IMMIGRATION AND IMPERIALISM: A NEW LOOK AT THE JAPANESE TAKEOVER OF KOREA1

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  • ABSTRACT

    While Japan’s perceptions of a security threat was the paramount reason for its takeover of Korea, a second reason surfaced that linked Korean emigration to Hawaii with a threat to Japan’s prestige as a leading nation in the world. Needing to prevent enactment of a Japanese Exclusion Act by the United States, the Japanese Foreign Office undertook to bring that emigration to a halt. Skillfully using missteps by the Korean government, Japan was able both to hide their ulterior motives from the United States and make it easier to absorb Korea’s diplomatic functions abroad, resulting in the establishment of the Protectorate in 1905.


  • KEYWORD

    immigration , imperialism , Yuminw?n , Gaimush? , and Protectorate

  • Scholarly studies on the causes of the Japanese takeover of Korea have generated considerable academic debate during the past half century. In particular, three books stand out. The first was Hilary Conroy’s book, The Japanese Seizure of Korea, 1868–1910: A Study of Realism and Idealism in International Relations, published in 1960 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Using primarily Japanese sources, that study argued that Japan did not have a long-term plan to take over Korea. This book was followed seven years later by C. I. Eugene Kim and Han-Kyo Kim’s book, Korea and the Politics of Imperialism, 1876–1910, published by the University of California Press in 1967. That study argued that Korea’s lack of self-reliance allowed it to become a pawn of the major powers surrounding the peninsula. Finally, in 1995 came Peter Duus’ book, The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895–1910, also published by the University of California Press. Duus argued that annexation occurred because Japan had been unsuccessful in finding suitable collaborators among the Korean elite to assist in its modernization project for Korea. Although all three books used different sources and focused on different aspects of the takeover process, all three had in common the thesis that security concerns were at the center of the decision of the Japanese government to take over Korea, first as a Protectorate in 1905 and finally as a colony through annexation in 1910. This article will not argue against the central motif of security in explaining the takeover. Rather, it will argue that an additional and heretofore unexplored issue arose late in the process and, while not displacing security as the primary motivation, provides not only an additional explanation for why the takeover occurred (ends) but also an additional explanation for how Japan was able to take over Korea so easily (means). That issue was the overseas emigration of Koreans at the end of the Chosŏn dynasty.2

    The sugar planters in Hawaii started bringing in Koreans in 1903 as strikebreakers against the majority Japanese because the planters could no longer use Chinese now that Hawaii had become a U. S. Territory and had to abide by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The American Minister in Seoul, Horace Allen, in his version of Dollar Diplomacy, helped the planters obtain Koreans in the hope that increased American business interests might spill over to increased American political interest that might help keep Korea out of the clutches of Japan. And the Korean Emperor Kojong approved of Koreans going to United States because it served as yet another link with a seemingly benevolent country. Accordingly, Kojong issued an imperial edict in 1902 creating a Department of Emigration [Yuminwŏn] charged with issuing passports and adopting rules and regulations to protect emigrants.3

    Although it turned out that the Koreans who were arriving in Hawaii, being largely city folk, were not good agricultural laborers, they were good enough to serve as strikebreakers against the Japanese. Consequently, wages remained low for the sugar plantation workers at about 75 cents per day, since all the strikes by Japanese were broken by the Koreans. But now that Hawaii was part of the United States, Japanese could freely move from Hawaii to California, where the wages were nearly twice as high at $1.50 a day. Soon, an average of one thousand Japanese a month were crossing over to San Francisco from Hawaii. As more and more Japanese appeared in California, the same racist attitudes that had manifested themselves twenty years earlier against the Chinese now began anew against the Japanese. Editorials in newspapers published by William Randoph Hearst, speeches by San Francisco Mayor James Phelan, broadsides from labor organizations, and the formation of the Asiatic Exclusion League were all indicators of growing anti-Japanese sentiment, triggered by this massive influx from Hawaii. The Japanese government, particularly Consul-General Saitō Miki in Honolulu, tried to stem the tide by having the Japanese government issue passports with the words “To Hawaii Only,” by printing circulars “forbidding” Japanese to go to the west coast, and by asking the planters to raise the wages—all to no avail. Japanese continued their exodus from Hawaii to California, and anti-Japanese agitation in California continued to increase. Meanwhile, Korean immigration to Hawaii produced no shortage of opponents, both Korean and Japanese.4

    Japanese imingaisha agents who recruited Japanese for work in Hawaii resented the fact that the arrival of Koreans meant that fewer Japanese were needed, cutting into their profits. Three of them wrote a letter to Foreign Minister Komura Jutarō complaining that Korean strikebreakers were depressing the wages of Japanese in Hawaii, propelling them to the west coast and the higher wages there. But Japan was in the middle of the war against Russia, and Komura made no reply. However, the Foreign Minister, a Harvard Law graduate, was now aware, as a result of this letter, of the economic forces propelling the Japanese to move from Hawaii to California.5

