HIEA 112 — Catching Up 1/3

Insoo Kim
5 min readMar 10, 2022

I am condensing all of the prompts I’ve missed thus far into three Medium posts; I’ve been incredibly busy lately and haven’t had the time to write them out, I apologize to you if you’re one of my classmates :(.

Why do you think Sonia Ryang selected the concept of homo sacer in order to make sense of the 1923 massacre of 6,000 Korean people living in mainland Japan by a combination of police and vigilantes? How does the notion of the “unsacrificeable Korean” help her make an argument about the nature of Japanese modernity?

Before I start my analysis, I want to note that this is one of the most horrifying texts I’ve ever read. To think that this happened to Koreans, and could have even have happened to me if I had been born just a century earlier, is terrifying. The way the judges laugh at the torture of Koreans in the testimony is what really scares me, and just the senseless violence is something I didn’t expect, even knowing Japan’s imperial history and other events like the Rape of Nanking.

I think the concept of homo sacer, which is also used in literature regarding other cases of violence like the Holocaust, is very fitting to Japan’s treatment of the Koreans in this case. Under this concept, Koreans (and by extension others, like the Chinese) are seen as less than human, constituting “bare life”, having no societal ritual or political worth. They are outsiders in every sense of the word.

I think something that’s important to see here too is how the class system, following its radical change after Meiji, has now restructured itself to have the homo sacer at the very bottom —as Koreans would not have been descendants of the Sun God in Japanese origin myth, they were not on the same level of humanity as the Japanese were. This is reflected in sekishi: the idea that all Japanese are the children of the Emperor (something interesting here I noted was that the word for baby in Korean is also seki. Even though we’re studying the horrible colonial interactions that took place, I think it’s cool to also see the linguistic interactions).

I think that the concept of homo sacer is explored well through the example of the 1923 earthquake: it was at a time not of war, unlike other major cases of violence like the Rape of Nanking or the comfort women. These cases serve to augment her argument regarding the modernization of Japan. The cases of rape with these women (that there were not raped in the 1923 earthquake; they were killed instead) were show that they had entered one of the lowest classes of Imperial Japan, rather than being under it.

As such, the Korean is “unsacrificable” — so below the ritual and political order that their life is not worthy of enough recognition to warrant killing them being homicide. As I mentioned earlier, this was part of the modernization of Japan, and ultimately a product of it: as such, the 1923 massacres of Koreans is a landmark in the progress of Japanese modernization.

Discuss the jarring contrast between Ryang’s modernity and the one depicted by Tanizaki in his novel. How do we reconcile the two?

Tanizaki’s vision of modernity is largely removed from that of Ryang’s: our understanding of Ryang’s modernity is through the lens of the 1923 massacre of Koreans, while Tanizaki’s is mostly through gender relations as portrayed in Naomi. Ryang’s inherently derives from violence, then, while Tanizaki’s comes from subversion of traditional patriarchal norms.

Naomi is a girl who is quite representative of modernization: she is the evolution of culture as it shifts more towards consumerism, as demonstrated: “She also reads magazines like Classic and Vogue. Actually, she doesn’t read them; she studies the photographs of Western designs and fashions.” (142)

We see the idea of modern women: “The greatest weakness of Japanese women is that they lack confidence. As a result, they look timorous compared to Western women. For the modern beauty, an intelligent, quick-witted expression and attitude are more important than lovely features.” (27). Intelligent and confidence are prioritized over the traditional virtues of reservedness and beauty. This, in conjunction with the sexual nature of the protagonist’s intentions towards her, demonstrates a great subversion of the prudish patriarchy; this is Tanizaki’s vision of modernity.

We can reconcile the two visions as not mutually exclusive, but collectively exhaustive. The framework Ryang puts forward is mostly in regards to ethnic relations; Tanizaki’s is in regards to gender relations. As such, we can understand how the concept of homo sacer can coexist with the concept of the modern beauty.

Why do you think mobilizing women for nation and empire-building, in particular, in the domestic sphere (the home, the family, motherhood) was so important for the state?

In 20th century Japanese society, mothers served the role of housekeeper and caregiver — traditional roles. As such, they were not only biological reproducers, but also cultural reproducers, as Kono writes. It was similar to the mobilization of women in the United States: during WW1 and WW2, women saw much more influence through nursing and other work; images like Rosie the Riveter exemplify this.

In Japan, where women mostly did not work, the mobilization of mothers was how it took place instead: it would foster war support which not only affected the morale of the troops, but also meant more funding and stability back home.

During the colonial period, this imperialist motherhood is exemplified through sources like Manchu Girl; even though Koizumi Kikue may have had the best of intentions (and the narrative is indeed relatively heartwarming save for the alarming colonizer sentiments), the attitude taken is analogous to the Western concept of the white man’s burden — that the colonized were “inferior” in the sense that they had to be educated and elevated to the level of the colonizers in terms of culture and society. Of course, this excuse is a mere pittance as a justification, when analyzing events like the Force Publique or the Rape of Nanking.

However, Manchu Girl serves as a great exploration of imperial motherhood: Koizumi, hiring a Manchu maid, becomes the surrogate mother to her. She instills in Guiyi Japanese values and grooms her to accept her colonizers, culminating in Guiyi ultimately believing that Manchuria and Japan were in a mutually beneficial relationship, as seen in the statement “Japan and Manchuria trust each other” (224). This serves as an exemplary allegory to the relation of Japan and Manchuria as well; they saw themselves as a parent disciplining and educating a child into behaving properly.

Koizumi also portrays other aspects of imperial motherhood: she describes her pride in the Japanese soldiers and how they are “holy”, due to them willingly throwing themselves into danger as a result of the romanticized view of the glory of war.

With the cultural indoctrination of Guiyi and the pro-war spirit of Koizumi, Manchu Girl becomes not a wholesome tale of pupil and teacher, but a piece of propaganda with likely heavily fictionalized elements that serve to further propagate the idea of imperial motherhood. As a result, however, it becomes a great way to explore the idea of imperial motherhood and why it was so important to the state: it became a great motivating impetus for war in China, as well as justifying their colonial possessions to those back home.