CGS 1st Workshop:
“Cultural Genocide” and the Japanese Occupation of Korea



Date: February 23 th , 2004 (Monday) 15:00-17:30

◇Chair: Prof. Yuji Ishida ( University of Tokyo )
■Presentation: Yuko Matsumura ( University of Tokyo )


This report aims to clarify the concept of cultural genocide, one of the types of genocide included in the “broad definition of genocide” proposed by the “development of genocide research” project, and explore possibilities for further research.

In his works, the legal scholar Lemkin, who coined the word “genocide”, talks of four fields in which genocide may take place: politics, society, economy and culture. This concept of cultural genocide was to refer to the prohibition of using one's native tongue, the denial of opportunities for higher education, the restriction of cultural or artistic activities, and the destruction of monuments or documents. Neither the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948, nor the International Criminal Court's regulations define genocide in the cultural field as a crime. The Soviets, who favoured the inclusion of cultural genocide during the debate prior to the formation of the United Nations Convention, list in their national encyclopedias under genocide: “ethnic and/or cultural genocide”. Likewise, France, who opposed the inclusion of cultural genocide in the Convention, notes in her country's encyclopedias, that the destruction of culture comes under the crime of genocide. Cultural genocide is also known as “symbolic genocide”, “white genocide” and “ethnocide”, and is often contrasted with “physical” or “actual” genocidal acts in research papers.

Since the Nuremberg trials, efforts have been made to position genocide as a crime in international law. Debate continued for almost two years, from the request for the preparation of a draft of the Convention in 1946, to its adoption in 1948, with the three individuals responsible for drawing up the original draft (including Lemkin) at its centre. In the draft drawn up by the Economic and Social Council in June 1947, genocide was divided into three distinct types: physical, biological and cultural; and acts such as the forced or systematic expulsion of group leaders, the prohibition of ethnic languages, the destruction of printed records or the prohibition of publication, and the destruction of commemorative monuments were to constitute acts of cultural genocide. Despite fears that this might be an overexpansion of the concept of genocide, Lemkin pressed forward determinedly for the inclusion of cultural genocide in the Convention. The decision whether or not to include cultural genocide in the Convention was really a question of whether it could be defined as an offense punishable by international law. In this sense, then, such issues as the scope of cultural genocide and the vagueness of its definition, its relationship to other treaties and its potential to obstruct moves towards civilization had to be overcome. At the same time, this debate also had to deal with each country's political strategies for handling various minority groups.

With respect to its relation to genocide research, under the argument that stresses the uniqueness of the Nazi Holocaust, the scope of genocide is quite restricted. There is also the argument that only the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians, the German massacres of the Jews and the Sinti/Romany, and the massacres of the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda constitute genocide. On the other hand, under the Holocaust relativism debate, genocide can be given a broader interpretation, and typification of its causes, new terms expressing its various attributes, and the establishment of the concept of cultural genocide also become possible. In this case there is often talk of the relationship between genocide and ethnocide, but in reality, it all comes down to Lemkin's interpretation and the subsequent debate concerning its definition. There is also a gap between the legal and moral concepts in this case.

Looking at historical cases of genocide, there are certain common patterns in terms of their background and the methods employed. In terms of the background, occupation and colonial rule, internal political policy concerning “foreign ethnic groups”, and (physical/ biological) genocide are all common factors. War, also, results in the escalation of cultural genocide. In terms of the methods employed, unification policies and the coercion of a certain lifestyle in the name of “civilization” are commonly seen. However, changes made in the name of “modernization” or “unification” tend to ignore the internal logic of social structure, and result in social contradictions and cultural decline. In cases of occupation and colonial rule, a great deal of surveillance and research on the local population is carried out, but the level of understanding tends to be shallow at best, resulting in condescending views of the indigenous peoples and belittlement of their way of life. In cases in which physical or biological genocide is carried out, cultural genocide appears as a final measure. During Japan 's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula , the Kominka (Imperialization) political strategy was enforced. During Germany's occupation of Poland (1939-1945) and Japan's occupation of Korea (1910-1945), the prohibition of use of the native tongue, the renaming of people and places, the removal of indigenous people from institutions of higher education, the destruction of cultural facilities, the denial of freedom of religious faith, and the changing of cultural education all took place. The instances of German cultural genocide, which Lemkin took as his basis, cannot be ignored when conducting comparative research.

