By: Joel Chung & Torrance Yoon
This blog post explains the role of Christianity and the history of Korean Christians during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Please read to the end to see Joel and Torrance’s personal reflections on the content of the post.
What role did Christianity play in people’s lives?
The history of Korea has been filled with suffering, dictatorship, oppression, and colonialist control. Korea has constantly been victimized and belittled, often due to their Asian counterparts. Japanese occupation and oppression overwhelmed Korea with a harsh dictatorship, extreme ideologies, embarrassment, and humiliation. Any hope for freedom and liberation was shut down and destroyed by the tyranny of Japanese rule. Throughout the many years of oppression, social and religious groups were the source of the people’s hope for a better future. However, most of these groups that were forced to conform to the dictatorship of the Japanese governor general. Social and religious groups were under heavy surveillance by Japanese spies and infiltrators. Anything that the Japanese authorities viewed as rebellion was immediately shut down and redirected to assert Japanese culture and ideals on the people of Korea. Thankfully, one religious group stood tall against Japanese oppression: Christianity. Throughout history, we can see how Christians have worked alongside God to help liberate people to deliver them from evil.
Japanese Occupation and the Church
Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945 shook the entire nation of Korea. During the first 10 years of the occupation, Korea was considered an ‘outer-territory’ of Japan. As a result, the people of Korea were stripped of their identity and any sense of power or authority they once had. The Korean elites were shamed, embarrassed, and humiliated, Korean leaders were overpowered and all of Korea could only watch the divide and oppression that was forced on their country. The people they looked up to, those that they had trusted to lead them, and even friends and family were put down to the lowest level. The sheer humiliation felt by the people put them in a docile state.
Japanese policy on the church promoted that Koreans turn on their own people as spies and infiltrators in congregations. These spies watched out for, and reported, any signs of rebellion against Japanese authority. It was a fearful time of division and isolation for many; who could they trust? Members of your church could be a spy, your friends could be a spy, and you would face serious consequences if they were. Constantly having to look over your shoulder created a hostile environment that many simply could not deal with. On top of losing authority and dignity, Koreans were divided within their own nation. Many converts, pastors, and members of the community of God left the church. Constant harassment and threats that they received after spies had reported to authorities for even the slightest mention of any type of rebellion-themed communions drove them out.
Despite being spied on, there were members who stayed and often sought out sermons about liberty, freedom. For the Japanese, the church was sign of resilience and uprising because it was the first sign of Korean freedom and choice. They sang hymns with themes that would give them strength such as ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers!” and studied many Biblical lessons along the same themes, such as David and Goliath, to receive hope. The people had a choice to make; a choice to seek purpose or risk treason against Japan. The members and converts who stayed felt the empowerment that God had given them. The hope that David could one day defeat Goliath, the hope they needed to soldier on through the turmoil they faced. This was the first hope of liberation the people had seen and felt since the seemingly unstoppable power of Japanese dictatorship had arrived. God took the hopelessness of these people and awoke a sense of purpose for the oppressed, working towards the freedom of their identity.
By 1914, the Korean Christian church had expanded to an estimated number of around 350,000 individuals. Although it was under heavy surveillance, the newly independent church opted to have ‘loyal recognition’ by giving up any political power they had. Although Christians lacked political power, mainstream Protestant Christianity was still a huge threat for Japan. The Korean congregation realized that they were nearly untouchable, leaving Japanese authoritarians with one option: to make sure an uprising was not a possibility. Christianity in Korea was the underlying drive that would not conform to Japanese practices, they demonstrated that freedom and liberation is the way of God. God and the church gave people back their identities and they were able to freely express how they felt. God was like a second authority that could fight against the Japanese. The people of Korea saw that, together in unity, they could stand together and resist Japanese tyranny. The agony and pain that the Koreans had faced were liberated by God.
Identity, Hope and Purpose
As policies became worse, it seemed hopeless for Christianity to prevail. Land and granaries were taken from Korean peasants, and were used as a new source of income for the Japanese. Policy was put in place to favor Japanese public servants, teachers, and any worker from Japan. They were even given swords to assert dominance and show authority over any Koreans as a sign of degradation to show that Koreans will always be under the Japanese. Racist policies on employment and education were put in place, Korean elites were to be replaced, the Korean language was to be exterminated, and Korean history was to be discredited and rewritten to fit Japanese perspective. Any form of media was banned by Japanese authority. It seemed that Japan had almost complete power over Korea. What was the point of living for Koreans? There was no sense of purpose for them; their social and political power had been completely stripped and life looked pointless. It seemed as if the best choice was to lose their identities, follow rewritten history, and conform to what the Japanese wanted. The only thing, although greatly oppressed, that wasn’t restricted was religious groups. Religion was the last source of purpose, hope and identity.
