, and [this museum] needs to improve in line with these changes. In particular, in the case of exhibitions aimed at children and teenagers, it is advisable to consider the impact of such imagery on future generations.

☞ Special attention needs to be given to the rejection of imagery that emphasizes women’s bodies. Improvements to this imagery are necessary.

Yes, that is indeed unfortunate shading on the second statue, but it’s no fault of the video. It’s hardly prudish to wonder why the sculptor(s) were instructed to take that particular creative direction with it either, when everyone would balk at them doing the same for other professions.

But in addition to their shared stress on haenyeo’s femininity, there are two more common themes to be aware of.

Let me explain them by posing you a question. Do you think a 30-something haenyeo should have been chosen as the face of a tourism competition last year to win round-trips to Korea? When 9 out of 10 haenyeo are now over 60 years old?

Screenshot (cropped): Korea Tourism Organization.

There were good reasons. The Korean Tourism Organization promoted the competition through painfully scripted videos of young influencers in Korea waxing lyrical about literally everything, which automatically excluded all those too old to care less. Also, essentially the same role was envisioned for the eventual winners: a miserly 2 days and 3 nights of hotel accommodation were only provided if they chose to meet with the 1 of 30 Korean “friends” available they’d selected upon entering, of whom Go Ryeo-jin above was one. Realistically, very few young hallyu fans would have opted to spend such a limited time with a more representative haenyeo their grandmother’s age. In fact, in that sense, claiming in her own video that Go was the youngest haenyeo of all may only have further added to her appeal. It’s not like any hopeful competition entrant would have quibbled that it wasn’t actually true.

In fairness, the competition did offer the opportunity to meet elderly “friends” in other professions. But this (mis)representation of haenyeo is all too common. For example, when Go played a similar role the year before:

Source: The Traveller. The Korean subheading at bottom literally says “Jeju Naturalism Travel,” but probably “Travels Among Jeju’s Nature” is closer to the intended meaning. Note the anachronistic rubber flippers.

Hey, no-one’s blaming Go for her side-hustles. But Traveller‘s glamorous representation of haenyeo in particular is problematic. Not because feminists are natural spoilsports, but because, in addition to her relative youth, Go’s wearing one of the much flimsier traditional diving outfits like you saw in those glamorous photos earlier. Which were taken precisely when haenyeo stopped wearing such outfits in favor of wetsuits.

Yes, no working haenyeo has actually worn those for nearly 50 years.

So, unless explicitly set before the 1970s, any modern representation of haenyeo that doesn’t convey the reality that 9 out of 10 of them are elderly women in wetsuits, is misinformed at best and a deliberate misrepresentation at worst. And, again, begs the question of the agendas—or at least stereotypes and cultural baggage—of those choosing the representation.

Left: Her Kyungsuk, Hamo Jeju, 2014. Right: Lee Okyong, Gosan Jeju, 2013. Photos by Hyung S. Kim via BuzzFeed.
Source: Noby Leong@Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The logical outcome of the stress on haeneyo’s femininity is then, a stress on their youth. And the flimsy traditional outfits are best at highlighting both themes, which is why we encounter them far more often than wetsuits.

For example, in this fashion show as part of a haenyeo festival in October 2008, which—make of it what you will—I first found pictures of on the misogynistic, alt-right site Ilbe, where members usually post pictures of women only to ridicule or ogle them:

Source: Hankyung.

In fairness, young women have already been performing as haenyeo in various capacities for a very long time. Here are two examples from the 1960s:

Source: e-영상역사관, 1969 & 1966.

I would have loved to have continued with more examples here. In particular, of all the instances of haenyeo in Korean pop culture from the last 70 years that I’ve collected these past two months, as all those were surely both strongly influenced by and strong influences on this sexualized positioning of haenyeo. Through their sheer weight of numbers alone, I felt, it would have been obvious to anyone that this combination of femininity, youth, and overabundance of traditional outfits in them has always been a thing.

But that long list would have rapidly snowballed. Better then, to provide you with the tools to judge such representations of haenyeo for yourselves, wherever you may find them.

