Korean Women’s Upheld Rights Within Households in Colonial Korea
During the period Japan gradually established colonial rules in Taiwan and Korea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Japanese colonizers tried to enact new laws and legal regimes to regulate the colonies. In Sunyun Lim’s “Women On the Loose,” Lim introduced the new structure of households in colonized Korea by Japanese colonizers and how restrictions on Korean women got “loose.” In the late Choson dynasty, the family unit registered was the unit of co-residency, including family members and any relatives, enslaved people, or hired hands that shared the residence (Lim, P.40). And the household head was the unit’s representative to pay taxes to the state authorities. However, the Japanese-installed household registry was quite different in several aspects by paying more attention to the household as a unit instead of the accurate family members, all servants, and enslaved people were excluded, and patriarchal principles and primogeniture also were imposed on the inheritance of the position of the household head (Lim, p.40). And widows, who were excluded from the inheritance rights in the Choson dynasty, were given the legal rights to inherit the household property under Japan Empire’s colonization.
In short, I agree with the argument that “changes favored women vis-a-vis patriarchal households were only advanced because they were profitable to the interests of the Japanese capital.” After all, even though thoes changes were not directly profitable nor made for profits, the upheld widow’s rights in inheriting paved a foundation for a more organized and stabilized society under Japan Empire’s colonization by setting more precise boundaries of households. In other words, such profitable interests are long-term and unquantified.
Since the Japanese wanted to maintain the household as the only legal family unit, widows became critical to keeping the property. According to “Kanshū chōsa hōkokusho,” a widow could receive the property, but she could not become the heir to the property (p.39). Such a rule seems conflicted: it gave widows the right to temporarily use/take care of their deceased husband’s clan’s property until they found a proper male to inherit it legally instead of giving widows the rights to inherit directly. Widows’ short-term “inherit rights” were the by-products to regulate Korean people’s households under the Japanese structure. Giving widows inherit rights to look after the property temporarily could limit the expanded patriarch kinship’s authority to take over the heritage by setting a household boundary (Lim, p.48). And Japanese’s final purpose was to make the resultant colonial household much more directly accountable to the state by lineage power (Lim, p.48). Thus, widows’ inheritance was the by-product of regulating Korean households under Japanese standards. In other words, Korean widows were lucky to gain such extra rights in that period. The reason for the Japanese to give them rights is also apparent — widows with inheritance rights could act as free-costs tools to stabilize the household units of the society. As I mentioned in the introduction, the profits of Japan’s investment were long-term and could not be quantified. Unlike short-term gains and interests that usually involve labor exploitation, changes in women’s rights would benefit Japan by paving the way for profitable economic growth by providing stable fundamental societal units, the households.
In the history classes in middle school in China, colonialism is depicted as absolutely evil and should be eliminated. Now I noticed that sometimes colonialism could stimulate the colony’s society to advance, similar to how wars promote the development of technology and economic growth. In this week’s reading by Lim, we learned that Japan’s attempt to establish the modern colonial legal system helped 20th century Korea move forward. Therefore, I now realize that we should hold an open and critical view to understand history because history does not have absolute justice or absolute evilness. All historical events are controversial, and we should take a close look to learn from the past instead of concluding immediately.
As for historical changes, there were always some reasons and needs to drive the changes, and they were driven mainly by short-term or long-term interests, quantified or qualified. Sometimes the long-term and unquantified profits can not be found easily, so we need to analyze them closely to see the real motivations.