Korea-Japan 1910-1945: ‘Annexation of Korea was illegal’

The colonial period isn’t merely a lingering despondence, but an open wound that festers still today. Ever since the end of the colonial era, Korea desires Japan’s acknowledgment of its mistakes. However, with a lack of hard evidence that the annexation of Korea was unjustified, Japan continues to possess enough ground to keep its back straight. Somebody who has worked to put an end to this for eighteen years is reputable historian Tae-Jin Yi, professor at Seoul National University. He discovered something fishy about the treaty that gave away Korea’s sovereignty. With his continually growing dossier full of evidence and considerable assembly of Korean and Japanese scholars, the bitter truth is slowly but surely permeating Japan.

Yi’s latest piece of evidence which gained news coverage is the invalidity of the seal with which the Korean government confirmed its approval of the annexation in 1910. While the official Japanese edict was officially sealed and signed by the Japanese emperor, an official seal is lacking on its Korean counterpart; only the private seal of the Korean king was used, making it invalid for this purpose, and according to Yi the seal was also in the hands of the Japanese. Further evidence that the Japanese set the documents to their own hands is seen in the material that was used. Older, valid documents logically show different types of paper, handwriting and bindings. The documents from 1910 are however identical at this points.

Professor Tae-Jin Yi smiles as he shows the forged documents at his office in Seoul; that’s how absurdly clear it is. The ‘See, I told you so’ feeling gleams on his face. Through eighteen years of research he has had a difficult time showing hard evidence to prove the illegality of the annexation. Recently Japan released original documents from 1910, after the Japanese couldn’t ignore the obvious results of Yi’s investigation on other documents. Yi inspected the documents straight away, and all his assumptions were confirmed.

It all began while he was in charge of organizing the paperwork of the Korean government at that time, which is in possession of Seoul National University. In 1905, documents were signed turning Korea into a protectorate of Japan; once Yi had compiled them he discovered something strange. Titles were lacking: English translations (which were necessary to gain approval of the US and UK) read ‘treaty’, while the Koreans were in assumption they were signing a memorandum, which is something quite different than a treaty. Yet there was still more, Yi found out. The signatures of the Korean king on the edicts that activated the protectorate status were forged; the times of signing wasn’t according to the rules, and there was a Japanese committee that prepared the annexation, which was also the place where the documents were being forced. Also, pictures show soldiers present at the signing of the treaty, and military presence was against the international rules. To make a long story short, the Japanese forced their will against the Koreans by messing around with the paperwork and using military force.

In history there is not much doubt surrounding the brutal deeds of the Japanese during the colonial period, which also shown off on a bigger scale in Second World War throughout the rest of Asia. When Korea was eventually in the hands of Japan in 1910, the Japanese did everything in their power to replace the entire Korean culture by Japanese culture. Proud Koreans who opted to stand up for their own cultural heritage and independence could count on torture and imprisonment. In Japan, appointing these deeds as unjustified and brutal is unspeakable. Yi: “In 1994, two years after I started, I wanted to track down the person who forged the signature of King Sunjong. I found out who did it and how it happened. I presented my outcomes in Tokyo and the Japanese were amazed. A lot of journalists came to me after my speech and left their namecards behind. I checked the newspapers the day after, but not a single word was written on the matter. ‘So this is Japan’, I sighed. The Samurai mentality is carved deeply in Japanese culture; defeat is equal on dying, which is also the reason they are so extremely polite. All confrontation must be avoided at all costs. In an argument, there is no concession; you win or you lose, and acknowledging defeat is something that isn’t handled very well. A known image is the kneeling German chancellor, Willy Brandt, in front of a Polish war memorial. In Japan, this would be an impossibility credited to their mentality. Last year I had a lecture in Kyoto; Japanese professors walked up to me after and told me they were ashamed. However (because of this same embarrassment) they didn’t plead against the annexation in their work.”

However, these days Japan is under pressure. In May, Yi was supported by a large group of Japanese and Korean scholars and collectively made a new statement. “540 scholars supported the convention that stated the annexation was illegal; 260 of them are historians. This is a big step. A few years ago there were not even ten intellectuals supporting this statement. Socially and politically it will cost time to solve these problems, but also considering the influence of these Japanese scholars, things will change in Japanese society. Also, younger generations are changing. One day they will be in charge of the country making it easier to acknowledge their mistakes.”