Korea in the Imperial Era and Japanese Occupation

01
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Korean Boy, Engaged to be Married

Photo c. 1910-1920
c. 1910-1920 A Korean boy in traditional dress wears the horsehair hat which symbolizes that he is engaged to be married. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

c. 1895-1920

Korea was long known as the "Hermit Kingdom," more or less content to pay tribute to its western neighbor, Qing China, and leave the rest of the world alone.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though, as Qing power crumbled, Korea fell under increasing control by its neighbor across the East Sea, Japan.

The Joseon Dynasty lost its grip on power, and its last kings became puppet emperors in the employ of the Japanese.

Photographs from this era reveal a Korea that was still traditional in many ways, but that was beginning to experience greater contact with the world. This is also the time when Christianity began to make inroads into Korean culture - as seen in the photo of the French missionary nun.

Learn more about the vanished world of the Hermit Kingdom through these early photographs.

This youth will soon be married, as shown by his traditional horse-hair hat. He seems to be about eight or nine years old, which was not an unusual age for marriage during this period. Nonetheless, he looks rather worried - whether about his upcoming nuptials or because he's having his picture taken, it's impossible to say.

02
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Gisaeng-in-Training?

Undated photo of Korean girls, probably early 20th century
Korean "Geisha" Girls Seven girls training to be gisaeng, or Korean geishas. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

This photograph was labeled "Geisha Girls" - so these girls probably are training to be gisaeng, the Korean equivalent of Japanese geisha. They seem quite young; normally, girls began training around the age of 8 or 9, and retired by their mid-twenties.

Technically, gisaeng belonged to the slave class of Korean society. Nonetheless, those with exceptional talent as poets, musicians or dancers often acquired wealthy patrons and lived very comfortable lives. They were also known as the "Flowers that Write Poetry."

Click here for a gallery of Japanese geisha images.

03
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Buddhist Monk in Korea

Photo c. 1910-1920
c. 1910-1920 A Korean Buddhist monk from early in the 20th century. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

This Korean Buddhist monk is seated inside the temple. In the early twentieth century, Buddhism was still the primary religion in Korea, but Christianity was beginning to move into the country. By the end of the century, the two religions would boast nearly equal numbers of adherents in South Korea. (Communist North Korea is officially atheist; it is difficult to say whether religious beliefs have survived there, and if so, which ones.)

04
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Chemulpo Market, Korea

Photo by C.H. Graves, 1903
1903 Street scene from the Chemulpo Market in Korea, 1903. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

Merchants, porters, and customers throng the market in Chemulpo, Korea. Today, this city is called Incheon and is a suburb of Seoul.

The goods for sale appear to include rice wine and bundles of seaweed. Both the porter on the left and the boy on the right wear western-style vests over their traditional Korean clothing.

05
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The Chemulpo "Sawmill," Korea

Photo by C.H. Graves, 1903
1903 Workers laboriously saw through lumber by hand at the Chemulpo sawmill in Korea, 1903. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

Workers laboriously saw lumber in Chemulpo, Korea (now called Incheon).

This traditional method of wood-cutting is less efficient than a mechanized sawmill but does provide employment for more people. Nonetheless, the western observer who wrote the photo caption clearly finds the practice laughable.

06
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Wealthy Lady in her Sedan Chair

The sedan even has a fancy windshield.
c. 1890-1923 A Korean lady prepares to be carried through the streets in her sedan chair, c. 1890-1923. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

A wealthy Korean woman sits in her sedan chair, attended by two bearers and her ​maidservant. The maid seems to be prepared to provide "air conditioning" for the lady's journey.

07
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Korean Family Portrait

The men wear several different styles of traditional Korean hats.
c. 1910-1920 A Korean family poses for a family portrait wearing traditional Korean clothes or hanbok, c. 1910-1920. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Members of a wealthy Korean family pose for a portrait. The girl in the center seems to be holding a pair of eyeglasses in her hand. All are dressed in traditional Korean clothing, but the furnishings show a western influence.

The taxidermy pheasant on the right is a nice touch, as well!

