Episode 76 – Dr. Sayaka Chatani (NUS)

Originally published on November 9, 2018
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Sayaka Chatani, Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the National University of Singapore. Dr. Chatani is the author of Nation-Empire: Ideology and Rural Youth Mobilization in Japan and its Colonies, forthcoming from Cornell University Press in December 2018. Dr. Chatani, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Sayaka Chatani: Oh, thank you for having me.

TG: You have this book, forthcoming, Nation Empire, looking at youth mobilization across Japan’s imperial domains, looking at Taiwan and Korea and rural Japan as well.

SC: Yes.

TG: So, can you talk about this project, and also talk about whether or not or how the Meiji Restoration plays a role?

SC: Sure. My book starts with a question: why did so many young men in the Japanese colonies, Taiwan and Korea in particular, show enthusiastic support for the empire during World War II? One shocking phenomenon that really puzzled me was the colonial volunteer soldier program, and obviously, it started after the Second Sino-Japanese War. Hundreds of thousands of youth applied to this program each year. So, the numbers we have for this program are compiled by colonial officials. Obviously, there were a number of cases of coercion or deception, but in the majority of personal accounts (the memoirs written later) it is clear that the volunteer soldier was very very popular.

Expanding on that question, I wanted to investigate why on earth anyone, whether in the metropole or the colonies, would be willing to risk their lives and fight for the empire? And it is not news that it was mainly young people in the countryside who became the major support base for the army. So in this book, I go back to the late 19th century, and trace the processes of assimilation and colonization and youth mobilization in four different villages in Miyagi, Okinawa, Taiwan and Korea. What I really wanted to do is not really a history of mobilization by the state, but a history of social relationships and local dynamics that determine the meanings of youth programs from the viewpoints of the participants.

So the Meiji Restoration is tremendously important for the experiences of village youth across the empire. First of all, most obviously, new institutions were set up such as the elementary school, the family registration, conscription and the Seinendan (the Village Youth Association), which I focus on in my book. And these new institutions had history, obviously, from the pre-Meiji period, but the new façade or the new institutions affected young people’s lifestyles and labour relationships and their consciousness as well. Second of all, the Meiji Restoration itself became important as a discursive symbol within the modern youth discourse. In the 1880s, Tokutomi Sohō in his famous journal The Nation’s Friend (or Kokumin no Tomo) established a category of youth or the importance of youth in nation-building. And in this journal, he also said that the Meiji Restoration was an achievement of modern youth. So that youth discourse and the image of the Meiji Restoration were widely shared outside Japan as well, and even anti-colonial intellectuals from Taiwan and Korea used this image to show that it is the young generation’s responsibility to expel imperial forces and build their own nations.

TG: You mentioned that the soldiers who are fighting in the war are coming from the rural countryside, and their strong support for the army in the rural countryside in Japan, but also in Taiwan and Korea.

SC: Yes.

TG: And I want to ask about those colonial settings later, but for now, why is it that there’s so much support for the army coming from the countryside?

SC: Well, the conventional understanding, which I challenge in my book, was that they were basically backward. They didn’t critically challenge the authorities, so their feudalistic mentality made them obedient to those authorities. But in my book, I discovered these young people were much more subversive and rebellious, and they used the Japanese discourse of rural superiority or agrarianism to challenge the establishment, be it the family organization or the wealthy in the village or the older generation in the village. So, there were a lot of complicated social relationships and feelings of grudge and jealousy and other emotions that created the social mechanism within the rural sphere.

TG: And there is some kind of mobilization campaigns that the state is able to do: the Conscription Edict in 1872, for example, and the starting of this conscript military. And there is that kind of resistance to that as well, right?

SC: Yes.

TG: The conscription riots from the 1870s, but then later, most of the soldiers do come from the countryside, so can you talk about some of those campaigns and then the reaction on the local level too, then?

SC: Yes, so as you said, there was a lot of resistance against the conscription system, but one catalyst was the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 (or the victory in it), and that really changed the hegemony of the Japanese military, and the Japanese army represented the new force within the rural sphere. That really changed the popularity of the conscription exam. Now, the conscription exam became a part of young people’s life ritual in the countryside, so before the conscription exam, the age 20 meant nothing to them. But after the conscription system, age 20 became the start of their adulthood, and that’s the end of their membership in the Seinendan. So the Seinendan used to be more of a village organization for farming and labour relationships, but now after the Meiji Restoration (or the implementation of the new Meiji institutions), the Seinendan was now understood as training for the conscription exam.

