The March 1st Movement was a sign of resistance by Koreans against the colonial Japanese rule. Officially from 1910, Japan had controlled Korea but its interference in Korea stretched back further. Despite multiple attempts by the Emperor of Korea (pre-1910), the Korean populace, and Koreans abroad, no one outside of the peninsula heard their pleas for help, for independence, for freedom. It was the time of colonialism. On March 1st, 1919, 33 Korean nationalists signed a document calling for Korean independence. In the aftermath of World War I and the growing recognition of different types of self-determination, Koreans were determined to declare their right to self determination. The declaration and the public marches were not only spread throughout Korea but were also brought to international attention by Koreans living in other countries.
The Korean Declaration of Independence was read publicly in Seoul at 2:00 PM on March 1, 1919.
A month and a half before—January 22, 1919—the former emperor of Korea and the last Korean king, Gojong, died. The Japanese governor-general announced the cause of death as cerebral anemia. The Korean populace at large was skeptical of this explanation to the point that many believed that he was either poisoned by the Japanese government or that the former emperor had chosen suicide over signing a declaration affirming the right of the Japanese to colonize Korea. These were not mere speculations; 25 years before Japanese soldiers had dragged the Empress of Korea (this emperor's wife) out of her palace and executed her in front of her family and her people. The official funeral for emperor Gojong was set for March 3rd.
The Korean nationalists chose March 1st to coincide with the funeral. In the weeks following the death of the former Emperor, Koreans began to congregate in larger and larger numbers in public. By the time of the funeral an additional 200,000 mourners had arrived in Seoul. The Japanese government was increasingly wary during these weeks.
The Japanese government denied in this time that Koreans held any true affection for the Joseon dynasty or the emperor. The Japanese gendarmerie stated that “Most of those who showed the sign of mourning did not have any true sentiment for the Yi dynasty or for the emperor. It was rather to express their anti-Japanese feeling.” In the contemporary international dialogue, anti-colonial sentiment was more understandable than allowing for others to believe that Koreans had had any affection for their previous rulers.
Mourners wore white hats which were traditional for mourning. After the funeral as the March 1st movement continued, the white hat became not only a symbol to express grief at the death of the emperor but also for the nation.
During the weeks of preparation throughout February, the nationalists hoped to involve as many other groups into their movement before they made their declaration. They began to negotiate with Christian groups, talking directly with Korean pastors of Presbyterian and Methodist churches. Once these Christian congregations became a part of the movement, sent pastors into the provinces outside of Seoul to find more willing participants. By the end of February, the movement had convinced Buddhist leaders to take part. Students from many different colleges in Seoul also joined. All of this negotiation, recruitment, and organization had to take place with the utmost secrecy. The colonial government used sadistic oppressive tactics to maintain its control over the Korean people. At the highest levels there were Korean collaborators looking to seek favor and at all levels there were those who feared the torture and family-wide punishments used so often by the Japanese government. Still, everyone involved persisted.
By February 26th the planned declaration and other statements had been completed and approved . By midnight the next day, over 20,000 copies had been printed for distribution.
As March 1st dawned, a manifesto blaming the death of the emperor on the Japanese and exhorting Koreans to seek vengeance was posted along a main street in Seoul. When the manifesto was found in the morning, Christian schools in the area and the Central Y.M.C.A were surrounded and searched. Koreans who worked at these institutions were arrested and their homes were searched. However, the Japanese were still unaware of the demonstrations that were being prepared for that afternoon.
By afternoon, the city was restless. At 2:00 PM the 33 activists at the core of the movement gathered in a private restaurant where they read aloud and then signed the Declaration. They called the Japanese police and voluntarily surrendered into their custody. At the same time, in Pagoda Park with a crowd of about five thousand, a single student read aloud the same declaration. All across Korea, at 2pm, chosen delegates read the same declaration aloud. It was a show of unity, of connectedness, of organization. Afterwards Koreans began what was hoped to be peaceful processions through Seoul.
Under Japanese colonialist rule, the Korean flag had been banned. Yi Sangdo recalled, “I pushed my way into the crowd, and heard whispers that someone had a Korean flag. That was the first time in my life I ever saw a Korean flag. It was so interesting, so pretty, to my childish mind.” Shouts of 'mansei' could be heard. (Mansei directly translates to 10,000 years. It was meant to express: May Korea live ten thousand years)
Yet that day and the days to follow was marked by the Japanese response. Pak Chun’gi, then a child in Seoul remembered yelling from her house and seeing, “While we were [shouting mansei], we noticed that people came out from the other houses shouting and waving flags. I remember dogs barking and Japanese soldiers with their long swords, beating people down right and left…They went after the young men. Those young men were beaten and speared, slashed with the sabers, and I’ve seen it—they cut off some men’s legs.”
By late afternoon with the Japanese police surrounding them and the daylight running out, the demonstrators had no choice but to run.
Japanese residents who had been watching silently joined in with the police and began to beat the demonstrators. At the end of the day, the planned peaceful processions had devolved into struggles against Japanese both military and civilian throughout the streets of Seoul.
It is difficult to determine the actual number of demonstrators, although it is most likely closer to the 2 million reported by Koreans than the 1 million reported by the Japanese colonial government.
From March 1st to April 30, 1919, the Japanese gendarmerie arrested more than 25,000 people. Thousands were killed, more were injured. Thousands of those arrested died in prison. The Japanese colonial government had a strong, violent reply to the movement and the entirety of Korea suffered.
By March 1919, an entire generation that had grown up without seeing the Korean flag. The March 1st movement not only gave these children a chance to speak out against the repressive Japanese, but recreated a Korean national identity.
(The international reaction will be recounted in the second article in this series)
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