The Proletarian Gamble

Korean Workers in Interwar Japan

The Proletarian Gamble

Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society

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Book Pages: 312 Illustrations: 31 tables, 1 map, 6 figures Published: April 2009

Asian Studies > East Asia, History > Asian History, Sociology > Social Theory

Koreans constituted the largest colonial labor force in imperial Japan during the 1920s and 1930s. Caught between the Scylla of agricultural destitution in Korea and the Charybdis of industrial depression in Japan, migrant Korean peasants arrived on Japanese soil amid extreme instability in the labor and housing markets. In The Proletarian Gamble, Ken C. Kawashima maintains that contingent labor is a defining characteristic of capitalist commodity economies. He scrutinizes how the labor power of Korean workers in Japan was commodified, and how these workers both fought against the racist and contingent conditions of exchange and combated institutionalized racism.

Kawashima draws on previously unseen archival materials from interwar Japan as he describes how Korean migrants struggled against various recruitment practices, unfair and discriminatory wages, sudden firings, racist housing practices, and excessive bureaucratic red tape. Demonstrating that there was no single Korean “minority,” he reveals how Koreans exploited fellow Koreans and how the stratification of their communities worked to the advantage of state and capital. However, Kawashima also describes how, when migrant workers did organize—as when they became involved in Rōsō (the largest Korean communist labor union in Japan) and in Zenkyō (the Japanese communist labor union)—their diverse struggles were united toward a common goal. In The Proletarian Gamble, his analysis of the Korean migrant workers' experiences opens into a much broader rethinking of the fundamental nature of capitalist commodity economies and the analytical categories of the proletariat, surplus populations, commodification, and state power.


The Proletarian Gamble breaks new ground in its expanded definition of ‘proletarian’, in its nuanced analysis of an ethnic community that was rarely able to speak in a singular voice, and in the way it complicates our understanding of the relationship between the state and civil society. It makes excellent use of both new and under-utilized sources on Korean labour in Japan, and it offers a theoretical framework that will make it engaging and useful for students of comparative labour history and the histories of colonialism and migration.” — Elyssa Faison, Social History

The Proletarian Gamble is a valuable addition to our understanding of modern Japanese and Korean history. Scholars who are interested in Japanese social, labor, political, and immigration history, as well as Japanese-Korean relations during the colonial period, will find it fascinating and useful.” — Gao Bei, History: Reviews of New Books

“[P]rovides a major advance in our understanding of Korean workers in the interwar period and is particularly important as a reference for those studying the history of the Korean experience in twentieth-century Imperial Japan.” — David Palmer, Japanese Studies

“This tour de force of a monograph presents a theoretical analysis of the circumstances of Korean laborers in Japan during the interwar years, using as its pivot-point the antiquated term, ‘proletariat.’” — Jong-moon Ha, Social Science Japan Journal

“This work will be a must-read for students of prewar Korean minority history for years to come, and it deserves the careful consideration of scholars of twentieth-century Japanese labor and social policy as well.” — Jeffrey Bayliss, Monumenta Nipponica

“Wielding an impressive amount of primary source materials, Kawashima illuminates not only the living and working conditions of Korean workers but also the institutional workings of the state, the labor market, and the housing market. He is a good guide to the granular understanding of the logic of housing discrimination and the intricate structurng of the hanba. His repeated refusal to engage in casual generalizations does much to illuminate both the unity and diversity of Korean workers' experiences.” — John Lie, Journal of Japanese Studies

The Proletarian Gamble provides students of modern Japanese-Korean history with a meticulously researched window into the lives of Korean labor migrants to Japan. Kawashima’s efforts will prove invaluable to students of Korean-Japanese affairs, but also to those interested in labor and migration issues, as well. This book should be required reading for all who enjoy the convenience of Japan’s extensive railway network, given the critical role that the Koreans described within played in laying much of its foundation.” — Mark E. Caprio, Acta Koreana

“[F]irst-rate, indispensible reading on Korean workers in the Japanese empire. . .” — Jinhee Lee, Journal of Asian Studies

“[T]his book struck me not only for its stimulating methodologies, but also for its careful empirical observation. This seems to me to be a relatively rare and praiseworthy combination in any academic setting.” — Jae-Won Sun, Pacific Affairs

“Kawashima has delivered a well-researched social history that should be added to the reading list of all serious students of modern Korea and Japan.” — Christopher Gerteis, American Historical Review

“Ken Kawashima’s book The Proletarian Gamble is a much needed and long overdue contribution to the fields of labor history and zainichi (resident-Korean) studies in Japan. . . . Kawashima offer[s] his readers a highly nuanced, eye-opening account of the experience of Korean day labor, and the role that particular institutions played in shaping that experience.” — Samuel Perry, International Journal of Asian Studies

“This book is at once refreshingly old-fashioned and innovative. . . . Kawashima’s study is generally persuasive, in places brilliant. . . . [I]n foregrounding contingency and offering a careful theoretical grounding for his analysis, Kawashima has achieved a great deal.” — Andrew Gordon, Journal of Social History

“This book establishes Ken C. Kawashima not simply as one of the best students of modern Japanese history in the world, but as one with a rare facility for effective use of theory amid a plethora of primary sources in Japanese and Korean. This book illustrates at once a very detailed daily life of Korean day workers in various Japanese cities, a study thoroughly at home with both modern Japanese and Korean history, and an author who is fully versed in a wide body of theory—Marx, Benjamin, Althusser, Foucault, Žižek, and many others. It is simply the best book in East Asian history that I have read in many years.” — Bruce Cumings, University of Chicago


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ken C. Kawashima is Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Introduction: The Proletarian Gamble 1

1. The Birth of the Uncontrollable Colonial Surplus: A Prehistory of the Korean Problem 25

2. The Colonial Surplus and the Virtual Pauper 45

3. Intermediary Exploitation: Korean Workers in the Day Labor Market 67

4. Urban Expropriation and the Threat of the Outside: Korean Tenant Struggles against Housing Insecurity 94

5. The Obscene, Violent Supplement of State Power: Korean Welfare and Class Warfare in Interwar Japan 130

6. At the Gates of Unemployment: The Struggles of Unemployed Korean Workers 169

Epilogue 204

Appendix 1. Korean Self-help and Social Work Organizations in Japan 217

Appendix 2. A Timeline of Anti-Sōaikai Activity 227

Notes 231

Bibliography 269

Index 287
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4417-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4399-8
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