Modern Times:

The development of Korean mass culture in image and sound during the Japanese occupation, 1910–45



Ken Vos

Korea was a relative latecomer to industrial modernization, a consequence of her long history of isolationism and the conservatism of most of her political leadership. By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the country also became an object of imperialist competition between its larger neighbours. In 1897, as a consequence of the Sino-Japanese war, the country was formally declared an independent state, free from Chinese protection and became the Korean Empire. Nevertheless, by 1900, the capital Hansŏng, present-day Seoul, was in many ways the most advanced capital in Asia, with running water, electricity, trams and telephone lines.

After the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–05, with American consent, Japanese interests in the peninsula were acknowledged by the Russian empire and Korea becoming a Japanese protectorate against the will of the Korean government. This led to the annexation by Japan in 1910, again against the wishes of the Kwangmu emperor. After the annexation of 1910, the country’s economic infrastructure steadily improved. However, after a few years almost all large private enterprises were Japanese-owned and land confiscation by Japanese immigrants was sponsored by the government. Moreover, Japanese occupation not only meant political suppression but also, increasingly, cultural oppression from the early 1930s on, including the substitution of the Korean language in education and the distortion of historical landmarks.

Against this background, Korea’s culture developed both in relative isolation from global stimuli and under strong Japanese infuence. This was particularly true for mass or popular culture, its dissemination being dependent on industrial production. Modern lifestyles were copied or emulated from Japanese examples, especially from Tokyo, the empire’s cosmopolitan centre. At the same time, however, developments took place that were specifically Korean, continuing or reinterpreting indigenous traditions. It is easy to depict this period as a dark age for Korean culture but this is only part of the story. It was also a period of great cultural dynamism and growing political awareness.

The recording industry is a good example of these different strands of infuence. Some companies, such as Chieron (시에롣) and New Korea (뉴코리아) were focused on the domestic market but most, such as Columbia (including its sub-label Regal), Victor, Polydor or Okeh, were Japanese companies licensed by their U.S. brand owners. Companies such as Taihei (太平, 태평) and Nitto (日東) were wholly Japanese-owned. All these enterprises were active in Korea but it would also appear that the majority of the records as well as playback equipment was manufactured in Japan. The most popular repertoire was trot (트로트), shortened from foxtrot but mainly applying to two-beat rhythms. It is often said that trot is an amalgamation of Korean-style vocals (kagok, 가곡) with Christian hymns and had already developed before the introduction of commercial recording into Korea. While the rhythms were new, melodic themes were derived from traditional vocal styles and were basically pentatonic. This Korean music style was adopted in Japan as enka (演歌). In the 1930s new global influences were gradually absorbed by this very popular form of music such as swing-type orchestral arrangements and tango rhythms. Arguably, among all popular local cultural forms, trot may have been the most persistent. Other indigenous music forms, both formal, theatrical and folk music (minyo, 민요), were also produced in substantial quantities. Foreign music styles, with the exception of nineteenth-century Western music, were considerably less popular.

Apart from radio and records, the other great mass popular entertainment medium was movies. The first permanent cinemas had been built in Hansŏng before the annexation but it was only in 1919 that local moving pictures (hwaltong sajin) were produced. The production of the highly successful movie Arirang by producer and director Na Un-gyu is considered the beginning of a short period of flowering of Korean silent movies which ended in 1930 when the authorities introduced severe censorship on cultural expression. The introduction of Korean sound movies in 1935 also meant the end of pyŏnsa, the entertaining narrators who could add satirical comments to the intertitles when government officials were absent at the theatre. This meant a severe decrease in film production to only a few titles each year by the late 1930s. From 1938 on, only Japanese-made films were shown, and in 1942 the use of Korean language in movies was forbidden.

The third main mass media form that promoted the modern lifestyle was newspapers and magazines. Not only did they announce and review events and products, they also advertised them. Illustrated journals also showed new developments from abroad as well as graphic designs which epitomised the modern lifestyle so appreciated by the ‘modern boy’ or ‘modern girl’ (in short ‘mobo’ and ‘moga’, as derived from Japanese vernacular). Designers of posters, including those for movies, also experimented with new forms, as did those for brochures and other printwork for the tourist market. In this case also, the main inspiration for design was Japan. By the the early 1940s, Korean language had almost been completely substituted by Japanese in printed publications.

This is an online version of the exhibition "Modern Times: Massculture in Korea 1910–1945" held at the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden from 3 December 2011 to 8 January 2012.