One hundred years on from the Korean Sam-il Independence Movement

One hundred years on from the Korean Sam-il Independence Movement

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Sam-il Independence (or March First) Movement that began on 1 March 1919 in Seoul and quickly spread throughout Korea. The movement was comprised of a series of demonstrations constituting some of the earliest displays of Korean resistance to the Japanese annexation and colonisation of Korea (1910–1945).

In the wake of World War I, a group of thirty-three Korean religious and cultural leaders signed the “Korean Declaration of Independence” co-authored by historian Ch’oe Namsŏn (1890–1957) and poet Manhae (1879–1944). They were inspired by US President Woodrow Wilson’s address at the 1918 Paris Peace Conference, which promoted the right to self-determination for small and large countries alike. The declaration called on the Japanese Government-General of Korea to withdraw immediately and voluntarily from the peninsula.

Three thousand copies of the declaration were distributed throughout Seoul that morning. In response, tens of thousands of Korean citizens from all walks of life poured into the streets waving the Korean flag, singing the national anthem, and shouting Mansei, Mansei (May Korea Live Ten Thousand Years)! At 2.00pm, the protestors gathered at Pagoda Park to hear the declaration read publicly. It advocated peaceful demonstrations that would appeal to the international community for assistance in Korea’s bid to reclaim its freedom.

The movement quickly fanned out across the country, inciting another 1,500 anti-Japanese demonstrations attended by over two million Koreans, in 211 of the country’s 218 administrative districts. Astounded by its scale, the colonial government ordered extra garrison forces from Japan, and responded brutally to the demonstrations. The movement was finally suppressed a year later, but during the ‘year of blood’ (Korea Review, 1920) around 7,000 Korean nationals were killed by Japanese police and soldiers, and more than double that number were injured. Many Japanese nationals lost their lives as well.

Yet even as images of the clashes between demonstrators and the authorities appeared in news sources around the world, no nation stepped forward to challenge Japan’s authority in the peninsula. Japan had recently won the first Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), and its ‘sphere of influence’ was rapidly gaining traction.

In response to the demonstrations, the Government-General promulgated a new law on 15 April to sentence ten years’ penal servitude on any person caught participating in independence demonstrations. As a result, new and less obvious forms of resistance arose, such as student strikes and acts of passive disobedience. Outspoken activists were forced underground, or agitated for reform in overseas Korean communities. In Shanghai, for instance, the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea was founded under the leadership of Syngman Rhee (1875–1965).

Street parade commemorating the 35th anniversary of the Sam-il Movement (1954). Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In Japan, the Sam-il Movement inspired many Japanese to scrutinise Korea’s place in the empire for the first time since Japan’s annexation of the peninsula in 1910. In the mainstream papers, the ‘insubordinate’ behaviour of the Koreans and Western missionaries was mostly held responsible for the unfolding crisis.

For the handful of Japanese agitators rallying for Korea’s independence who were willing to speak out amidst the Japanese government’s climate of heavy censorship, the demonstrations and their subsequent suppressions presented opportunities to mount appeals for conscionable action on what became known as the ‘Japan-Korea problem.’

These public responses presented a range of ideological perspectives on the Japan/Korea issue. One of the most influential minds of the era, the renowned liberal Yoshino Sakuzō (1878–1933), viewed colonialism as a noble venture but described the crisis as a ‘humanitarian problem’ that required the immediate abandonment of discriminatory treatment towards the Koreans. The journalist and political economist Ishibashi Tanzan (1884–1973) considered the Japanese annexation of the peninsula as a contravention to Japan’s national welfare due to the depletion of Japanese resources, and thus advocated for Korea’s self-determination. Another left-leaning intellectual, Nishio Suehiro (1891–1981), pronounced Korea’s colonisation an abysmal failure, describing the forced assimilation of the Koreans ‘as futile as attempts to extinguish a raging fire with an old-fashioned hand-pump’ (Taiyō, 1920).

Criticism of Korea’s colonial governance also came from the right: the Kokuryūkai (Black Dragon Society) formed in 1901 by Uchida Ryōhei (1874–1937) was opposed to granting the Koreans their independence, but argued that ‘domestic self-governance’ could help advance stability in the region.

One voice weighing in on the debate that may have surprised many readers was the art critic and philosopher, Yanagi Sōetsu (1889–1961). Horrified by the brutality of Japan’s response—and what he considered to be a lack of condemnation of this response—Yanagi began writing prolifically about Korea in various newspapers and journals.

