Remnants of the Japanese Colonial Era; Part III

Remnants of the Japanese Colonial Era; Part III: Colonial Modernities and a Tale of Saishu’s Two Cities

“Cheju modernity”?

[*For those disinterested in theoretical rambling, skip to the next section.]

What is “modernity”? It sounds like an absurd question with a self-evident answer, but in thinking about it further, one can find that “modernity” is an extremely arbitrary concept. Put another way, when does “modernity” even begin? And put in the context of Cheju Island, how does one define “modern” Cheju Island without assuming a culturally biased position that implies that Cheju Island had been “pre-modern” even while it occupies the same temporal space as the “modern” world?

“Modernity” is a strange, overwrought, contested term that we can never avoid and always reuse and abuse. In recent decades, scholars have reconsidered Korea’s entry into the “modern” world as a form of “colonial modernity.” Unlike earlier propositions (notably the so-called “internal development theory”) that Korea was on its own path to modernity before Japanese colonialism’s interference and had developed its own form of modern society in spite of imperial rule, colonial modernity considers Korea’s case a modernity wrought on under the strong penetration of the Japanese Empire at all levels of society. According to scholars that refer to “colonial modernity” (notably Bruce Cumings and Michael Robinson), many of the features of today’s “modern” Korea are survivals and adaptations of colonial Japanese institutional and cultural structures ranging from the persistence of Japanese-style bureaucratic structures and educational systems to cultural perspectives of Korean “tradition” and its place in the larger grand narrative of world history. “Modernity” as a concept is thus a controversial term unto itself and always assumes a position, however way it is deployed. Put another way, we can realize the term’s manifold problems when we consider one society “modern” and another society as “pre-modern” even though they occupy the same spatio-temporal location – how one and the other is defined is always an act of relegating one society or another into the “waiting room of history,” to whom whoever “history” itself belongs. As the chicken-and-egg debates over what exactly makes “modernity” rages endlessly in other corners of academia, for the purposes of examining Cheju Island it may be more productive to allow the concept of “modern” to take a backseat and instead consider what features of “modern” societies were imported, adapted, and transformed as they entered. In this case, Cheju Island’s case challenges us to rethink these false binaries of “modern” versus “pre-modern” as we see the remarkable speed in which islanders adapted to change. Cheju Island society, despite the dearth of sufficient research, was by no means stagnant and possessed its own capabilities for adjustment.

Perhaps a better aspect to focus in our examination of Cheju Island as a modern society is when the island became “urban.” This is again a very broad concept, but we can speak of an “urban” Cheju even in the early 20th century if we consider three things with regards to the “urban”: 1) as pertaining to the development of sophisticated infrastructure with the purpose of integrating a local into a capitalist system in order to transform a locality into a space for economic accumulation and diffusion; 2) the crystallization of a distinct administrative and economic “center” within a locality; and 3) consistent maintenance of strong cultural and political links to a metropolitan center or centers (which in this case would be both Japanese-ruled Seoul and Japan itself in early 20th century Cheju) through which metropolitan culture traverses into the local. This is not to say that Cheju had no centers prior to Japanese rule, but rather that the focus of power and economics became much more clearly emphasized within specific geographic areas and that these foci were inextricably interlinked with larger regional if not global capitalist flows.

Urbanizing Cheju: Cheju City and Mosŭlp’o as urban centers in Colonial Korea (early 1900s to 1945)

We can begin the story of “urban” development (in terms of infrastructure and integration to the global economy) in Cheju Island with the Japanese colonial administration’s projects in the early twentieth century. Cheju Island was by no means completely isolated until the moment of modernity (which scholars tend to put at 1876 with Japan forcing Korea to open its doors via gunboat diplomacy), but the beginnings of what we now take for granted as the modern conveniences and infrastructure of “Cheju City” and “Sŏgwip’o City” find their origins in colonial projects. Throughout most of the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910), Cheju Island was divided into the three administrative districts of Chejumok, Chŏngŭi County, and Taejŏng County; these three districts had as their centers in present-day Cheju City, Sŏngŭp, and Posŏng-ni respectively. For most of this time, Sŏgwip’o, surrounding the coastal fortress of Sŏgwijin was hardly the city it is today as the real economic and population concentration in the south weighed heavily toward Taejŏng. Chejumok had always served as the main political and economic center of the island, but from the 18th century onward the township of Taejŏng (and in particular, today’s town of Mosŭlp’o) prospered due to its more ideal agricultural conditions, even going as far as surpassing Chejumok in wealth and population. The importance of these two towns played very important roles during the colonial period (1910-1945). Taejŏng maintained its importance well into the 1980s before Cheju City emerged as one of South Korea’s fastest-growing provincial cities.

