In the mid-19th century, Chinese merchants moved to the treaty ports of Japan and Korea to expand the domestic commercial network abroad. They made significant profits by importing and distributing British cotton clothes via Shanghai to Japan and Korea. While Chinese merchants in Japan remained purely economic immigrant groups, those in Korea took an active political role since their advance to Korea on business was part of an effort by the Qing dynasty to strengthen its influence in Korea. Before the Mukden Incident in 1931, Chinese merchants in Kobe, Japan, engaged in trade with China and Southeast Asia and continued to be a powerful commercial group in Asian trade. However, Chinese merchants in Korea suffered from business crisis earlier on. They were hit hard by the sharp decline in import trade from China, which was their primary business, due to Japan’s protective tariff policy introduced in 1924. Until 1930s, both Chinese merchants in Japan and Korea were forced to gradually revise their business strategies to sell Japanese products in Greater China and Korea. The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 turned out to be a decisive blow to the already struggling businesses of the Chinese merchants in Japan and Korea.
Japan established a protectorate in 1905 and annexed Korea in 1910. The colonial occupation officially lasted thirty-five years, until the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima precipitated the end of World War II on August 15, 1945. The Government-General of Korea administrated the colony’s affairs and enforced many laws and regulations from Japan. Yet the Japanese also made significant legal modifications that allowed for stricter censorship and control of the colony. In principle, the Government-General had absolute authority over Korea and was only accountable to the Japanese emperor rather than the Imperial Diet under the Meiji Constitution. However, in practice the Government-General was not completely independent because of the need to file reports and receive financial subsidies from the Imperial Diet. The considerable autonomy of the Government-General to enact its own legal provisions may be important to keep in mind to understand how colonial Korea was an authoritarian system that operated separately from the Meiji Constitutional order. Korea underwent a major transition from an agrarian society to the beginnings of an industrial society during the colonial period. Many historical accounts tend to portray the colonial administration as an omnipotent force, but the Japanese faced considerable limitations and challenges in ruling the colony. Korea gradually became integrated into an autarkic economic block along with Manchuria that formed the basis for Japan’s East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. However, political integration remained a controversial topic that was never resolved before 1945. The Japanese enforced numerous policies to mobilize the colonial population for World War II. Yet even as Koreans marched into the battlefront and served labor duty in the factories, basic political rights continued to be denied. Many of today’s tensions between Korea and Japan stem from the unresolved historical controversies from the colonial period.
During the 518 years of Korea’s Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910), many things changed and many things stayed the same. After the Yi family established the Chosŏn dynasty, Confucianism became the dominant philosophy. Although Confucianism’s grip on Chosŏn weakened somewhat at the end of the 19th century, it nevertheless continued to provide the basic framework for how government officials and most of the educated elite conceptualized ethics, religion, nature, and technology. This changed when the Chosŏn dynasty was absorbed into the Japanese empire in 1910. Chosŏn-era science, technology, and religion operated within a Confucian framework. This affected astronomical, geographical, mathematical, and medicinal thought and practice. It also affected the role of technology in Chosŏn life and society. Moreover, when Buddhism, folk religion and, from the end of the 18th century even Christianity, were practiced in Korea, it was necessary to maneuver within constraints imposed by a Confucian state and society. Korea’s Confucianism was imported from China. Koreans, however “Koreanized” what they adopted from China to make it their own. When dealing with religion, Chosŏn-era Koreans adopted a much harsher attitude toward non-Confucian religions. When dealing with science and technology, Koreans sometimes made improvements on Chinese models. For example, in the 15th century, Koreans built astronomical instruments that were better than those they had learned about from Chinese astronomers. And, in the 17th century, Koreans produced the most comprehensive encyclopedia of traditional East Asian medicine of pre-modern times. However, none of those changes threatened the hegemony of Confucianism. Chosŏn Korea remained Confucian in its science, technology, and religiosity for over five centuries.
To most Western scholars, “East Asian cinema” calls to mind either a small number of globally recognized art house auteurs or specific genres that have found cult audiences in the West. However, this overlooks the enormously complex history of the popular film industries in the region. The tendency to group together films from the region as East Asian cinema can elide some important differences in the film industries and cultures in individual parts of the region, but, at the same time, the “national cinema” framework fails to appreciate the interconnectedness of these cinemas both to each other and beyond the region. The earliest film screenings in China, Japan, and Korea were in the last decade of the 19th century, within a few years of the Lumière Brothers’ first demonstration of their new invention in Paris in 1895. Japan and China both developed robust popular film industries by the mid-1920s. Colonized by Japan in 1910, Korea nevertheless also developed a popular film industry by the mid-1920s, albeit one that was dominated by business interests (if not necessarily talent) from Japan, and subject to the censorship laws of the colonial government. It is impossible to extricate the networks of commodity and artistic exchange from the history of colonialism in the region—both the colonial designs of Western powers on East Asia, and the reach of the Japanese Empire, whose ascendance coincided precisely with the first half-century of film history, and whose shadow has continued to have implications for cultural exchange within the region ever since. Major geopolitical events such as World War II and the Cold War have also played an important role in shaping film production, and its circuits of exchange, in the region.