Three years after brothers stopped killing brothers halfway around the world, the Edo shogunate finally ended. The Bakumatsu, or final act of Japan’s feudalistic government that had ruled since 1600, began its descent in 1853 and was finally overthrown by the Imperial Court in the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The Empire of Japan was thus established. Wasting no time, on December 19th of that year, the new Japanese government messengered a letter with the news of the sovereign’s founding to the government of Korea’s Joseon dynasty. The Koreans refused the letter because it contained Chinese characters 皇 (“royal, imperial”) and 勅 (“imperial decree”). The political system of the day dictated that only the Chinese emperor was at liberty to use these regal characters. Knowing Japan’s growing power, China beseeched Korea to receive the letter. To this day, the refusal to recognize Japanese imperialism by the peninsular nation 80 miles distance from their respective shores has yet to be lived down.
In the ensuing years, tensions grew culminating on the morning of September 20, 1875. Under the Japanese command of Inoue Yosjika, the Un’yō had been dispatched to survey Korea’s western coastal waters. In need of water and provisions, the ship put ashore on Ganghwa Island – which in the prior decade had been the site of violent confrontations, a brief French occupation and an American expedition. Memories fresh and tensions high, shots were fired from batteries of Korean forts. The natives’ matchlock muskets were no match for Japan’s modern rifles. The gunboat diplomacy that emerged from that incident produced 1876’s ironically named Japanese-Korea Treaty of Amity. In exchange, Korea lost status as a protectorate of China, was forced to open three ports to Japanese trade and granted extraterritorial rights to Japanese citizens.
In the ensuing years, multiple incidents followed; each chipped further away at Korea’s sovereignty. It started with the Mutiny of 1882, which briefly ceded control back to Korean independent rule, but that reprise was quickly quashed by Chinese troops dispatched to Seoul to restore order. This was followed by a litany of entanglements, from 1884’s Gaspin Coup to 1894’s Donghak’s peasant revolution, which brought on the first Sino-Japanese War, and Japanese agents’ October 8, 1895
’s assassination of the 43-year old Korean Queen Min. The “reforms” that followed moved power increasingly into the hands of those in The Land of the Rising Sun. On August 22, 1910, Japan formally annexed Korea.
The 35 years it took to bring Korea to its knees was followed by a 35-year period of occupation and brutal subjugation akin to cultural genocide. Schools, universities, public places and movie theaters forbade the Korean language while authorities burned more than 200,000 Korean historical documents. Millions of trees were chopped down to make way for non-native species that rendered the country unrecognizable. One third of the historic buildings in the Gyeongbokhung complex, Korea’s royal palace built in 1395, were razed. Religion was not spared as Japanese Shinto shrines were the location of compulsory worship. The Japanese government went so far as to eradicate Korean surnames in 1939. Nearly 725,000 Korean workers were forced laborers in Japan and its colonies and as World War II loomed, Japan drove hundreds of thousands of Korean women into lives as “comfort women,” sex slaves in military brothels.
War itself proved no reprieve. In 1945, the Unites States and the USSR took control of the peninsula and ended Japan’s rule there. Korea was then divided up into two occupation zones that in theory would be temporary. Instead, within five years, the Korean War broke out, ending with a reunification that still alludes. One must wonder how, with still open wounds related to Japan’s brutal occupation, a liberal South Korea democracy reflects on Japan’s economic savior being the very same United States that liberated the country.