    A second opponent was the head of the Korean Imperial Household Department [Kungnaebu], Yi Yong-ik, who asserted that Koreans in Hawaii were treated like slaves. Yi persuaded the malleable Kojong to cancel his imperial edict of the previous year while Horace Allen was on home leave, effectively legislating out of existence the Department of Emigration and its rules and regulations. Although Koreans still continued to leave for Hawaii, now with passports issued by the Korean Foreign Office [Oebu], there were no longer any rules and regulations to protect them. Moreover, there was no Korean diplomat in Hawaii to tend to the needs of the growing number of Koreans there, the nearest one being in Washington, DC, despite the fact that Horace Allen had urged the Korean government to appoint a consul to Hawaii to refute Yi’s claims of slave-like treatment.6

    A third opponent of Korean immigration to Hawaii was the Japanese Minister to Korea, Hayashi Gonsuke, who, like Horace Allen, saw franchises or concessions as a means to strengthen political interest. Hayashi was on the lookout for a way to terminate this American-sponsored project to make it easier in the long run for Japan to take over Korea. Despite these formidable opponents, Koreans continued to go to Hawaii, Japanese continued to go to California from Hawaii, and the resentment of Californians toward Japanese continued to increase.7

    Then, in the spring of 1905, events in California took an ominous turn for Japan when the Japanese consul in San Francisco cabled Foreign Minister Komura that the California Assembly had just passed a resolution calling on Washington to enact a Japanese Exclusion Act. By this time, Japan had prevailed over Russia, and the Foreign Minister could now focus on this new crisis. Komura could not abide the prospect of a Japanese Exclusion Act, passage of which would demote Japan to the lowly rank occupied by China, that “sick man of Asia,” and serve to negate all the attributes of great power status that Japan had secured: defeating two major powers (China and Russia) in war, amassing the third largest navy in the world, cementing an alliance with Britain, and enacting Asia’s only constitution. With the nation’s prestige at stake on a global scale, Komura, thanks to the letter from the imingaisha recruiters revealing that it was Koreans who were driving the Japanese from Hawaii to California and thus driving anti-Japanese sentiment there, determined that Korean immigration had to be stopped. If Koreans were prevented from leaving Korea, a salutary series of events would ensue: Japanese in Hawaii would win their strikes; their wages would go up; the wage disparity between Hawaii and California would shrink; fewer Japanese would move to California; anti-Japanese sentiment in California would subside; and, in the end, a Japanese Exclusion Act would no longer be needed, and Japan could retain its status as a major power, its prestige intact. Ironically, Japan had determined to exclude Koreans from the United States so its own nationals would not be excluded.8

    But stopping Koreans from going to Hawaii was easier said than done, since Korea was still a sovereign nation that could send its people anywhere they would be accepted. Of course, Japan possessed enough power in Korea that it could have simply stopped Koreans by fiat from departing. There were, after all, thousands of Japanese troops on the peninsula at the end of the war against Russia, and during that war the Japanese government had forced the Korean government to accept Japanese-nominated advisers into several key ministries. But Japan had embarked on a campaign to assure the United States that it had only humanitarian concern for the Korean people and that it would act benevolently in the event that Japan took over Korea. If Japan were unilaterally to prevent Koreans from going abroad without any justification, that might invite embarrassing questions from the United States about the claim that Japan had only the best interests of the Koreans at heart.9

    As Komura searched for a way to stop Koreans from going abroad without dismantling Japan’s humanitarian façade and appearing like a bully to the United States, his subordinate in Seoul, Hayashi Gonsuke, acting on his own, used a fatal misstep by the Korean government to effect a temporary prohibition on emigration. In April 1905, the Korean government apparently did not notice that one thousand Koreans had just departed for Mexico. Hayashi immediately sprang into action, going to Korean Foreign Minister Yi Ha-yŏng’s office to point out that: 1) the Koreans who had just departed had no passports to Mexico; 2) Mexico’s working conditions were so abysmal that no civilized nation (including Japan) would allow its subjects to enter; 3) Korea did not even have diplomatic relations with Mexico; 4) hence, there was no Korean ambassador or consul there to assist these hapless victims; 5) the emigration was illegal, since Kojong had permitted emigration only to Hawaii; and 6) there were no rules or regulations to protect emigrants since they had been legislated out of existence when the Yuminwŏn was dissolved. Foreign Minister Yi agreed that emigration to Mexico had to be temporarily prohibited, but Hayashi insisted successfully that all emigration stop, including emigration to Hawaii, where there was still no Korean consul in place, until the Korean government could demonstrate that it could control emigration in an organized and responsible manner. Hayashi knew full well that there was little chance of that given the disorganized nature of the Korean government.10

