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Monuments, Memory, and Identity

Constructing the Colonial Past in South Korea


Guy Podoler

Between 1910 and 1945 Korea was subjected to Japanese colonial rule. Monuments, Memory, and Identity investigates ways how postcolonial South Korea commemorated this difficult past in light of changing political and social conditions, and against the background of the divided nation. By analyzing museums, memorial halls, parks and monuments, the author deciphers and maps the South Korean commemorative landscape. He analyzes the layouts of the country’s well-known «sites of memory» and explores the on-site plaques, exhibits, and photos as well as the booklets and publications. This book underpins the shifts and trends in recollecting this important historical period by addressing the following questions: How has postcolonial South Korea been constructing and reconstructing its colonial past? Why were certain narratives and images chosen at different times? What debates, controversies, and challenges were involved in this dynamic process? Furthermore, the author discusses the South Korean case within the broader context of the postcolonial discourse.


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Chapter 1: Roots Constructed 23


23 Chapter 1: Roots Constructed In one of the discussions on his theory of nationalism, Ernest Gellner observed the following in regard to the connection between roots, nationalism, and identity: The dominance of the idea of ‘roots’ was underwritten by Romanticism, and fully satisfied the requirements of nationalism. It reflected the prevalence of culturally homogeneous, internally undifferentiated, cultural polities, known as ‘nation- states.’ A political unit was to be defined as the voluntary, indeed the emotionally compulsive, association of men of the same ‘roots.’ This freed the polity from being a system of statuses and, by allowing a ‘return to the roots,’ did not insist that the identity of culture be there from the start: it was enough if there was a recollection of origins and a deep desire to return to the sources of one’s vitality and true identity. It mattered little that the recollection might be a little suspect, that what was remembered was not too scrupulously checked for historical accuracy (1997, 14) (emphasis mine). The present chapter introduces the ways Korea’s roots are recollected and presented at several popular memorial sites. 1 Understanding the narrative of this past history is crucial since the narrative attempts to establish a comprehensible time frame in which South Koreans – by identifying with and relating to specific shared notions that link their (or perhaps sometimes “their”) past history to colonial history and therefrom to the present – are supposed to become unified in face of current and future predicaments. In South Korea’s...

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