Sartre claimed that colonization “is of necessity an act of cultural genocide”. Japan 's colonization of Korea is a case in point: focus was heavily and intentionally placed upon the psychological and cultural element in Japan 's colonial policy, and the unification strategies adopted in the fields of culture and education were designed to eradicate the individual ethnicity of the Korean race. The renaming of citizens, for example, not only robbed the victims of their identity, but also served to destroy the traditional Korean family system. One of the most striking features of Japan 's occupation of Korea is the absence of an awareness of Korea as a “colony”, and the absence of an awareness of Koreans as a “separate ethnicity”. As a result, it is difficult to prove whether or not the leaders of Japan aimed for the eradication of the Korean race. This fact allows us to take the Japanese case as an instance of cultural genocide, but is an issue that must be overcome in order to conduct comparative research.

Just as a distinction is demanded between the concepts of physical/ biological genocide and “ethnic cleansing”, there is also a need to explain the differences between cultural genocide and other phenomena of cultural oppression such as ethnocide or cultural imperialism. In its Declaration of San Jose of 1981, UNESCO attempts to draw no distinction between ethnocide and cultural genocide. This writer would like to suggest that these two concepts are two sides of the same coin, depending on whether one looks at the issue from the side of the victims, focusing on the results, or of the aggressors, concentrating on the aims and causes. As for cultural imperialism, there is extensive scholarship on this subject by Said and Tomlinson, and I would like to leave the distinction between this and cultural genocide to a later opportunity.


At the inaugural symposium, and in the subsequent discussion session, several important issues were raised. Among these were the issue of whether it is acceptable to place an act which takes language from a person (cultural genocide) alongside an act which (in the main) takes life from a person (genocide); and whether the use of the term cultural genocide might lessen the impact of the original meaning of the word genocide, and might lead to an “inflation of the concept of genocide”. This time, bearing these issues in mind we have nevertheless decided to use the words “cultural genocide” in the title of this report.

In the debate following the report, discussion centred upon the definition of the concept of cultural genocide. The issues raised can be summarized into the following two points:

  1. How does “cultural genocide” differ from other terms used in previous research (such as “ethno-cultural eradication”)?
  2. What are the standards for determining whether or not an act constitutes cultural genocide?

Both of these questions test the significance and efficacy of introducing the analytical concept of cultural genocide into an issue which until now has been dealt with in the framework of “colonization policy” and “homogenization and oppression of minorities”.

During the debate, the view was expressed that unlike terms such as “ethnic eradication” or “ethno-cultural eradication”, which have tended to be used with respect to north east Asian incidents, the term “cultural genocide” expresses a concept which enables a comparison of similar phenomena across the twentieth century world, from Europe to Africa, Asia to North and South America . For example, one researcher of African history, after noting that the genocide seen in Rwanda in the 1990s was clearly related to the enforced social restructuring of the colonial era, asked whether it would be possible to apply the idea of the link between physical/ biological genocide and cultural genocide to other regions, and enable the establishment of a common research framework. It should be noted, at this point, that the report focused on “language” as the fundamental standard unit of cultural genocide, but this leads to major regional differences in such factors as literacy rates. In that cultural genocide is a concept which offers the possibility of cross-regional comparison, it is vital that a proper knowledge of the actual situation in each region is attained, both for the definition of the concept, and for choosing which aspects are worthy of research.

When considering cultural genocide as “coerced social change under an external force”, the issue of the “grey zone” must be borne in mind.

When an indigenous culture is forcibly altered by an external force, the first issue that arises is that of the modernization of the colony. In these cases, a judgement must be made as to whether the problem lies in the modernization itself (and the public systems introduced to bring it about), or in the methods with which these systems are enforced. The grey zone between these two extremes becomes a major factor.

There have even been documented instances in which, depending on the situation of the colony, and the position of a given minority group within the move towards ethnic unity, that such a minority group may (on the surface at least) surrender their culture voluntarily. These grey zones, highlighted in the debates are extremely interesting as points of consideration, and may well lead to more detailed analysis in the future.

On this occasion, the report focused primarily on the possible applicability of the concept of cultural genocide to Japan ' colonial rule. The following points/ questions were raised with regard to this issue:

  1. How did Japan 's rule of Korea relate to the political strategies adopted by Japan in the case of the Ryukyus, Taiwan and the Ainu? What differences were there?
  2. Is it not overstating the case to claim that all aspects of Japan 's rule of Taiwan and Korea constituted cultural genocide?
  3. The brave resistance put up by the victims in the face of having their language stolen and being forced to use their oppressors' language, should not be overlooked.


The debate also reinforced a belief not only in the importance of further debate concerning the concept of cultural genocide, but also reminded us that only through the build-up of individual case-study research will the concept gain enough grounding to be of meaningful use in future research.