Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945 – KANG (CSS)

KANG, Hildi. Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea, 1910-1945. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001.166p. Resenha de: LeVOS, Ernest. Canadian Social Studies, v.38, n.3, p., 2004.

This is a book of many voices and it will appeal to a wide audience for many reasons. It is appropriately titled, well organized and published by a reputable press. The personal stories of suffering and the will to survive describe the existentialist existence of a nation under colonial oppression. These stories defined a people and eventually two countries: North Korea and South Korea. From another perspective, it is a set of stories that defined Japanese colonialism for thirty-five years. In this book the author skilfully weaves together a common experience of subjugation as told by fifty-one Koreans.

Six of the fourteen chapters are oral accounts by six individuals: a teacher cum businessperson, a bank manager, two homemakers and two students. Eight chapters contain oral accounts of varying lengths from groups such as farmers, fishers, peddlers and professional people. The story each person relates paints a picture of assimilation, accommodation, oppression, subjugation, and cultural and religious compromise under Japanese rule. Chaos, confusion and cruelty also figure prominently. While stories of victimization predominate, the book does include some accounts of compassion and mercy. There were a few Japanese colonial and military administrators who were kind to the Koreans but these Japanese were a handful that saw a bigger picture and shunned a narrow island mentality of which they were accused (p. 132).

While Kang does not admit using a specific definition of history, it is evident that she views history as the process of change over a period of time. Part I covers Change by Choice and Part II is Change by Coercion. In the coverage of both parts of the book, significant topics such as the Korean Independence Movement, the infatuation with Communism and the role of village schools called Sodangs, are acknowledged.

The Korean Independence Movement is addressed in Under the Black Umbrella. Koreans fought hard to preserve their individual and national identity since they were fighting a war against the dangers of becoming Japanese. Various weapons such as religion and the study of the Bible were used in this war against assimilation. For Christians, it was impossible to preach Christianity openly. In fact, a wide range of weapons were used in the program of passive resistance including hiding crops, feigning ignorance, conveniently disappearing singing songs with hidden meanings, taking part in labour strikes, spreading anti Japanese rumours, and, especially Christians, refusing to bow to Shinto shrines (p. 99). Koreans experienced the consequences of such passive resistance – for example, finding it disastrous to use a piece of the Independence newspaper to wrap a package! Resistance continued during the Second World War. At a time when the Japanese wanted all the help they could get, Koreans kept up their passive resistance by hiding, ignoring the summons, or finding essential home-front jobs (p. 130). One person sought advice from a fortune-teller who was told to escape the draft since his lot, as a soldier would be a bad one. For those interested in the study of passive resistance, some of the latter accounts will remind them of similar movements in the history of Asia among the peasants who battled colonial rule.

There is no doubt that the author, perhaps inadvertently, prepares her readers to focus on mansei, independence. Mansei was the rallying cry, the song and statement of faith for freedom some day in the Korean future. The Japanese were devoted to controlling Korea, and the Koreans were determined to resist Japanese colonialism. In the pursuit of their own variety of manifest destiny, the Japanese military administrators introduced laws that required Koreans to recite the imperial pledge of allegiance, to speak only Japanese, to worship at Shinto shrines and to adopt Japanese names (p. 111). In short, Koreans were forced to assimilate. August 15, 1945 was a defining moment for Koreans for on this date the Japanese surrendered and Korea was no longer an imperial colony of Japan. They stopped becoming Japanese and it was a time for Korean communists and anti-Japanese nationalists to let out all their frustrations (pp. 143-144). Korea would never be the same again.

Oral histories are challenging exercises and the author does not ignore the element of accuracy where memory is concerned. Even though some of these individual stories are repetitious experiences, they will appeal to a wide range of readers – the general public, university and high school students. The latter will find the few experiences of Korean junior and senior high school students, some who worked in the fish cannery during the war, interesting. Part of their school day was given to forced labour. The author raises some pertinent issues that students could use for papers and discussions such as the influence of assimilation on Koreans and whether colonialism was a blessing or a bane for Korea.

There are other significant features of the book. The only map in Under the Black Umbrella is useful in locating some of the towns and regions in Korea. In addition, there are some appropriate photographs and a reprint of a post-card to celebrate liberation from Japanese rule. Also of interest to the reader is Appendix B, where the author briefly brought some of the individual stories up to date. Eventually, several of those she interviewed would make their home in the United States.

It is a truism that history is written by the victors. But it is understandable that many Japanese will not revisit the past, nor want to read or write about the ugly periods of their history. One is reminded of the article that Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall wrote for the Atlantic Monthly a few months after the Korean War was over: Our Mistakes in Korea. Nations may write on the ugly past, warts and all, but unfortunately, we may get very little of the Japanese perspective.


Marshall, S.L.A. (1953). Our mistakes in Korea. Atlantic Monthly, 192(3), pp. 46-49. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/53sep/marshall.htm.

Ernest LeVos – Grant MacEwan College. Edmonton, Alberta.

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