City of Sediments
A History of Seoul in the Age of Colonialism
Se-Mi Oh



Can the city write history? Can it become readable as text, a discourse on time? Can the city have an epistemology of its own? Premised on the idea that historical writing is always organized as narrative and time is always produced through the mediation of space, this book offers a history of Seoul under Japanese colonial rule (1910–1945) that lays bare its own textual formation in and through space. This is not a history that traces changes in space over time but a history that reveals complexities and contradictions of its own construction. The city of Seoul, in this history, emerges not just as a product of the historical forces that shaped it but as an interlocutor that articulates the contested field of power and its epistemological operation. The exploration of the city as method starts with the 1926 competition for a new insignia. With that, this book extends the investigation of Seoul beyond the material into the discursive.

In 1926, a contest was held for a new design of Seoul’s insignia. The winning design, selected by a panel of twenty-eight judges from over nine hundred entries submitted by almost five hundred individuals in Korea, Japan, and Manchuria, featured a simple, geometric redesign of the earlier insignia, which had been in place since 1918 (figure I.1).1 This earlier design had featured the Sino-Korean graph kyŏng (kei in Japanese) from Seoul’s official name under the Japanese rule, Kyŏngsŏng or Keijō, inside a circle with eight small rectangles jutting out from the circle’s edges.2 The resulting cogwheel stylized the city walls with four major gates and four minor gates. In the new insignia, the Sino-Korean graph was replaced by a hollow circle in the middle, and the cogwheel around the graph kyŏng supplanted by two arcs at the top and bottom, each with three equidistant squares jutting outward. These two arcs, which thus rendered graphically the Chinese character for mountain (san), were purportedly meant to visualize two mountains to the north and south—Pukhansan and Namsan. But the overall effect created by replacing the cogwheel with these arcs was to give the impression of opening up the city walls. This was certainly the view expressed in an article in the newspaper Tonga ilbo, which stated that the old design was inadequate for representing the city’s rapid development because it depicted Seoul as a city enclosed by walls. In contrast, the openness of the new design would be the key to articulating Seoul’s future. The new insignia pointed to the possibility of outward, radial expansion, to be touted as “an ideal structure suitable for a modern city.”3

These two insignias represented Seoul in different ways, in terms of topology (space) and history (time). Two main features of the 1918 insignia were the cogwheel and the graph from Seoul’s name, together representing Seoul as a walled city and the capital city—an identity rooted in place. The 1926 insignia, on the other hand, was one rooted in history, giving a sense of how Seoul had changed and would change over time. Moving away from the iconic representation of 1918 (i.e., the stylized city walls) and toward a more symbolic design, the insignia were to work also as an index sign for the city’s future via the radial lines indicating an outward expansion.4 This was a vision of the city articulated from an urban planning perspective, in which urbanization was synonymous with modernization. And yet the future of Seoul was articulated in the image of the past, or to be more precise, in terms of its contrast to the past. While other top entries (figure I.2) retained little resemblance from the older insignia and instead explicitly visualized outward growth with direction pointers and even a spiral, the winning design was a revision of the older design, which served as a reminder of what came before and how it had changed. The new design was an evolution of the previous one, not something radically new; Seoul was not to be reinvented as a modern city but would develop from its current form by disavowing its identity as a walled city. The 1926 insignia was not about representing Seoul’s identity through emblems unmarked by time; it was about narrating a change. At the core, the new insignia was itself a piece of history writing, concerned above all with a seamless transition from old to new, from walled city to modern city, and with articulating Seoul’s past through a lens of particularity and its future in the image of universalism. It first created an image of the city in the bygone era and, through a remaking of that image, put the present in motion toward the future.

FIGURE I.1. Insignias for Seoul, from Maeil sinbo, June 18, 1918, National Library of Korea (left) and Tonga ilbo, September 26, 1926. Reprinted with permission (right).

FIGURE I.2. Announcing the awardees for Kyŏngsŏng insignia design, from Maeil sinbo, September 26, 1926, National Library of Korea, Seoul.

This history writing was not based on intimate knowledge of the city itself. Rather, the story of Seoul as told through these insignias presented a past that never was, a myth that fabricated the conditions under which the new insignia narrated the development of Seoul. Consider Seoul’s city walls, for which construction began in 1395, when Seoul became the capital of the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1897). For five centuries, the city walls allowed Chosŏn monarchs to secure their power practically and symbolically by providing a fortress and regulating the movement of people and goods. When attempts at modernization began at the end of the nineteenth century, however, the city walls became one of the earliest targets. Under the advisement of Collbran and Bostwick Co., the Hansŏng Electricity Company was established in 1898, and shortly afterward, a streetcar route opened between the West Gate and Ch’ŏngnyangni, and then between the South Gate and Yongsan. With the introduction of streetcars, the city’s eight gates that had opened and closed at regular intervals were left open at all times to accommodate increased foot and vehicular traffic. In 1907, citing the impediment that the walls posed to traffic flow, King Kojong issued a permit to demolish the walls on one side of the South Gate, and by 1909 the walls on both sides had been completely removed. The East Gate met the same fate in 1908. Seoul’s walls had been taken down and two of the city’s most important gates disconnected from the walls even before Japan annexed Korea in 1910. The reality of Seoul, therefore, was that it had long stopped being a walled city by the time the cogwheel insignia became its official symbol in 1918.

