Remnants of the Japanese Colonial Era; Part I

Searching for the Remnants of the Japanese Colonial Period

Part I: Traces in Old Cheju City

Although Japanese rule over Korea officially began starting from the annexation of Korea in 1910 until the end of the Second World War in 1945, Japanese penetration and domination over Korean affairs had begun since the end of the 19th century, especially after the 1876 treaty, which opened up Korea to Japanese interests. Like their mainland counterparts, Cheju islanders found themselves increasingly threatened with Japanese economic and political power even before a more substantial Japanese presence appeared on the island. The Japanese colonial authorities on the one hand tolerated Japanese fishermen’s over-exploitation while on the other hand occasionally relented to Cheju Islanders’ discontent in setting up minimal legal provisions to curtail some illegal fishing. Stories of resistance (such as Mu-o Pŏpjŏngsa and the Haenyŏ Hangil Undong) are commemorated not only through literature and rhetoric but also through annual practices – both ritual and ritual-like – to call the past into the present as a means to mark the turbulent discontinuities of history with continuities of Cheju identity.

The history between the Japanese and Cheju Islanders is equally as complicated and contradictory as the history between the Japanese and Korean mainland. Cheju Islanders’ distaste for Japanese rule and resentment of economic penetration is noted, but given Cheju’s own complicated history with the Korean mainland, whether or not conspicuous acts of resistance were necessarily for the larger aims of Korean nationalism or expressions of local discontent over economic and political exploitation was perhaps not as clear as we imagine. While it is easy to gloss over the manifold aspects and contradictions created in the conditions of Japanese colonial rule, we would do both ourselves and the people who lived under colonial domination a terrible disservice by keeping ourselves to ready-made receptacles of contemporary nationalist formulations and overlooking the actual complexities that existed. What is easily categorized as “patriotism” for contemporary political purposes could have held different meanings during the context of the colonial period. The very real issues to Cheju islanders at the time were likely more related to the basic necessities of everyday living. That outrage and forms of overt or passive resistance was directed toward Japanese authorities and settlers was likely more due to the situation that Japanese commercial and industrial interests posed a direct threat to the livelihoods of Cheju locals than simply desires to express Korean patriotism.

There was much interaction between Cheju and Japan (particularly the Japanese city of Osaka) during the Japanese colonial period from the time the Cheju-Osaka line was established under Amagasaki Kisenbu company from 1920 to the dissolution of the Empire of Japan in 1945 following the Pacific War. From 1923 to 1945, the Kundae-hwan line sailed three times a month. The development of current Cheju Harbor as well as the Sanjich’ŏn waterfront were largely the result of the Japanese colonial government’s interests in expanding Cheju’s shipping infrastructure; Cheju Island itself naturally has no major natural harbors and thus nearly all of the harbors we see today were either due to the Japanese construction drive from the 1920s or the later modernization efforts of the Park Chung Hee regime in the 1960s. On the other hand, the Japanese colonial government, like the government of the former Empire of Korea (Taehan cheguk), was also not entirely interested in fully expanding Cheju Island’s infrastructure as development was only planned to reach a level that made Cheju useful yet completely subordinate to the Korean mainland and later the Japanese mainland in the colonial period. Thus Cheju remained relatively marginal until the Japanese imperial military decided to transform it into one of its last bastions of defense (through the constructions of the Chindŭrŭ Airfield [Jindeureu], Chŏngt’ŭrŭ [Jeongteureu], Alttŭrŭ Airfield [Alddeureu], and the military fortifications on Song’aksan) as the immanent defeat of the Japanese empire became clear. While the Japanese Chōsen Sōtokufu (Kr: Chosŏn Chŏngdŏkbu; Government-General of Korea) was nowhere near as active in pursuing the development of Cheju as it was in the emergent Korean mainland port cities of Kunsan, Wŏnsan, P’ohang, etc., movements between Cheju and Osaka were nonetheless active throughout the colonial period. Migrations were largely due to the economic opportunities that emerged from the post World War I boom in the burgeoning industrial port city of Osaka and the late 1930s wartime mobilization policies in which many Koreans were conscripted to assist in the Japanese military-industrial complex. But while external forces – world economics and Japanese colonial policy – largely drove the waves of migration from Cheju to Osaka, it ultimately was Cheju people themselves to define the nature of the Cheju-Osaka connection. And although there currently is still no direct passenger liner route between Cheju and Japan, during the height of colonial rule, the Cheju-Osaka route was one of the most active routes, a result most visible even today in present-day Tsuruhashi, Osaka where a “Little Cheju” still exists.

