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Historian examines popular media to reveal new narratives of wartime Korea

photo of Moon

Yummi Moon

Nov 5 2020

Yumi Moon, associate professor of history, recently conducted research into the print media of colonial Korea, examining the popularity and reception of American Hollywood films among Koreans and Japanese settlers. The topic, she argues, highlights shortcomings in existing narratives of colonial modernity and cultural hegemony in colonial Korean studies. Though both the Korean and Japanese settler communities consumed the same foreign media, their reactions were divided along the lines of national identity and position in colonial society. The Clayman Institute Faculty Fellows program recently heard Moon’s online presentation titled, “Colonial Media: Hollywood Movies and Discourses of Women in Wartime Korea, 1931-1940.” 

Hollywood movies and American culture were exceptionally popular in Korea before and during the period of Japanese colonialism. Between 1922 and 1940, ticket sales to foreign films grew from 960,000 to 21,000,000, a huge amount for a country with a population of approximately 25 million people. Though it is difficult to assess which films, specifically, were exhibited in Korean theaters, the King of Jazz (1930) and Little Women (1933) were especially popular with audiences. Moon notes that approximately 6700 American films were imported during the 30s and theaters exhibited an average of 200 films a year. This growth, however, was interrupted at the outbreak of war in 1941, when Japanese authorities banned the import and exhibition of American films. 

Though both the Korean and Japanese settler communities consumed the same foreign media, their reactions were divided along the lines of national identity and position in colonial society.

To better understand the impact of Hollywood films in this period, Moon has examined references to American films made in two major newspapers between 1931 and 1940: Chosŏn Ilbo, a Korean-language newspaper, and Keij Nippō, a Japanese-language paper directed at Japanese settlers living and working in Korea. While both papers covered Hollywood films, their reception differed significantly. Part of this has to do with the relative lack of linguistic overlap between communities. Very few people were bilingual in Korean and Japanese. Japanese colonialists had no reason to learn Korean; in fact, they attempted to suppress the language.
Most Koreans, on the other hand, had little knowledge of Japanese language before the arrival of colonialists. Only a small number of Korean elites were capable of reading newspapers in the two languages. Each community ascribed their own set of values to these foreign films. Keijō Nippō, perhaps unsurprisingly, tended to promote Japanese films over Hollywood films, highlighting the Japanese state’s ideology of “good wife and wise mother,” the role of consumer wives, and images of the bijin, the beautiful traditional Japanese woman. The Korean paper printed far more articles and stills of American films than its Japanese counterpart. At the same time, Chosōn Ilbo printed articles which promoted the development of feminist modes of Korean patriotism and criticized the idea of home-based consumption; these, however, were not incompatible with the promotion of Western beauty standards. 
One of the rare areas of overlap between the two newspapers concerned coverage of women’s crime. As Moon explains, the massive social upheavals caused by colonialism destabilized many traditional institutions in Korea, including those which bound women to their husbands and families. As a result, there was an explosion of “women’s crimes” – adultery, runaways, prostitution, and even murders of abusive or controlling husbands. The tone of this coverage, however, differed significantly between the two papers. The Japanese settler paper presented these stories in a more sensationalist manner, emphasizing the backwardness and lawlessness of Korean colonial subjects. Korean papers, however, took a different approach, portraying these crimes in a more sympathetic light, often addressing men and imploring them to forgive their wives and daughters. 

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