The Russo-Japanese War was the first catalyst, and World War I was another catalyst because the Japanese Army Ministry (especially Tanaka Giichi) toured around Europe during World War I, and Tanaka realized that youth mobilization is the key for the new era’s mass mobilization. So he basically lobbied a lot in the Japanese government to establish a nationalized Seinendan, and that created a new wave of Seinendan institutions across the empire (that’s in 1915).

That was another catalyst, and obviously in the 1920s, was a much more rebellious period from the perspective of state officials. Young people were polarized between the left and the right, and they fought each other but anyhow, under Taishō Democracy, the discourse of modern youth really grew. And even in the countryside, young people discovered new political leverage, so they really decided to self-mobilize, and they asserted their youthfulness to fight the establishment, and in the 1930s, as you know, the total empire starts. Migration to Manchukuo became popular in the countryside, and that really fanned rural imperialism, and that continued into World War II.

TG: And then in the 1930s as well, the Great Depression has a major impact on the rural countryside.

SC: Yes, exactly.

TG: There’s also the kind of anti-imperialism after World War I, where during the Taishō Democracy, there were even attempts to downsize the military, and disband units and everything.

SC: Yes.

TG: So the army reacts to this, right? And goes out into the countryside trying to get more support?

SC: Yes, so the army had to deal with two social demands. One is to diminish the army’s influence over society, and the second is to prepare the masses for a possible upcoming war. So in order to do that, the youth organizations in villages were extremely useful to them. They could hide the influence of the army in the name of emperor-centered nationalism. So at the same time, within the Seinendan, the army could start military drill, and prepare young villagers for the upcoming conscription and military service.

TG: So if we could pivot and talk about the colonies, you pointed out that it does seem somewhat counterintuitive that you would get so many colonial subjects in places like Taiwan and Korea volunteering to join the military.

SC: Yes.

TG: What explains it? You mentioned that there is this kind of rural continuity there. Is that what it is? Is there rural support for the army no matter where you are in the empire?

SC: I would say that there is a similar pattern in the rural countryside because there were a lot of tensions between rural and urban spheres, and there was a big sense of rivalry against urban intellectuals. When I talked to the former model rural youth (people who were mobilized under the Seinendan or other youth mobilization schemes), they seemed to emphasize that they were achieving something. They were achieving something for themselves through the Japanese youth training, and what they really aspired to was not necessarily to serve the empire, but to become model rural youth, and they envisioned the ideal world of agrarianism and youthful leadership within it.

So what they imagined was a little different from what the Japanese Empire was trying to achieve but nonetheless, there was huge overlap in their interest to achieve mass mobilization in the countryside.

TG: Was there a sense that you saw, through fighting for the empire, this might be a way to gain more personal rights for Koreans or Taiwanese at the same time?

SC: Well, that’s the thing. They were trying to achieve something by becoming volunteer soldiers, but they were not trying to gain personal rights against the empire. Rather, they were fighting in social battles against, for example, intellectuals in Taipei or Seoul, or those who could go into a colonial bureaucracy because many of these rural youth had no access to higher education. So, that means they had no way up outside of this youth mobilization scheme. Their social battles were much more complicated than what we see as the colonized trying to achieve their rights and legitimacy.

TG: I think what makes this history of colonized subjects volunteering for the Japanese military so counterintuitive or so unexpected is that we would expect more anti-imperial resistance or anti-colonial resistance, right? So, I’m curious how these volunteers are remembered in local histories. Are they seen as collaborating with the state? Are there attempts to write these people out of history, or what exactly is going on?

SC: Yes, that’s another complicated question though. In Korea, they tend to be seen as “collaborators,” especially if they ended up serving in the army or the navy. But those who climbed up the ladder of youth mobilization and then became village officials or provincial officials remained in their positions, especially in South Korea. And they keep a low profile in the postwar chaos.