That’s our cue to discuss the traditional outfit in detail.

A screenshot from the 2009 TV series Tamra, the Island, with Seo Woo playing a haenyeo. Naturally, it prompted many “news” articles about the topless myth, and a great deal of speculation as to how much of her chest viewers would be treated to. (See my first impressions of the series when it came out here.)

Joo-Young Lee and Hyo Hyun Lee, both from the Department of Textiles at Seoul National University, offer a refreshingly simple guide to the traditional outfit in their 2014 examination of the loss of haenyeo’s physiological adaptions to the cold due to adopting wetsuits (p.4.):

Jeju haenyeo wore a bathing suit made of cotton-broadcloth in white or black (100% cotton with 30 counts, about 0.5 mm thick, and 8.5% water absorption at a dry condition) until wetsuits were supplied. Before the broad cotton cloth was imported from Japan [a 99.6 percent monopoly by 1919—James], the bathing suit was originally made of muslin (thin cotton cloth). Haenyeo preferred the broad cotton to the muslin bathing suit because the broad cotton was relatively thicker and stronger in salty water than the muslin cloth.

I’d add that according to the Jeju Weekly, the difference between the white and black outfits is that the former were made from muslin, woven from traditional looms, while the latter were made from broad cotton cloth that was machine-woven, then dyed black. I doubt this difference in material and method of manufacture continued until the 1970s however.

Source: Lee and Lee, p. 4.

From bitter experience, different romanizations can lead to considerable confusion. So, please take note of the original Korean:

  • The “juck-sam” referred to is “적삼.”
  • The “so-jung-ee” is “소중이.”
  • And the “mul-su-gun” is “물수건.”
  • However, although Lee and Lee only use “mul” in that last name, it simply means water, and every other source I’ve encountered attaches it to the other two names also—i.e., mul-juck-sam/물적삼 and mul-so-jung-ee/물소중이. So I will too.
  • Also, for your interest, su-gun also means towel, which is what it closely resembles.
  • Many sources (example) refer to the entire traditional outfit as “murot” or “mul-ot,” but this—”물옷”—simply means “water clothes.”
  • I’ve only ever seen white muljucksam, but am happy to be shown black ones existed.
  • And finally so-jung-ee, literally “valuable thing,” is often a euphemism for genitals, and probably no coincidence here.

Next, here’s a more detailed breakdown of the mulsojungee from a (Korean) 2013 article by Kim Hyun-mi and Jang Ae-ran of the Department of Beauty & Art at Cheju Halla University and the Department of Clothing and Textiles at Jeju National University, respectively:

Source: Kim and Jang, p. 359. Source below: Zum.

Very confusingly, Kim and Jang mention a jjokiheori/조끼허리 at the top rather than a muljucksam. But that length of it above, indicated by the dotted line extending into the mulsojungee, seems to be mistaken. A jjokiheori is a waistcoat-like covering that is so short it almost looks like a bra (see right), and is most commonly used with hanbok. However, much more commonly used on top of both men’s and women’s hanbok are jeogori (저고리), of which the women’s is usually as short as a jjokiheori, but has large loose sleeves that the jjokiheori lacks; indeed, the muljucksam has been described as a kind of jeogori, albeit with much narrower sleeves to prevent them dragging in the water. As I’ve only been able to find a single additional reference of jjokiheori being used by haenyeo then, and no pictures, there’s no reason to consider it further.

Besides which, it’s the maechin/매친 shoulder strap that’s crucial. This ensured that only the upper chest—but not the breasts—would be exposed if the muljucksam wasn’t also being worn. That, plus the fact that the mulsojungee seems to have come in black just as often as white, sharply distinguishes haenyeo from Japanese ama (海女):

Source, cropped: TheStory

But “crucial”?

Fixating on breast exposure may seem very childish. Not least, because as you can probably tell from the examples below (and as many readers with breasts will already have been well aware), it is obvious that the thin material would have hidden little, and that the functional side-slits for easy adjusting and removal, plus the practicalities of the job (including infant childcare), would in practice have meant frequent breast exposure. It’s also true that the haenyeo would have been working well away from the prying eyes of most men. And even if men did see them—such as fishermen in passing, handlers of the haeyneo’s boats, or men on their shore unloading the haenyeo’s catches—breast exposure was still routine outside of cities in Korea, even as late as the 1950s.

