history · Korea

GUNSAN 군산: An Ambivalent Home to Many “Vestiges of Imperialism”


“Vestiges of Imperialism” (일제 강점기의 잔재) is a very charged term here. It has been grounds for a variety of controversial actions, from the 2014 banning of a song with the Japanese word for “shiny” in it to the demolition in 1995 of the former Japanese General Government Building (조선총독부 청사), at the time home to the National Museum (국립중앙박물관). (Interestingly, apparently only a third of those surveyed by Chosun Ilbo supported its demolition, showing that Koreans themselves aren’t as nationalistic as their government would like them to be.)

So I was intrigued when a friend recommended the city of Gunsan, saying that there are a lot of Japanese structures still remaining there. How could a city preserve so many “vestiges of imperialism” without backlash? I checked it out this past weekend. What I discovered were beautifully-preserved buildings and happy Korean families frolicking through them…


…with signs everywhere reminding them of their duty as Koreans to remember that the Japanese were, first-and-foremost, their oppressors. The sign at the entrance to this beautiful complex of buildings read: “Visitors can feel and experience Korean suffering due to Japanese occupants having their ways and exploiting Koreans in Gunsan in the 1930s.” 8164730_orig

Around the Town

This pattern of beautiful old buildings accompanied by signs reminding people to dislike the Japanese colonial era continues all throughout the town.

Customs House built by Korean Empire in 1899. Note: It was NOT built by the Japanese.
Accompanying sign expounds on beauty of the building (bricks from Belgium!) then towards the end reminds you that the building is a “symbol of the Japanese Imperialism to plunder rice in Honam region.”
Former Gunsan branch of the Bank of Joseon
This building was “established by the Japanese to take advantage of the economies of Korea and the Asian continent…”

While here is nothing factually wrong with the wording on these signs, there are certainly more sophisticated ways to show that the Japanese were “exploiting” Korea without directly “telling” it (the show not tell rule). For instance, they could have vividly presented examples of such exploitation in such a way that the reader would unconsciously find themselves sympathizing with Korea. While both methods are guiding readers towards a certain conclusion, the second is much more powerful, since readers feel that they are coming to a conclusion themselves, instead of being forcefed propaganda.

This seems like common sense… How did the writers of the signs not think of this? I can think of two possible reasons:

  1. I have found that the language used in the signs seems to be standard terminology for discussing the Japanese colonial era in Korea. For example, while the English term for this period is just “the Japanese colonial era” (e.g. naver dictionary), in Korean, this period is officially known as the “Era of Forceful Occupation by the Empire of Japan” 일제강점기 (日帝強占期).  So the signage could simply reflect the (albeit low) standards for discussing that era of history.
  2. It is not difficult to imagine certain people arguing that all of these buildings must go and others arguing that these buildings are beautiful and can serve as a local tourist attraction. Perhaps the signage was a compromise– “Yes we can keep these buildings, but there must be signs explicitly reminding people of Japanese oppression.”

In either case, such signs are a result of the fact that being anti-Japanese is a central tenet of Korean nationalism. (Certainly, this is not only a Korean phenomenon; many countries formed after their colonizers left define themselves against their colonizers.) To forget that the Japanese were merciless oppressors is to forget that one is Korean. The Korean nationalists who authored these signs desperately feared that visitors would be enamored by their beautiful surroundings and forget about their Korean identity.

Gunsan Modern History Museum

Korea really keeps their museums well-maintained! As the Gunsan Modern History Museum (군산근대역사박물관) is one of the top five public museums in the country, it is definitely worth a visit.

Once you enter the museum, you are greeted by a sign that reads, “There is no future for a nation who has forgotten their history” (역사를 잊은 민족에게 미래는 없다!) the text reads, surrounded by famous Korean martyrs who lost their lives during the Japanese colonial period. And don’t forget the angry Japanese soldier in the upper left, a very important detail in this sign.

Wow I think I know what this museum will be about already!

There’s a general exhibit on life during the colonial period with life-size period buildings and all!


Kids wondering if they can get on the replica rickshaw. Written on it is 아픈 역사의 생채기 “wounds from a sorrowful past.”

The standard narrative goes that rickshaws were often used by wealthy Japanese but pulled for poor Koreans, so it’s another symbol of Japanese oppression. This narrative is dubious because : 1) I doubt it was just the Japanese who used rickshaws. Did wealthy Koreans not patronize the rickshaws? And 2) were rickshaws not a lucrative form of employment for the poor, just like taxis are now? And yet taxis aren’t a symbol of oppression. Hmmm…

Then there’s a special exhibit on the Okgu Farmer’s Rebellion (옥구농민항쟁).


Apparently the rebellion occurred because Japanese overlords were demanding 75% of crops as rent. Above are signs explaining this in English and Korean.

“The Great Grief of the Deprived Koreans”- Typical example of emotionally-charged language used to talk about this era.

While the signs above do not explicitly state that the oppressors are the Japanese, it is obvious to anyone visiting the museum. The webpage on this exhibit also makes that amply clear: 옥구농민항쟁은 가혹한 일본인 지주의 수탈에 맞서 저항한 대표적인 소작농들의 저항운동이다. “The Okgu Farmer’s Rebellion was a typical resistance movement by tenant farmers who stood up against exploitation by their cruel Japanese landlords.”

Besides the emotionally-charged language, another problem with this sort of historiography, is that it makes it seem as if this is the one instance in Korean history where peasants are getting exploited–which could not possibly be true. I have not looked much into this, but as a Korean friend explained to me, the Jeolla Province, where Gunsan is located, has fertile rice-growing lands. This naturally made it home to the “best Korean food” but on the other hand meant it was also highly-taxed all throughout history. And so there have always been peasant rebellions. the most famous being the Donghak Peasant Rebellion (동학 농민 운동) in 1894. If the museum had put the Okgu rebellion in this context and THEN showed that the Japanese authorities were even WORSE than their Joseon predecessors, I would be more convinced.

Dongguk Temple (동국사)

The last standing Japanese temple in Korea

The highlight of this trip was definitely the Dongguksa Temple (동국사), the only surviving Japanese-style temple in the country. Since the liberation of Korea, it has been run by Korean Jogye Buddhist Order, which from my understanding is like Korean Zen Buddhism.


Inside there’s a small exhibit on temples during the Japanese colonial era.

Monks who were Resisters (top) and Collaborators (bottom).

There are also black and white photos of Japanese residents doing normal things (shocker!) around the city, without a sign talking about them exploiting anyone…


Left: Sumo wrestlers at a Geisha party
Middle: Japanese funeral ceremony
Right: Japanese matsuri celebration

…Although there is another sign nearby reminding you that “A nation that forgets their history has no future.” (This being Korea, “nation” always means “ethnic nation”…)


In the courtyard there is a plaque of apology for the colonial period written in 1992 by the head of the Soutou School (曹洞宗) of Zen Buddhism, the sect which built this temple and also the largest sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan.

Expresses deepest apologies for things such as the imposition of Japanese culture (including religion) all around Asia and calls the conquering of other peoples “completely unforgivable.”

What stood out to me about this temple was that it seemed to be the only part of town that was at peace with its past. Rather than painting the Japanese as demonic oppressors, it shows them doing normal things. Rather than claiming to be active resisters, the temple reveals that its monks were both collaborators AND resisters. It has huge plaques of an apology from the successors of its Japanese founders. The temple is a sacred sanctuary from the rabid nationalism of the rest of the town.


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