Author: Jae-Hyung Kim (Hanshin University)
Cite: Jae-Hyung Kim. 2019. "The Competition and Cooperation between the Japanese Government-General of Korea and Korean Society over the Issue of Vagrant Leprosy Patients." Democracy and Human Rights 19(1): 123-164.
Research on vagrants in colonial Joseon has been largely conducted with a focus on the Japanese Government-General of Korea as an actor. Indeed, as the oppressed, people of Joseon have been subject of considerable research, but such research often reductively frames the issue as the Japanese as aggressors and the Koreans as victims, or in a unidirectional scheme wherein discourses of the ruler, Japan, are diffused among the ruled, Koreans, or Koreans are recruited in modern projects of Japan. However, if Joseon society is regarded as a passive subject, the dynamic relationship between the Japanese Government-General of Korea and the society of Joseon is at risk of being overlooked. Though it is true that Joseon society had an antipathy towards Japan, it is undeniable that Joseon readily accepted certain notions related to civilization, including modern knowledge. Specifically, knowledge regarding the communicability of leprosy based on the germ theory of disease was rapidly disseminated throughout the Joseon society, culminating in a newly emerging phenomenon in colonial Joseon. Even after the Japanese Government-General of Korea formulated the forced segregation policy for those with leprosy and established Jahye Hospital on Sorokdo Island, the number of lepers increased in southern cities and the disease quickly spread throughout the country. New scientific knowledge and everyday encounters with vagrant lepers reinforced the stigmatization and discrimination directed towards them and Joseon determined that the only way to tackle the problem of vagrant lepers was forced segregation. As a result, society at large insistently urged the Japanese Government-General of Korea, which had been passive due to budgeting issues, to handle the problem. In response to the active demands of society, the Japanese Government-General of Korea expanded the facilities for the segregation of vagrant lepers. Although the Japanese Government-General of Korea and the society of Joseon varied on the degree to which they believed the problem of vagrant lepers to be severe, the two agents shared a racist perspective on vagrant lepers. This study aims to show that the stigmatization and discrimination of vagrants and lepers were not unilaterally constructed by the state, but formed out of the cooperation between the state and society. I argue this by highlighting the dynamic relationship between the Japanese Government-General of Korea and Joseon society regarding vagrant lepers in colonial Joseon.
Keywords: Japanese colony, communicable disease control, germ theory, vagrant leper, forced segregation, conspiracy
Recently, in sociological and historical circles, academic interest in the issue of “vagrant groups” in South Korea has been gradually increasing.
The category of “vagrant group” as a roaming group without regular dwellings or occupations has long been regarded as a dangerous entity that should be controlled due to its perceived propensity to causes social problems regarding hygiene or security. Rather than a subject of interest as to why and in what way they have come to be concentrated in urban areas, or what types of situations they may face, vagrant groups within cities, in particular, have been susceptible to being otherized as a social evil and considered a problem.
It is only recently that the process of otherization of vagrant groups, the representative otherized group in South Korean society, has attracted attention from academia.
Yoo Seon-yeong (2011), for instance, demonstrated that the advent of vagrant groups in the Korean peninsula was caused by the racist and imperialistic intentions of the Japanese Empire during its colonial rule over Joseon. Other previous studies, as well, tend to view vagrant groups as having been formed unilaterally by the Japanese imperialism as they look into how the vagrant groups were defined and treated by the ruling power from a colonialist perspective. That is to say, such studies focused on how vagrant groups were determined, formed, and controlled by the ruling power.
However, when we apply the concept of governmentality that was formulated by Michel Foucault to the study of the stigmatization and discrimination against vagrant groups, we should not only explain the ruler’s unilateral exercise of power but how the arena of discourse on vagrancy based on rational knowledge is formed, in addition to how the subjects formed in such an arena of discourse as well as how individuals and society, as the sum of individuals, reproduce and reinforce such stigmatization and discrimination.
Research Question :
Approaching the topic from the perspective of governmentality and the questions raised above, this study will reveal how the state and the society conspired in the formation and continuity of the stigmatization and discrimination of vagrant groups. To this end, this study will depict and analyze the conditions of vagrant groups in colonial Joseon and the responses of both society and the Japanese Empire to them between 1917 and 1945.
It was only after modern Western medical knowledge—in particular, germ theory as an etiology—were imported to the peninsula that the people of Joseon realized that acute infectious diseases like smallpox and cholera, which killed a great number of those who contracted them, were occurring due to a viral element: germs.
Once these acute infectious diseases that had been believed to belong to the realm of evil spirits and were understood as uncontrollable by humans were discovered to be caused by germs, as seen under a microscope, they entered into human territory and became manageable illnesses. The discovery of the fact that germs are carried by humans and animals, in particular, led people to believe they should control the movement of humans in order to control such acute communicable diseases. Of course, society did not completely forgo improving the unhygienic environment in which germs could easily breed, but when it came to the costs of ruling, controlling the movement of people was far more efficient than improving unsanitary living environments, providing clean drinking water through establishing and maintaining water supply, and processing night-soil by establishing sewage purification facilities. Unlike in Japan itself, in its colonies, security and military costs were far more pressing, and thus creating a more sanitary urban environment came second.
