Decolonization and the US Occupation: Japan and Korea in the Aftermath of World War II

AHA Session 320
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Centennial Ballroom A (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Sarah Kovner, Columbia University
Sarah Kovner, Columbia University

Session Abstract

Begun in the 1960s, the field of the U.S. occupation of Japan represents one of the most long-standing and well-researched areas of scholarship in modern Japanese history, as well as U.S. Foreign Relations history. While an enormous amount of research has been conducted in the past six decades, historians' work has generally shared several key attributes: it has focused predominantly on American-Japanese bilateral relations; it has largely emphasized discontinuity over continuity between wartime and postwar Japan; it has often stressed harmonious and collaborative relationships between the two countries; and, most strikingly, it has almost completely disregarded one of the most important issues in postwar global history: decolonization. Each of the three papers in this panel challenges these accepted claims and assumptions in order to explore new perspectives on and approaches to on the histories of U.S. occupation of Japan, as well as of northeast Asia in the aftermath of World War II.

Howard Kahm goes beyond the conventional U.S.-Japanese focus by exploring the U.S. occupation in both Korea and Japan. He examines the issue of smuggling by Japanese and Korean repatriates following the collapse of the Japanese Empire, and argues that their smuggling shaped and maintained unofficial economic connections between Korea and Japan, despite U.S. authorities' design to establish separate, sovereign nation-states and national economies in Korea and Japan. Choi Deokyo also challenges the traditional bilateral focus by investigating the "Kobe Incident"—Korean residents' mass demonstration in Kobe, Japan, in 1948, which was eventually put down by a unit of African-American soldiers. Through examining how Korean residents' postcolonial struggle was targeted and clashed by Cold War logic, and how the American media depicted African-American soldiers' crackdown on the Korean riot, Choi characterizes the Kobe Incident as a flashpoint for the evolution of Cold War politics and the development of "Cold War civil rights" movements in the following years. Masuda Hajimu, likewise, questions common narratives and assumptions about the U.S. occupation of Japan by taking a comparative perspective, and by challenging the conventional view of the "Reverse Course" through re-interpreting the meanings of the Cold War and decolonization. While the "Reverse Course" has been commonly viewed as Washington's turning away from democratization due to the rise of the Cold War, Masuda characterizes it as a larger process of backlash toward new social, cultural, and political values unleashed by the tumultuous experiences of total war and occupation.  

Taken together, this panel calls attention to the need to reconsider the ways in which we approach and view the history of Japan and Korea in the aftermath of World War II. It suggests going beyond US-Japanese bilateral relations and taking into account issues of colonialism and decolonization in examining postwar northeast Asia. Sarah Kovner, whose work focuses on wartime and postwar Japanese history, will chair and comment.

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