Nor is the image of Seoul as a city confined within walls unproblematic. To be sure, during the Chosŏn dynasty, the capital city was called Hanyang tosǒng or “the Walled City of Hanyang,” but this included areas within the walls and outside them (figure I.3). The area outside the walls, Sŏngjŏsimni, became officially part of Seoul in 1461 and constituted a vital part of Seoul’s administration, economy, and culture thereafter. In fact, it was only in 1910, with Japan’s annexation of Korea, that the city became limited within the area that had been circumscribed by the walls.5 The 1918 insignia omitted this history of how Sŏngjŏsimni was expelled from the city proper. The 1926 insignia then built its expansionist model upon this historical inaccuracy, hiding the violence that had radically altered the shape and function of Seoul, and further erasing Sŏngjŏsimni from memory. The walled city of Seoul, so central to the vision of change put forward by the 1926 insignias, was merely a ghost. The evocation of a feudal, premodern image of Seoul served to lay down the foundation for narrating the inexorability and inevitability of historical progress. So, while the 1926 insignia depicted the city as opened up and expanding as a result of modernization, it hid the colonial violence of undoing the old capital’s spatial logic and silenced the histories of different locales to naturalize the epochal change from premodern to modern.

Yet another fiction is the character kyŏng/kei, physically present in the 1918 insignia and alluded to in the 1926 one. Kyŏngsŏng/Keijō was the official name chosen for Seoul, then called Hansŏng, when Korea was annexed by Japan. The names Kyŏngsŏng/Keijō and Hansŏng came to point to different political powers that rationalized the space into an urban form at different times in history, and the change from Hansŏng to Kyŏngsŏng/Keijō came to signal the end of one era and the beginning of another. However, since the Chosŏn dynasty, Kyŏngsŏng had been one of several official and vernacular names used for Seoul, including Hanyang, Kyŏngjo, Kyŏngdo, Susŏn, Changan, Chungang, Chaegyŏng, and Sudo, as well as Sŏul (Seoul). None of these names disappeared, and they all continued to be used during the colonial period, including Hansŏng.6 Moreover, whereas Kyŏngsŏng/Keijō functioned as a proper noun in the insignias—a name—the word kyŏngsŏng as a general noun simply meant “capital,” so it had been used to refer to any capital throughout history. Only during the Taehan Empire was kyŏngsŏng used as a proper noun that referred to Seoul as the capital of Korea while sudo was used to refer to capital cities of other countries. The singular nomination of Seoul through Kyŏngsŏng/Keijō in the insignias is thus a result of privileging that name over the others in use and the history of the name Kyŏngsŏng itself—that is, a result of colonial erasure. In becoming Kyŏngsŏng/Keijō, Seoul forcibly disavowed those other names and subsumed the multiple histories and practices on the ground to validate the idea that its name was new when in fact it had become intimately attached to the place of Seoul over a long history.

FIGURE I.3. Kim Chŏng-ho, The Map of Five Districts of the Capital (Kyŏngjo obudo), from Taedongyŏjido, 1861, woodblock print, 400 x 671 cm, Seoul History Museum.

How do we write, then, a history of a city that has morphed across time with this web of names, shapes, and forms? Describing Seoul’s historical development from a premodern capital to a modern colonial city would simplify all these complexities and replicate the very process of colonization that the city endured. Instead, any attempt to understand the multiplicity of Seoul, temporal or spatial, must be a deconstructive endeavor that estranges any appearance of a transition from premodern to modern as stable. It should also question how such history writing became instrumental in naturalizing colonial intervention and masking its violence. If we look to the traces of the material past—sediments of earlier times, buried under and lost to the sprawling urban space of Kyŏngsŏng/Keijō—we can find clues about the many forces that shaped the city. The “real” history of Seoul, therefore, has to excavate those layers and unearth residues whose recalcitrance disturbed the signs of modernity and colonial domination. For this reason, to build the history of Seoul, one must unbuild it first.

In both insignias, the violence committed to the city was discursive, driven by a modernity that deceptively pronounced its force to be inescapable while it took history to be the main agent of its mythical narrative: colonial power was all but invisible in these insignias, and changes were rationalized as modernization. This reveals an important facet of Japanese colonialism, one that operated through discourse about urban space, modernity, and history. Political oppression, economic exploitation, and a culture of violence were the inevitable results of reshaping, redistricting, and renaming Seoul. However, we can locate the workings of colonialism not just in the physical changes to the city but also in the discursive practices that produced a narrative about Seoul’s past, present, and future and normalized the developmental narrative of modernity. Because Japanese colonial power was exercised in and through this writing of history, with the city as its text, this book takes a spatial approach in writing a history of Seoul. History writing and spatial practices are not always comparable, but any abrasion that can be caused by their suturing can prove to be rewarding, if it leads to a recognition that any discourse that claims an identity of the two different forces is, like the insignias, a product of power and its mythical property. To cause discomfort is to defamiliarize our habits of historical (or historicist) thinking.

To this end, I use the name Seoul as the most inclusive nomination that allows inquiry into the many forms and aforementioned complexities of the city. To see the city both as a space and a text within which history can be unpacked is not to endorse an ahistorical approach but to freeze the forward trajectory of time, the kind of temporality that history is culpable of creating, and thereby recuperate the time-knot that has been assimilated into a historicist narrative. Therefore, in lieu of a history of Seoul that details the processes of historical change over time, this book takes Seoul as a method through which history writing can be brought to the surface. The city, in other words, becomes the site for the practice of turning the material traces of history into text—language, image, and narrative. It views historical time as a function of space and approaches the spatial practices and discursive space of Seoul as history writing. Its goal is to map the processes of textual formation through which the telos of history was inscribed in space and to reveal the disjunctures and multiplicities that were concealed by the colonial intervention. This will lead to a history that treats the city as a set of categories for analyzing the questions pertinent to epistemology that frame much of our historical discussion today. Rather than take history as a methodology for investigating urban space, in other words, the book takes urban space as a methodology for studying history.