    Komura was in Tokyo when he learned that the Korean foreign minister had temporarily suspended emigration and immediately cabled Hayashi in Seoul instructing him to make the temporary prohibition on emigration a permanent one. In that way, Japan would not have to bully Korea to stop its subjects from going abroad, and Japan could maintain the pretense with the United States that it had only the best interests of the Koreans at heart. In fact, the Mexico fiasco played right into Japanese hands, as the Japanese government had been putting pressure on the Korean government to withdraw all its diplomats stationed abroad and replace them with Japanese diplomats to represent Korean interests. Now, Hayashi pointed out to Korean Foreign Minister Yi that since Japan did enjoy diplomatic relations with Mexico, the Koreans who had been sold into virtual slavery on the henequen haciendas in the Yucatan peninsula could be represented by the Japanese Minister to Mexico. In addition, the Japanese government successfully pressured the Korean government to appoint Saitō Miki as Korean Consul in Honolulu to look after the interests of Koreans in Hawaii.11

    But the Korean government was determined not to go down without a fight. Foreign Minister Yi assigned his deputy, Vice-Minister Yun Ch’i-ho, to visit Hawaii and Mexico to investigate the conditions of Koreans there and then return to draw up new rules and regulations that would allow the temporary prohibition on emigration to be lifted, and lay the groundwork for the stationing of Korean diplomats in Hawaii and Mexico. If Yun’s mission were successful and Korea stationed its own diplomatic representatives in Hawaii and Mexico and emigration resumed, it would not only increase the probability of a Japanese Exclusion Act but it would also make Japan’s takeover of Korea’s diplomatic functions that much more difficult. Japan had to make sure that Yun’s mission did not succeed. Otherwise, Japan would have to bully Korea to stop Koreans from going abroad, revealing Japan’s real motives in Korea—motives that were hardly benevolent, as they were all about Japan’s prestige as a leading nation on the world stage and not about concern for the welfare of the Korean people. All this came just at the time in the summer of 1905 when the United States and Japan were preparing to sign the Taft-Katsura Memorandum giving Japan the green light to take over Korea in return for American freedom of action in the Philippines.12

    Yun’s first stop was Hawaii, where he spent most of September visiting all the sugar plantations that had Korean workers. At the end of his visit, he pronounced that the Koreans were well-treated by the sugar planters and that he would recommend a resumption of emigration to Hawaii when he returned to Seoul. His next stop was Mexico, where the reputed problems lay. However, Yun had been so scrupulously honest in an attempt to avoid bias that he had refused to allow the planters to pay for his transportation, lodging, or meals, so as not to be placed in their debt. In doing so, he had expended his entire travel allotment of 1000 yen [about $500]. When the Foreign Office sent him an additional 490 yen [$242]for the remainder of his trip, the planters informed Yun that it was insufficient to get to Mexico and back to Seoul. Consequently, Yun wired back to Seoul requesting an additional $300, and the Korean Foreign Office requested the Finance Ministry to forward the money to Yun in Honolulu. Luckily for Japan, however, it had fortuitously placed an “adviser,” Megata Tanetarō, in the Finance Ministry. Megata naturally vetoed the expenditure, forcing a disappointed Yun to return to Korea without going to Mexico, and thus dooming his mission. The Korean government now could neither enact new rules and regulations nor could it send diplomats to Hawaii or Mexico. So the prohibition on Korean emigration remained in place, as Komura had wanted. Japan had been able to avoid acting like a bully, and the United States, having agreed to the Taft-Katsura memorandum, remained convinced that Japan had Korea’s best interests at heart and unaware that Japan had manipulated the Korean government behind the scenes to prevent Koreans from going to Hawaii. When the Protectorate was established in November of 1905, without any objection from the United States, Japan was now legally in charge of Korean emigration and could prohibit it permanently to reduce the chances that a Japanese Exclusion Act would be enacted by the United States.13

    We now return to the original question of the linkage between Korean immigration and the Japanese takeover of Korea. First, it is important to state once again that a realist consideration of security on the peninsula, in place since 1868, remains the most salient factor in the takeover. Within that framework, however, we find that the issue of Korean emigration is related to the Japanese takeover with respect to both ends and means. As far as ends are concerned, Korean emigration to Hawaii made a Japanese takeover of Korea even more desirable over and above the benefits of ensuring Japan’s security, as that would allow Japan legally to prevent Koreans from leaving for Hawaii and prevent the loss of national prestige that a Japanese Exclusion Act would entail.

    Second, regarding means, the incompetence of the Korean government over emigration made it easier for Japan to assume control of Korea’s diplomatic functions, and thus more easily pave the way for a Protectorate, by allowing Japan to point to the Korean government’s failure to station representatives in Hawaii and Mexico (and Vladivostok) where Koreans had migrated. In such a situation, Japan could quite logically argue that Korea should permit Japanese diplomats stationed in those places specifically and more generally abroad to handle Korea’s diplomatic affairs.

