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Muddlings Both Helpful and Not-So-Helpful

First, the not-so-helpful:

It’s amazing what happens when someone really, really thinks that, say, “traditional” means “good.” For example (and yes, this is a paraphrase):

After reading the essay, I think that we can’t say Japanese radio in Korea was good for Korea. Yes, it allowed us to create a popular music of our own, at a time when intellectuals were insisting that traditional (court) music was the only “pure” Korean music. But since that music was influenced by Japanese pop music of the time, we can’t really say it was a way of resisting Japan. But since it had specifically Korean emotions and ideas expressed in it, we can think of this music as “traditional” anyway.

It’s not “subversive” because it is [unlike Korean traditional music] Japanese-styled, but it is “traditional” because it’ [subversively] presents specifically Korean and even anti-Japanese sentiments and emotions.


On the more helpful side, the panel discussion for the essay, though, was quite interesting, and the panelists did a relatively good job — as much as one could expect of undergrads — of picking out Robinson’s point, which was that by looking at the development and governance of radio in colonial Korea, we get a better sense of the complexity of the colonial experience: elites losing their hold on society, the masses finding means of subverting Japanese power and the power of Korean elites at the same time.

The following week, the main things I decided to highlight were:

  1. … the spit-and-baling-wire nature of actual coloniesm including Korea under Japan: that is, the fact that regardless of Japan’s stated intentions and policies, the realities of running a colony dictate that the left hand often has no idea what the right hand is up to. (For example, assimilation policy or no, the authorities running radio broadcasting in Korea ended up transmitting not just lots of Korean-language content, but even Korean-language content seemingly at odds with imperial policies, like subversive pop songs and programs on the preservation of the Korean language!)
  2. … the fact that, while everyone seemed so absolutely certain that every move by Japan was calculated to assimilate Koreans, the vast majority of subscribers for a long, long time were Japanese. I dared to suggest that perhaps broadcasting radio in Korea in actuality had as much to do with either providing the comforts of home to Japanese who’d come to Korea to govern the colony (just as USFK TV in Korea has much more to do with proividing TV entertainment for American troops here than assimilation of Koreans into the American popcultural hegemonic sphere), or to do with more abstract notions of what a “modern” or “developed” state required — telegraphy, radio broadcast, and so on.

All in all, it was a very interesting discussion, but also one in which extreme care had to be exerted — not the least by me. While I often found myself surprised in grading students’ reaction papers — ah, the endless rhetoric of “fighting against Japan” where Robinson demonstrates that things were, for some or even many, never quite so clear-cut as that — and even some hints of seeming paranoia surfaced. (One student went so far as to question Robinson’s respect for Korea because he chose to use the official Japanese terms that were in use during the colonial era by the Japanese government instead of translating them into Korean! I imagine Robinson has heard all manner of such stuff before, but I’d like to hear his response face-to-face with any student who said that to a man who’d spent his academic life studying Korean history.)

Personally, I find it’s very difficult when any comment that doesn’t support the status quo description of the past — black-and-white, oppressor-and-oppressed, manifestly decomplexified — is likely to be interpreted as pro-Japanese by at least a few people. So I was very careful, and also did my best to point out analogies with things today that showed the world is — and has long been — more complex than most of us usually imagine. That’s one of the reasons why, several years ago, I consciously decided not to pursue any general form of “Korean studies.” Looking at SF in Korea is one thing, but once you start looking at history, you start banging into unquestionable, immobile doctrines and (at least from some quarters) all kinds of assumptions about how much you can ever understand as an outsider, and life is too short for labouring against that whilst working to undersand ever better — or, my life is too short for that, anyway.

On the positive side, some students found the discussion thought-provoking and got a different look at history, sometimes in ways that surprised them. (At elast a few said they’d never thought about history in this way before, and were happy to have gotten a different perspective on the past and the role of media technology in their country’s history.) More than a couple raised the question, on their own, of whether some Koreans in the past might have embraced Japanese popular culture the way many Koreans embrace American popular culture today, and when they spoke of American media exportation in terms of “hegemony” I had fun raising questions about the ethics of “Hallyu”, the so-called “Korean Wave” that swept much of Asia in the past decade or so, resulting in the popularization of Korea media — especially TV — in places like China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

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