Source: Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
Caption: “Haenyeo at work while wearing muljeoksam” by Yang Ha-sun, 1966. Source: Haenyeo Museum via Google Arts & Culture.
Source: 에뜨랑제(Etranger)나그네의 길
Caption: “Haenyeo warming themselves up in groups after just leaving the water/공동물질을 마친 해녀들이 삼삼오오 짝을 지어 불을 지펴 언몸을 녹이고 있다 (1968년).” Source: I Love Jeju Magazine.
Source: Whimoon Alumni Association. Multiple NSFW images follow.

And yet the mulsojungee would rarely have naturally ridden down below the bust, nor the thick maechin shoulder strap come off, without the wearer quickly fixing them when able. Let alone a haenyeo forgoing wearing a mulsojungee entirely.

In other words, there’s a world of difference between photos like these, taken in passing while the haenyeo were too busy working to care less about the photographers, with photos of haenyeo openly revealing their breasts to them.

Rest assured there are multiple alleged examples from English and Korean google searches to be found of the latter. Armed with this knowledge of the outfits though, now you can instantly tell that a good, say, 95 percent of the nude images are actually of ama, whatever their captions may claim. And it is highly likely that those 5 percent that are indeed of haenyeo were staged.

Knowing this last to be a fact is a good basis on which to investigate why.

Source: @WhoresofYore.

When doing so, there’s three potential factors to consider.

The first is the influence of sexualized representations of ama. Frankly, I am unfamiliar with their traditional outfits, and can not speak to how realistic Yoshiyuki’s Iwase’s (influential) depictions of them topless were—while most are clearly glamorized and staged, many others seem to be little different from those we saw of haenyeo working, albeit with much less clothing.

Regardless, given Japan’s much more liberal media environment in the postwar era, ama were much more intensively and rapidly sexualized than their counterparts in Korea. For instance, their fetishization in film goes back at least as far Michiko Maeda’s Revenge of the Pearl Queen (1956), which tellingly also contained Japanese cinema’s first nude scene. By the 1970s, there were numerous soft-porn films centered around ama.

Source: film.ru.

This is important, as it’s plausible to argue that the glamorized depictions of haenyeo from the early 1970s were simply due to timing.

Which is ultimately quite mistaken. But still plausible.

In particular, and somewhat inconveniently for branding Jeju as a cishet man’s sexual paradise, that period saw the beginning of the most authoritarian phase of Korea’s military regime. This included a harsh crackdown on burgeoning youth culture, including on its attendant challenges to conservative standards of dress and restrictions on nudity in art and the media. If that likewise affected advertising, then using models in genuinely skimpy haenyeo outfits would have served the same glamorizing purpose as bikinis. Being authentic, they would have helped deflect potential criticism and charges of hypocrisy that using models in bikinis might have incurred.

Military regimes are not well-known for suffering public opinion however. It’s also unlikely women’s movements would have raised such trifling matters when so many of their members were routinely being brutally beaten by factory-owners and police.

Alternatively, many older readers may recall the very successful James Bond movie You Only Live Twice had been released just a few years earlier. While it was set in Japan, and only featured ama characters, the similarities in tone with the glamorized depictions of haenyeo we saw are obvious, particularly the 1972 example of a model in a white bikini (but the existence of which slightly contradicts the military crackdown rationale). Indeed, at least one former Peace Corps Volunteer admits the movie was very, very much on his mind upon his arrival on the island in 1973.

Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuki in You Only Live Twice (1967). Source, cropped: ScreenMusings. Source above-right: Anastasia Ashman.

But information about the movie’s (unlikely) popularity in Japan itself is hard to find, and regardless, Japanese businessmen traveling to Jeju for sex would undoubtedly have been much more influenced by ama characters in homegrown soft-pornography films. It’s also reasonable to assume that despite the outlawing of pornography in Korea, and despite official restrictions on direct cultural imports from Japan specifically, Japanese sex tourists’ stereotypes and objectification of ama would still have filtered across to the Korean public through various means, and influenced their preexisting notions of haenyeo.

