Offspring of Empire: The Koch'Ang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism, 1876-1945

By Carter J. Eckert | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
"Without Any Trouble"

Capitalist Views and Treatment of the Working Class

Andrew Grajdanzev has described colonial Korea's labor conditions as constituting a "paradise for Japanese industrialists." 1 He was not exaggerating. Although the Japanese were fond of characterizing the Korean worker as unambitious, physically and intellectually lazy, and irresponsible, they were also quick to point out that Korean labor was "abundant" and "cheap." 2 The steady impoverishment of the peasant population that was the hallmark of the colonial rural economy forced thousands of Koreans to seek employment in the cities, and this labor surplus, together with the generally low standard of living, made the cost of labor in Korea about one-half that in Japan. 3

But Korean labor was not merely cheap; it was also bereft of any kind of political or legal protection. In Japan itself, where labor conditions were also far from pleasant, the state had at least passed a universal male suffrage law and factory legislation designed to curb some of the worst abuses of the industrial system, especially in regard to juvenile and female workers. These laws did not automatically apply to the colonies, and, indeed, colonial industrialists remained completely unencumbered with such measures throughout the pre-1945 period. 4 For Japanese spinning giants like Kanebō and Tōyōbō, 80 percent of whose work forces consisted of young, unmarried girls between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, 5 the factory law, revised in the 1920s, was a particular nuisance and a major factor in the decision to establish new factories in Korea in the early 1930s. Note, for example, the following statement by the All Japan Cotton Spinners Association in 1941:

As a modern factory industry in terms of capital investment as well as factory size and facilities, the cotton yarn spinning industry in Korea is quite impressive. Indeed, the cotton spinning industry was inevitably destined to thrive [there]. For, as noted above, Korea is well-suited for cotton cultivation, and

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