3.2. A History Teacher and the Songso Choson (1928-1938)
In the spring of 1928, after his graduation from Tokyo Teacher's College, Ham returned to Korea to teach history at Osan School, a job he earnestly wanted to keep for the rest of his life. At Osan, Ham taught not only history but also general ethics and education. While preparing for his classes he read the writings of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) with great interest.
At the same time, Ham also worked as one of the editors of a monthly magazine, Songso Choson (Bible Korea). From 1928 throughout the 1930s, Ham wrote serialised articles about various prophets of The Old Testament in Songso Choson. This quarterly magazine was established by Ham's long-time friend, Kim Kyosin, as early as July 1927. Kim returned to Korea one year earlier than Ham, and had been teaching geography and natural history at Osan School, while publishing Songso Choson. As Uchimura emphasised the values of Jesus and Japan, Kim emphasised the values of Songso [Bible] and Choson [Korea]. Kim was a man of leadership and effectiveness. Another editor of Songso Choson and a friend of both Kim and Ham, Song Tuyong remembered that: "Kim Kyosin was a leading man and outstanding in every aspect among our group." In Songso Choson, Ham and his friends wrote on the subjects of Christianity, history, society and nationalism from the Biblical viewpoint, as shown through Ham's writing, A Korean History from a Biblical Perspective.
Moreover, as soon as Kim returned to Korea he founded an "Uchimura-style Non-Church Movement (NCM)". Correspondingly, during his time at Osan, Ham was a devoted Christian in the NCM along with other Koreans. Ham and Kim Kyosin together with other friends, organised a Bible study group as Uchimura had done in Japan, and this study group constantly increased in popularity. Eventually the NCM Group became quite sizeable. Uchimura's interpretation of the Bible played a large part in Ham's early thinking, and the NCM was the spiritual focus of Ham's life for the next ten years.
From the end of the 1920s, emphasis in the study of Korean history was put largely on the processes through which society was formed. There was a tendency to explain sequential levels of social development in terms of economic phases. Scholars of this view were influenced by Marxism to put a historical materialist structure on the historical development of Korea. In connection with this, in 1930 Ham as a nationalist, a writer of Songso Choson and as a history teacher was arrested under the charge of 'pro-Communism' by the Japanese police. Ham could not understand the charge of 'pro-Communism' since he had never written or spoken about Marxism, and never fully agreed with the Communist view of the materialistic conception of history. However, it had been previously revealed that two of Ham's former lodgers, who were fellow students of Osan School, were members of a Communist reading club. Because of this, Ham was suspected of being a so-called Marxist-Leninist Party member by the Japanese authorities.
Without proper evidence, and considering Ham was not a radical leftist, the Japanese police were not able to detain him for long. One week later Ham was proved to be 'not guilty', and was released from prison. Nevertheless, Ham's writings in the Songso Choson repeatedly suffered censorship by the Japanese authorities, and even the Songso Choson itself frequently had publication suspended.
From 1931 Korea was practically turned into a Japanese military war compound, functioning as a division of Japan in its war against China proper. Japan became a semi-fascist state and many Korean nationalists turned to left-wing and Communist movements which were seen as efficient nationalist movements as well as a mechanism for anti-Japanese activity. In this light, Ham's nationalist activities also continued to be seen by the Japanese authorities as connected with the Communist movement. At that time, the Communist and left-wing movements in Korea often collaborated with other anti-Japanese movements, and the Japanese had some difficulty differentiating between social revolutionaries and moderate nationalists. Later, like the Chinese nationalists, Korean nationalists began to split, as rivalry between the moderate or right-wing nationalists and the Communist nationalists grew. Indeed, most of the nationalist Korean intelligentsia did absorb left-wing theory and were seriously preoccupied with subverting Japanese capitalist rule. As a result, in the 1930s Korean nationalist movements were overwhelmingly dominated by socialist activists.
During this time of dissension between the two camps of Korean nationalism, Ham began to write his own version of Korean history. Every country tends to glorify its own history and Korea was no exception. Before Ham began to examine Korean history, it is possible that he also thought the history of Korea to be a glorious one. However, when Ham actually examined it he perceived it to be a story of human trial and misery. Ham was shattered by his findings. It is hardly surprising that Ham was so affected when he read that Korea had experienced more than a hundred wars, together with civil wars that had taken place on the Korean peninsula. More than 50 times the peninsula had been occupied at the hands of external powers. Living in the era he did, Ham experienced a series of sensational shocks which caused him to re-think Korean history.
