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Book Review


E. Taylor Atkins, Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910-1945. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010. Pp. xv + 262. ($60.00 cloth; $24.95 paper; $20.00 e-book)


     In Primitive Selves, E. Taylor Atkins argues that Japanese efforts in the early twentieth century to document Korean cultural products and customs were crucial to the development of Japan's imperial identity. Using materials about Korea produced for the consumption of Japanese audiences, such as picture postcards and folk songs, Atkins demonstrates that depicting Korea was a process fraught with contradictions. Far from a one-way affair, it engaged Korean ethnographers, folklorists, and collectors in ways that both reinforced but also challenged dominant Japanese conceptual frameworks (93-95, 121-122). As a work centered on the creative rather than coercive aspects of creating knowledge about a colonized subject, this book calls attention to how attitudes and practices with roots in the colonial period continue to inform how Korean culture is curated in both South and North Korea today, with implications for other postcolonial places (Epilogue).

     After a brief introduction in which he addresses where this book fits in between studies of Korea and Japan, Atkins succinctly lays out the complex events that led to Korea's transformation from a sovereign nation to a colony in chapter one. Although a number of historical personages and events are brought forth in rapid succession, this chapter, like the rest of the book, employs a conversational style that keeps the narrative briskly flowing. In chapter two, Atkins shows how Japanese ethnography about Korea was concerned with the task of defining a Japanese self as well as a primitive other.

     Korea, annexed in 1910 and transformed into an integral part of the Japanese empire over the next several decades, reluctantly entered an arena where global powers were vying for control of territory and resources in Asia and beyond. It was a time when notions of Social Darwinism flourished. The notion of a hierarchy of civilization among different nations, widely accepted as fact, bolstered the claim that Western Europe and the United States were much further along in terms of progress than Asia or Africa. To be considered a serious competitor, Japan needed to build a commensurate empire. Asserting that Korea embodied its distant, primitive past enhanced the Japanese metropole; emphasizing the historical and cultural connections between the two nations reinforced the claim that Korea belonged in the Japanese empire. As a more enlightened version of Korea, Japan was a fit steward for Korea's cultural heritage and political future. This underlying logic, Atkins argues, helped secure Japan's hold on Korea as a colony, but the view that Korea was its backward counterpart also allowed dissenting Japanese voices to critique their own stumbles with modernity (59, 100-101).

     Nostalgia and even regret crept into the assessment of Japanese curators and audiences gazing at Korea. The swift and uneven nature of industrialization and urbanization in Japan primed Japanese audiences to Korean culture products that simulated a purportedly lost Japanese past. Ironically, Japanese initiatives in selecting and preserving Korean works with this in mind--for example, re-publishing a fifteenth-century royally commissioned work on Korean music--"facilitated the dissemination of cultural commodities among a broader range of the social spectrum" (127). Koreans embraced p'ungmul drumming, part of the tradition crystallized in Japanese-led musicology and ethnography, as "inherently an act of collective resistance" by the people against Japanese rule (143). The discussion of the many types of "Arirang," a typology of quintessentially Korean songs enjoyed by Japanese listeners (150-165), would not be amiss in a global history of popular music and mass media in the early twentieth century.

     Although this book is about Koreana, it deals more with Japanese perceptions about Korea and uses primarily Japanese-language sources, as Atkins notes in his introduction, so it would fit more neatly in a course about Japan. Nevertheless, it would complement courses on colonial Korea as well--chapter three is particularly interesting as it details some of the debates between Korean and Japanese scholars and performers over Korean cultural forms like p'ansori. Chapter four, "The First K-Wave," would be an asset to instructors who would like to introduce a longer-term historical view when discussing contemporary Korean and Japanese popular culture. Every empire in the period that Atkins examines in this book left behind a wealth of visual materials, and much of it can be found in a growing number of online archives, so Primitive Selves would also work as a text in courses that take a comparative look at the culture of empires in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It would also be a good work to show how specific goals and priorities of different empires mediate knowledge production about their colonial subjects.

     Atkins does not discuss Japan and Taiwan much, although the curatorship of Taiwan, especially in the late nineteenth century, shares similar features with the case of Japan and Korea in the early twentieth century, and there is only a little mention of the broader imperial realm in which Koreana circulated. Although they lie outside of the immediate scope of this book, these lacunae suggest that there exist still more interesting ways scholars can approach how materials made for a specific purpose and audience may have circulated within an imperial realm between colonies as well as with the metropole. Such minor caveats aside, Primitive Selves is a welcome addition to scholarship that seeks to bridge the histories and historiographies of early twentieth century Korea and Japan.

Miri Kim is a PhD student at the University of California-Irvine and is currently working on a dissertation on military education in Northeast China during the Republican period. She can be reached at


Suggested English-Language Resources for Visual Images of Korea in the Early Twentieth Century

     Among online archives that host images from Asia from this period, several excellent English-language archives on Korea are available. Atkins discusses far more than just visual images in his work, but visual images may be more accessible than aural materials from this period.

     As rich as these archives are, in terms of using them in class, it may be more effective to focus not on showing a large number of images to students at once, but rather on discussing the kinds of questions and issues that arise when we try viewing an image through a historical lens (using just a few items), to help students develop conceptual tools that they can apply to many different kinds of historical images (see pages 81-83 for some issues when it comes to photography). The way we view these images today is necessarily filtered through contemporary expectations and knowledge, but it might be also useful to also think about how historical circumstances shape the physical act of viewing just as it does interpretation. We might consider how easily technologies that produce images can be rendered invisible, for instance.
Digital Archive of Images from Colonial Taiwan and Occupied Japan

A searchable collection with a wide variety of materials, including postcards and commercial prints. The items in this archive are labeled by subject as well as organized by type and region. It is useful to browse the archive first to see what kinds of subject headings exist before embarking on a search.
Smithsonian Institution

This extensive collection can be searched by keyword or country name. A keyword search with "Korea" turns up over 10,000 different items that can be refined by selecting (+) or (-) next to the extensive tags in the left-hand column of the results page.
The Reverend Corwin & Nellie Taylor Collection

This collection, hosted at the Korean Heritage Library, holds photographs taken from about 1908 to 1922 by two American Methodist missionaries, Rev. Corwin Taylor and Nellie Taylor.
Sydney Gamble Photographs

A collection of photographs taken by sociologist Sydney Gamble on his research trips to East Asia in the early twentieth century. Although this archive features mainly photographs of China, a "Korea" keyword search turns up quite a few items.
MIT Visualizing Cultures

This is a collection of multimedia essays on (current) materials from Japan and China, rather than an image archive, but it may offer some ideas and examples of how to historically contextualize and present visual materials in innovative ways.



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