As Yi Kiuk (1999/2004) observed in his excellent study of village economies in the island, already in the colonial period, Cheju’s economic structures were tied to modes of production and exchange prevalent in global capitalism with developments in road, sea transport, and water resource facilities. Though a modern port facility was constructed as early as the late 19th century under the reign of Emperor Kojong, it was not until Japanese colonial rule that Cheju (or “Saishu” in Japanese) had a port for genuinely large-scale oceanic transportation. Although Cheju’s maritime character is noted nowadays, Cheju does not actually have the advantage of large natural harbors and in fact every typhoon to hit Cheju demonstrates how vulnerable the island truly is. The entire waterfront at the mouth of the present Sanjicheon was redeveloped (using the very stones that comprised Cheju City’s ancient city walls) to create Cheju’s first (and not to mention completely artificial) major harbor to service massive steamships that could travel not only to the peninsular mainland but also to the Japanese city of Osaka. Sweet potatoes and today’s kamgyul (the original kamgyul native to Cheju are no longer widely cultivated) were also introduced to the island’s farmers. To facilitate the speed of transportation across the island, in which journeys across the island literally took days, the Japanese colonial administration ordered the construction of what would become today’s “Iljudoro” road, the road that circumnavigates the entire island. And, as had been the case in the Korean mainland, while the Japanese Empire was not actually as invested in enforcing compulsory education in Japanese norms as Korean nationalist historiography suggests, it was also during this period that the first regular schools were established.

In terms of scale, infrastructural developments (with the notable exceptions of the three major military airfields of Chŏngt’ŭrŭ, Chindŭrŭ, and Alttŭrŭ constructed at the end of the Pacific War) were hardly impressive. The Iljudoro road was constructed to allow automotive vehicle traffic, but was barely wide enough to fit a single car. It was clear that like the Chosŏn Dynasty rulers, the Japanese colonial administration was merely interested in developing Cheju to the extent that the island was subordinate yet sufficiently useful. As had been the case in most of the Korean mainland, development in Cheju never matched those of locales more important and readily exploitable for the Japanese Empire such as P’ohang and Pusan (industrial port cities facing the Japanese mainland), Kunsan (a major port from which Korean rice was shipped to Japan), or Taejŏn (a town conveniently located along a major rail line). On the other hand, these changes on Cheju’s physical landscape, the methods of administration, and the goals of centralized urban planning had an irreversible effect upon the island and maintained a remarkable continuity even into our times.

Cheju City

While much of the late 19th century native characteristics of Cheju City persisted (and still persists in pockets), the Japanese colonial administration expended some effort to transform it into another city within the Japanese Empire. For all intents and purposes, Cheju City served as the locus of the island’s administration and as somewhat of a representative for the central authority of the Japanese Government General in Seoul, the colonial authorities converted or built over symbolic sites to demonstrate their presence. Physical effacement of built space for the purpose of official forced forgetting is by no means unique to the Japanese Empire (and indeed the Chosŏn Dynasty was also invested in such a practice to cement its rule following the overthrow of the preceding Koryŏ Dynasty), but many of the visible features and urban planning arrangements of today’s Cheju City maintains a dialectical link with practices during the colonial period.

As had been the case in Seoul (referred to as “Keijo” under Japanese rule), Japanese settlers inhabited Cheju’s old downtown, which is based around Kwandŏkjŏng and Ch’ilsŏngt’ong. Ch’ilsŏngt’ong and the area around today’s Chung’ang-no area has continuously been inhabited since the T’amna period (and in fact the area known as Mugŭnsŏng since the 18th century was perhaps the original location of the ancient seat of the T’amna kings) and the importance of this neighborhood continued with the Japanese establishing their colonial center here. The current Ch’ilsŏng-no Arcade shopping street itself is a product of the 1980s but it was during Japanese rule that the three main parallel roads (Tapdong-no, Ch’ilsŏng-no, Chung’ang-no) were reconfigured as straight thoroughfares to mimic the norms in modernized Japanese cities; until the colonial period, Cheju City’s town streets not only wound in the same manner as ‘kolmokgil’ (country village roads) with the particular Cheju character of narrow ‘olle’ paths but also followed a distinctive pattern reflecting the Ursa Major constellation and hence Cheju’s native cosmology. Cheju City retained its small-town characteristics, but its streets were reorganized to follow those of its Japanese rulers in part due to the practicalities for effective colonial control and in part as a means of symbolic conquest.