Christians urged the oppressed to view their social problems from a Christian perspective. There was a desire to save 20 million people from their world of grief, suffering and injustice using Christian practices. There was so much division within the people and no united opinions regarding their social problems. Christianity promoted solidarity through individuals being devoted to their service, establishing friendships, and focusing on assistance and service for each other. By practicing this type of Christianity people were able to bless each other while blessing the Lord. Christianity taught that the human spirit cannot be taken down by human hands or power, therefore, hope was provided to the hopeless. Thanks to the driving force of Christian movements to inspire Koreans to appropriate the fullness of the spirit, the Korean people found purpose.
Confidence in God
The 1930s was the time when Japanese oppression was at its worst. The people of Korea were being drafted to fight on behalf of Japan and were forced into labour for Japan’s benefit. Koreans were also forced to conform to Japanese shinto, where they must bow down to Japanese authority. The Christian Conservatives decided to fight and rebel against Japanese conforms; getting persecuted and made a martyr for their cause was better than losing their dignity and identity. There were, however, Koreans who believed that conforming to the Japanese rule was the only way to keep everyone safe. Although they bowed, in their hearts they knew they were never truly submissive towards the Japanese. Christian groups and associations came together and brainstormed ideas to solve the problems from a Christian perspective. There was an emphasis on employing non-violent means as the basis of peaceful resolution for the many conflicts.
Throughout all of the oppression, hopelessness, and suffering that Korean people faced, the Christian associations were able to work for the people. They demonstrated to us how “blessing the Lord” worked in the past. God has always been present and has been allowing the Holy Spirit to be present in the lives of the minjung (the oppressed). Missionaries, the church, and the Christian association rallied together to combat oppression at the time. Blessing the Lord meant to bless His people. All of God’s people, including the Christians and the minjung, were being connected by the Holy Spirit. Jesus lived among us and worked hard to spread the word and help the people, and God was also with the people throughout their hardship and suffering in Korea. Koreans were able to face life while being firm that God was with them. Similar to how we turn to God in our own lives, the people looked to Him for hope, guidance and support. Our context is very different yet we all find solace in God. God is with the oppressed, and with this knowledge the Korean Christians were able to turn to God and have confidence that He would eventually set them free.
Ultimately, all these events have taught generations of Korean people resilience by witnessing Christianity unfold in front of their eyes. By watching how strong they held together, they realized that Christianity and God brought people together and they understood that strength in their numbers would give them enough power to liberate themselves. Christianity played an instrumental role in educating the people on how to handle their societal issues even decades later. God has always been present in the lives of people, from a century ago to the present. He continues to work through the people so they can all bless each other and the Lord.
How does this affect the way I think about my faith?
Reading the texts of Korean resistance to the tyranny of the Japanese made me question my own faith. I pondered mainly on how I would react if I was pressured into discontinuing my following of faith and my identity. Would I have the same resilience to continue and stay true to God’s will? I wonder how long I could hold on to my faith in situations that many of my own ancestors had to struggle through. I believe in the word of God, however, I feel that I hold too dearly on to my physical life. I feel as though my life is where I draw the line; I fear death and hate the idea of leaving my loved ones, my environment, and my possessions. I hold on too much to the material objects of my life, and these readings have made me realize how fortunate and lucky I am to have had such strong ancestors who never gave up. Through them, I am able to continue my education and hard work to honour those who gave us the chance at a better future. I hope to one day be able to do something similar for those who come after me, and maybe I can eventually say that I have strong faith, and am ready to do anything in the name of Christ.
How does this affect the way I think about my faith?
Studying the history of the Korean people in the early 1900s has taught me the resilience that can be harnessed from Christian faith. All the oppression and adversity that generations upon generations have endured was, in large, thanks to the Christian practices that taught the people how to persist through their hard times. Christian faith is very much a real thing. I was always somewhat doubtful and my belief wavered, but after reading about the history of my own people and the role that Christianity played in their lives, my own belief in faith and its legitimacy have been strengthened. Life really was hard for the Koreans; it would’ve been so easy to just give up, escape, or conform to the bigger powers, yet many of them stood firm in their faith in God and eventually were able to overcome the evil that they faced.
Stories of Faith is the theme of our 2019 ESM Summer Retreat, and this mini-series will be a lead-up to the retreat. Learn more about the retreat and register now!