This would have been especially true after Korean films and photos featuring semi-nudity became widely available in Korea, most notably after President Chun Doo-hwan’s “Sex, Screen, Sports” policy began in 1980. These haenyeo-themed examples from the Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper for instance, which have a very similar feel to Japanese examples from 10 or even 20 years earlier:

Source, left(1987), right(1979; cropped): Moreska@Flickr, used with permission. The red box on the right very helpfully explains that that model is “Film actor Kim Min-jeong symbolizing the haenyeo style. A woman with the sea and sky, radiating a pure warmth”

Meanwhile, Japanese pornography itself had become much more explicit by that stage. I’ll leave interested readers to find ama-themed examples themselves however, confining myself here to passing on the trailer of the (comparatively mild and amusing) Nympho Diver: G-String Festival (1981) instead. Partially, because of its conspicuous Korean subtitles, which title it as Lustful Haenyeo, and partially because it’s quite typical of the sort of adult movies I’d find playing on very late-night Korean television in the 2000s.

Lest I have come across as too critical and prudish in this post, for the record I’m actually a strong supporter of ethical pornography produced in safe environments, by and for consenting adults, and which focuses on women’s pleasure just as much as men’s. Yet I’m hardly ignorant and naive either, and am well aware that most pornography presents women as all too eager to have sex with just about any cishet man who bestows his gaze upon them. So I’m not surprised then, that the aforementioned Jeju Women and Family Research Institute’s 2019 report on tourism materials found numerous cases of voyeurism being normalized as both completely natural for men and just clean harmless fun, which I’m astonished haven’t been torn down yet in the wake of angry protests against Korea’s spycam epidemic. One of these examples (p. 58), from Jeju Loveland, depicts a haenyeo in all but name:

Incongruous Caucasian man in Victorian-era clothing aside (a whole other topic), I’ll leave readers to connect the dots to earlier, pre-internet examples.

The next factor to consider is that the 1970s weren’t the first time haenyeo had been used to sex-up the island for the tourism industry. One prior attempt comes from the 1950s:

Source, top-right: KRpia. Source, all others: 유자향내를 따라서.

Clearly, these photos are part of a series, of which more are available at the single source. Frustratingly however, no extra information about them is provided (my bad for not contacting the owner yet). Also, while the one at the top-right is available elsewhere, most notably in the KRPia Database, I lack the institutional access required to see if any additional information is provided there. (I’ll return to this practical issue later.)

An additional source of frustration is that although some of the outfits appear inauthentic, eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that in an earlier picture of genuine working haenyeo from the 1960s I provided, some of them too wore outfits with two shoulder straps.

After spending so much time researching and familiarizing myself with the traditional outfit, I frankly throw my hands up in despair at that observation. (And so miss that they could simply be a kind of tank-top?) Yet the fact remains that those 1950s photos above were obviously completely staged and glamorized, particularly of the bare-breasted woman. But why?

A tantalizing hint can be found through the following photograph in a June 2012 article in the Jemin Ilbo. Not only because it’s very similar to the above (albeit still very uncertain if it’s related at all), but because the caption there claims it was for a tourism shot:

Source: Jemin Ilbo.

Again frustratingly, that’s the entirety of the information about it. But if true?

Likewise, what to make of the following photo, which is also very staged, but with authentic outfits? Curiously, an authoritative source dates its production to exactly July 21, 1958, but doesn’t say on what that date is based. Nor indeed, any other information about it:

Source: Hankook Ilbo.

Considering Jeju had just seen 10% of its population killed in a brutal repression of an uprising in 1948-1949, and Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world in the decade after the war, then the very notion of producing tourism photos for the island seems absurd, let alone such titillating ones. And yet they stubbornly exist.

