In praise of unruly Koreans

The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan
Ken C Kawashima
Duke University Press


Can Australian politics get any ghastlier? Even from a country away the stench from Rudd and Abbott appalls. So much for boundless plains to share.

Racism, so much a part of the practice of the elites in Australia and elsewhere, can seem so pervasive we miss its everyday reinforcements and constructions. There’s institutional racism aplenty, to be sure, but identifying it forces us to another question: how did institutions get that way?

Ken C Kawashima’s history of Korean workers in interwar Japan tracks the role of racism in a particular labour market, and looks at how market practices and state institutions created the ‘problem’ they could then persecute and solve. His book offers illuminating points of comparison with today.

9780822344179_p0_v1_s260x420Korean workers, as is well known, came to Japan in the interwar years in large numbers, pulled in part by the prospects of better wages and the demands of Japanese industry, pushed by hunger and want in the farmlands in the south of Korea. Once there they, and their descendants, faced discrimination, harassment, lack of access to housing and threats of violence.

So far, so familiar: this is the story of migrant groups, from Jamaicans in Britain to Turkish people in Australia, in any advanced capitalist country. The old divide and rule. Kawashima asks some more detailed questions, however, and produces unexpected answers. Why were Koreans the first to be fired in a recession when they were always on the lowest wages? How is it that the ‘Korean community’, or its state-nominated and organised form, became involved in policing its own oppression?

The history Kawashima traces is around the world of work – in the gaps and holes on the way from labour market to wage labour – and he suggests the role of the Korean worker there has something to show us:

How can a history of the search for work change the way we think about categories like commodification and exploitation? This book narrates a history of the search for work itself, and does so by analyzing the ways in which Korean peasants in colonial Korea were compelled to search for wage-work in Japan amidst precarious and racist conditions that threatened secure housing, and that cast them out of the factory system and into the day labour market.

Korean workers were over-represented in the day labour market, a system with organisational remnants from Tokugawa-era Japan and that still exists today. Talk of the precariat can make us forget the precarious nature of workers’ lives in earlier phases of capitalism. Day labour – as ninpu (人夫) – involved workers in ‘forms of economic exploitation that differed significantly from forms of exploitation in the factory system’, and it was against these that Korean workers first organised. Commission fees for labour introductions – a form of intermediary exploitation, chūkan sakushu (中間搾取) – and wages taken from labourers’ pay packets (the ‘decapitated head’ of pinhane) left casualised Korean workers reliant on the wheelers and dealers between them and the labouring work. There are continuities, here, with migrant and international student casualised labour in Australasia.

Too many histories of working-class organisation and resistance, Kawashima argues, ‘generally presuppose the completion of the sale and purchase of labour power as a commodity’. Against this he ‘presents a history in which the sale and purchase of labour power was constantly incomplete, interrupted, and maintained in agonizing suspense.’


Creating Koreans

This ‘incomplete, interrupted’ process of getting labour power from market to factory, Kawashima stresses, involved contestation, chance and struggle. He has some lovely lines, following Althusser, on ‘aleatory’ materialism: a materialism paying attention to chance encounters, or moments that could have gone otherwise. The parallels with our own situation and the campaign by refugee and migrant workers to be able to live in Australia with dignity is striking: ‘the Korean’ as a social entity did not arrive in Japan fully formed, but required a whole assembly of social forces to shape individuals into the role ‘the Korean’ was required to play.

Kawashima writes the messy, complex history of state and extra-state forces involved in channelling Korean workers’ behaviours into the roles needed by Japanese capital, and of the Unemployment Emergency Relief programmes and their role in institutionally ‘codifying Korean workers as individual subjects’ and separating them from Japanese workers. State power was split internally, ‘representing and making abject unruly Koreans’, while ‘simultaneously idealizing notions of Korean identity and ethnic difference’. State-sponsored welfare groups played their part in policing the political options open to Koreans, pressuring workers to comply with company regulations and disavowing radical elements. ‘Community leaders’ and state forces worked together to create the group called ‘Korean workers’, which they could then control.

