The fact that Korea’s experience of Japanese imperialism plays a role in present-day Japan-Korea relations is no secret to anyone. Questions of guilt, responsibility and atonement continue to bubble below, and occasionally break through, the surface of ties between two countries which otherwise have much in common culturally and in terms of interests. Addressing many of these complexities, Christina Yi
’s Colonizing Language: Cultural Production and Language Politics in Modern Japan and Korea
(Columbia University Press, 2018) adds greatly to our understanding of imperial experience and its personal, linguistic and political legacies.
In this ‘discursive history of modern Japanese-language literature from Korea and Japan’ (xvi), Yi forges a narrative which is itself expressive of colonialism's tangled and irresolvable traces. Led nimbly back and forth between the Japanese metropole and the colonies and postcolonies, we enter deep into the worlds of writers considered both 'Korean' and 'Japanese' based in both past and present incarnations of 'Korea' and 'Japan.' If it is difficult to pin any single identity - other than shared use of Japanese language - on these figures and their works, then this very fact is an invitation to broaden our understanding of Japanophone literature beyond today's troublesome nation states. As Yi makes poignantly clear, issues of identity and voice are still shaped by imperial experience even long after the formal end of empire in 1945.
Ed Pulford is a postdoctoral researcher at the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center, Hokkaido University. His research focuses on friendships and histories between the Chinese, Korean and Russian worlds, and northeast Asian indigenous groups.