Thus, to control acute communicable diseases, rather than creating a sanitary environment, sanitation police controlled people who were vectors or suspected to be vectors of illnesses, in order to simplify the problem and expend the minimum necessary costs. The control of communicable diseases was equated with the control of the population. The quarantine system was created for ships coming from foreign countries to prevent the spread of diseases like cholera, compulsory vaccination was implemented to prevent smallpox, the movement of populations was controlled by establishing a cordon sanitaire when a communicable disease was circulating, and patients were committed to isolation hospitals. The modern view of hygiene concerning communicable diseases centered around germs was actively accepted by Joseon society without any particular question.
However, in a situation where effective medicines were lacking, the sanitary system during the colonial period, which was mainly focused on prevention rather than treatment, invited the opposition of many Joseon patients and their families, with many of them fleeing so as not to be committed to an isolation hospital. That said, knowledge of germ theory and the communicable diseases control system instilled the perception of the danger of germs in the people of Joseon. Leprosy and tuberculosis, and other such chronic communicable diseases which are prevalent among poor classes, have quite different traits from those of acute ones.
Leprosy, in particular, is a disease with very low communicability and its occurrence in a person depends on his or her nutrition and immune status. Thus, the improvement of nutritional and sanitary conditions including economic and social developments could in fact prevent the spread of the disease. People of colonial Joseon, however, lacked the understanding of leprosy as a communicable disease that can be controlled by enhancing the social and economic conditions affecting the lepers. They simply believed the disease could be controlled by deporting and isolating the patients as vectors of its spread due to living within a system which enacted a policy for communicable disease control based on germ theory, and had sanitation police enforcing such policy, thus having accepted such a system as civilized, modern medical knowledge.
The social questionalization of vagrant lepers followed, as their existence was treated as a threat not only to the hygiene but the security of urban dwellers, residing the modern space of the city, as the vagrant lepers lived in groups in makeshift buildings like tents begging for their bread. At the same time, leprosy, which was considered a disease of uncivilized countries, also aroused shame in people of Joseon. It was similar to the shame felt by the Japanese, among whom the prevalent rate of leprosy was higher than that in Western countries, where leprosy was known to be eradicated. Leprosy and lepers threatened the society’s security and hygiene and symbolized the inferiority of the people. While the Japanese Government-General of Korea hesitated to take action against lepers in colonial Joseon due to the costs, the society of Joseon sprang into action to tackle the problem of leprosy. It invited the question of lepers as a social issue starting in the early 1920s, bringing about a discussion on the danger of lepers from the perspectives of security and hygiene, and requesting health authorities to monitor vagrant lepers. When the Japanese Government-General of Korea was still reluctant to aggressively monitor vagrant lepers because of costs even after the proactive actions of Joseon society, the society itself established organizations like the Joseon Leprosy Aid Council to create leper houses to isolate vagrant lepers.
However, the discourse and activities on the part of Joseon society, based on the perception of communicable diseases and infected people shared by the Japanese Government-General of Korea and the society of colonial Joseon, led to vastly unanticipated consequences. As a result of the stigmatization of vagrant lepers based on the perception that equated germs and the patients who act as their as vectors, the number of vagrant lepers increased and the population spread from some southern cities to all parts throughout colonial Joseon, spelling the failure to control the communicable disease.
If we do not take the role of Joseon society into account and only focus on the activities of the Japanese Government-General of Korea and missionaries when describing the history of efforts to tackle the problem of leprosy in colonial Joseon, we would be overlooking the course of interactions concerning communicable diseases between diverse subjects in the colony.
In addition, to do so would engender a view of colonial Joseon society, which took active action before even the colony leaders, as a passive subject to power. Solely blaming the Japanese imperialism, which is an easy target for criticism, for the stigmatization and discrimination against vagrant lepers fails to account for the responsibility of Joseon society, which was an active agent in the ostracization of lepers. The perception of vagrant lepers that was formed during the colonial period continued to exist after the liberation and was reflected in the leprosy policy of South Korea. Future research on this topic must confront, from a postcolonial perspective, the problem of how the anachronistic perception of those with leprosy, rooted in colonial Joseon, continues to affect policy in South Korea even following liberation.
* Jae-Hyung Kim received his Ph.D degree in department of sociology at Seoul National University. See his other articles: "Why Did the U.S. Save Kim Dae-jung’s Life?: Identifying intent and action through declassified U.S. documents (1979-1980)." "Transitional Justices in the Social Movement of People Affected by Hansen’s Disease in Japan."