Throughout the Japanese colonial period, Japan tried to obliterate the Korean national identity by a variety of means. It was a time of a Korean national identity crisis brought about by Japanese imperialism. Thus, for Koreans it was very important to find their own identity as a colonised nation. Ham was anxious and eager to find an identity for his country, a search that is deeply connected with the country's own future destiny. Ham recognised the dilemma he faced when he taught Korean history at Osan School:
"I happened to be teaching Korean history in a small rural high school then. When I actually began the class, I realised that it was impossible to teach it as it was. Four thousand years of Korean history amounted to nothing but a series of humiliations, frustrations, and failures. --- I began to gaze upon Korean history squarely. When I did, it appeared like a beggar girl who, chased by village urchins, ran this way and that and hid herself and then finally collapsed on the street, crying her heart out ---".
Living under the hand of imperialism Ham recognised that a colonised Korea could never be a secure nation. It seemed Korea's destiny was to be determined by strong external military and material powers. Ham had seen the results of the Russo-Japanese War and was born soon after the Sino-Japanese War. Korea did not possess a strong military presence and was materially weak. Korea was, and had been, squeezed into a narrow alley by Russia, China and Japan.
In this respect, Ham began to 'regret' being a history teacher, as he realised that history was 'full of lies' either through empty glorification or distorted truth. But an evil may sometimes turn out to be a blessing in disguise, and inscrutable are the ways of Heaven! Like the evolution of the biological world, when life is in a limited and tight place, it will contemplate and strive to escape its troubles. In a similar manner Ham started to ponder the meaning of Korean history: "I began contemplating this beggar girl. Quietly I approached her, wiped her tears, dusted the mud off her, tended her wounds, and began listening to her halting mumbling --- I became aware of a figure, barely visible, standing behind her --- Korea's history of suffering."
This is Ham's metaphorical view of Korean history and he evolved new insights in perceiving the history of Korea. Being a rational Christian thinker, Ham did not want to conceal the humiliation of Korean history. He rather illustrated the position of Korean history as the 'sewer' of world history, and compared it to a dismembered Samson in the Old Testament:
"Throughout its history, Korea could not produce a David, Jeremiah, Dante or Milton. In spite of our wondrous nature, we were not capable of nurturing even one Wordsworth. Moreover, despite our provocative history we were unable to give birth to even one Tagore. We just gouged out our eyes, shaved off our hair, bound our hands with shackles and set ourselves to grinding in the dungeon, like Samson."
Perhaps the above statement of Ham's view on Korean history is not so true, and Ham may have felt a sense of trepidation regarding the historical position of Korea on the world stage. But it seems that, throughout its history, Korea was less attractive to the international world than her adjacent countries (China and Japan), which dominated her. Perceiving the downcast picture of his own history Ham asked himself repeatedly and repeatedly: "How can I teach such Korean history? How? Who can tell me what to do? --- I have to solve this question by myself!" So was Ham a pessimist and was he obsessed by a sense of national inferiority? Ham, through his hermeneutic approach proclaimed the history of Korea as a history of suffering, yet he compared the suffering of Korea with the suffering of Jesus in the Bible. In the Old Testament one of the Prophets, Isaiah, proclaimed the sufferings of the coming Messiah for Israel:
"He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed."
Through The Book of Isaiah, Ham was encouraged and heartened despite the Japanese colonial oppression. Ham expounded the meaning of suffering in Korean history: "In terms of the suffering which stemmed from Christianity, I see the appearance of Christ [Suffering] in the Bible as the appearance of the one nation [the Suffering of Korea] in the world's history."
In this regard, between February 1933 and December 1935, Ham's writings on Korean history was serialised in the Songso Choson magazine. But when Ham wrote this Korean history, he had no access to a good library, sources or reference books. Thus, without choice, Ham had to think hard and to pick material either from Korean books that were given to exaggeration and exaltation or Japanese books that were "misleading and disdainful". In this respect, his writing is an insightful rather than a scholarly work. In other words Ham's written output on Korea's history was based on intuition and experience wrought from the battle field of his specific life experience. Indeed Ham was not a conventional historian, he wrote about Korean history with his prescience like a poet, rather than on the basis of analysis of source materials. That is why Ham has expressed his writing on Korean history as "not a study of history but a prayer, an act of faith."
