Shades of Urban Modernization
In August 1910, Japan forcibly annexed the Korean Empire and established the Japanese Government-General of Joseon. This institution had virtually absolute authority over administrative, military, legislative and judicial matters. The prefectures of Seoul, Incheon, Gaesong and Gyeonggi-do were placed under the jurisdiction of the newly formed Capital Prefecture (Gyeongseongbu), while Seoul (then known as Gyeongseong) remained the capital. Located here was the headquarters of the colonial government, along with major businesses, schools and cultural institutions. Ethnic discrimination became institutionalized. Japanese residents were in charge of all administrative functions, and resources were concentrated in the area to the south of Cheonggyecheon Stream, where the Japanese lived. This was where one could experience the latest products and modern developments, but the Korean residents were only onlookers. The capital quickly modernized under Japanese colonial rule, but this modernity of the colonial city was merely an object of fascination for Koreans and did not include them.
Japan sought perpetual domination of Korea while using the Korean Peninsula as a springboard for the invasion of the Asian continent. The direction of and priorities for developing the colony were determined based on Japanese needs. Japan’s ruling colonial ideology was reflected in spaces of Seoul. Streets were altered to accommodate Japan’s military objectives and economic requirements, and structures symbolizing the Joseon Dynasty and the Korean Empire were demolished. In ruling and managing Seoul, Japanese residents were the priority. Traditions, colonial urban planning, and autonomous changes by residents all converged to create the unique features of Gyeongseong as a colonial city.
Gyeongseong was the center of anti-Japanese movements in the early Japanese colonial period. The March 1st Movement in 1919 started in Gyeongseong and spread across the country. Korean-independence activists and members of national liberation groups also led many anti-Japanese movements in the city. The YMCA and Cheondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way) Central Temple in Jongno were strongholds that paved the way for more mass movements. A Korean nationalist organization called Singanhoe (New Korea Society) was also founded in Gyeongseong in 1927. During World War II, Japan ruthlessly oppressed anti-Japanese movements to maintain stability behind the front lines, but intellectuals in Gyeongseong kept resisting and campaigning to preserve Korea’s national culture.
From the 1920s to 1930s, Gyeongseong came to resemble a modern city due to the tangible achievements of modernization and urban planning. The construction of streetcar tracks around the city and Western-style government office buildings along the main streets of Gyeongseong created a fresh modern look. Modern boys and modern girls symbolizing ‘new culture’ pursued consumption and the latest trends as they strolled through commercial spaces in the colonial capital such as department stores, cafes, and theaters. The discriminatory nature of Japan's urban planning created stark differences between Namchon (the Japanese quarters) and Bukchon (the Korean quarters) in Gyeongseong. The former was prosperous, clean, dynamic, and civilized, while the latter was collapsing, filthy, damp, and uncivilized. Most Koreans were part of the urban poor and naturally came to harbor a feeling of deprivation and alienation.
Japan invaded the Chinese mainland in 1937, and the battle lines expanded throughout Asia in 1941. The colonial policy was subordinated as part of the war effort, and the clouds of war darkened Gyeongseong as well. Production resources were concentrated on manufacturing military supplies. More paper currency was printed, fueling inflation, and rations were in chronic short supply. The people of Gyeongseong faced extreme poverty, yet had their assets in the form of money, goods and rice forcibly seized. Air raid drills, ideological education and labor mobilization oppressed the population and left people exhausted.