So, the reputation of these people is very complicated. There’s no straightforward way of categorizing their postcolonial reputation, but in Taiwan, their reputation/their status changed over time. Generally speaking, they were remobilized by the Kuomintang, and some refused to cooperate with the Kuomintang regime. Others absorbed into the Kuomintang’s youth mobilization scheme again. But generally speaking, now, after the democratization of Taiwan, they were much more willing to talk about their experience in the Japanese colonial period, and they tend to depict the colonial training in a much more rosy picture.

TG: Which I think is almost typical of a lot of colonial legacies. In comparing the legacy of colonialism in Korea and Taiwan, that’s often the case where the period of Japanese imperialism is remembered much differently in the two places. In Taiwan, often, it is more rosy.

SC: Yes, but that’s exactly why I find it interesting to find a pattern (or a commonality) even between Taiwan and Korea. When I looked for personal stories, and I was looking for someone to interview, it was very difficult, obviously, to find someone in Korea who was willing to talk about their experience with Japanese mobilization. But when I talked to them, their stories had a lot in common with the stories I heard in Taiwan as well.

TG: I can imagine why it would have been difficult to find people. Is it because this history, not that it’s not well known, but maybe it’s an uncomfortable history that people in Korea don’t want to remember?

SC: Well, it is a sensitive topic in Korea, and I think there is a generational difference as well, and those who grew up in the colonial period usually remain silent because of the fear of being labelled as Japanese “collaborators.” But at the same time, they just didn’t have an outlet to talk about it, and the new rise of right-wing individuals and extreme nationalism in South Korea really made it uncomfortable for them to speak up.

TG: Speaking of the postwar ramifications of this history, I understand your more recent research is looking at the politics of Koreans in postwar Japan.

SC: Yes.

TG: Particularly those from North Korea, so could you tell us more about that project?

SC: Sure. So, the Korean people in Japan are now called “Zainichi Koreans,” but most of them (more than 90% of them) came from the southern part of Korea. Right after liberation in 1945, most of them (again more than 90% of them) pledged allegiance (or at least felt sympathetic) to the North Korean regime, so there is a very complicated history of early postwar Korean diaspora remaining in Japan under the American Occupation.

But speaking of my “collaborator,” who herself is from this organization Ch’ŏngnyŏn (or Chōsen Sōden in Japanese), we are doing a lot of oral interviews to think about the development of this community rather than political fights with the Japanese government. And yes, this is trying to understand why there continues to be North Korean overseas nationals, and how their identity, not necessarily as North Korean but as Ch’ŏngnyŏn Koreans, developed or shifted through various North Korean events or the internal politics.

TG: In the news, whenever we hear about relations between North Korea and Japan, one of the things that comes up is this issue about North Korea kidnapping Japanese citizens, and taking them back to North Korea. So, we get the idea that the relationship between North Korea and Japan is very fraught. But in fact, going back in the earlier postwar period, in many ways, the relationship between North Korea and Japan was much better than between Japan and South Korea, wasn’t it?

SC: Yes, it was, and the Japanese Communist Party, especially, had a strong connection with both leftist Zainichi Koreans and North Korea. Even in the 1960s, when the Chōsen Sōden (which was already established in 1955), already decided not to interfere in Japanese politics but to just follow North Korean directives. People (for example, students in radical movements in the 1960s) thought about North Korea as an ideal place as well. So, North Korea was this discursive symbol for them along with Maoist China back then. The image of North Korea was totally different in the 1960s than now.

TG: And there was even the ships going back and forth repatriating people from Japan to North Korea and vice versa, right?

SC: Yes, so that project of repatriation started in 1959. That was a huge movement, and many Koreans who were living in very dire poverty in postwar Japan were attracted to the idea of going back to their homeland. Tessa Morris-Suzuki called it “exodus to North Korea.” From today’s point of view, it looks very abusive to bring Zainichi Koreans to North Korea, which would become a starving, poor, oppressive regime eventually. But back then, it was a very understandable choice even for Japanese people.

TG: You mentioned that there’s a lot of sympathy for communism, especially among the leftist elites in Japan and the JCP itself. But I wonder, when they looked over across to South Korea, and they saw the Park Chung Hee regime, did they see this as just an ally of the U.S? And they see that the Japanese government is now getting embroiled in another war in Asia with the Korean War. How did geopolitics impact these views of the two Koreas?