During this time, I find Ham's view to be very Christo-centric and he was strongly convinced that Christianity was the only religion derived from the Bible. His sole commitment at this time was to the absolute value of Christianity. Thus not surprisingly, Ham entitled his first writing Korean History from a Biblical Perspective. The preface of this writing, leaves no doubt about the sole Biblical basis of Ham's philosophy:
"Regarding the title of my work, Korean History from a Biblical Perspective, some of my friends suggested the 'inappropriateness' of the title, especially to some who are not Christians. But if I remove the word 'Biblical Perspective' from the writing, it is like removing a horn from a deer. The fundamental spirit of this writing stemmed from the Bible. Therefore, I can write history only from a Biblical Perspective. In other words, only the Bible has a genuine history and philosophy. It is neither in the Western nor in the Eastern world. Only the Bible reveals time as being like a human-being's personality and character."
Here one can see the eagerness and passion of Ham towards Christianity. At this time, Ham could not think of world history or the philosophy of humankind from any other than the Biblical standpoint.
Even though Songso Choson had no more than three hundred subscribers, its contents, including Ham's writings on Korean history, ran foul of the Japanese censor and the magazine frequently had to cease publication.
If one examines Ham's writings at this time, Ham's thesis centred on the significance of 'losers' and the role they might play in world history. He began from the premise that world history appears to justify the claims of 'victors', since it is predominantly written by those who govern, the 'winners'. The history of losers is put down and expunged. Their story is forgotten history. They are not noted in the history of the winner. It is hard to comprehend that losers and ordinary people also contribute to history. Accordingly, Ham tried to highlight the contribution and significance of the losers, in a paradoxical effort to generate national pride.
Ham believed that the historical suffering of Korea was not just due to her political and military feebleness, but that it had a Biblical significance. Thus Ham defined the role of Korea as the "Queen of Suffering", matching it with Jesus as the "Son of Suffering", Ham began to forge a new identity and mission for Korea:
"Herein is our mission; to bear our load of iniquity without grumbling, without evading and with determination and in seriousness. By bearing the load we can deliver ourselves and the world as well. The results of iniquity will never vanish without someone bearing their burden. For the sake of God and humanity we must bear it --- The consequences of the world's iniquities are laid on us, and if we fail in cleansing them, then there is no one else to do it. Hence, it is our mission, to which only we are equal. Neither Britain nor America can cope with it, for they are too well-off, too highly placed, to do it."
Using his own Biblical interpretation of Korean history, Ham provided the mission and vision not only for the oppressed Koreans under Japanese colonialism, but also losers and ordinary people everywhere. Those losers were able to find their own identity and position in world history, having previously failed to come to terms with either their suffering or its causes. As the light is brighter as the shadow gets darker, despite the humiliating side of Korean history, Ham revealed a positive side to it. Thus Ham hoped the Korean people would recognise that they also had a valuable contribution to make to world history, despite their miserable situation under Japanese imperialism. By doing so, Ham broke the fixed conception of defeatism and blind fatalism within Korean history. The significance of one's identity in colonised nations cannot be over emphasised, since identity provides public-spirited direction and national purpose.
Ham foresaw the doom of the law of the jungle in human history, as well as the advent of a human society based on morality. For Ham, history was not simply documented facts but facts interpreted subjectively so that morality is woven in, so that humankind realises responsibility for what has been, what is, and what will be. Ham saw fact as the basis of human life having two dimensions, human and historical. Therefore, for Ham, there is no human life without history or history without human life. In this regard Ham argued that the history of humanity is not the progress merely of culture but also of moral growth, and that human advancement is not just evolution but also moral and spiritual improvement. The correlation between Ham's view of history and Confucianism can be clearly seen, as both emphasise the moral aspect of society and human life. A major Korean historian, Lee Kibaik (Yi Kibaek), once Ham's pupil at Osan School was reminded of Ham's influence on his own historical outlook in his youth: "Ham Sokhon's writing, Korean History from a Biblical Perspective made a great impression on me. Ham's writing, together with Sin Ch'aeho's writing, profoundly formulated my historical prospect of Korean history in my youth. In particular, Ham emphasised history as a progression of morality." Sin Ch'aeho (1880-1936) identified nationalism as the idea whereby one nation is not subordinate to the intervention of another nation, whereby a nation declares its distinctive identity. It was Ham's stress on human history as not only a growth of culture but also of moral growth and human advancement, as not just evolution but moral advancement, which influenced Lee Kibaik's outlook of Korean history.