The City That Escapes Naming: Modernity and Its Visual Properties

The big question that confronts anyone seeking to write about Seoul under Japanese rule is how to define coloniality and how to speak of modernity in that context. What the insight gained from the insignias tells us is that modernity and colonialism always went hand in hand in Seoul. This entanglement can also be noted with respect to the name Kyŏngsŏng/Keijō. Kyŏngsŏng had been in use long before the Japanese anointed it the official name of Seoul, but the difference in the colonial context was that it could now also be read in Japanese as Keijō. In practice, both versions were used, not just in translation but as proper nouns in their own right. In Korean-language publications, for example, the name Keijō often appeared in the Korean vernacular script, han’gŭl, as keijo (게이조). Kyŏngsŏng and Keijō were used interchangeably, but at times they did not always mean the same thing, as can be seen in a 1927 article published in Tonga ilbo. “Is it Kyŏngsŏng or Keijō?,” the fifth installment in a series reviewing the economic condition of Korea, offered a rather grave assessment. Seoul could no longer be considered the center of the country due to the expansion of the Japanese settlement from South Village (Namch’on) out into North Village (Pukch’on), where the royal palaces and the elite yangban establishment were located: “Kyŏngsŏng is no longer the center of Chosŏn nor the center for the people of Chosŏn. Rather, it is the center for Chōsen. It does not belong to the people of Chosŏn, but to Japan. If the economic situation looks thus, the other aspects of the city will surely be the same. The city must now be called Keijō, not Kyŏngsŏng.”7 The alarm expressed about the trend of Japanese expansion had much to do with the fact that Seoul had been the capital city of the Chosŏn dynasty before colonization, unlike many other colonial cities in the world that became urbanized for the first time under colonial rule. However, rather than scrutinizing continuity (Kyŏngsŏng was a name already in use), this article located a historical rupture (Kyŏngsŏng became Keijō). The two readings of Seoul’s name thus gained two different identities in this article: Kyŏngsŏng referred to Seoul before colonialization and Keijō to Seoul under Japanese colonial rule. In so doing, the article repeated the same kind of historical process analyzed in reference to the insignias, but from a different perspective that saw the change as neither inevitable nor a sign of progress, but of loss. The article inadvertently ended up identifying the trajectory of the city through the same future image as the colonial discourse.

Beyond the denoted meaning of the words in print, the text’s composition reveals an even more complex picture. Kyŏngsŏng/Keijō is a name that derived from the same Chinese characters, which can be read either in Korean or Japanese. The title of the article thus rendered the names in han’gŭl and katakana, Japanese syllabaries primarily used for words of foreign origin, respectively: “Is it Kyŏngsŏng (경성) or Keijō (ケイジヤウ)?” But in the body of the article, which was written in the Korean mixed script (kukhanmun), a script that combines Chinese characters with Korean inflections, the name appeared in Chinese characters (京城). The result was that the Chinese characters were not open to multiple readings but had to be read as Kyŏngsŏng in the context of the Korean mixed script. In doing so, the article privileged the Korean reading of the characters and claimed in effect that its name written in Chinese characters, the name that had been in use throughout history, was the sole property of Korea and its history of diglossia. In contrast, the word Keijō, always written in katakana and thus divorced from the Chinese “original” by the virtue of the latter’s exclusive connection to the Korean reading of Kyŏngsŏng, was marked with visual and aural distinction. The alien appearance of katakana in the body of the Korean mixed-script text underscored the estranged identity that Seoul gained as the only word in “foreign” script. This “foreignness” is what undercuts Seoul from becoming a bona fide “Japanese” city under colonial rule, but points to something else whose origin cannot be traced within the shared linguistic or cultural sphere by Japan and Korea—modernity.

The fact is that Seoul became a city befitting the title “colonial metropole”8 not as a “Japanese” city per se, but as a modern city. A 1936 article in Taehan maeil sinbo reinforced this view, touting Seoul, with its more than two hundred thousand residents, as a city on par with other global cities (kukche tosi).9 Indeed, familiar expressions of modernity across the globe were abundant in Seoul. But a characterization of Seoul as a city of “cosmopolitan” appearance involves high-stakes debates about how to speak of modernity in a non-Western and colonial context. Several of these issues can be glimpsed in a short essay, “Impressions of Keijō,” written by a Japanese traveler in Seoul about his encounter, in the colony, with familiar objects and sites of the metropole. The traveler marveled at all the amenities and conveniences, such as streetcars, streetlights, and telephones, and at the hustle and bustle of modern girls and modern boys strolling under neon lights. The splendor of modernity was on full display in Seoul, particularly in the Japanese commercial district of Honmachi, so much so that the writer compared it to the Ginza district of Tokyo. The familiarity of Seoul, however, caused the traveler to feel a sense of discomfort, leading him to lament that modernity in Seoul was mere imitation and a reflection of a culture with no foundation.10 The source of his unease was the temptation to view modernity in Seoul as a radical alterity to the metropolitan modernity, be it in Japan or in the West. The resemblance between metropolitan and colonial modernity made it difficult to do so, leading the writer to condemn Seoul’s modernity as a copy instead—a disingenuous and incomplete version of modernity (figure I.4).

