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Originally, my research focused more on Japanese imperialism in Manchuria, because this was the only context within which I ever even heard about Japanese imperialism spoken of. I thought that if I did end up focusing on post-colonialism in the East-Asian context, it would have to be Manchuria. My lack of context comes from two places: for one thing, Japan* is good at forgetting the past and occluding certain elements from history. Secondly, the status of Japan as an ally to the United States, I think, has something to do with the continued hush around Japanese imperialism.

*I say this in a very general sense, because I can provide a list of many thinkers and writers, for instance, who were contemporaneously opposed to Japanese imperialism and I can also show you thinkers and writers who address this issue now in a very open, critical matter.  Another important thing I want to address here is that when I make this claim, I am not saying that Japan is the only country to do this at all. All countries are guilty of this to varying degrees, from outright genocide to denials of prejudice. Clearly, Western countries have a long, sordid history of terrorizing and conveniently forgetting; those who hold hegemonic power are just lucky in that they get to set the standard for historical fact. 

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All of that is to say that as I have continued my research, my studies have drifted me closer to Korea, which means that I have been able to delve deeper into a literary history that I had previously known absolutely nothing about. One novel that I came across in one of my classes was Chae Man-Sik’s Peace Under Heaven, which is a novel that is a little later than some of the other “modern” texts that I have come across, but is one that is incredibly funny and incredibly insightful. The text mainly focuses on the character, Master Yun, who is an absentee landlord living in the city with his household, as well as the relationships and interactions between the characters tied to him. The novel deals a lot with familial ties, the situation of women, and (what I was the most interested in) the position of a modern subject in a changing Korea.

The novel itself is set in the Japanese colonial period, but the narrative keeps the terror of history at bay and keeps the attention mostly on what is happening within this family. The absence of the obvious here, I think, is a sort of coping mechanism for the characters. When the world falls apart around you, you do what you can to salvage what peace you can, wherever you can find (or construct) it. One thing that came up in a discussion we had was the title of the text itself; in English it is translated as Peace Under Heaven, which is apparently quite close to the original Korean. In many ways, the concept of “peace under heaven” is one that shows up quite often in East Asian literature and is closely tied to the imperial  – in Japanese, for instance, heaven is 天国 (literally, sky country) and emperor is 天皇, which denotes the emperor as being a god from heaven. Thus, the notion of peace under heaven already holds within it – at least in the East Asian historical and literary context – something of the imperial in it.

But what does it mean to have peace under heaven during a colonial occupation? This is where the narrative pushing away of history comes into play, I think. If there is no peace in your country due to war, then the least you can do is set boundaries and (as a prof very eloquently put it) shrink the size of what you call “under heaven”. If “under heaven” simply refers to the domestic sphere, then you can achieve a semblance of “peace” with everything in its place and everyone fulfilling their expected familial duties. However, as the novel reveals, even this manufactured peace is fraught with issues.

I truly enjoyed this novel and was happy to start off my modern Korea novel knowledge base with something so cleverly and compellingly written. It is a little longer than a Soseki novel, for instance, but it read so easily – though I did found myself stopping every once in a while to think about what I had just read, which probably added to the total reading time. There are also a lot of pretty cringey characters in the book, too, so if you enjoy yourself a good cringe, there will be quite a few humorous bits as well.

 

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