Storm from the East: Japanese Influence and Colonial Rule (1901-1945)

This multi-part series is in observation of Samilchŏl 삼일절, which commemorates the March 1st 1919 demonstrations (the “Samil Undong” or “March First Movement”) against Japanese rule. On March 1st 1919, due to the combination of peninsula-wide discontent over colonial repression and the coordinated efforts of pro-independence activists from all walks of life, tens of thousands of Koreans took to the streets to call for independence. Colonial police responded with extreme brutality. Many, including bystanders witnessing the events, were arrested, tortured, and killed. The movement did not succeed in its ultimate goal of liberation, but the massive expression of discontent came as a major shock to Japanese policy makers to the point that they instituted so-called cultural rule to allow some cultural space and economic opportunities for Koreans from the 1920s to the pre-Pacific War years. As it remains a strong component of identity in Korea today, one would be mistaken to call it simply a failure. The true effects of movements, after all, are never understood until much time after the fact.

Few are aware, however, that anticolonial resistance burst into open rebellion in Cheju on October 1918 as a group of populist Buddhist monks, followers of the syncretic Poch’ŏn’gyo religious movement, and their allies led by Pang Tonghwa, Kang Ch’ang’gyu, and Kim Yŏnil attacked the colonial police station in Chungmun. Cheju also saw a remarkable women-led act of resistance in the women divers’ protest (the “Haenyeo Hang’il Undong” 해녀항일운동) as the changes brought with colonial rule threatened local fishing communities’ traditional autonomy and economic interests. Toward the end of colonial rule, as the Empire of Japan grew desperate in its attempt to fend off Allied forces, Cheju Island was militarized with large airbases, bunkers, artillery placements, and coastal fortifications in anticipation that it would become a possible invasion target. Ruins of fortifications such as Alttŭrŭ Airbase 알뜨르 비행장 in present-day Taejŏng-ŭp 대정읍 are still some of the most complete examples of Japanese wartime military installations. Despite the lack of attention given to Cheju in major publications of colonial era history in Korea, the island was anything but quiet during the colonial period.

At the same time, Japanese rule brought a great many changes to Cheju lifestyles and practices for better or for worse. Although Cheju Island was for the most part as peripheral to the Empire of Japan as it was to the preceding Korean states, there were also varied responses to colonial rule ranging from outright rebellion to cautious adaptation. For example, Cheju’s women divers (“jŏmnyŏ” 점녀 in Cheju language, commonly called “haenyŏ” 해녀 in standard Korean), originally an outcaste group whose products were ultimately used for tribute to the Korean mainland, became involved in market transactions as they were able to work for wages and sell their products to a Japanese market hungry for fresh abalone. The peak of Cheju’s women diver population was actually recorded during the colonial period as 1 in 1o Cheju women became involved in diving in and outside of the island. Japanese steamship lines of the Mokpo-Cheju-Osaka route enabled unprecedented ease of movement for many Cheju people and the legacy of this oceanic traffic remains today in Osaka’s large Cheju community. What we take for granted as Cheju’s major roads such as Chungang-ro 중앙로 (formerly Wŏnjŏng-t’ong 원정통 or Honmachidoori 本町通 in Japanese) in old Cheju City and the Iljudo-ro 일주도로 road that circumnavigates the island also had their beginnings in the colonial period. On the other hand, colonial penetration also was a threat to community autonomy and economic interests as commercial Japanese fishing ships illegally exploited Cheju’s waters at the expense of coastal communities from as early as 1901. In any case, Cheju was irreversibly transformed as the proponents of the Empire of Japan’s ambitions sought to force their visions of modernity all across East Asia.

While I have given some brief overviews of aspects of Cheju’s colonial history and the legacies of the Empire of Japan in previous postings, this multi-part series will give a closer look at how colonial rule transformed Cheju Island. No aspect of Cheju life was untouched, however much the notion of a timeless Cheju rural past is romanticized today. Colonial rule officially lasted in the short span of 35 years, but the changes that came with Cheju’s forced encounter with Imperial Japan’s vision of modernity still lingers today.



Gwon Gwi-sook. 2005. “Changing labor processes of women’s work: the haenyŏ of Jeju Island,” Korean Studies (29): 114-136.

Kang Tongsik, Kang Yŏnghun, and Hwang Kyŏngsu. 2000. Ilche kamjŏnggi Cheju chibang haengjangsa. Cheju: Cheju palchŏn yŏn’guwŏn.

Kim Kwangsik. 2005. “Pŏpjŏngsa hang’il undong-ŭi chaeinsik,” Han’guk tongnip undongsa yŏn’gu (25): 141-176.

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



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