Was Seoul’s modernity a mere copy, with no structures to support its superficial manifestations in the plethora of things? And if it was, does that make Seoul’s modernity incomplete, a product of undisciplined imitation and unsophisticated understanding of culture? On one level, the question is about the mimetic. Seoul, an impression, or a copy of the metropolitan modernity, is seen as a product of borrowing of a culture that predates colonization. On another level, modernity existing on the surface level of “thingness” can be disregarded as nothing but a superficial imitation of the metropolitan modernity without a material (read actual) foundation in the colony, political economy or otherwise. These are the questions that also entered into the debates of “colonial modernity” in the past decades, which explored the overlapping and simultaneous instances of colonial and modern projects.11 The foremost goal was to “make visible how globalizing colonial or imperial capital inhabited and reconfigured space, all space; not just some space.”12 Colonialism was not a dark side of modernity, but an integral part of capitalist expansion. And yet the emphasis on the global capital, as well as the characterization of “colonial,” produced many works whose sole goal was either proving or disproving the premises of colonial modernity and also invited criticisms about how this concept would apply to different contexts marked by varying degrees of colonial control.

FIGURE I.4. Photo featuring an aerial view of Seoul, 1925, 19.4 x 27.2 cm, Seoul History Museum.

Rather than litigating the question of modernity in the colonial context of Seoul in material (evidential) terms or demonstrating the coeval temporality of the metropolitan and colonial worlds, this book turns its attention to the question of epistemology. Once we foreground the inquiry in how our discourses have also been framed by modernity and its epistemological operation, the more important question, for us, is: Where does the traveler’s desire to locate an alterity in the similitude of forms he found in Seoul come from in the first place? Put differently, where does the impulse to distinguish modernity in the colony from modernity in the metropole come from, and how does that distinction come to be articulated? To think intentionally about epistemology is helpful because it not only adds a dimension to the production of conditions that we historians study, political or otherwise, but also challenges the way we frame our discourses: how we talk about modernity in the colonial context. This eventually brings attention to how any attempt to talk about the non-West has already been subsumed by the self-articulation of the West within its field of knowledge production, the West’s “refusal of its self-delimitation.”13 For this reason, Achille Mbembe warned about how Africa had always been discussed through a “negative interpretation” in the metatext about bestiality wherein the problem lies in how the West has developed its own self-image.14 Similarly, colonial and postcolonial cities came to be characterized in terms of lack, which Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe elaborated through the example of Johannesburg: the metanarratives of urbanization and modernization situate African cities in the context of global modernity without agency to contribute to that modernity. So, a meaningful investigation of African cities, or any other colonial cities, would have to entail “a profound reinterrogation of Africa in general as a sign in modern formation of knowledge.”15

The West’s knowledge production of modernity—its own fantasy about its existence—forecloses the non-West altogether, and this is the main process through which colonization occurs. The operation entails what Peter Osborne has called “historical totalization,” a term introduced in his elaboration of Reinhart Koselleck’s conceptualization of neuzeit.16 Neuzeit, as a historical period, breaks from the previous epochs and defines the quality of historical time by distinguishing the period’s own time from the one that preceded it. This is a striking difference from ideas based on the specificities of an epoch. Neuzeit defines itself as a philosophy of movement and as qualitatively better than what came before (progress) and allows for qualifications such as “earlier than” and “later than” rather than simply “before” and “after.”17 By “ascribing to temporal sequence a function creative of knowledge,” therefore, “historical truths, by virtue of their temporalization, became superior truths.”18 More important, modernity as totalizing category was made possible through rationally (temporally) ordering its (spatial) other in its discourse, which Dipesh Chakrabarty observed in terms of how history and historical development (historicism) became a stagist theory of development that privileged Europe in what he called a “first in Europe, then elsewhere” temporal frame.19

The spatial unfolding of this temporal logic of universal history is modernizing and colonizing at the same time. In that sense, the process through which Kyŏngsŏng became Keijō was not simply a change in land ownership or government, but a change in epistemology. The process underscores how Seoul became foreclosed in modern knowledge production, how the city came to be situated in the metropole’s self-imagination and in the subsequent figuration of metropole and colony. If we recognize how modernity orders noncontemporaneous times in a linear progression of time, we can better understand the double-edged sword of universalism that excludes as it includes: colonialism is an inherent impetus of modernity and integral to the totalizing and foreclosing force of modernity. In this regard, we can talk about the cosmopolitan expressions of Seoul noted in the traveler’s essay as a product of Japanese colonialism operating through the discourse of modernity. Modernity itself was the mode of power for Japanese colonialism; the universal discourse of modernity and history was a strategy of colonization. In that light, modernity is not a condition brought about by urbanization but the totality of the processes through which colonial power discursively formulated itself in the urban space.

From this perspective, our subject of inquiry should not be whether Seoul was modern, or whether Seoul’s modernity was genuine or a copy, but rather how modernity came to articulate itself as universal. For this reason, the book locates modernity’s discursive practice and self-articulation in the urban space and asks how knowledge about modernity was produced through the urban form. For this, I draw from Timothy Mitchell’s proposal for rethinking modernity as staging, not as a stage. Mitchell argued that the most salient characteristic of modernity is that the modern is staged as representations—image-making practices and social practices such as architecture, urban planning, literature, tourism, entertainment, and disciplinary mechanisms, which led him to formulate modernity as “world-as-picture,” a mere copy that defines itself by what it lacks, by the gap in time and space that separates it from its model, but at the same time claims that the world it replicates is complete in itself.20 Modernity in Seoul, like elsewhere, was manifested visually—a staging. To locate the energy behind staging, this book starts its inquiry in architecture, which sported “cosmopolitan” styles, useful for unpacking the question of copying. More important, architecture lends itself as a text wherein its visual forms were instrumental in producing a discourse, a concept and an idea which we often call the zeitgeist.21 I explicate this further through the concept of monumentality.