I apologize that the pictures raise more questions than answers. But I’m on much firmer ground with the final factor to consider, to be considered when viewing images 20-30 years earlier from the colonial period: that generally, Japanese colonial representations of Korean women were used to dangle the possibility of sex with locals, to present them as primitive and in need of civilizing, or both.

Source: Moreska@Flickr. Used with permission.

Alas I can not possibly do justice to the extensive literature on the development of the sex industry in colonial Korea driving that, let alone dare to publicly take a stance in the politically-charged debate on its links to wartime comfort women. So, I will confine myself to making two points about its scale, as this was a big factor in why postcards and posters of Korean women were so prolific.

First, among colonial empires, the Japanese one stood out for the number of men from the home country working in its colonies. To give a specific example: according to politics and international affairs Professor Atul Kohli of Princeton University, “there were 87,552 government officials in Korea in 1937, 52,270 of whom were Japanese, whereas the French state in Vietnam (relatively large itself compared to British colonies in Africa) only had 3000 French officials. In other words, for geographically-similar sized colonies the Japanese had fifteen officials for every French one.”

I don’t mean to imply that Japanese officials were the bulk of the clients, which wasn’t the case at all. But those numbers do suggest that, per capita, the sex industry catering to such a colonial presence would have been comparatively large. Also, secondly, why regularly visiting sex workers was considered completely normal and unremarkable.

Yet for Japanese living in the Home Islands, why travel to Korea for that?

“The most famous gisaeng during Japanese colonialism, Jang Yeon-hong.” Source: zixundingzhi. Note the accompanying prominent placing of the Japanese General Government Building, completed in 1926.

One reason was the relative ease, both because of the geographical proximity and because a huge industry for Japanese tourists was developed in the interwar years. Another was the persuasiveness of the ensuing extensive advertising. Also, as Hyung Il Pai of the University of California explains (p. 73), there were “millions of train schedules, pamphlets, and guidebooks estimated to have been distributed at major piers, train stations, and department stores throughout the empire.” Unfortunately, being designed to be disposable, very few of those have survived. But it’s unlikely their contents would have differed much from the sturdier pocket-size guidebooks and attractive postcards that do remain, and these had consistent themes. As Okpyo Moon from the Department of Anthropology at the Academy Of Korean Studies explains (p. 151):

While actual places visited by Japanese travelers concentrated on urban centres and newly constructed modern colonial facilities, many of the postcards printed and circulated during the Japanese colonial period emphasized images of pre-modern exoticism. For instance, most of the tourist postcards of the time depicted Korea with images of rural rather than urban, female rather than male, elderly people or children rather than lively young men, passive and static rather than active and moving, traditional and past-oriented rather than progressive and modern. The continuous reproduction and wide distribution of these images helped Japanese travelers to perceive colonial Korea as something to be conquered, enlightened, modernized, desired, and consumed.

In the last two decades, a big online market for these postcards has developed, driving up costs and making access more difficult. Also, most of the universities and museums with digital archives of the postcards, and, presumably, as much verifiable information about them as is available, either require institutional access or visits in person—and most are in the US. Add that such painful, emasculating depictions of Korea may not be a favorite subject of Korean historians, so the vast majority of scholarship on the postcards appears to be Japanese (which I don’t speak), then unfortunately it feels extremely difficult, here in Busan, to pursue the subject in as much depth as I’d like.

The January 1927 cover of Chang Han (長恨 Enduring Bitterness), a very rare examination of the colonial sex industry written by the sex workers themselves. Source: Adan Mun’go.

An informal survey of what material is publicly available however, demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of glamorous pictures of Korean women in them are of kisaeng. It would be very hypocritical and misleading to perpetuate their own stereotype that they were largely sex workers; however, the colonial (male) tourist gaze didn’t discern their internal distinctions and artistry, stressing their alleged sexual skills and availability instead. This context should be borne in mind when you see examples like those two a moment ago, and Moon (pp. 153-4) notes their obvious similarities with later tourism materials:

An apparent continuity can be observed between the pre-war and the post-war Japanese perception of Korea and in the ways in which tourism was later promoted in Korea. The tourist posters printed and distributed by the Korean government in the 1970s, for instance, invariably depicted women in Korean traditional dress either dancing or playing musical instruments such as [12-stringed Korean harps]. The continuity with kisaeng images in the postcards of the colonial period cannot be missed.

