HIEA 112 — Modernization as Seen Through Hierarchy, Imperialism, and Race

Insoo Kim
4 min readMar 18, 2022

Content warning — this post contains a photo of several dead bodies.

The 1923 Kanto Earthquake and the subsequent massacre of Koreans in the Kanto region serves as a sort of mini-genocide, wherein the residents of Kanto were completely ready to kill any Korean on sight. This microcosm of imperialism serves as a great way to study the ways different imperial mechanisms work together to perpetuate violence against colonial subjects.

To understand the motivations behind the Kanto Massacre, we need to explore the various aspects of imperial culture that Japan cultivated which ultimately led to this violence. Like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand being the spark that ignited WW1, the 1923 earthquake served as an event which gave Japanese people free reign to slaughter Korean people. The article which the image above is from doesn’t seem very credible — it inflates the figures of Korean deaths to over double what the academic estimates are — but it states that the military handed over Korean prisoners to vigilantes, so that the vigilantes could deal with them as they saw fit. With what the rest of the academic consensus is, I think this part of the article is true, or at least plausible.

The concept of homo sacer was put forth by Sonia Ryang as a possible explanation for the willingness of Japanese citizens to go on a hunt for Koreans: they saw the Koreans as less than human, constituting the bare minimum of life. To kill a Korean would only be comparable to that of eradicating a pest: they were so low that they were “unsacrificable”, as in their life had no inherent value. They were not just at the bottom rung of society — they were so low, they were considered completely separate.

The concept of homo sacer is important to understanding the fundamentals of how Imperial Japanese society was structured, and also to understanding the modernization process and changes that took place in this ethnic hierarchy. Ryang explores the “pseudo- or fictive-blood myth,” the origin myth of Japan. As all Japanese people are descended from the Sun Goddess, any non-Japanese are immediately excluded from Japanese society: they are not descendants of this goddess, and therefore do not have the same divine blood, marking them as inferior. They are sacer: a term meaning both sacred or accursed, as they are not worthy to be “sacrificed”. As such, the Korean is unsacrificable, and to mingle with the Korean would be a pollution of pure Japanese divine blood.

Yet, the imperial policies of World War II directly contradict this idea. Although this concept of homo sacer was in full effect during the 1923 massacre, wherein Korean women were killed but not raped, the cases of comfort women are indisputable examples of forced sexual labor by Korean (and of course Chinese, Taiwanese, or Southeast Asian) women. The cases of comfort women are evidence that colonial subjects in the 1930s and 40s were now part of this societal order. As Ryang states, “These women, in other words, were no longer homo sacer, but the members (albeit the lowest members) of the Imperial order and hence, “rapable” without the risk of pollution.” (744). Koreans were now entered into the Japanese registry, the “koseki”, and we thus see modernization of hierarchy in Japan through these atrocities.

We see the progress in modernization through immigration as time moves on, with Japan reforming its law regarding Koreans in a similar vein as America: “Similar discretion was built into the cold-war-era immigration laws introduced in a number of countries, including the United States.” (Morris-Suzuki 138). We see groups like the Mindan or Soren come into existence, providing a social structure for Koreans in Japan. Although Koreans are still targeted by institutional imperialist and racist laws, they are no longer in fear of immediate physical violence.

But that isn’t to say there were no forms of violence: Through the story of Yoon Hakjun and various others caught by the Immigration Control Bureau, we see violence through imprisonment: “Those whose appeals for “special permission to stay” were rejected and who were unable or reluctant to pay for their own deportation would ultimately be transported by train, under heavy police guard, to the detention center where they might remain for weeks or (in some circumstances) for years, waiting to be included in one of the mass deportations organized by Japan’s Immigration Control Bureau.” (Morris-Suzuki 142).

I chose the image of the 1923 massacre because of not only the fact that I wanted to discuss it, but also that I think it’s a great indicator of modernization. Understanding modern ideologies like imperialism means that you need to understand the mechanisms by which it works, all of which perpetuate violence. We see states exert as much violence as socially acceptable — this is reflected in the government’s support for the 1923 massacre. We can thus understand the process of decolonization in Japan better through how the nature of violence perpetuated through imperial institutions has changed. It’s interesting and somewhat depressing that the process of decolonization is analyzed through violence in this perspective.