Meanwhile when Japan invaded China in 1937, the Japanese authorities adopted various plans and systems to Japanize the Koreans in order to change them into "devoted imperial subjects". Japan compelled Koreans to co-operate in the "Nationalistic Spiritual Mobilisation Movement," and established so-called 'nationalistic sections' in each village and town under the surveillance of the regional police commander. In addition Japanese authorities prohibited all kinds of cultural practices that might be regarded as Korean nationalistic. As a result, the entire Korean socio-political and cultural establishments were compelled to disband.
Furthermore, to increase the morale of the Japanese army young women, mostly Korean, were forced to go to the war front in order to supply sexual services to the Japanese soldiers. The first 'comfort station' was established in Shanghai in 1932, and the practice continued until the end of the Second World War. Over one hundred thousand Korean women were used in this way.
In 1938, in order to suppress all Korean national consciousness and culture, the Japanese authorities proclaimed that the Japanese language and history were the national language and history of the empire including Korea. Not only the study of the Korean language but also that of Korean history was considered dangerous. Accordingly Korean language and history could no longer be taught in any school, not only in state schools but also in private schools. Korean teachers and students were not permitted to speak Korean in the classroom or at public assemblies. Even the ministers of the churches were told to present their sermons exclusively in Japanese. All Koreans were obliged to memorise and to recite at any public gathering the pledge of the Japanese imperial subject: "I pledge myself to be devoted to the Emperor of Great Japan and am willing to offer myself for the honour of the Japanese emperor."
The year 1938 was the start of the Korean church's forced acceptance of the order of the Japanese regime for Shinto shrine worship. The most particular characteristic of Shinto is a fundamental conviction that gods (Kami), men and the whole of Nature were actually born of the same parents, and are therefore, of the same kin. Accordingly the Japanese people regarded their emperor as a living deity. And the Japanese authorities forced this idea on Korean Christians. In order to imbue Korean young people with the spirit of Shinto loyalty, the Japanese authorities dissolved the Korean YMCA and YWCA, then set up various associations as alternatives: such as the Choson Ch'ongnyon Yonhap-hoe [Korean Federation of Youth Organisation], Chibang Ch'ongnyon Hagu-hoe [Local Youth Leadership Seminar], and the T'akaso Yonhap-hoe [Training Institute for Children's Organisation].
Koreans were required to practice Shintoism, and Shinto shrine visitations were ordered of all. The Japanese authorities said that the Shinto shrine visitations were not to be "religious" but "patriotic". Korean Christians at times made excuses to themselves, accepting the Japanese authority's differentiation between 'religious Shinto' and 'patriotic' and State Shinto, interpreting worship at Shinto shrines as a 'patriotic action'. Nevertheless, implicitly this Shinto action was to annihilate Korean national self-hood and nationalist feeling. Over 20 Christian educational institutions across Korea were shut down because the leaders of the institutions refused to pay obeisance to Shinto shrine rites. Up to 1945, a total of 200 Korean Christian churches were closed, 70 ministers and 2,000 Christians were incarcerated, and after prolonged torture, some 50 ministers died in prison because of the Shinto question.
The Army Special Volunteers Act was also declared in February 1938, military training was introduced to all Korean schools and Koreans were "permitted by special Imperial grace" to undertake military service on behalf of the Japanese. By 1945, 360,000 Korean youths had been mobilised for the Japanese Army. This meant that many young Koreans had to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the Japanese empire.
In 1938 when the Japanese authorities forced Ham to teach his class solely in Japanese with fixed text books, containing the Japannised historical view of Korean history, Ham could not follow this order. At last, due to Ham's "violation" of Japanese policy, he had to resign from the school he loved. In tears, in the spring of 1938, Ham had to leave the Osan School permanently. It was to prove his first and last regular job; thereafter until the end of his life, Ham never had any regular job or any steady income. In 1938 alone, 126,626 Koreans were arrested, and many Christian leaders of anti-Japanese tint were compelled to resign. Certainly the resignation from the Osan School disappointed Ham, but it did not afflict him much. After all, like Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), Ham had been "too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined."
3.3. 'Nationalist', 'Oriental' and Farmer (1938-1945) Table of Contents