In Seoul, the most important aspect of monumentality was the spatial reordering of the city through erasure. Key monumental structures of Japanese colonialism were strategically placed and built directly on the grounds or in close proximity to monuments to the Chosŏn dynasty’s monarchs. Such an effort to undo the symbolic importance of the Chosŏn monuments was most notable in the construction of the new Government-General Building on the grounds of Kyŏngbok Palace. The building’s construction began in 1916, shortly after the 1915 Industrial Exhibition, when a large portion of the palace was gutted. When it was completed in 1926, it dwarfed the remainder of the palace, which by then existed only in sections. Japan’s construction of new architecture on palace grounds was a powerful way of visualizing colonial violence and dominance over space. However, the old palace was not completely removed, and surviving in a state of ruin, it presented a base for the purposeful superimposition of the new monumental architecture for Japanese colonialism. Rather than expunging the “old” other, the process of erasure pressed it into a relation with the “new” so that two different temporalities could be configured in one space—one pointing to the future promised by the universal time of modernity and the other to the Korean past of a particular time. When the two temporalities were incorporated into a historical narrative, Japan and Korea occupied different places in the linear progression of time, one advanced and the other lagging behind. This was a historical narrative that was also a colonial discourse. Modernity was part and parcel of Japanese colonialism, and it even appears that outside of modernity, colonial power and colonial difference could not have been articulated. Colonial discourse that is enveloped in the logic of modernity does not necessarily do away with the hierarchy of colonizer and colonized in the shared pursuit of universality. Instead, it resignifies colonial difference in temporal terms so that one is “modern” and the other is “not yet modern.” The not yet modern is to be distinguished from the not modern by its participation in modernity’s temporality, but its possibility of becoming modern is foreclosed from the start by modernity’s very logic, which blurs the boundary between the colonial subject’s desire for modernity and that of the colonizer: the colony will catch up, in time.22 Desire is the key word here because this “indoctrination” was not didactic. Rather, modernity in Seoul, as elsewhere, was spectacular. The semblance of order would be achieved by associating architecture with certain events, times, and people through its visual properties. The superfluous figuration of modernity was essentially phantasmagoric because the identification and distinction between the metropole and the colony were based on the same desire, which was a key tenet of coloniality.23 In all this, the city was the stage for such fictionalizing about modernity and its progress, the making and masking of reality.

In this way, Japanese colonial discourse rejected a localized concept of culture and prepared the conditions for Korea’s participation and subjugation in the universalized realm of modernity. Consider again the traveler who lamented Seoul’s modernity as a copy. It was his familiarity with modernity that made it difficult for him to separate Honmachi of Seoul from Ginza of Tokyo. Seoul under Japanese colonial rule became not a Korean city, a Japanese city, or an Asian city—it was a modern city that exhibited familiar forms and expressions of universal modernity where the question of origin mattered little. So, what the Japanese traveler saw as the lack of cultural particularity in Seoul was not a product of undisciplined imitation or unsophisticated understanding of culture but an outcome of Japanese colonialism that was operating within and through the totalizing discourse of modernity. The various signs of modernity in Seoul substituted for the “real” without specific reference to an origin in place or time and created a world in which images were the main producer of concepts. These images conjured up a Korea where the universal condition of progress would come in time, allowing the colony to belatedly catch up with the metropole. In this way, the boundary between coloniality and modernity became indistinct: the colonial subject’s desire for the universal was precisely what alienated that subject from the promise of the universal.

Toward a Sedimentary History: Methodology and Sources

The practical question that confronts us is how we pursue a mode of inquiry that recuperates historical possibilities from the methodological and categorical limits that have shaped the study of Seoul. What would a history written from the position of the marginalized, excluded, and subsumed look like? It would certainly have to be critical of any impulse to see Seoul as the alterity of the universal or to locate it within its scheme of becoming. This book finds a potential for critical inquiry in the city itself and explores the very energy that escapes naming to unleash the multiplicities of the name, whether Kyŏngsŏng or Keijō, or something else. Any use of name, therefore, would have “to unfix rather than to fix the meaning.”24 That is, this history would resist the unchangeable finality of utopian politics of modernity and move toward an urban poetics.25 To present the entangled (not linear) processes of Seoul’s construction, demolition, reconstruction, remembrance, and metamorphosis, this book adopts space as an ordering principle and organizes itself in the model of sediment, to uncover what lies beneath the manifold representations of the city’s overlapping, conflicting, and layered slices of life. The goal of this model is to present coeval processes that complicate the usual scheme of cause and effect. Here, the common usage of the term sediment, which refers to layers accumulated over time as matters deposited earlier settle to the bottom, seems to be at odds with the temporal remaking of this model. The physical sediment does exist in Seoul: the urban space of Seoul today is built upon layers of its many pasts, some of which occasionally attain visibility and are kept visible behind glass windows on the streets.26 But because a purely physical notion of sediment that spatializes a linear temporality in successive layers is not adequate for capturing the multiplicity of time, this book uses sediment as a speculative model to deploy against the linear temporal trajectory of modernity.27 This is in part to respond to the way the architectural practices of Japanese colonialism operated through erasure and layered its monuments over the five-hundred-year-old capital, all to narrate the arrival of the “new.” By sedimentary history, therefore, I propose a model of inquiry that challenges the kind of temporalization of space by the architectural practices of Japanese colonialism that turned the city into a historical narrative. If we think of colonial power as operating on the premise of the “textualization” of space—that is, the flattening of multiple temporalities into a linear teleology—then we can turn this very mode of power on its head by overlaying different layers atop one another.