This depiction of Korean women in traditional outfits, accompanied by the tools of their trade, but in which it’s ultimately their femininity that is being highlighted, does sound somewhat familiar.

Meanwhile, of the other colonial postcards featuring women, many of the others were like that of the somewhat wizened-looking rural woman with exposed breasts. In an era when the adoption of Western dress was rendering breast exposure increasingly taboo in the cities, and covering them a signifier of (Japanese-led) modernization and civilizing, then the intention of the photographer was clearly to shame. For this reason, many Korean historians and the public have—not unreasonably—refused to accept that breast exposure was nonetheless still routine in the countryside then.

But because of what we know about the traditional outfit, we know that it was indeed for shaming purposes that the haenyeo below was told to pull down her mulsojungee to expose her breasts, in this, the single verifiable postcard featuring a haenyeo I’ve been able to find:

Source: Moravius@Flickr. Used with permission.

My source, to whom I’m eternally grateful, gave a little more information about its origins in their message to me:

[This] is part of a set of eight postcards which I bought from a Chinese dealer some 15 years ago. As you will know, postcards produced by Japanese businessmen in Korea for sale mainly to Japanese tourists and collectors are an important—and very often the only—source of photographic material of the colonial period. They often came in sets of several cards held together by a colourful printed envelope. The Cheju-do set also includes an explanation sheet (in Japanese, of course). These are the only Cheju-do postcards in my collection, so it seems Cheju-do was not popular with Japanese tourists at that time.

Actual tourists aside, it has been argued that glamorized posters and postcards of young, nude Jeju haenyeo were also produced, but I have yet to find any actual examples. Also, for readers’ interest, another similar, shaming depiction of topless Jeju haenyeo can be found in a Japanese newspaper from 1934 (p.24).

(Update) And then the following appeared. Alas, not from a Japanese postcard, but intriguing nonetheless:

With my considerable thanks to historian JiHoon Suk for passing it on, this topless, alleged Jeju haenyeo comes from the cover of the June 1928 edition of the Korean literary-intellectual magazine Donggwang (동광), with the caption:

“濟州道 海女들이 감(柿)를 드린 바지를 입고 潛水질하는 거슬 海邊에서 볼ᄯᅢ에는 꼭 南洋에 간 感이 잇다. 女子들은 어찌나 健康한지 젖가삼이 쑥쑥 나오고 血氣잇게 다니는 그 女子들은 陸地의 男子보다 몃배의 힘이 잇을 것이다. 市長에는 女子뿐이고 巨里에 낭구(木) 팔러 오는 사람도 女子이고 심할 것은 牛馬의 力으로 回轉시킬 돌방아까지 女子 3, 4人의 힘으로 도는 것을 보앗다. 陸地의 女子들이 濟州島 女子들의 하는 活動을 볼 때에는 참 놀랠것이 만흘 것이다. (寫眞은 濟州에서)”

Suk explains that, basically, “the intention here is to emphasize how strong and healthy the women of Jeju (including haenyeos) are compared to (even) men of the ‘mainland’,” and that specifically “when the caption mentions ‘젖가슴이 쑥쑥 나오고’ (Their breasts are well-built and protruding),” he is “quite positive that this is alluding to the common complaint that the Korean (mostly male but some females as well) intellectuals were talking at that time that Korean women lacked healthy postures and development and [were] thus inferior to more healthy (i.e. ‘Western’) bodies.”

Indeed, this was a common complaint at the time in China, Taiwan, and Japan, too, and I’m looking forward to covering the topic in more detail in the next post in my series on that.

