Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The North Koreans Are Just Like Us

I was watching "Kaabee" -- Yamada Yoji's 2008 star vehicle for the ever luminous Yoshinaga Sayuri (is is hard to wrap one's mind around the concept that she is 64) on television Sunday night. The story is a familiar one but well told of a saintly mother trying to raise two children in Meiji Constitution Japan, struggling mightily to maintain her dignity and a roof over her family's head as the increasing paranoia, poverty and military adventurism of the state grinds her loved ones and acquaintances into dust.

The scene at the train station, where the family is seeing off the happy-go-lucky uncle whilst all around them families are saying goodbye to their young men being sent to the front in China, all under the watchful eyes of the Kempeitai, prompted my viewing companion to remark:

"It looks like North Korea."

Hmmm... Meiji Japan's occupation of the Korean Peninsula taught the Koreans everything they ever needed to know about how to run totalitarian military dictatorship ruled by living gods...a point Christopher Hitchens fails to make his essay for Slate magazine because he is a) unaware of it and b) it does not suit his purposes.

Renting the "Kaabee" DVD would be a good way to remind oneself of how intensely, sickly weird this blessed land was in its pre-1945 incarnation, and how sick a person has be to think of the Meiji State as representing a more dignified and beautiful Japan.

Later - More bluntly still, just as many in Japan see their country as a preserver of real Chinese culture (see Banyan's piece in this week's Economist on this point) the DPRK should be proud of its meticulous maintainance of the essence and practices of Meiji Constitution Japan.


Bryce said...

This point has been made before. I was recently talking to a Koreanist who told me that the North Koreans had patterned their wide boulevards on the boulevards of Tokyo. Oh yeah? I asked. Which ones? He couldn't answer me,

But he assured me there was some scholarly literature claiming that the Emperor system taught the North Koreans everything they know. Hang tight, and I'll get you a reference, if you want.

MTC said...

Bryce -

The main boulevard of political consequence is Yasukuni Dori, though parts of the network around the Imperial Palace might be the reference.

I am aware of the point having been made before. What is fascinating is the cognitive dissonance on all sides.

Anonymous said...

Likewise, the authoritarian regimes that ran South Korea after liberation were led by men who had trained in Meiji Japanese universities, policy forces, and military units. See Bruce Cummings' excellent text "Korea's Place in the Sun". You'll be surprised how much both the North and the South learned from the Japanese in terms of the techniques of domestic repression...

Anonymous said...

The "Japanese Professors" who see Japan as maintaining the essence of Chinese culture quoted in the Banyan article are clueless. There's a real tension over whether Japan is any position to define an Asian regional order, not because of its position now but because of its record in the first half of the 20th century. Hopefully that's one thing regional accord could address-not that the economist ever thinks that far.

Unknown said...

One quibble: not the Meiji Imperial system, but Manchukuo. Or, some combination of the two influences. The hypothesis, that the ROK and DPRK are variations on Manchukuo, is worth a discussion.

MTC said...

Radical Contra -

Machuguo (Manshukoku) was presented as a multi-racial, extra-ideological state under Japanese tutelage. I am not sure how that applies to the DPRK.

I look forward to your expansion of your thoughts on this.

Unknown said...


I wouldn't take those multi-racial pretensions seriously. But, I'm referring more to the political administration and economic exploitation of the labor force and natural resources. Ministers were military officers serving with both a figurehead executive and legislative council.

Bryce said...

I have Cumings' book and shall review it tonight. It turns out the Koreanist who assured me about the boulevards of Tokyo got this from a panel discussion he heard somewhere. Ironically, the panel discussion was about the book by Myers.