The sedimentary model of history takes inspiration from an illustration that appeared on the cover of the magazine Pyŏlgŏn’gon in July 1933 (figure I.5). With the title, “Modern Picture of the Twelve Thousand Peaks of Kŭmgang Mountain” (Modŏn kŭmgang manich’ŏnbong), the cover illustration styles itself as an imitation of a traditional genre of painting and presents a kaleidoscopic montage of a modern cityscape replete with restaurants, cafés, movie theaters, and so on, all adorned with signage in different scripts. This eclectic assortment highlights Seoul’s modernity through linguistic diversity and presents a view of cosmopolitanism that does not privilege the West. Playing on the title, the illustration arranges these establishments in the form of a mountain with multiple peaks. Two smaller peaks (one of which is in silhouette) show a grimmer view with signposts that read “a duel arena” and “a suicide spot” and convey a sense of despair, juxtaposed against the abundance of hedonistic pleasure in this imaginary map. A chapel stands on the highest peak with a banner hung from its bell tower that reads: “Heaven is near.” From the chapel, we can conjecture a satire of the message of salvation: promise and despair are two inseparable effects of modernity.

That chapel is significant for another reason; it reminds me of Paul Virilio’s description of history as a landscape, which draws on Ecclesiastes: “For God, history is a landscape of events. For Him, nothing really follows sequentially since everything is co-present. From the smallest fact to the greatest historical event, there is nothing wonderful before him.”28 Viewed from the chapel, the imaginary position of the divine, the city lies before us neither as a chain of events nor even multiple strata that lead to the summit in successive moves, but as a panoply of many different events that coexist with no particular relation to one another. The same imagery of a nonlinear history appears even more powerfully in Walter Benjamin’s well-known discussion of Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, in which the angel sees history as “rubble on top of rubble” piled before his feet rather than as a chain of events.29 Unable to keep his outstretched wings from closing as a storm rages at him, the angel is transfixed by the horror of history, which Benjamin identifies as progress. The goal of sedimentary history is to heed these critiques of history and to visualize heterogeneous moments as traces of copresent time. In place of teleological narrative, which would inevitably privilege the question of origin, causality, and progress, a sedimentary history deploys an architecturalization of history through which time and space can be reconfigured, arranging events on top of one another by overlaying their surfaces rather than enumerating them one after another.

FIGURE I.5. Cover of Pyŏlgŏn’gon, July 1933, Yonsei University Library, Seoul.

What these layers of the sedimentary history consist of are not simply events that usually make up a history: they are conceptualized as surfaces. This is to acknowledge that Seoul under Japanese rule was spectacular and phantasmagoric, so this book brings due attention to the visual dimension of the city and begins with architecture. On one level, the function of the architectonic allows an examination of space and surface in relation to each other. On another level, such a methodology works to replicate the experience of modernity from the marginalized position because while modernity was exhibited on the exterior of architecture, access to the interior of the monumental buildings was often denied to colonial subjects. Accessibility connotes privilege. When access is denied to a certain group of people, so is their potential to functionally transform the architecture. Here, Giuliana Bruno’s conceptualization of the surface is helpful. She sees the surface as a mediator between the interior and the exterior because it is something that is configured as architecture and functions as a form of habitation.30 So, I define surface as a space that the subject inhabits through sensory experience in visual, oral, auditory, and haptic registers, that are both material and imaginary. All of these surfaces also make up the visual dimension of the city, and I use the term visual to include, by relying on W.J.T. Mitchell, the interplay between visual and verbal signs, the sensory and the semiotic, the visible and the invisible, and the synesthesia of auditory, tactile, and haptic, as well as everyday practices of seeing and showing, all of which amount to “the dangerous supplements” to hegemonic discourses.31 Accordingly, the surfaces of sedimentary history consist of not only material objects detectable through sight but also extend to the mediascape as well as the soundscape of chatter, rumor, and noise. These surfaces are in turn overlaid atop one another and made visible on each level: the “cosmopolitan” ornaments dressed up Japanese monumental architecture, whose monumentality lay as much in manifestation as in erasure; commercial signage made up another visual and oral layer through its prominent “Asian” scripts and varied reading practices; the cacophony of language play, as well as rumor and gossip, haunted the senses and made up the underlayers of the city.

Then, what sources would help to enliven the experience of the city, uncover its visual, auditory, and imaginary surfaces, and capture the fragmentary, aleatory, and multiperspectival views of the urban life? If we understand the archive as a function of fields and institutions that endow it with truth claims, we will have to look beyond the usual sources available to us via colonial archiving. The sedimentary history instead gathers moments, pieces, and slices of urban life and deploys them to “carry over the principle of montage into history.”32 They are from texts and objects in mass circulation, which lend themselves for a study of words, word-images, images, and objects: postcards and maps (chapter 1), a commemorative photo album and journalistic photography (chapter 2), commercial signage and advertisement (chapter 3), gramophone recordings (chapter 4), and reportage in magazines (chapters 5 and 6).

These sources cannot easily be classified but prove to be effective mediums of capturing the speed, motion, and mood of urban modernity. They did so, not simply through the content that they described, but through the form they took. For this, I call them metropolitan miniature, drawing on Andreas Huyssen. Metropolitan miniature, referring to a body of short texts published in the feuilletons, is a product of the advent of the new media—photography and film in particular—that centrally focused on the question of perception and how the verbal and visual interacted. For Huyssen, these modernist texts regarded urban space as underpinning modern life and highlighted the sensory experience, as well as the dream images, so the visible world was always shadowed by what was invisible, the urban unconscious.33 These texts were called “unstorylike stories” and many other things. Underscoring the difficulty in defining these texts with a single name, Ernst Bloch once lamented in a letter to Siegfried Kracauer, “If only we had a name for the new form which no longer is a form.”34 For this reason, Huyssen claimed that metropolitan miniature was essentially an anti-form, which was begotten from experimenting with the visual.35

