Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze by E. Taylor Atkins

I cannot actually post my review of the book here — a review I’ve just finished, finally, though I got the book in late November. I can’t because I’ve actually just finished writing the review and need to send it to the Japan Times, for whom I was asked to review it.

However, there are a few points I think are interesting, and worth mentioning here, not only because they didn’t fit into my review but also because they will probably interest readers of this blog who find the Korea-related or expat stuff interesting. If you’re one of those, read on…

One of the things that grabbed me, while reading this book, was how much of the stuff Westerners in Korea complain about, that Japanese were complaining about back in the colonial era.

An example of this is clothing. Japanese anthropologists especially liked to complain about Koreans’ clothing, which if you will think back to the early 20th century was quite different from what most people wear today–it was mostly white ramie fiber clothing. Because it was all-white, it tended to get dirty quite easily, and as a result, according to those Japanese anthropologists:

  • ridiculous amounts of energy went into laundering clothes in Korea
  • it looked like everyone was constantly in permanent mourning (because white signified death to Japanese observers, presumably; supposedly it does for Koreans too, but white clothing didn’t necessarily bring up the association, I guess)
  • Koreans, especially women, tended to avoid any kind of exercise or physical activity as it presented the risk of dirtying their white clothing

That last point reminds me of the comments many Westerners have made about the behaviour of Koreans in fitness clubs, such as this one by James — it seems Korean women have been less likely to exercise hard, for reasons of appearance, for far longer than anyone thought… if the Japanese anthropologists are to be trusted, anyway.

(And yeah, James, you need to check out this book too.)

There are some other interesting things, such as: did you know that Korea had its own colonial-era version of Josephine Baker?

Sure, sure, that’s a simplification, but the parallels are really interesting. Her name was Choi Seunghee, and she was a dancer. No? Of course not: she ended up moving to Japan, because it was easier to perform Korean dancers there than in Korea during the colonial period. Like Josephine Baker, she scandalized Koreans by the sexuality of some of her dances, and the skin she showed, and like Baker she became fluent in the language of her adopted homeland, and embraced it culture. But for a part of her career, she was praised as a specifically “Korean beauty,” as well as some kind of embodiment of pan-Asian dance aesthetics. She was really, really famous in her time, too, though she’s mostly forgotten now. The fact that she went native in Japan may be part of the reason nobody in Korea seems to remember her (not even as well as we Westerners vaguely recall Josephine Baker), but it probably has a lot more to do with her repatriating to North Korea after independence. Ooops. Yeah, that apparently did not go well for her.

What else?

Oh, yeah–rumors. Choi, mentioned above, moved to Tokyo when she was 15 and undertook a course of grueling study there. Since she was from a rich family, the rumors began to fly in Seoul, mostly that she’d been sold off as a gisaeng because her yangban family needed the money. (Her mother urged her to kick ass at dancing, as a way of “responding” to the rumors.) There’s a lot here that is echoed in the stories of Kpop stars now: the “grueling training” beginning at an early age, as a teenager; the vulnerability to rumors; the penchant for average Koreans to gossip and make up nasty stories about people–whether because they’re rich, or because they are in the performing arts.

(Oh, what I’d give to see what people would have posted on the Net in those days, if Korea had had a net. Then again, I think that about different moments in history quite often…)

Oh, then there’s the Arirang craze. I’ve heard Arirang got popular in Japan, but Atkins goes right back to the start of the Arirang craze in Korea. Now, that overplayed, all-too-familiar version of Arirang we all have heard:

… of course isn’t the one-and-only version of the song. There were plenty of regional versions, each one different, and plenty of other versions that cropped up at different times as well–anti-monarchic, anti-Japanese, anti-dictatorship. As well, though some like to talk about how ancient the song is, others insist it is very modern, and rooted in work-songs of the late Joseon Dynasty.

In any case, one funny thing is that the real craze for Arirang was set off by a movie of the same title. I didn’t know that, but I bet some of my readers did, so… the more surprising thing is that, as I mentioned earlier, Japanese pop music listeners somehow got really into Arirang. Or, at least, Japanese pop music composers did. “Arirang” seems to have taken on a generic quality for some, comparable to a “blues” and with a similar sentiment at the core. Atkin’s book mentions a “Hawaiian Arirang,” which is a pretty strange thing to imagine. And this popularity continued well after the independence of Korea.

Atkins notes how a compilation of different versions of Arirang that was released a few years ago claims that if North and South Korea were ever to be united, Arirang would become the national anthem. He raises a question that is interesting — “Which Arirang?” but I am doubtful that there would be much debate: I suspect the whole would end up having whatever the South decided to have as the anthem.

Anyway, for an interesting book about the contradictory impulses and anxieties that directed Japanese colonial policy, anthropological practice, curatorial efforts, and popular culture reception during Japan’s occupation of Korea, the book is worth checking out. The book didn’t give me everything I was looking for — as I make clear in the review I’ll be mailing in later — but it’s worth your while, just the same.

5 thoughts on “Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze by E. Taylor Atkins

  1. Thanks for the recommendation Gord: have added it to my wishlist at What The Book.

    Meanwhile, Choi Seunghee sounds very familiar, but maddeningly I’ve been unable to find a reference to her in any of my books so far. But one thing I can add to your post for anyone interested though, is a Korea Society podcast on the origins and popularization of Arirang: (link).


  2. James,

    Thanks for that link. I’ll check it out. Choi wasn’t familiar to me, anyway, though she was very famous and I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s been discussed in one or another of your books.

  3. I’ve heard of Choi Seung-hee in a “History of Dance” class I took in my second year of uni. My memory is VERY hazy, but as I remember she wasn’t able to be very influential for the reasons you described, despite her fame (dance geeks know about her, “normal people” don’t). She was seen as a trailblazer, but the title of father/mother of Korean dance is instead hotly disputed between two other figures. I just posted because I was glad to hear about her.

  4. Judy van Zile’s “Perspectives on Korean Dance” (a very diverse read, by the way) features a chapter on Choe Seung-hee (or Ch’oe Sŭng-hŭi, as she is spelled there), focusing on her US tour in the late 30s, at the height of her fame in Japan and Korea.

    Based on numerous documents (mostly promotional material), van Zile discusses how Choe was presented to the public (ranging from Asian goddess to tricot-sporting modern dancer) and how her spectators reacted to her program that was changed heavily during the tour.

    A very interesting read, also with a lot of historic pictures of Choe and some possible influences on her performances. You can read quite a bit here (p. 185 ff.):

    Best, Jan

  5. zzyzx,

    Well, it’s nice to know that Korean dance geeks know about her. I wish I could find some video footage to see what her dancing actually looked like.

    Did she sing too?


    Thanks for the information and the link! Maybe I can find out about any recording career she had over there.

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