I stress only alleged haenyeo though, as she’s clearly not wearing the traditional haenyeo outfit, and her bottoms closely resemble those of the ama featured in Iwase Yoshiyuki’s photographs taken 30 years later. We also only have the caption writer’s say-so that the woman was a haenyeo (there was no related article), and the editors were probably not all too concerned about accuracy when they were conjuring up a rationale for putting a nude woman on the cover. So, I’d wager that she was indeed an ama—or a least a haenyeo working elsewhere in the Japanese empire, of which there were many. Alternatively, the adoption of the ‘traditional’ outfit in the 1920s may have been much more piecemeal and gradual than I suggested. Either way, it just goes to show haenyeo’s long history of being sexualized, and my thanks again to Suk for passing it on.

But frankly, it’s high time to move on from (over)analyzing tantalizing, but ultimately very frustrating single examples the further back in time we go. Let’s conclude instead, by addressing four elephants (whales?) in the room.

The first is that simple geographical isolation meant that Jeju residents were inevitably marginalized and othered throughout Korean history. And Jeju haenyeo in particular, about whom most mainland Koreans would have known very little beyond that they dived and wore skimpy outfits, would have been very easy to conjure exotic, sexualized narratives about. An internal Orientalism, if you will.

The isolation driving this was significant until surprisingly recently. As the island is just a quick, cheap flight away today, it can be difficult to appreciate how difficult it has been to get to for most of its history, and that what later became the standard practice—flying to Jeju for honeymoons—only really began in the mid-1980s. In stark contrast, when the glamorized pictures of haenyeo were being produced in the early-1970s, the Seoul-Busan highway had only just been completed. Only 1 in 100 Koreans had cars then. Also, consider Koreans’ abject poverty at the time: still less than 1 in 10 had washing machines, refrigerators, phones, or televisions. Not for nothing would the Minister of Education in 1973, in a rare moment of candor, publicly praise sex workers for bringing in so much foreign exchange “with their cunts.” (Which is not to imply the sex workers weren’t still treated appallingly by the government, and aren’t still awaiting compensation even today.)

Source: Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea by Laura Nelson (2000), pp. 87-88.

Next is the stereotype of Jeju women as feminist Amazonians, which does not jibe well with much of what you’ve read so far. By all means, gender relations on Jeju have long been much more complicated and interesting than on the mainland, and today at least Jeju women do indeed generally have more equitable gender relations compared to their mainland counterparts. But I also invite you to read this journal article from 1976 for an academic perspective on those from the time, in which the author Soon Young-yoon bluntly concludes “Jeju martriarchy does not exist.” This assessment has not changed over time, Dr. Norma also noting that Jeju women were not particularly empowered in the 1970s (p. 417):

Even with [the income from tourism]…the island was still significantly poorer than the rest of South Korea. Women living on Jeju were, therefore, even more vulnerable to the demands of the Japanese men who traveled there in large numbers in the early-1970s.

Nor were haenyeo in any more of a position to challenge the sexualized narratives being written about them by the Korean and Japanese governments. Consider that even while celebrating haenyeo history and culture for instance, this short 2016 Arirang video also features the now elderly women themselves describing the realities of their dirty, difficult, and dangerous job. In particular, they point out that it was not at all their choice to do the work, and that they were always looked down upon for doing it:

“Life was so hard that we couldn’t live without harvesting underwater” (2:12), “There was no other way to make a living” (2:20), “It’s hard work, but what can we do…I sent my children to college on the mainland with the money I made doing this” (2:32), “Diving in the sea is such a harsh, low-esteem job” (5:14).

I highly recommend Joey Rositano’s blog about haenyeo for many more in-depth interviews in that vein, and his recently released book Jeju Island’s Haenyeo, A User’s Manual. (And if you’ve just read 6000 words on haenyeo, how can you not buy it?). Full disclosure: I am especially grateful for his giving me time for an interview, and regret that so little of what we talked about made it into this post. But one thing we did talk about, and which was also mentioned to me by my other friends living on Jeju, leads me to my third point: that the image of haenyeo held by most actual Jeju residents is much more folksy than sexualized. Moreover, that haenyeo are far more concerned about increasingly severe pollution and other existential threats to their livelihoods caused by Jeju’s tourism industry, than about nipples on a few statues.