    Third, again related to means, the emigration blunders by the Korean government also allowed Japan to conceal its real motive for wanting to prohibit Koreans from going abroad and to maintain the façade that it would treat Koreans benevolently. Japan did not care about the plight of the victimized Korean emigrants, as it claimed. Rather, Japan was concerned solely with its prestige as one of the leading nations of the world. The missteps of the Korean government allowed Japan to operate skillfully behind the scenes so it would not have to bully the Korean government openly into stopping emigration. The United States never learned the real reason behind Japan’s stopping of Korean emigration, continued to believe that Japan’s motives in Korea were benevolent rather than mean-spirited, and did not object to the Japanese takeover of Korea.

    2The details surrounding this additional issue are spelled out in my book, The Korean Frontier in America: Immigration to Hawaii, 1896–1910 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1988; Revised Edition, 1994), which uses documentary sources in Japanese, Korean, and English that are different from those used in the three aforementioned books.  3Fred Harvey Harrington, God, Mammon, and the Japanese: Dr. Horace N. Allen and Korean-American Relations, 1884–1905 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1944): 133; Kwanbo [Official Gazette], November 20, 1902; Hwangsŏng sinmun, November 21, 1902; and, Enclosure with Allen to Secretary of State John Hay, December 10, 1902. Allen Mss. New York Public Library.  4Roger Daniels, The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962): 22, 27; Gaimushō, Nihon gaikō bunsho: Tai Bei imin mondai keika gaiyō fuzokushō [Documents on Japanese foreign policy: Annexes to summary of the course of negotiations between Japan and the United States concerning the problem of Japanese immigration to the United States] (Tokyo: Gaimushō, 1973): 119; see also Saitō Miki to Chinda Sutemi, April 22, 1905, in Ibid: 317–318.  5Morioka Makoto, Hyūga Terutake, and Tomiochi Chūtarō to Komura Jutarō, February 5, 1905, in Gaimushō, Kankoku seifu Hawai oyobi Mokushika yuki Kankoku imin kinshi ikken – tsuki hogo itaku kankoku no ken [The prohibition of Korean emigration to Hawaii and Mexico by the Korean Government – Recommendation and protection]. 1905. Hereafter cited as Kankoku imin. Gaimushō gaikō shiryōkan, Tokyo.  6Cheguk sinmun, May 12, 1903; Allen to J. Sloat Fassett, May 17, 1903. Allen Mss.  7Hwangsŏng sinmun, February 9, 1903; Bishop to Cooke, March 19, 1903. Charles M. Cooke Papers. Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society Library. Honolulu.  8Ueno to Komura, March 3, 1905, in Gaimushō, Zai Bei ryōji rai [Incoming from the United States] (Consuls, January–June 1905), nos. 8 and 9. Gaimushō gaikō shiryōkan, Tokyo; Komura to Saitō, March 9, 1905, in Kankoku imin.  9The advisers were Durham White Stevens in the Korean Foreign Office and Megata Tanetarō in the Korean Finance Office. See the account by the apologist for Japan, George Trumbull Ladd, In Korea with Marquis Ito (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908): 252, 365.  10David Deshler to Huntington Wilson, Charge´ d’affaires, United States Legation, Tokyo, January, 1906 (undated), Enclosure with Wilson to Elihu Root, Secretary of State, January 27, 1906. U. S. Department of State, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Japan, 1855–1906. See also Wilson to Katō Takaaki (Foreign Minister), January 19, 1906. Kankoku imin. One might argue that Hayashi’s words carried considerable persuasive weight considering the presence of nearly 6000 Japanese troops in the Korean capital. Moreover, Yi was fairly new at the job of foreign minister, having been appointed to that position only the year before, in 1904. He would be replaced the following year by Pak Che-sun.  11Komura to Hayashi, April 6, 1905, Komura to Takahira Kogorō, April 12, 1905, and Komura to Saitō, April 12, 1905. Kankoku imin; KuHan’guk oegyo munsŏ. Ilan [Documents relating to the foreign relations of Old Korea. Japan]. (Seoul: Koryŏ taehakkyo, Asea munje yŏn’guso, 1970). Vol. 7., pp. 540–541, no. 8632 (May 5, 1905); for Saitō in Hawaii, see Hansŏng sinbo, May 5, 1905 and Hwangsŏng sinmun, May 6, 1905; for Mexico, see Ilan, no. 8865 (August 22, 1905).  12Yun Ch’i-ho Ilgi, 6:139 (June 20, 1905).  13Hwangsŏng sinmun, October 2, 1905; Korea Review, October 1905, 393, 395.