08
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Food-Stall Vendor

This photo was taken some time between 1890 and 1923.
c. 1890-1923 A Korean vendor in Seoul sits at his food-stall, c. 1890-1923. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

A middle-aged man with an impressively long pipe offers rice cakes, persimmons, and other kinds of food for sale. This shop is probably at the front of his home. Customers evidently remove their shoes before stepping over the threshold.

This photo was taken in Seoul in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Although clothing fashions have changed considerably, the food looks quite familiar.

09
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French Nun in Korea and her Converts

George Grantham Bain was a photojournalist in Korea during the early 20th century
c. 1910-1915 A French nun poses with some of her Korean converts, c. 1910-15. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, George Grantham Bain Collection

A French nun poses with some of her Catholic converts in Korea, around the time of the First World War. Catholicism was the first brand of Christianity introduced into the country, in the early nineteenth century, but it was harshly suppressed by the rulers of the Joseon Dynasty.

Nevertheless, today there are more than 5 million Catholics in Korea, and over 8 million Protestant Christians.

10
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A Former General and His Interesting Transport

This photo is by Underwood and Underwood.
1904 A former general of the Korean army perches on his one-wheeled cart, attended by four servants, 1904. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

The man on the rather Seussian contraption was once a general in the Joseon Dynasty's army. He still wears the helmet that denotes his rank and has multiple servants attending him.

Who knows why he didn't settle for a more ordinary sedan chair or rickshaw? Perhaps this cart is easier on his attendants' backs, but it looks a bit unstable.

11
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Korean Women Wash Laundry in the Stream

Hard work is more fun when you have companions to talk with.
c. 1890-1923 Korean women gather at the stream to wash laundry, c. 1890-1923. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Korean women gather to wash their laundry in the stream. One hopes that those round holes in the rock aren't sewage outflows from the homes in the background.

Women in the western world were doing their laundry by hand during this period, as well. In the United States, electric washing machines did not become common until the 1930s and 1940s; even then, only about half of households with electricity had a clothes washer.

12
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Korean Women Iron Clothes

The embroidered screens behind them are lovely.
c. 1910-1920 Korean women use wooden beaters to flatten clothing, c. 1910-1920. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Once the laundry is dry, it has to be pressed. Two Korean women use wooden beaters to flatten a piece of cloth, while a child looks on.

13
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Korean Farmers Go to Market

Photo by Underwood and Underwood
1904 Korean farmers bring their goods to the Seoul market on the backs of oxen, 1904. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

Korean farmers bring their produce to the markets in Seoul, over the mountain pass. This broad, smooth road goes all the way north and then west to China.

It's difficult to tell what the oxen are carrying in this photo. Presumably, it's some sort of unthreshed grain.

14
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Korean Buddhist Monks at a Village Temple

Photo by Underwood and Underwood
1904 Buddhist monks at a local temple in Korea, 1904. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

Buddhist monks in uniquely Korean habits stand in front of a local village temple. The elaborate carved-wood roof line and decorative dragons look lovely, even in black and white.

Buddhism was still the majority religion in Korea at this time. Today, Koreans with religious beliefs are roughly evenly split between Buddhists and Christians.

15
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Korean Woman and Daughter

It's not clear who these ladies are - their names are not recorded on the photo.
c. 1910-1920 A Korean woman and her daughter pose for a formal portrait, c. 1910-1920. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Looking very serious indeed, a woman and her young daughter pose for a formal portrait. They wear silk hanbok or traditional Korean clothing, and shoes with the classic upturned toes.

16
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Korean Patriarch

This man wears a very elaborate hanbok, with multiple layers of silk.
c. 1910-1920 An older Korean man poses for a formal portrait in traditional dress, c. 1910-1920. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

This older gentleman wears an elaborately-layered silk hanbok and a stern expression.

He could well be stern, given the political changes during his life-time. Korea fell more and more under the influence of Japan, becoming a formal protectorate on August 22, 1910. This man looks comfortable enough, though, so it's safe to assume that he was not a vocal opponent of the Japanese occupiers.

17
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On the Mountain Path

Photo by Frank Carpenter, c. 1920-27
c. 1920-1927 Korean men in traditional dress stand near a carved sign-post on a mountain path, c. 1920-27. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

Korean gentlemen stand on a mountain pass, beneath a carved-wood sign post made from a standing tree trunk. Much of Korea's landscape consists of rolling granite mountains like these.