As noted in a recent edition of Jeju Weekly, Cheju Islanders have the curious position of being one of the largest components of the Zainichi Kankokujin (Kr: Chaeil Hangukin; Resident Korean) community in Osaka, Japan. This was due in large part to the waves of migrations that took place during the colonial period and in the wake of Sasam Sakŏn (the “April Third Incident”); the former in the form of largely economic migration (voluntary or otherwise) and the latter in the form of refugee migrations. What is also often not discussed today is that  Japan maintained a continuous – albeit indirect – role in Cheju’s transformation from the 1960s to as late as the early 1990s, prior to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. A significant degree of investment in Cheju’s agricultural development from the 1960s to the 1980s came from Japanese sapplings (for the mandarin oranges that are now Cheju’s signature crop) and financial aid from Zainichi relatives. And even as far back as the beginning of the twentieth century, it was also the Japanese that introduced another crop that has consistently remained both an important food and cash crop on the island for nearly a century – sweet potatoes. Until fairly recently, Japanese tourists comprised a highly significant portion of international visitors to Cheju Island and while we now speak of the Chinese presence, we must keep in mind that it was the mass arrival of Japanese visitors from as early as the 1980s that contributed greatly to the shift in Cheju’s developmental trajectory. The relationship between Cheju and Japan has shifted constantly throughout the vicissitudes of history and thus it would not do if we were simply to keep it to a fixed point in our conceptual frameworks.


Hyŏn Yongchun. Chejudo saramdŭl ŭi sam. Sŏul T’ŭkbyŏlsi: Minsogwŏn, 2009.

Ko, Seong-bong. “Kindai Nichikan kōro no naka no Ōsaka-Saishūtō kōro,” Hakusan jinruigaku 12 (March 2009), pp.7-33.

Southcott, Darren, “The Story of Little Jeju – Jaeil Jejuin,” Jeju Weekly, 10 September 2013 [Accessed 30 September 2013]

Yi Kiuk. Cheju nongchʻon kyŏngje ŭi pyŏnhwa. Sŏul Tʻŭkpyŏlsi: Chinmundang, 2003.


Photo Survey

Tangible remains of the Japanese colonial period still exist in Cheju today although they can be difficult to find for multiple reasons. Any survey of these remnants, however, must first start with the old center of Cheju City itself, a section of the city we tend to call “Ku Cheju” (“Old Cheju” as opposed to “Sincheju” “New Cheju”), but also known as the “Wŏndosim” (the “Original City Center”). The old city center around Ch’ilsŏngt’ong (the present-day Ch’ilsŏngno Arcade by Chungangno and Kwandŏkjŏng) has from as far back as the T’amna period served as the heart of the original “capital” of Cheju Island and had also served as such during the Japanese colonial period given its proximity to the Japanese-built Cheju Harbor and Sanjich’ŏn. Nearly all of the Japanese colonial era buildings no longer exist, but a few can still be found.

Lacking a sufficient port for large steamships, the Japanese developed Sanjich’ŏn and Cheju Harbor. Many of the stones for the land reclamation came from the Cheju Fortress walls, which was largely destroyed for the expansion of the town of Cheju-ŭp during the colonial period. Several commemorative plaques were recently placed around this area to mark particular facilities built mostly form around the 1920s.

photo 2

This picture from 1926 is perhaps one of the few real examples we have of the ritual performed at the former Ch’ilsŏngdae, which no longer exists. Although the historical purpose of Ch’ilsŏngdae is not exactly known, some consider it an altar to the Seven Stars (Ch’ilsŏng: Ursa Major or “the big dipper”) worship. Several recently-installed commemorative monuments can be found scattered around the old city center mark the location of the ancient spiritual and administrative complex, which itself apparently mimicked the form of the Ursa Major constellation.

photo 1

This house is located right by Ch’ilsŏngt’ong and is strangely left neglected and completely sandwiched between refurbished shops and compact housing and apartment structures. One distinctive features of Japanese-style structures in contrast with Cheju-style structures are the double-roofs (as seen with this house).


This next one is located in a narrow street across from Kwandŏkjŏng. Unlike the previous house, this one is still inhabited. There apparently are only two of these types of houses remaining in the old city as I have yet to find other examples near Ch’ilsŏngt’ong.


This is a Japanese-style “ryokan” that is still being used today. Like the other buildings from that period, however, it is very much in a state of disrepair. This building can be found behind the Cheju Mokgwana government complex, a neighborhood that once provided accommodations for government officials sent to Cheju from the mainland during the Chosŏn Dynasty.


This was a company house, built in 1940, for an alcohol factory. One of the major industries on Cheju throughout the twentieth century was the production of alcohol; barley for beer brewing was grown on Cheju for the production of alcoholic beverages on the Korean mainland in both the Japanese colonial period and the Park Chung Hee era. In 1940, however, alcohol production on Cheju was utilized for aircraft fuel as the Pacific War intensified.