I am happy to defer to his and others’ experience of Jeju, let alone of the voices of haenyeo themselves, and look forward to hearing readers’ own impressions and stories as visitors or residents. I also acknowledge that most of the sources used here are somewhat old, and that there have been important developments in the last decade or so in the preservation of haenyeo history and the amplification of their voices.

And yet, while their modern image may indeed be moving well beyond the sexual stereotypes discussed here, their lack of control and profit from it sounds depressingly familiar. As a young haenyeo explained in an interview on Rositano’s blog in 2017 (my emphases):

Q) Nowadays there are a lot of touristic items such as jewelry, statuettes and other items featuring the women divers’ image. You’ve become a symbol of the island.

A) I think that it is good and realize that it is also due to the push for Unesco designation. It is good that we are recognized and I guess the outside world has the image in their mind that we are tough because we are divers. But we don’t seem to benefit from these touristic items. The people who make them are the ones who benefit. The ama…are more well-known in the world than we are, and in their villages the divers receive money for the touristic items they sell. This is not the case on Jeju Island. They (the local government) could make a certain item particular to each village and give us a cut of their revenue, but they aren’t doing this.

Q) How about when you are photographed?

A) That, too, doesn’t benefit us. It benefits the photographer….

Source: The Jeju Weekly. Caption: “Tamna Sullyeokdo,” painted in the early 1700s by artist Kim Nam-gil at the order of County Magistrate-cum-Navy Deputy Commander Lee Hyeong-sang, depicts haenyeo wearing white clothes as they dive near Yongduam Rock in Jeju-si. Inside the white circle, you can see the haenyeo working under water. (Photo: Korean Maritime Museum Webzine)

Two months ago, I was inspired to start writing this post by reading that in fact, the haenyeo had been topless over a century ago, our final elephant in the room. Frankly, my choice of title is a little misleading (sorry), but I was just too attached to the double-entendre to give it up.

The Chosun Ilbo, August 2015. For a discussion, see Korean Sociological Image #92: Patriotic Marketing Through Sexual Objectification, Part 1.

A century is a long time though, and realizing why the image of topless divers endured nonethless, and who it was for, I couldn’t help but recall Seungsook Moon’s must-read below. For it was from her that I first really grasped how the Korean government, military, and industry has long used, and literally even broken women’s bodies for nationalist and developmentalist ends. All too often, with little to no input or agency from women themselves, and over their desperate opposition.

It’s very difficult now, not to place the sexualization of haenyeo on the same continuum.

Right: From 207, then 17-Year-Old K-pop star Tzuyu being indirectly presented as “A Special Gift for [those] Korean Men” who have completed their military service.

With that, I am absolutely not saying every young, attractive woman in a traditional haenyeo outfit you’ll see will have been placed there with ulterior motives. But the next time you do encounter one in a tourist brochure, webtoon, talkshow, television series, or movie, I urge you to consider who chose to represent haenyeo that way, and ask why exactly.

Or indeed, to always ask who and why about any cultural text. Especially when you’re not entirely sure the people in them are the ones calling the shots.

Thanks for reading.

(Many thanks to Joey Rositano, ResearchProjectKorea, Hyung-Gu Lynn, Prof.dr. R.E. Breuker, Moreska, Moravius, and JiHoon Suk for their generous assistance and advice.)

Related Posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

9 thoughts on “Busting the Myth of Jeju Island’s Topless Divers

    1. Thank you very much for passing those on. Actually, I’ve already known about and enjoyed seeing your collection for many years now, being especially amazed by the 1950s shots of Gwanganli Beach in Busan where I’ve lived for the last 17 years, and am very grateful for your posting them to Flickr.

      Specifically about the Busan haenyeo though, I remember first seeing that image you link to on another blog here, which in hindsight must have come from your collection.

      1. so many of those images have ended up in countless Naver, Daum, and Twitter sites. I’ll notice a jump in viewer stats, but I usually can’t tell where all the traffic is coming from. It’s hard to find good sets of slides any more-lots of competition from people who are willing to bid way more than I can. The last set I bid on was a great set of ’50s Kodachromes taken in Korea. I bid $600-they went for $1200.

Leave a Reply to Jeremy Seligson Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s