The ‘Modern’ Japanese (and Korean) Taisho Woman

Arts & Letters Daily links to an article in the The Chronicle of 21 May 2004 on The ‘Modern’ Japanese Woman during the Taisho era (1912-26) that asks, among other things:

How could one be both Japanese and modern, if modernity is defined as Western? Were modernity and Japaneseness antithetical? Or could individuals and society synthesize some new middle ground? If so, how?

Suppose we transpose this question to Korea, a Japanese colony at that time.

How could one be both Korean and modern, if modernity is defined as Japanese? Were modernity and Koreanness antithetical? Or could individuals and society synthesize some new middle ground? If so, how?

In fact, very few did achieve any middle ground. A small number of talented upper-class female artists achieved some degree of, well, notoriety, only to endure tragic denouements. Choe Chong-Dae profiles one on the poorly edited website of The Korea Times on 16 April 2004 under the headline A Pioneering Woman – Yun Sim-dok.

In the course of the recent history of Korea, many prominent pioneering women duly played significant roles in raising the national consciousness and in advocating women’s rights and freedoms. Women such as Na Hye-sok, a social pioneer, painter and writer (1896-1948), Kim Myong-son, a modern writer, famous for her literary work “Girl With Suspicion” (1896-1951) and Kim Won-ju, a Buddhist nun and great novelist of modern literature (Pen name: Ilyop [or Iryop]; 1896-1971) surfaced in the early 1900s when modern-style schools began to produce educated women.

Back in the ear1y 1920s, at the dawn for modern Korean music and art, Yun Sim-dok (1897-1926) appeared, “out of nowhere”; she was the first woman soprano singer in Korea, and was also an erudite writer, composer and stage actress. Showing the nation what Western vocal music was all about, she captured the hearts of people all across the country. Her outstanding social and academic achievements, dramatic performances and attractive singing voice, fascinated audiences, giving them a unique taste of Korean music that they had never before experienced. As a result, she was loved as the most promising, attractive, and stylish female intellectual in Korea. However, unfortunately, she became a victim of social ostracism and hatred, due to an extra-marital affair with a married man.

Born in Pyongyang in 1897, Yun studied at the Pyongyang Girls’ Middle & High Schools. After graduation from Kyon[g]song Women’s Teaching College in Seoul in 1914, she worked as a primary school teacher in the town of Wonju. Demonstrating great intelligence and unique musical talent from early youth, Yun’s ambition was really devoting herself to becoming a renowned Korean musician. She therefore entered the Music Department of … Tokyo [Imperial] University in 1918 by passing the (Japanese) Homeland Governmental Scholarship Examination, with excellent marks. During her university days in Tokyo, she enjoyed the freedom to read an abundance of Western romantic literature and art and the company of the handsome (male) college students. She was strongly attracted to Kim Wu-jin, who was majoring in English literature and drama at Tokyo’s [W]aseda University, and came from a wealthy and renowned lineage of prominent citizens in Mokpo. Despite the fact Kim was married and had a wife and children at home, in Mokpo, she was fascinated by his personality and his literary acumen. They soon fell in love with each other. After graduating from … Tokyo University, in 1922, Yun worked as a teaching assistant there. Yun asserted the need for Korean women’s self-awakening, for their liberation from men, and for their acquisition of a proper social status….

Sharing overwhelming sorrows and affection, Yun suggested to Kim that they return to Korea. They boarded a passenger ship, sailing from Shimonoseki to nearby Pusan. Watching the vast and silent sea from the deck of the ship on the voyage, she expressed profound emotion by singing “Hymn to Death,” highly reflecting a keen sensitivity, while comparing her loneliness to the ship sailing on the seas. The lyrics of Yun’s song appealed to Kim’s inclinations to cast off the burdens of wealth, love and honor. The sentimental and emotional atmosphere captivated them and induced them to seek in death an ideal “dream world,” transcending reality.

They were impelled to commit suicide, jumping from the deck of the ship into the sea, on the voyage home (it was August 1926). The lovers’ suicide shocked not only Korea but also Japan. The suicide was not a romantic death but a lonely battle cry that could not free its protagonists from pessimism nor the slow pace of societal reform. It was seen as a bold challenge to conventional Confucian society and as a sign of the importance of the need for women to establish a real female identity and of the need for reforms of the social circles in Korea at that time, which of course disapproved of Yun’s liberal love affair.

“Modern” Korean women at the time risked opprobrium not just for being loose women or brazen hussies, but also for rejecting Korean values in favor of Japanese ones, being therefore collaborators with the colonial regime.

For more on Taisho Japan, see Ian Buruma on Ero Guro Nansensu.

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