18
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A Korean Couple Plays the Game Go

Goban is sometimes called
c. 1910-1920 A Korean couple play the game goban, c. 1910-1920. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

The game of go, sometimes also called "Chinese checkers" or "Korean chess," requires intense concentration and a crafty strategy.

This couple seems to be appropriately intent on their game. The tall board upon which they play is called a goban.

19
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A Door-to-Door Pottery Seller

Photo by W.S. Smith
1906 A peddler hawks pottery door-to-door in Seoul, Korea, 1906. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

That looks like a very heavy load!

A pottery peddler hawks his wares in the wintery streets of Seoul. The local people seem to be interested in the process of photography, at least, though they may not be in the market for pots.

20
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Korean Pack Train

Photo by Underwood and Underwood
1904 A pack train of Korean farmers ride through the Seoul suburbs, 1904. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

A train of riders make their way through the streets of one of Seoul's suburbs. It's not clear from the caption whether they are farmers on their way to market, a family moving to a new home or some other collection of people on the go.

These days, horses are a fairly rare sight in Korea - outside of the southern island of Jeju-do, anyway.

21
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Wongudan - Korea's Temple of Heaven

Photo by Frank Carpenter, 1925.
1925 The Temple of Heaven in Seoul, Korea, in 1925. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

The Wongudan, or Temple of Heaven, in Seoul, Korea. It was built in 1897, so it's relatively new in this photograph!

Joseon Korea had been an ally and tributary state of Qing China for centuries, but during the nineteenth century, Chinese power faltered. Japan, in contrast, grew ever more powerful during the second half of the century. In 1894-95, the two nations fought the First Sino-Japanese War, mostly over control of Korea.

Japan won the Sino-Japanese War and convinced the Korean king to declare himself an emperor (thus, no longer a vassal of the Chinese). In 1897, the Joseon ruler complied, naming himself Emperor Gojong, first ruler of the Korean Empire.

As such, he was required to perform the Rites of Heaven, which had previously been carried out by the Qing emperors in Beijing. Gojong had this Temple of Heaven constructed in Seoul. It was used only until 1910 when Japan formally annexed the Korean Peninsula as a colony and deposed the Korean emperor.

22
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Korean Villagers Offer Prayers to Jangseung

Jangseung mark the boundaries of a village, and keep evil spirits away
Dec. 1, 1919 Korean villagers pray to the jangseung or village guardians, Dec. 1, 1919. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

Korean villagers offer prayers to the local guardians, or jangseung. These carved wooden totem poles represent the protective spirits of ancestors and mark the boundaries of the village. Their fierce grimaces and goggle eyes are meant to frighten away evil spirits.

The jangseung are one aspect of Korean shamanism that coexisted for centuries with Buddhism, which was an import from China and originally from India.

"Chosen" was the Japanese designation for Korea during Japan's occupation.

23
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A Korean Aristocrat Enjoys a Rickshaw Ride

Photo by Frank Carpenter, c. 1910-1920.
c. 1910-1920 A Korean aristocrat enjoys a rickshaw ride, c. 1910-1920. Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

A nattily-attired aristocrat (or yangban) goes out for a rickshaw ride. Despite his traditional clothing, he holds a western-style umbrella across his lap.

The rickshaw puller looks less thrilled with the experience.

24
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Seoul's West Gate with Electric Trolley

Photo by Underwood and Underwood
1904 View of Seoul, Korea's West Gate in 1904. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

Seoul's West Gate or Doneuimun, with an electric trolley passing through. The gate was destroyed under Japanese rule; it is the only one of the four main gates that had not been rebuilt as of 2010, but the Korean government is planning to reconstruct Doneuimun soon.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Korea in the Imperial Era and Japanese Occupation." ThoughtCo, Feb. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/korea-imperial-era-and-japanese-occupation-4122944. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2017, February 9). Korea in the Imperial Era and Japanese Occupation. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/korea-imperial-era-and-japanese-occupation-4122944 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Korea in the Imperial Era and Japanese Occupation." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/korea-imperial-era-and-japanese-occupation-4122944 (accessed December 15, 2017).