Many of Yanagi’s texts mobilised the ‘great art’ of Korea to corral attention to his argument for the reinstatement of the country’s independence and better treatment of the Koreans. ‘I believe it is art, not science, that connects countries, and brings humans closer together,’ he declared in his first essay published in May 1919, two months after the demonstrations began. ‘Only artistic and religious understanding can appreciate the experiences of the inner heart, and generate an infinite love’ (‘Thinking of the Koreans,’ 1919).

The following year, Yanagi made a bold statement expressing support of the Koreans: ‘The governors are attempting to assimilate you. But how is it that we who are so imperfect have the authority to do so? … You must dismiss Japanisation… Korea’s unique beauty and freedom of the heart must not be violated by other things’ (‘Letter to My Korean Friends,’ 1920).

In 1922, Yanagi’s increasing frustration with Japan’s expansionist agenda and his sympathy for the Koreans attracted considerable publicity as he openly described Japan’s annexation of the peninsula as ‘a morally unforgivable act’ (‘Critique: Alexander Powell’s Evaluation of Japan’s Governance in Korea’).

In August that year, he released an urgent appeal in the essay ‘The Historic Korean Monument Slated for Demolition’ protesting the colonial government’s plans to demolish Seoul’s Kwanghwamun Gate in order to make way for the imposing Western-style Capitol building that would serve as the Government-General’s headquarters.

Kwanghwamun Gate was a wooden structure with a stone base fronting the most revered of Korea’s Five Grand Palaces, Kyŏngbokkung. The gate was a cherished symbol of Korea’s enduring nationhood, initially erected in 1394 at the behest of the new Chosŏn dynasty’s founder, Yi Song-gye (1335–1408). Following its destruction by Japanese invaders in the late sixteenth century, it lay in ruins for two and a half centuries before it was rebuilt in 1867 from public donations.

Yanagi appraised the gate as an important legacy of traditional East Asian art, which he viewed as increasingly imperilled by the encroaching tide of Western and Japanese modernity. ‘Unfortunately, the people who have the capacity to save you are not the ones grieving for you,’ Yanagi lamented. ‘Many people have been forced into silence over your fate, and for that reason, I am taking their place and exercising my right to free speech’ (‘Historic Korean Monument,’ 1922).

Royal Changing of the Guard ceremony at Kwanghwamun Gate, Seoul (photograph by author, 2015)

In the weeks following the publication of this essay, which caused a furore in Japan, the Government-General bowed to public pressure and retracted its demolition plans for Kwanghwamun, much to the enormous relief of many. The gate was instead dismantled and moved to a nearby location, where it was later destroyed in the Korean War (1950–1953). In 1968, under Pak Chŏnghŭi’s administration, the stone base of the gate was again relocated to the front of the Capitol building, where it underwent a reconstruction in concrete.

In 2006, another project began on Kwanghwamun which restored much of the gate’s wooden structure and relocated the gate to its original position 14.5m to the south. Completed in 2010, it stands at the northern end of Kwanghwamun Plaza in Seoul’s Jongno-gu district. It is a popular site for tourists, and each year attracts many visitors who jostle to take photographs of the royal changing of the guard ceremonies held daily.

Although ultimately the Sam-il Movement failed in its aspiration to reinstate Korean sovereignty, it did manage eventually to garner global attention and convince the Government-General to review its oppressive era of ‘military rule’ (budan seiji) that characterised the first decade of Japanese governance in Korea. In August 1919, Admiral Saito Makoto (1858–1936) took over the reins of Governor-General, ushering in a new, more conciliatory era of ‘cultural rule’ (bunka seiji). The Japanese intellectuals who had dared to question the brutality of Japan’s response must have gained enormous satisfaction from this official shift in policy, even as it failed to reach the full level of its promised implementation.

Importantly, the movement also rallied a sense of national unity and indirectly led to the preservation of some of Korea’s important cultural properties. Today, 1 March is a public holiday in both North and South Korea in recognition of Korea’s struggle for independence.


Featured image: Kwanghwamun Gate, Seoul (photograph by author, 2016)

Penny Bailey is a researcher in Japanese studies and art history at The University of Queensland. Her research examines the ways in which the founder of Japan’s Mingei (Folk Craft) Movement, Yanagi Sōetsu, theorized Korean visual cultures during Korea’s colonial period (1910–45).

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