Cross-Currents E-Journal (No. 10)

March 2014
Editors' Note
Wen-hsin Yeh, University of California, Berkeley
Sungtaek Cho, Korea University


2013 Cross-Currents Forum

Mark Caprio, Rikkyo University

Medical researcher Kubo Takeshi’s contributions to professional publications, such as Chōsen igakkai zasshi (The Korean medical journal), and more popular magazines, such as Chōsen oyobi Manshū (Korea and Manchuria), reflected many of the prejudicial attitudes that Japanese held toward Koreans during the first decade of colonial rule. His scholarship was based on biological determinist thinking, an approach developed by eighteenth-century European medical researchers to establish race, class, and gender hierarchies. For Kubo this approach provided a means for exploiting scientific inquiry to establish and manage Japanese superiority over Korean subjects in a more stable manner than one based on more malleable cultural differences. A people could adjust its customs or mannerisms to amalgamate with a suzerain culture but could not do so with hereditarily determined features, such as blood type or cranium size, shape, or weight. Practitioners, however, often linked the physical with the cultural by arguing that a people’s physical structure was a product of its cultural heritage. The subjectivity injected into this seemingly objective research methodology abused the lay community’s blind trust in modern science in two ways. First, it employed this inquiry to verify biased observations, rather than to uncover new truths; second, it altered the approach, rather than the conclusions, when this inquiry demonstrated the desired truths to be inaccurate. Biological determinism proved useful in substantiating a Japanese-Korean colonial relationship that acknowledged historically similar origins while arguing for the historically different evolutions of the two peoples.

Keywords: biological determinism, Chōsen igakkai zasshi, Kubo Takeshi, craniology, racial identity, Keijō Medical College, colonial history, Kubo Incident

Christopher P. Hanscom, University of California, Los Angeles

This article addresses the status of the fact in literary and historical discourses in late colonial Korea, focusing on the elaboration of the relationship between scientific and literary truths primarily in the work of philosopher and critic Sŏ Insik (1906–?). It points to a growing tendency in late 1930s and early 1940s Korea to question the veracity of the fact (or of empiricism more broadly) in an environment where the enunciation of the colonial subject had been rendered problematic and objective statements had arguably lost their connection with social reality. In a period when the relationship between signifier and referent had come into question, how did this major critic understand the relationship between science and literature, or between truth and subjectivity? Sŏ warns against a simplistic apprehension of the notion of truth as unilaterally equivalent with what he calls “scientific truth” (kwahakchŏk chilli)—a nomological truth based on objective observation and confirmation by universal principles—and argues that a necessary complement to apparently objective truth is “literary truth” (munhakchŏk chinsil). Against the fixed, conceptual form of scientific thought, literary truth presents itself as an experiential truth that returns to the sensory world of the sociolinguistic subject (chuch’e) as a source of credibility.

Keywords: literary history, colonial discourse, colonial modernity, factuality, science, scientific truth, Sŏ Insik, late colonial Korea

Travis Workman, University of Minnesota

As part of a project on melodrama in Korean film, this article examines the ways that films from the late colonial period (1937–1945) blurred the traditional boundaries between newsreel documentary and fictional features in an attempt to suture the film spectator into the cinematic representation of what André Bazin called, in relation to the newsreel, “total history.” Drawing on theoretical discussions of sentimentality and melodrama, the article compares the earlier fictional film Sweet Dream (1936) to the wartime film Straits of Chosŏn (1943) in order to trace how melodrama was transformed through its incorporation into political propaganda. It discusses how narrative cinematic techniques such as point of view, shot/reverse shot, and crosscutting allowed Straits of Chosŏn to draw the viewer into spectacles of mobilization that were formerly represented through the more anonymous mass medium of the newsreel documentary. The remainder of the article touches on the films Volunteer (1941) and Spring of Korean Peninsula (1941), discussing how the interpretive excess enabled by melodrama remained visible after the hybridization of fictional film and newsreel, primarily through the disjuncture between the films’ melodrama narratives and their spectacles of mobilization. In conclusion, the article suggests that the gradual elimination of any narrative excess in 1940s films reflects an apprehension about the multiple codings, identifications, and interpretations enabled through the combination of melodrama narrative with political propaganda.

Keywords: Korea, Japan, film, documentary, melodrama, mobilization, total war, newsreels, colonialism, point of view, shot/reverse shot, spectacle, propaganda

Review Essays, Notes & Bibliographies

Fa-ti Fan, Binghamton University

Environmental history, history of science, and animal studies are emerging trends in the historiography of modern East Asia, for good reason. Environmental concerns are prominent in the region today, and environmental factors are important to understanding its history. Science (together with technology) has been held up as the benchmark of modernity in East Asia for more than a century and has been fundamental to visions of the modern nation (consider, for example, Mr. Science in China’s May Fourth Movement). Animal studies is the newest of these trends. This field has gained notice only in recent years, yet there are signs that it is becoming a popular topic...

George Lazopoulos, University of California, Berkeley

The three recent works on Japanese history discussed in this essay are connected only tenuously in terms of their subject matter: the construction of the category of “religion,” Buddhism in colonial Korea, and the evolution of liberalism in prewar Japan, respectively. What unites these studies is, rather, their approach. Highlighting the vital links between their subjects and other areas of the world, these studies yield a composite portrait of Japan as viewed through the transnational lens that now characterizes historical studies more generally...

Geoffrey C. Stewart, Western University

On November 22, 1963, an emergency session of the Central Committee of the Vietnam Workers’ Party (VWP) opened in Hanoi. The session, known as the Ninth Plenum, was held, in part, to determine the best route forward for the party following the coup that had toppled Ngo Dinh Diem’s South Vietnamese government three weeks before. Over the ensuing weeks, the committee members addressed domestic and international concerns of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), particularly the evolving political situation in the South and the status of the world revolutionary struggle. At the heart of the matter were divisions within the party over the best means to achieve the reunification of Vietnam and the ramifications that the widening Sino-Soviet split might have on this goal. From what can be gleaned from the spotty historical record, the debates were quite contentious...