Terauchi was appointed as the third and last Japanese Resident-General of Korea on the assassination of Itō Hirobumi in Harbin by An Jung-geun. As Resident-General, he executed the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty in 1910, and thus became the first Japanese Governor-General of Korea.
The annexation of Korea by Japan and subsequent policies introduced by the new government was highly unpopular with large segments of the Korean population, and Terauchi employed military force to maintain control. Terauchi used the deep historical and cultural ties between Korea and Japan as justification for the eventual goal of complete assimilation of Korea into the Japanese mainstream. To this end, thousands of schools were built across Korea. Although this contributed greatly to an increase in literacy and the educational standard, the curriculum was centered on Japanese language and history, with the intent of assimilation of the populace into loyal subjects of the Japanese Empire.
Other of Terauchi’s policies also had noble goals but evil consequences. For example, land reform was desperately needed in Korea. The Korean land ownership system was a complex system of absentee landlords, partial owner-tenants, and cultivators with traditional but without legal proof of ownership. Terauchi’s new Land Survey Bureau conducted cadastral surveys that reestablished ownership by basis of written proof (deeds, titles, and similar documents). Ownership was denied to those who could not provide such written documentation (mostly lower class and partial owners, who had only traditional verbal “cultivator rights”). Although the plan succeeded in reforming land ownership/taxation structures, it added tremendously to the bitter and hostile environment of the time by enabling a huge amount of Korean land to be seized by the government and sold to Japanese developers.
In Korea, the rigor with which Japan’s first proconsul on the peninsula, General Terauchi Masatake, had attempted to enforce Korean conformity to Japan’s institutions and values had created violent antagonisms that could not be permanently contained. Nonetheless, the explosion of Korean national resentment on March i, 1919, stunned all elements of informed opinion in Japan. The March First movement demonstrated the depth of Korean detestation of Japanese administration, as well as the influence of Wilsonian ideals on Korean national sentiment. It also showed the progress of Korea toward a sense of nationhood, bringing together over two million Koreans in a call for national liberation. The Japanese response, launched against an unarmed and generally unresisting popular movement, was instantaneous and bloody. The brutal methods used by Japanese officialdom to stamp out the protest drove the remaining Korean resistance leaders to exile in foreign countries and left a legacy of Korean hatred of Japan.
The horrified protests around the world, as well as in Japan, against colonial reaction in Korea encouraged those political forces in Japan that sought to moderate Japanese colonial policy. To Prime Minister Hara Takashi, who believed that colonial administration should be guided by the same sort of bureaucratic reform that had recently evolved in Japan, the March 1919 crisis in Korea and the death of the incumbent military governor general in Taiwan provided opportunities to attempt administrative changes throughout the empire that would modify Japanese rule. The first step was to abolish or limit military administration in those colonies where it still existed, as it had proved both oppressive and unresponsive to civilian direction. In Taiwan, Hara was successful in attaining this objective, and his appointment of Den Kenjiro, a trusted political party colleague, ushered in a decade and a half of civilian administration for the colony. In Micronesia, too, the Japanese naval administration gave way to a civilian government, more appropriate to the islands’ mandate status. But in Korea, strategic considerations and the adamant resistance by the Japanese military turned aside Hara’s efforts to apply the principle of civilian rule. Although by law a civilian could have been appointed governor general at Keijo (Seoul), in practice, Japan’s administration in Korea continued to be headed by an unbroken chain of military autocrats.
Nevertheless, a series of modest reforms pointed toward greater opportunities for Koreans in government, education, and industry and demonstrated greater Japanese respect for Korean culture. In part, these changes were wrought by an administration in Tokyo that believed in bringing the colony into closer relationship with an administratively liberalized and reformed Japan. In part, they were due to a belated recognition that the Korean problem, which had become for Japan as intractable as the Irish problem had been for Britain, required at least minimal concessions to reduce the explosive pressures of Korean nationalism. It was for this latter reason that during the decade of “cultural rule” (bunka seiji), Korea was granted a number of reforms of a kind never conceded to the more docile colonial population of Taiwan. In 1920, the Japanese government announced a number of social, political, and economic changes designed to permit greater self-expression for Koreans, to abolish abuses in the judicial system, to eliminate discrimination in the treatment of Japanese and Koreans in public service, to equalize educational and economic opportunity, to promote agriculture and industry, and generally to give Koreans greater voice in the management of their own affairs.23
Had not Prime Minister Hara been assassinated in office, it is possible that the transformation of these symbolic pronouncements into substantive advances for Korean aspirations might have been undertaken with greater vigor. As it was, the feeble administrative and social reforms of the ensuing decade hardly realized Hara’s objective of extending Japanese liberties and rights to Korea, let alone satisfied Korean demands for political, social, and economic autonomy. Filtered as it was through a colonial administration that still held in contempt Korea’s political capacities, the liberalization of Japanese rule quickly evaporated into empty slogans. Still, if neither the depth nor the tempo of colonial reform went far in meeting the Koreans’ legitimate demands, the more overtly arbitrary and oppressive aspects of Japanese administration were at least muted throughout the empire during this decade, and the effort to construct modern economic facilities and institutions in the colonies continued apace.
For these reasons Japan continued to earn a favorable international rating as a respectable colonial power. It appeared to have brought peace and order to all the territories under its control, to be lessening the military cast of its colonial administrations, to be undertaking responsible reform in Korea, and to be meeting its material obligations as a mandatory power in the South Pacific. Its colonial ports were open to the trade of all nations, and the economies of all its colonial territories appeared to be developing rapidly. If Japanese colonial policy contained almost no accommodation to the concept of trusteeship – preparing its dependent peoples for self-rule-much the same could be said about the colonial policies of the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium, Italy, or even France in this period.
In any event, the thin coating of liberal reform and modest accommodation to the interests of Japan’s colonial peoples, initiated by Japan’s civil government in the 1920s, was soon dissolved in the acids of aggressive nationalism and military necessity in the 1930s. The social and economic dislocations at home and the uncertainties and instabilities abroad-particularly in East Asia-are among the primary causes that many historians have assigned to the shift of Japan toward domestic authoritarianism, an accelerated tempo of nationalism, and the resurgent influence of the military in shaping national policy. Regardless of the relative emphasis that one may assign among such causes, their consequences remilitarized the Japanese colonial empire and transformed its dependencies into regimented and exploited bases for aggressive Japanese expansion into East and Southeast Asia. In the process these changes sharply altered both Western and Japanese perceptions of Japan as an accepted and acceptable colonial power.
In the overheated political atmosphere of the 1930s, the Japanese empire once more became expansive, though less through considered decisions at its metropolitan center than through the arbitrary initiatives of Japan’s field armies abroad. Moving first from the Kwantung Leased Territory and Korea into Manchuria and from there into north China, Japanese garrisons on the continent, acting largely on their own, ushered in an era of military expansion outside the boundaries of the formal empire not unlike the forward sweep of late nineteenth-century French military imperialism in West Africa. By the latter half of the decade, these initiatives had drawn Japan into bloody encounters with the Soviet Union and a frightful war of attrition with China.