Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: The Korean Church Under Japanese Colonialism

Title: The Korean Church Under Japanese Colonialism
Author: Choi Jai-keun
Softcover: 262 pages
Publisher: Jimoondang (August 31, 2007)
ISBN-10: 8988095235
ISBN-13: 9788988095232

A follow-up to 2006's The Origin of the Roman Catholic Church in Korea, Choi Jai-keun briefly walks the reader through the Korean Protestant church's jarring beginnings from nationalistic rebellion against Japanese colonial rule to ubiquitous religious dominance. The author selectively cites from both Western and Korean sources to tell a history worth sharing. However, it may not be the story you're expecting.

The church's origins are multifaceted and its growth was directly related to a divisive national identity crisis that occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Choi narrates this transition somewhat free from subjective commentary other than to occasionally comment on how inept the Korean monarchy had become just prior to colonization and how Christian conviction proved steadfast. The progression from early foreign missionary influence to domestic governance is steady, however, the book loses steam when it reaches the 1910s. A fair amount of the first half of the book is spent discussing and dissecting the 105 Man Incident of 1910-1912. It picks back up with the controversy surrounding Christians participating in state-mandated Shinto rituals. Unfortunately, those two are the only main topics to be found here.

Regarding the book's overall presentation, one could hope for a more finished product. The layout isn't anything to look at; apart from a bland design that feels stiff and visually unappealing, there's no illustrations or pictures of any kind. Instead, the author needlessly numerates points of interest that could have been better expressed in well-developed paragraphs. Furthermore, despite looking and feeling like a master's thesis, frequent minor editing mistakes run rampant and unchecked. Although they generally don't detract from the intended meaning, they certainly do make the book feel entirely too unpolished and not yet fit for publishing.

In unusual academic fashion, there's a dearth of not only primary sources like official church histories but also modern interpretations; most of Choi's sources are from the 1960s. Disappointing, too, is that only a negligible amount is written about pioneering missionaries such as Horace N. Allen, Henry Appenzeller, Horace G. Underwood and the like. If the title of the book had instead been lengthily named "The Korean Conspiracy Case and Subsequent Rebellion Against Obligatory Shinto Rituals" perhaps the reader would be better prepared for the secluded path that Choi takes.

That's what disappoints the most about this book. It feels like a concealed path that's too narrow in scope and not quite authoritative enough to be mandatory reading for a college course nor entertaining enough to be a celebrated history book to be passed around. It reads like a rough draft to something more important; a review copy for a larger work that begs for native English-speaking editing and a good publisher's sense of flair. The contents speak of good history worthy of discussion. However, you might want to read about them elsewhere. It's not a bad book, but not exactly exhilarating nor polished enough to recommend.

- - -

I was expecting something more lucid, I suppose. I can say, at least, that I learned more about the 105 Man Incident (105인 사건).

This event, also known as the Korean Conspiracy Case, was the culmination of the recently fully instated Japanese colonial government's aim of their distrust of natively Korean organizations. By this time, all officially registered politically-orientated groups had been legally abolished. However, perhaps by either oversight or underestimation, the small but growing number of Christian churches were still allowed to operate making them breeding grounds not only for quiet, nonviolent religious expression but also for underground nationalistic camaraderie. As the colonial government was still reeling from the 1909 assassination of the first Resident-General of Korea Itō Hirobumi, the incumbent Resident-General, Terauchi Masatake, took no chances. Under the pretense of a mass assassination plot, the gendarmerie rounded up around 700 Koreans; among these, a few were killed, many were tortured, and most made false confessions under duress. All told, 105 men were incarcerated after a farcical trial. This event marked a turning point in religious and national rebellion. Hence, for many Koreans of the time, association with Christianity became synonymous with association with nationalism.


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