This research paper traces the factors which accounted for the transformation and modernization of Korean society which began in the period of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945). The rigid patterns of traditional Korean society and culture were modified in response to the demands of Japanese rule and Japanese imperialism and the opportunities presented by them for some Koreans to accumulate wealth, acquire occupational training and become more mobile socially.
Pre-Colonial Korean Traditional Society
The Hermit Kingdom traditionally was sealed off by its geographic isolation from outside influences but during the Ming Dynasty in China came under Chinese suzerainty and Confucian influences. Prior to the defeat of China by Japan in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, the Choson State (1392-1910) retained almost total autonomy; nevertheless, Confucianism with its emphasis on the rigid separation of social classes and elaborate etiquette in dealings between classes as a means of reinforcing social stability tended to exaggerate the rigidities inherent in Korea's feudal structure.
According to HKK, "Korean society was far more complicated than the scholar-peasant-artisan-merchant hierarchy Confucian philosophy assumed" (192-193). The hereditary scholar aristocracy at the top, the yangban, consisted of high government officials, who remained in power through interlocking marriages and domination of the state examination system. They presided over "complex layers and grades of lineages and sublineages" (HKK 178). Lower level officials included scholar officials in the provinces, illegitimate or secondary sons of aristocrats, military officers, interpreters, mathematicians, etc. Illegitimate persons and professionals as well as merchants made up the middle class. Petty officials at local levels and peasants made up the lower class. Korea was one of the few Asian nations to have slavery until it was abolished in the late 19th century.