Truth in Scholarship
Unfortunately, when a country dominates another, the first thing lost is the truth. It is equally true that those who control a country also control its history. Such was the case of Korea, when it was occupied by Japan ( from 1910-1945 ).
From the middle to late nineteenth century, near the close of the Chosun Dynasty, Japan had designs on the Korean peninsula, in its first step toward forming a Greater Japanese Empire. In order to get other nations to accept its eventual annexation and colonization of Korea, it first needed to establish historical precedent that it once controlled that country. To that end, Japan altered history, ranging from distorting historical facts all the way to downright fabricating them. Those fabrications have been well documented, but still many Western historians accept the distorted history of Korea as fact. How can that be?
When Korea finally opened its doors to the West, in 1882, after signing a treaty with the United States, then other countries, it was a relatively poor, technologically deficient country, in relation to Japan. Japan had opened up about three decades earlier and embraced Western technology and eagerly sought modernization. While Korea was, many centuries earlier, the big brother of Japan, it decayed into just a poor cousin with the dying Chosun Dynasty. Korea’s introduction to the West was through Japan, so that country controlled what information about Korea was conveyed to other countries, to a great extent. When the annexation and colonization of Korea happened, the history of Korea, as written by Japan, was basically written in stone and accepted as the truth.
What are some of the fallacies about Korea? Probably, the biggest one is of ‘Mimana’, known in Korean as “Imna Ilbon Bu’. In reality, Imna was really no more than a Japanese trading post, during the Three Kingdoms Period, on the very southern tip of the Korean peninsula, near Pusan. According to the Japanese version, Imna mirrored the territory of the Kaya Federation. The Japanese even claim having subdued the Shilla Kingdom!
In reality, the Japanese, who allied themselves with Kaya and the Baekje Kingdom, were little more than mercenary pirates, from a country that, at that time, had no real central government and had severe feudal problems of their own. That is hardly a national military force capable of conquering another nation.
Archaeological and historical evidence has shown that, in actuality, Korea is largely responsible for the founding of the Japanese imperial family. Of course, it is not something that is widely accepted, or even discussed, in Japan.
Japan tried again to gain a foothold in Korea in the late sixteenth century, during the reign of Hideyoshi of Japan. Largely, Japan succeeded, but due to naval defeats, along with political upheavals at home, they gave up. Relative peace existed for the next two and a half centuries. Japan tried gaining influence in Korea, but was rebuffed time and time again. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Daewongoon (the regent of Korea and father of future King Kojong) that Japan finally had its chance. In 1875, Japan launched an attack on Korea and in 1876 secured a treaty with that country. Just a few short years later, Western countries joined in and basically carved up the peninsula into spheres of influence. Korea’s historic suzerain relationship with China was terminated, and Korea became a pawn in international geopolitics.
In 1905, Korea’s sad fate was sealed when the United States and Japan agreed on regions of influence in the Taft-Katsura Memorandum. In return for recognizing Japan’s control of Korea, Japan would likewise recognize the United States’control of the Philippines. When King Kojong tried to show to the world Japan’s aggressive policy toward Korea, at the Peace Conference at The Hague, in 1907, Japan responded by forcing King Kojong to abdicate the throne. Korea was one step closer to not existing as a sovereign nation (and it really only had sovereignty then, in name only).
From that time on, Korea had no chance at all of showing to the world its true history. Japan now controlled the country, so it also controlled its history. The Japanese completely rewrote Korean history, and even Koreans themselves were forced to learn a very distorted version. Fortunately, for Korea and the world, Koreans would not so easily give up the truth. Though many records were lost or destroyed, many others survived.
Still, it is an uphill battle to change the world’s perception of Korea and its history. Even though Japan lost World War Two militarily, it won the war economically and scholastically. Japan was quickly rebuilt with Western help, while Korea was, for the most part, forced to pull itself up by its own bootstraps. Korea was perceived by the rest of the world as a backward cesspool, while Japan, once the darling of Asia, was welcomed back into the fold of Westernized nations. The fratricidal war on the peninsula five years after WWII did not help the West’s perception.
As Japan was seen as cultured and scholarly, andthe histories written about Korea by Japanese sources were really the only ones in English, they continued to be accepted as factual. Korean historians had not yet had the chance to publish works about Korea in English and, when they finally did, the Japanese versions had become firmly entrenched in Western societies. To this day, the Japanese version of history is taught as fact in many Western institutions of higher learning. I have personally sparred with Western Japanists over Korean history.
One organization I have recently come to know is VANK (Voluntary Agency Network of Korea). They are dedicated to, as they say on their web site, “enhancing the image of Korea in cyberspace”. Hopefully, through the efforts of VANK and interested world scholars, Korea’s true history will fully be known.
Thomas Duvernay, Professor of Youngnam University