The Ch’ilsŏngt’ong area comprised of a number of shops – many of which were Japanese-owned businesses – and Japanese settlers also owned houses here and in the adjoining Mugŭnsŏng neighborhood. Unbeknownst to many including Cheju residents, Japanese influences in residential architecture remains conspicuous in the unusual design (in particular square-shaped beams, sliding panels reminiscent of Japanese shoji, or central corridors) of some old tile-roofed houses that remain (for now) in the Ch’ilsŏngt’ong area. Hyangsadang, a shrine dedicated to founding ancestors a short distance across from Kwandŏkjŏng, was converted to a branch of a Japanese temple, Higashi Hon’ganji. A Japanese-style inn (ryokan) was established not too far from Kwandŏkjŏng, serving as a convenient place for bureaucrats to spend the night when transportation back home would be too inconvenient. Also near Kwandŏkjŏng is the site of Cheju’s first movie and performance theater. The building that still exists today near Sŏngnae Church (another very old site with a century-long history as the first Protestant church in Cheju) is the site of the 1950s Hyŏndae Theater, but another theater existed during the colonial period; records of this theater, however, are no longer available to us.

Most of Cheju City’s schools were also concentrated in this tight area, in particular Puk (Buk) Elementary, Nam Elementary, and Sinsŏng Girls’ High School. That a modern education system was centered in this one neighborhood was not at all an accident – the area around today’s Chung’ang-no was the prime center of education in Cheju from as far back as the Chosŏn Dynasty. Of the schools within Cheju City, Puk Elementary, founded in 1907, is a source of pride for many longtime residents as it was the first elementary school to have been established by Cheju Islanders and is the only school in the city that remains in precisely the same spot as it did over a century ago. Nam Elementary school was established under the Japanese colonial administration and was moved in the second half of the twentieth century. Sinsŏng Girls’ High School, originally located near Chung’ang Cathedral, was founded under the auspices of Catholic missionaries and like Nam Elementary it was eventually moved to a different location.


Taejŏng’s center was historically in what is now Posŏng-ni where the 18th century exile Ch’usa Kim Chŏnghŭi resided and the remains of Taejŏng’s town walls still stand. Whereas soil conditions in other parts of Cheju were not particularly ideal for larger scale agriculture, Taejŏng possessed some of the island’s most arable land and this better quality soil is evidenced in the superior onggi earthenware ceramics unique to this region. The greater degree of wealth – as well as the fact that many mainland elites who were exiled to Cheju tended to reside here – also gave Taejŏng the distinction of having more educated residents. In the colonial period, however, Taejŏng’s center of activity shifted south to the seaside town of Mosŭlp’o. Local historian Kim Ungch’ŏl insists that in order to understand the story of Cheju in the early twentieth century, one has to look at Mosŭlp’o.

The town of Mosŭlp’o holds an unusual position in Cheju’s early 20th century history, a position that would surprise most visitors given the town’s current modest state. Whereas remnants of the colonial era are still evident in Cheju City, almost none exist in today’s Mosŭlp’o in part because the town consistently developed over several decades until its fortunes declined toward the end of the twentieth century. Until the 1960s when Cheju City’s development began in earnest due to the Park Chung Hee regime’s National General Development Plan (Kukt’o Chonghap Kaebal Kyehoek – initiated in 1964, but put into full implementation in 1985), the town of Mosŭlp’o was perhaps the closest thing Cheju Island had to a “city,” boasting a more active cultural scene and a better developed infrastructure with a more defined townscape.

All along the road from the current bus terminal in Mosŭlp’o going down to the harbor was the old town center. Some time in the 1920s, Japanese “New Theater” (Shingeki) drama was introduced to Cheju for the first time and the first performance of this import was in Mosŭlp’o’s first theater. The original theater during the colonial period was near today’s Mosŭlp’o harbor, facing the pier and along the current “Olle Course 10.” The area around the theater was once bustled with commercial activity as there were also inns for travelers. Mosŭlp’o’s importance was due to its proximity to the productive agriculture of the greater Taejŏng area, its fishery resources, and its harbor.

Toward the end of the Japanese colonial period, Mosŭlp’o and Taejŏng gained the dubious honor of hosting major imperial military fortifications that stretched from Song’aksan to the large air base and army bunkers at Alttŭrŭ (Alddeureu). With the defeat of the Japanese Empire imminent, military authorities planned for a final desperate attempt to reassert themselves as they established massive facilities of war on the backs of forced labor. The scars of Cheju’s traumas are much more visible in this part of Cheju Island as the now-abandoned aircraft hangars, watch towers, and gun turrets among the otherwise tranquil barley fields are a haunting reminder of this region’s complicated past.


Interviews with Cheju City residents conducted during the period from July 20, 2014 to August 27, 2014