Monday, May 23, 2005

Did Japan Deprive Koreans of Their Own Language?

Here's an online news I read a couple of weeks ago. Chosun Ilbo, one among the three major newspapers in South Korea, reported on Apr 21 about a second-generation Korean-American girl's short speech at the opening ceremony of the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Ilinois.

Her speech, whose entire portion was quoted in the news article above, was as follows:

My understanding of freedom is inextricably tied up with my understanding of language. My great-grandfather, in 1940s Korea, was arrested for putting together the first Korean dictionary when the language had been banned by the Japanese government. My great-grandfather believed that words, the medium by which we formulate and share ideas, can bind and break the very ideas they express if the language is that of an oppressor. He fought for the freedom of his people to express ideas in their own words; in so doing, he defended their very right to have ideas.

As I prepare for all the freedoms and responsibilities of adulthood, I remember these definitions of freedom I have inherited, and strive to make ones of my own -- not only as the first generation of my family born in a new country, but also as an American youth at the birth of a new century. Sitting in the hall between classes, my friends and I discuss the faults of our school's administration, the right to same-sex marriage, the justification for the Iraq war. We feel it is our right to know and evaluate our surroundings, to speak and have our ideas responded to.

I believe that freedom in the 21st century means the liberty of individuals, regardless of age, race, gender, or class, to express themselves in their own words, and to use those words to shape history. We celebrate it, and yet we never stop fighting for it. I am Korean-American, I am young, and I am free. I speak -- not always articulate, not often right, but always in my own words. I speak, and I listen.

Meanwhile the very Chosun Ilbo says in another article (on Feb 27 2004) that the oldest domestic-issued Korean dictionary extant was published in 1930.

(Click to see the magnified image)

It is therefore obvious that this girl's assertion above, that her great-grandfather was arrested for putting together the first Korean dictionary, is NOT true.

Was their language "banned"?

So how about her next assertion? Was Korean language really "banned" by the Japanese government in 1940s?

It is probable that this girl is mentioning to the well-known "Korean Language Association incident" (Chosen-go Gakkai Jiken) in 1942. Dispite the association's establishment as a purely academic institute under Japan's rule in 1931, quite a few of its members were later involved in anti-government activities tightly associated with radical separationists. Japanese government therefore needed to arrest these activists in order to maintain governance of the Korean peninsula. It should be emphasized that the incident took place entirely because of the public insecurity brought about by those underground political movements, not because of Japan's aim for "banning" Korean language.

It is somehow ironical that the picture above, of the first Korean dictionary made in Korea, shows that the dictionary was issued by a Japanese publisher in Keijo (called Seoul today). How could it have come true if Korean language was really "banned" as many Koreans insist?

There are a lot of more evidences: actually the establishment of "Hansung Weekly", the first Korean newspaper written in hangul (Korean alphabet), was achieved under the guidance and support by Japanese scholars and businessmen, such as Fukuzawa Yukichi and Inoue Kakugoro.

Moreover, it was the Japanese government-general of Korea that made the first systematic contribution to standardizing and popularizing the orthography of hangul. The Korean government before Japan's rule naturally could not afford it, due to its inability in carrying out any modernized education policy.

The two articles of Chosun Ilbo above, contradictory to each other, show us how dangerous it is to take serious the history of "Japan's elimination of Korean culture" often spoken by Koreans.