SC: So, Yoshida Shigeru considered the Korean War as a godsent opportunity for economic recovery, and that really symbolizes, from the Zainichi Koreans’ point of view, the insensitivity of a post-imperial Japan. For the Korean diaspora in Japan, the Korean War (as well as the division of the peninsula) was the biggest tragedy ever. Yoshida Shigeru ignoring all these sentiments and just focusing on Japan’s economic recovery through the Korean War was in and of itself a crime from their point of view. That disappointment in postwar Japan really drove leftist Koreans to the North Korean regime, and consider themselves as North Korean nationals instead of as the ethnic minority within Japan.

TG: I mean one of the really sad things is that after the war, because the way that the Korean War happened in that you get these two regimes on the peninsula, all of these Koreans who are forced to migrate to Japan during the war are effectively rendered stateless, aren’t they?

SC: Yes, and they became completely stateless after the San Francisco Treaty in 1952. The division of the Korean Peninsula should be considered more seriously within the political history of Japan, and I’m trying to bring that division into the sphere of the Japanese postwar period. There is this artificial ignorance or artificial negligence of that fact of the division, and the fact of Japanese Empire in the postwar period. That’s something I’m working on. This is a new project for me, and I’m trying to figure out how to fit this division in Japan’s own political history of postwar.

TG: We were talking before about how there was this very friendly relationship between North Korea and Japan. When did that start to change, and what is the situation now?

SC: Well, the situation now is quite obvious to everyone, right? It’s very antagonistic. The Abe regime doesn’t want to engage, but the Chōsen Sōden members were excited to see this new reconciliation between Kim Jong Un and the U.S. There was a long, peaceful co-existence, in the words of Sonia Ryang, after 1955 until probably the mid-1990s when North Korea launched missiles over Sea of Japan. That really changed the public understanding, the public feelings of North Korea, and many Korean students going to Korean schools in Japan were attacked by ordinary people on the street or on the train. And again, the abductee issue, as you said, came out in 2002 if I remember correctly, and that actually shocked many of the Chōsen Sōden (Ch’ŏngnyŏn) people as well. And many Japanese people turned antagonistic towards everything North Korea, and North Korea became a serious villain in public eyes.

TG: As a result of this, then, people affiliated with North Korea living in Japan today were starting to get targeted. In some cases, with violence and other types of discrimination.

SC: Yes.

TG: There were even attempts by the government (if I’m not mistaken) to take away the accreditation of North Korean schools.

SC: Oh yes, that has been going on for a long time. They got rid of the small subsidy to support Korean schools, and by many means (that Japanese people don’t know), there is the bullying against Korean schools by small regulations. For example, if Korean or Zainichi businessmen want to donate to Korean schools, those business owners might be investigated by Japan’s equivalent of the Internal Revenue Services. So yes, there is visible and invisible discrimination against Zainichi Koreans, and especially against the Chōsen Sōden organization in general.

TG: By studying this history of these close ties between Japan and Korea, is this the way that we might be able to reconcile the current tensions between the two countries?

SC: (Laughter) Honestly, I don’t think so. Obviously I think the Ch’ŏngnyŏn community’s history is worth telling and worth understanding. But at the same time, it opens up a door for us to see Japanese postwar politics, which strangely looks very isolated other than its tie with the United States. There was a possibility that Japan would have developed a self-identity as a heterogeneous nation rather than as a homogeneous nation. This idea of the homogeneous nation that develops in the postwar period has a lot to do with Zainichi Koreans’ self-isolation from Japanese politics per se. So I want to just question whether this development of the homogeneous nation was so natural as we understand it now (I mean, the idea of whether a homogeneous nation developing in the postwar period was so natural).

TG: I think it was in [Takashi] Fujitani’s work where he points out, too, that the whole idea of homogeneity in the postwar conveniently forgets or writes out the fact that Japan had a pan-Asian empire prior to 1945.

SC: Yes, and we take it for granted that this shift in the postwar period was done so quickly and naturally. But no it wasn’t, and this was not a natural course of development at all.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.  


*Citation for this episode: 

Sayaka Chatani, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, November 9, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-76-dr-sayaka-chatani-nus/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.