There is no specific genre term that applies to such a diverse body of texts circulating in the everyday on which this book relies, but more often than not they were known simply as iyagi or “stories.” Though they seldom showed any adherence to genre conventions or formal considerations having to do with writing, iyagi showed keen awareness of the new mode of seeing produced by new mediums such as film and photography. They also adapted to sound technologies such as gramophone, as well as new forms of sociability in print such as review roundtable (chapter 3) and interviews (chapter 6).36 The interaction between the verbal and the visual was what distinguished iyagi from other casual stories about the urban life on the one hand and from literature on the other; they owed their existence to the speedily changing modern city with rapid circulation of words and images through the print and sound media. And much to the chagrin of the day’s language reformers and intellectuals, they contained a strong trace of colloquial, spoken language—the language of the marketplace and the everyday. In this regard, iyagi in their multiple reiterations posited themselves as “anti-form” against literature as well as social science. This is why I call them metropolitan miniatures. What connects the different authors and historical contexts between Huyssen’s feuilletons and this book’s iyagi is how they engaged with the modern city, grappled with the new visual experience, and most importantly, experimented with the form of writing. The anti-form of the metropolitan miniature offers a critique of established narratology, epistemology, and even ontology, and certainly history writing. Therefore, I attempt to find the meaning of being modern not in a formulable articulation about modernity but in the raw experience presented in anti-form.

Being modern is not simply being in the modern world; rather, it is about critical engagement with the very logic of modernity and the experience that it shapes. The forgotten surfaces of the city, which may be inconsequential and insignificant to a teleological history, are what the book brings to the fore by stacking surfaces on top of one another in a sedimentary history composed of montage of urban life. It traverses many boundaries of material and immaterial, visual and verbal, visible and invisible, monumental and mundane, and image and sound to explore how the city was represented in image and text, reverberated in the soundscape, and was experienced in lived time. In presenting a multimodal overlap and layering of life through different sensory registers, the book also writes its history in a way that creates a bricolage of these unremarkable anti-forms instead of relying on data-driven sources to reconstruct city life in Seoul—all in the hope of shifting the urban terrain by layering figural over discursive, syuzhet over fabula, parole over logo, moment over monument, chance over design, fragment over totality, deviance over defiance, and play over discipline.


1. See “Kyŏngsŏngbu hwijang toan ipsangja simsa palp’yo,” Maeil sinbo, September 26, 1926.

2. The font style of the character, expressed in bold, simple lines, was done in the “Gothic” style with thick but simple lines for legibility. See “Kyŏngsŏngbu ŭi hwijang,” Maeil sinbo, June 18, 1918.

3. See “Kyŏngsŏngbu hwijang,” Tonga ilbo, September 26, 1926.

4. This book follows the categories of signs in the theory of semiotics developed by Charles Sanders Peirce and defines an icon as a sign that has a physical resemblance to the signified; a symbol as a sign relying on connections and consensus produced by culture rather than the resemblance between the signifier and the signified; and an index as a sign that references or points to something else. See Charles S. Peirce, The Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler (New York: Dover, 1995).

5. Sŏngjŏsimni refers to an area within ten ri from the walls. Here, one ri is a unit of measure corresponding to 360 footsteps, approximately 0.4 km. When the city boundary came to be limited within the city walls, Sŏngjŏsimni was transferred to Kyŏnggi Province. Pointing to the exclusion of Sŏngjŏsimni, Baek Yung Kim (Kim Paeg-yŏng) discussed the two-stage transformation of the royal capital of Hansŏng to the colonial city of Kyŏngsŏng in terms of “urban shrinkage strategy” and “urban expansion strategy.” The later expansion, mainly in the 1930s, took place only after the initial shrinkage of the city limit with the annexation. See Baek Yung Kim, “Ruptures and Conflicts in the Colonial Power Bloc: The Great Keijō Plan of the 1920s,” Korea Journal 48, no. 3 (Autumn 2008): 13.

6. Kim Che-jŏng, “Kŭndae Kyŏngsŏng ŭi yongnye wa kŭ ŭimi ŭi pyŏnhwa,” in 1930–40-yŏndae Kyŏngsŏng ŭi tosi ch’ehŏm kwa tosi munje, ed. Sŏul sirip taehakkyo tosi munhak yŏn’guso (Seoul: Laum, 2014).

7. “Kyŏngsŏng inya <Keijō> inya,” Tonga ilbo, January 3, 1927.

8. Jini Kim Watson, New Asian City: Three-Dimensional Fictions of Space and Urban Form (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 40.

9. “Kukche tosi rossŏ pukkŭrŏul kŏsi ŏpta,” Taehan maeil sinbo, January 4, 1934.

10. Nōse Iwakichi, “Keijō inshōki,” Chōsen kōron 14, no. 11 (November 1926): 68–72.

11. The term was coined to be used as an analytic category in reaction to the modernization theory and to propose that modernity and colonialism were simultaneous within the context of capitalist industrial expansion. See Tani Barlow, ed., Formations of Colonial Modernity in East Asia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997). For a review of the debates on colonial modernity since then, see Tani Barlow, “Debates over Colonial Modernity in East Asia and Another Alternative,” Cultural Studies 26, no. 5 (2012), 617–44.

12. Barlow, “Debates over Colonial Modernity,” 624.

13. Naoki Sakai critically spoke of the arbitrary distinction between the West and non-West by showing how it only reinforces the “positive” existence of the West: “Basically, it is just like the name ‘Japan,’ which reputedly designates a geographic area, a tradition, a national identity, a culture, an ethnos, a market, and so on, yet unlike all the other names associated with geographic particularities, it also implies the refusal of its self-delimitation; it claims that it is capable of sustaining, if not actually transcending, an impulse to transcend all the particularizations.” Naoki Sakai, Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 154.