manga07Some of the most difficult and rewarding parts of The Proletarian Gamble explore the implications of this. The problem for historians and activist scholars, Kawashima suggests, is not ‘simply a monolithic Korean minority toiling in a singular margin of Japanese society, but rather the problem of a divided margin’. The economic question – why fire the worst-paid workers? – becomes answerable when we see the role Korean workers played in creating a ‘disposable labour force’, one that introduced an element of the sense of precarity more widely. It’s not enough, then, to talk about ‘institutional racism’ and allow the assumption to hover unspoken that such things are bound to happen; there’s a making of the migrant working class. ‘Problems of ethnic discrimination and racism,’ Kawashima argues, ‘must be shown and revealed in their proper historical situations before any conclusions are made about a putatively coherent and unified Korean minority that can be said to experience racism.’

Kawashima’s summary of how the problems Koreans faced were transformed, through the language of institutional inquiry, into problems of Koreans is all too easily translatable (with people smugglers, for instance):

This vast production of knowledge was predominantly statistical, and quintessentially the effect of the policeman’s gaze in Japan. Behind the mountains of statistics and empirical data, however, lay concealed a positivist method that reduced – often by a methodological sleight of hand – various social and economic problems experienced by Koreans in Japan, to a problem of Koreans.


Organising Resistance

The astonishingly impressive and well-managed research and careful thinking that went in to The Proletarian Gamble – from archival work in at least three languages to theoretical speculation – concludes with reflections on the resistance of Korean workers’. Communist labour unions ‘politicised Korean proletarian subjectivity’, sometimes from within existing union structures, and sometimes within Korean-only autonomous unions. Fascinating, rich discussion of the politics of the proper name – when Koreans ‘passed’ as Japanese to get access to rental housing and then found themselves evicted when their landlords could ‘out’ them – and the contradictions of imperial ideology stud the chapters. Korean activists found an audience in the non-Korean labour movement too, and articles in the Have-Nots Newspaper in the late 20s and 30s polemicised against the thuggish ‘community groups’ in favour of left-wing unionism, educating Japanese workers in the process.

Korean IndependenceThe state, and its allies in the conservative ‘community’ groups, tried to separate the ideal, docile, ‘proper’ Korean from his or her sinister Other, the ‘unruly Korean’ (不逞鮮人). The division (as anyone of Arab heritage in Australia today knows) served to criminalise the whole Korean population, and to create, in police discourse, a figure of the ‘unruly Korean’ blending the Korean Independence Movement, Bolshevism, anarchism and general violence. Koreans made the ultimate enemy within: since they could blend so smoothly into the wider population, only the most intrusive and constant state surveillance could rustle them out.

Workers organised against this naturally, and Kawashima celebrates the riots, strikes, fist-fights and political meetings that all stood for a different model of Korean life in Japan. Sixty Koreans gathered in 1930 to form a special branch of the Japan Public Workers Labour Union. They had three demands:

(1) the immediate end to wage differences based on ethnicity

(2) an eight-hour workday and full coverage of unemployment insurance by the government

(3) liberation of Korea and happiness for all Koreans

Korean subjection to the rule of capital and Korean self-organisation were, Kawashima argues, forces forever contesting each other. There are lessons here for all social settings and radical histories:

The history of Korean proletarians teaches us that if we are to attain to a conception of history in a capitalist world, it must be one that is not reducible to a notion of inevitable progress or development, but rather to the sudden, unpredictable and contingent failures of any capitalist progress or development whatsoever. What we learn is that if capitalist exploitation and fascism were ever a historical norm, this was so only insofar as they were, and continue to be, policed and guarded effects of a compulsive, possessive, and obsessive practice of disavowing the necessarily contingent nature of history in a capitalist commodity world.

Reading this wonderful, engaged and scholarly history of a past racism exposes all the more clearly the familiar shape of this present order. The Japanese state organised against the ‘unruly Korean’ while all the time fearing what they conjured might become a reality. There are plenty of candidates for unruliness in today’s Australia.

Dougal McNeill

Dougal McNeill teaches postcolonial literature and science fiction at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He also blogs at Nae Hauf-Way Hoose and is an editor of Socialist Review. He’s currently writing a book on politics, modernist literature and the 1926 General Strike in Britain. He tweets as @Lismahago.

More by Dougal McNeill ›

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