The strains put on Korea during its period as a colonial holding of Japan in the first half of the twentieth century were many, though none was so horrid as the attempt to erase the Korean language. Memories of this injustice are central to the popularity of Tree with Deep Roots.
As can be seen in Tree with Deep Roots, the struggle to create and implement an efficient and accessible alphabet for the Korean language was no small undertaking. King Sejong, who ruled the Korean peninsula in the first half of the fifteenth century, implemented the Hangul alphabet in order to elevate the status of his people and give them a viable means of expressing their culture without having to master Chinese, then the official writing form in Korea. Sejong gave Koreans an official identity, as use of the Chinese alphabet had the effect of controlling Korean affairs. In episode 15 of Tree with Deep Roots the ease of implementation of hangul is demonstrated, as even a simple farmer can master it in a matter of days or even hours. Episode 19 gives some insight into Sejong’s motivations, as he speaks about his desire to see hangul give a voice to the people and a way to participate in their governance without having to go through corruptible bureaucratic channels. When Sejong ultimately prevails over the Hidden Root secret-society seeking to prevent the rise of hangul, a Korean national identity is formed, one which the Japanese seek to rip away after absorbing Korea into their empire in 1910.
After the wars of 1894-95 and 1905, “Japanese leaders believed that her success, and her sacrifices in [these] two wars, gave her the right to control Korea,” and promptly began acting on this position (Lone 145). In 1910 this was made official, as “a treaty of annexation transferring all rights of [Korean] sovereignty to Japan’s emperor,” making the peninsula a colony ruled by Imperial Japan (Brundnoy 161). For Korea, “a small country with no armed force worth the name,” and no international support forthcoming, “the obvious course seemed to be to accept Japanese control,” (Lone 172). At first the Japanese were relatively benevolent, choosing to at least pay lip-service to equality among Koreans and Japanese (while brutally crushing signs of resistance). By 1938, now embroiled in war with China once more, Japan began its barbarity in Korea in earnest, “placing emphasis on Japanization of Koreans,” through an “attempted annihilation of Korean consciousness,” (Brudnoy 186). To destroy the identity King Sejong had created some 500 years earlier the Japanese attacked hangul itself, as “the government abolished Korean-language instruction in all primary and secondary schools… [and] the use of Japanese became mandatory there and on the streets,” with harsh penalties meted out to violators (Ibid). This attempt by the Japanese to erase the essence of what it is to be Korean during their imperial period is still a major source of tension for the two countries today, and makes Tree with Deep Roots all the more poignant for Korean audiences.
Brudnoy, David. “Japan’s Experiment in Korea.” Monumenta Nipponica 25.1/2 (1970): 155-195. JSTOR. Web. 18 Mar 2014.
Lone, Stewart. “The Japanese Annexation of Korea 1910: The Failure of East Asian Co-Prosperity.” Modern Asian Studies 25.1 (1991): 143-173. JSTOR. Web. 18 Mar 2014.
Tree with Deep Roots. Writ. Lee Jung Myung. Dir. Jang Tao Yoo and Shin Kyung Soo. SBS, 2011. DramaFever.
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