Book Review: Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea 1910-1945

Book Review: Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea 1910-1945

Culture | Jan 17, 2018 / by Suvasree Dutta
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Although Colonialism had been a dominant trend in world for several decades and in most cases, centuries, first-hand accounts about the colonized people are absent. We have read about colonialism, its nature, duration, effects, and the like; we have seldom come across accounts narrated by the colonized. The author, Hildi Kang is an expert of Korean History and had always been interested in Asian Studies. The book “Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea 1910-1945”contains “stories” of Korean people who lived through the period of Japanese colonization in Korea. Such accounts might be biased, as the author herself notes, however her aim was “to seek out the richness and complexities of life under Japanese rule by collecting oral histories from Koreans who had lived through those times”. Such biases are common in scholarly accounts of history also. Moreover, the academic value of oral narratives can never be ignored because they include the experiences of the people at the grassroot who are easily ignored by historians.


The book contains interviews of thirty-six men and fifteen women who lived in Japanese-colonized Korea. The book gives us critical information about the lives of these men and women.

EDUCATION: Out of the total thirty-six men, five had never received any kind of education and out of the fifteen women, four had not received any education. From the interviews of the eleven women who had received education we can see that all of them were enrolled in primary or high schools. None of them were educated in sodangs (village schools). Yi Okpun, for example, notes that she never went to a sodang because her mother was against it and considered it to be a waste. However, we also come across exceptions like Yu Tokhui who was denied education because “it was too far to go to the village”. However, she was adamant about going to school and finally succeeded. Educating women was a taboo in the villages and hence they were not allowed to enroll in sodangs. The five men who did not receive formal education cited reasons such as poverty, ignorance on the part of their parents, and inaccessibility to schools, which prevented them from getting a formal education.

STRUGGLING AGAINST THE COLONIZERS: The book also tells us about the interviewees’ reaction to tightened control by the Japanese after the Korean Independence Movement. This tightened control brought was accompanied by an element of “personal choice” which included deregulation of certain businesses, hiring of a small percentage of Koreans into the Japanese administration, expansion of education, and publication of Korean-owned newspapers. Japanese colonialism drained Korea but also provided the Koreans with token opportunities. All the interviewees except Kim Sangsun, had participated in the demonstrations for independence in their own way. They narrated their experiences of shouting “mansei” (long live/ten thousand years) and participating in marches, Most of them narrated stories of people they knew who had been martyred in the movement or had to live in hiding because they were participants in the movement. Pak Songpil, for example, narrates the story of his aunt who had led a demonstration in Masan and went through a cycle of arrests and escapes till she finally got out of prison after a long and tiring trial. Another example is Yi Chaeim who narrates the story of a schoolgirl named Yu Kwansun who was martyred at the age of sixteen when she led a demonstration. She was imprisoned and tortured where she died. The author notes that one of the worst acts of cruelty during the movement was when twenty-nine people were locked in a church and it was set afire. Everyone inside the church was burned to death.

CHOOSING BETWEEN THE NEW AND THE PREVAILING: Kang Pyongju tells us the story of his conservative and traditional grandfather who made major changes in his life after his encounter with “free thinkers” and converting to Protestant Christianity. He chose a name for his daughter-in law and added it to the local registry for citizens. He took this decision due to the Kabo Reforms of 1894-95 which included a law that said that women must be listed by name in the family’s household register. Until then women were listed as daughter-in-laws of particular households without their name.  He also sent his son to a western-style school at the age of twenty-one and after completing school, his grandfather sent his son away from the village to learn western medicine. Kang Pyongju’s father thus became one of the first people to graduate from Keijo Medical College. On the contrary Yi Sangdo narrates the story of his father who rejected everything western and propagated a new religious movement called the ”Tonghak” which brought together elements from Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. His father was averse to the Japanese colonialism as well. Yi Sangdo on the other hand did not consider the Japanese to be all that bad. He argued that in the rainy season, their village would get flooded but later the Japanese built reservoirs, dams and bridges. He was also impressed by their organization skills and innovations. These narratives show that not everyone was averse to the arrival of the Japanese. Several people embraced the changes by attending Japanese schools, breaking away with long held traditions like men cutting off their long hair and sporting short hairstyles, and changing their names to Japanese names. There were also people who rejected these changes and branded them to be defiling. This group also criticized the people who accepted the change and were hostile to them.

