From 1910 to 1945, when Japan surrendered after its defeat in World War II, Korea was a colony of Japan during Japan's pursuit towards domination of Asia. Among many of the hardships and humiliations suffered by Koreans during this period was the Japanese program/intent to erase the Korean national identity by mandating Koreans to adopt Japanese names and teaching only Japanese in schools (see our subchapter on Sohn Kee-Chung).
However, this eventual colonization/occupation of Korea by Japan had roots dating back to at least 1876. In that year, the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1876 (also known as the Treaty of GangHwa/KangHwa (an island off the west coast of Korea)) took place, an unequal treaty by which Japan exerted its influence on Korea, much like the U.S. and Commodore Matthew Perry did in the 1850s with Japan through “gunboat diplomacy.” This was then followed by the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1905 (also known as the Eulsa Treaty), through which the Empire of Korea became a protectorate of Japan (protectorate is generally defined as a country retaining its local autonomy but being controlled/protected by another sovereign state). The official occupation/annexation of Korea then followed and was the result of the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1910.
For more information regarding this pre-colonization period, please read the following from the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University:
Throughout the above time period, however, the Korean Independence Movement fought for Korea's freedom and national “self-determination,” as proclaimed by the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference following the end of WWI. (NOTE: This Conference was controlled by the five major powers/victors of the WWI - France, Britain, Italy, the U.S. and Japan). The Koreans’ pleas to the West for such self-determination were unfortunately ignored (not unlike the fate of Vietnam/Indochina against France, its colonial ruler).
Although there are numerous examples of individuals, groups and events that symbolize the Koreans’ Independence Movement and their fight for freedom, we will only touch on a few of them here and invite the reader to further research this pivotal historical period:
1) In October 1909, Ahn Joong-Geun (안중근), a Korean nationalist and freedom fighter, whose father also happened to be a general, assassinated Prince Itō Hirobumi, the former Resident-General of Korea (the overseer of Korea during the Korean protectorate period), as well as a four-time Prime Minister of Japan. It is noted that while the colonization/occupation of Korea by Japan was inevitable by this point, this incident certainly escalated tensions and accelerated the direct occupation phase. (NOTE: It has been reported that Ahn, in 1962 (52 years after he was executed in 1910 for the above crime), was awarded the Order of Merit for National Foundation by the South Korean Government for his efforts as a freedom fighter).
2) The Korean Declaration of Independence (March 1919) – written by Choi Nam-Seon (최남선), a historian and publisher, as well as a leader in the independence movement. For its translated text, please refer to the following from Wikipedia:
3) The March 1st Movement (3.1 (삼일) 운동) (1919) – the initial spark of various non-violent resistance demonstrations throughout Korea against the Japanese occupation (which included the public announcement of the Korean Declaration of Independence) that were violently suppressed by the Japanese government and soldiers, reportedly resulting in the massacre of thousands of Koreans (not unlike the Boston Massacre during the American Colonial period). (NOTE: One of the best known/remembered symbols of this movement is Ryu Gwan-Sun (유관순; b. 1902 - d. 1920), an independence movement organizer who was captured, tortured and killed by the Japanese police, along with her parents). (NOTE: Sam-Il-Jeol (삼일절) is one of the key national/public holidays in South Korea which celebrates the March 1st Movement). For more information on the March 1st Movement, please refer to the following from the Encyclopædia Britannica:
It has been reported that The March 1st Movement was one of the key reasons for the creation of The Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, which was the Korean government in exile during the Japanese colonization of Korea. It was based in China and officially lasted from 1919 until it was dissolved in 1948, when South Korea/Republic of Korea's own independent government was instituted.
For a summary of the details and the impact of Japan's colonization of Korea, please refer to the following from the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University:
Lastly, for an account of what life may have been like for Koreans during this period, please refer to our subchapter on Linda Sue Park and her book titled When My Name was Keoko.
Colonization of Korea by Japan