14. “Africa, because it was and remains that fissure between what the West is, what it thinks it represents, and what it thinks it signifies, is not simply part of its imaginary significations, it is one of those imaginary significations.” Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 1–2.

15. See Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe, eds., Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 1.

16. Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde (London: Verso, 1995), ix.

17. Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

18. Ibid., 246.

19. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 7. Also see Osborne, The Politics of Time, 246.

20. Mitchell therefore saw staging as a process through which a series of simulations produce an unmediated and self-sufficient reality, which is particularly vulnerable to disruption and displacement. See Timothy Mitchell, Questions of Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000). 23. Also see, for more discussion of the concept “world-as-picture,” Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

21. See Henrik Reeh, Ornaments of Metropolis: Siegfried Kracauer and Modern Urban Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).

22. In this context, speaking of Korea and other Japanese colonies involves a layered process of temporalizing and othering, as seen in Stephen Tanaka’s discussion of Oriental history (tōyōshi), which represented China and Korea as Japan’s Orient. See Stephen Tanaka, Japan’s Orient: Rendering Pasts into History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). For Korean nationalism, the shared language of modernity and universal history between colonizer and colonized resulted in a categorical overlap between Korea’s own aspiration toward modernity and Japan’s exclusive claim. See Andre Schmid, Korea between Empires, 1895–1919 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

23. Mbembe and Nuttall described the spectacular vision of Johannesburg’s modernity in terms of superfluity, which refers not to the excess of objects but to how they “hypnotize, overexcite, or paralyze the senses.” Seen in the “impressions” of metropolitan modernity are a society’s fantasies, they argued, in which the phenomenality of things lies in their ability to substitute, “where the superfluity of objects is converted into a value in and of itself.” See Nuttall and Mbembe, Johannesburg, 37–67.

24. Nuttall and Mbembe called Johannesburg a metropolis in every sense of the word, but an “elusive metropolis” full of multiplicity that cannot situate it as an African, European, or American city. They employed the term Afropolitanism to describe Johannesburg as a city always on the run because cities “always outpace the capacity of the analysts to name them.” See Nuttall and Mbembe, Johannesburg, 25.

25. My use of the term urban poetics is inspired by Pierre Mayol’s preface to Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol. 2, in which he describes the city as “poeticized” by the subject who has “prefabricated it for his or her own use by undoing the constraints for the urban apparatus and, as a consumer of space, imposes his or her own law on the external order of the city.” See Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard, and Pierre Mayol, The Practice of Everyday Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 2:13.

26. During the construction in 2008 of the Kwanghwamun Plaza, an excavation at eight meters deep behind the statue of Yi Sun-sin revealed eleven layers of sand and granite as well as foundations of urbanization from the early to late Chosŏn dynasty underneath the new pavement installed in 1926 during the colonial period. In another area nearby, remnants of iron rails for streetcars that were in use as recently as 1968 were uncovered just one meter under the surface, indicating the long-held practice of simply covering over existing grounds to prepare for new construction. See Sŏul yŏksa pangmulgwan, Kwanghwamun yŏn’ga sigye rŭl tollida (Seoul: Sŏul yŏksa pangmulgwan, 2009). See also, for an exhibition about the excavation of the Ch’ŏngjin district, Asŭp’alt’ŭ arae Unjongga—Ch’ŏngjin palgul ŭi ahop susukkekki (Seoul: Sŏul yŏksa pangmulgwan, 2020).

27. Reinhart Koselleck employed the concept of “sediments of time,” which is a metaphor that was first used in historicizing natural history of the eighteenth century, to human history to “analytically separate different temporal levels upon which people move and events unfold, and thus ask about the longer-term preconditions for such events.” He used this theoretical approach to mainly to comment on two prevailing temporalities of history, “the linear-cyclical dichotomy.” See Reinhart Koselleck, Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories, ed. Sean Franzel and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, Cultural Memory in the Present (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018), 3–4.

28. Paul Virilio, A Landscape of Events (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), x.

29. Walter Benjamin, Howard Eiland, and Michael W. Jennings, eds., Selected Writings, Vol. 4, 1938–1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 392.

30. Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 3.

31. W.J.T. Mitchell, “Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture,” Journal of Visual Culture 1, no. 2 (2012): 165–81. This list is from the section “Eight Counter-Theses on Visual Culture,” 170.

32. Walter Benjamin described the objective of this as “to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components” and “to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event.” See Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 461.

33. Andreas Huyssen, Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2015), 3.

34. Other names were: “little pieces” (Kafka) and “aphorisms, witticisms, dreams, thought images” (Benjamin). Ibid., 11.

35. “The new form emerged as anti-form, resistant to the laws of genre as much as to systemic philosophy or urban sociology, crossing the boundaries between poetry, fiction, and philosophy, between commentary and interpretation, and centrally, between the verbal and the visual.” Ibid.

36. A good example of the blurred boundary between the verbal and visual is seen in episodic writings called “sketches” (sŭk’ech’i). A piece in the magazine Yǒsǒng, entitled “A Picture (manhwa) without Pictures (kŭrim): Nightly Story of Chongno,” illustrates how the visual was fused with the verbal even when no visual element accompanied the text; the visual was already an integral part of the verbal. The writer of this piece also drew a contrast from literature, noting that whereas the novel is centered on characters and events that progress and culminate in a climax, iyagi is short, fragmented, and episodic: “Suppose this: when we are so accustomed to the water from the bucket, it is hard to tell its taste. But if we eat ice cream and then drink the water, then we can tell that the water from the bucket is bland. This can be a story (iyagi) as well.” Cho Pung-haeng, “Kŭrim ŏmnŭn manhwa: Chongno yahwa,” Yǒsǒng, September 1938.