REPRESSING THE COLONIZED: Some of the changes were implemented through coercion by the Japanese. A tight network of spies and informers worked alongside the police, and by 1918 Koreans who were branded as rebels were arrested and tortured without having any idea about the kind of charges that were leveled against them. More changes happened in 1931 as the power of personal choice slid into the background and the citizens had to deal with dizzying pressure to speak in Japanese, honour the Japanese Emperor, and change their names to Japanese. Some interviewees narrated their stories of active participation in the Freedom Movement which led to imprisonment and changes in their lives. Yi Hajon, for example, was part of a group which was active in the independence struggle. He was arrested when he was in Tokyo and had been imprisoned. He underwent severe torture when he was being interrogated. Such treatment was meted out by not only Japanese but also by Korean secret police detectives.  Japanese coercion reached its peak during the Second World War when coercive laws such as laws requiring Koreans to recite the Pledge of Imperial Subjects (1937), requiring Koreans to speak in Japanese only (1938), requiring them to worship at Shinto shrines (1939), and requiring Koreans to change their names to Japanese (1940) were implemented. Although Koreans who were thought to be engaged in “important” vocations were spared from military drafts, others were forcefully taken and forced to work at Japanese shipyards. Towards the end of the war, Japan also started forcefully drafting Koreans for military service as their own population was on the brink of exhaustion.

COMFORT WOMEN: A very important part of this book is the inclusion of the accounts of Comfort Women. Thousands of young, unmarried Korean women were mobilized into the Voluntary Service Brigade and told that they would be part of the war effort as nurses or factory workers. Instead they were taken to “comfort stations” at the war front and expected to provide sexual services for the soldiers. If they refused, they were beaten and denied food. Kim Pongsuk for example, narrated her story where she was summoned to an elementary school yard with several other women when she was twenty years old. She was told that she would serve the Emperor and the great cause of the Japanese empire by becoming nurses and taking care of the Japanese soldiers. They received training before they were sent to the front. However, she didn’t want to do it and hence, listening to her parents’ suggestions, she got married. Although she was spared, her husband was drafted to the military soon after and once he returned he gave her an account of the comfort women called Teishintai (Volunteer Corps.) by the Japanese. She described how men lined up outside the barracks doors where the women were and took their turns. Each man was given a certain amount of time and the girl “just lay inside”. Each door had a long queue of men waiting outside for their turn and “if he wasn’t out on time, the next man went right in and yanked him out”. The woman used a chalk or pencil to make a mark on the wall near her head for each soldier she serviced. The women thought that they would be paid but did not receive anything according to her. The experiences of the Comfort Women have just started gaining considerable attention and although women are vocal about their experience some of them are afraid to open up due to the taboo associated with it.


From a thorough evaluation of the book, I have concluded that colonialism affects the colonized in a similar manner. India itself was subjugated to British colonization and hence Indian colonial history is replete with examples of repression every time an assertion of independence is made. Although first-hand oral history is negligible about British colonialism in India, we can gauge the experiences of our forefathers through stories narrated to us by our parents or grandparents. Such narratives might also be biased. However, such biases are also noticed when we read accounts of history from the eye of the colonizers. The book “Interpreting a Continent: Voices from Colonial America” contains accounts of the colonizers view of the colonized. It does contain traces of the point of view of the colonized, for example in the chapter ‘Montagnais Indians on their First Encounter with the French, Early 1500s’, it does not contain the perspective of the colonized. Nevertheless, British colonialism also gave Indians opportunities for obtaining a higher education, innovations which made their lives easier, and several other benefits as we have seen in the case of colonial Korea as well. However, these came at a cost which damaged the colonized countries. The book contains valuable information about the lives of so-called normal people of Korea and the information is easier to relate to because Japanese colonialism was not very different from British colonialism in India. This book can be read by both the layperson and the specialist because it can be interpreted either as day-to-day stories of Korean people or narratives of people whose lives were adequately and sometimes greatly influenced by colonization. The language of the book is lucid and parentheses are used for interpolated translations. As Andre Gide correctly quoted “The reason for writing is to shelter something from death”. The author has very carefully collected and shared the memories of people who through their conscious effort and unconscious acceptance, intertwined the disparate themes of political oppression, economic gain, and personal passage from the ancient to the modern world and presented a picture of the lives of the ordinary people of Korea during the Japanese occupation.



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Written By Suvasree Dutta

M.A. in Political Science (Pursuing)

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