By Robert Neff
Busan in the summer of 1881 was a powder keg waiting to go off. Busan was actually two distinct settlements: Pusan (the Korean city) and Fusan (the Japanese settlement). They were separated by a couple of miles and strictly segregated from one another — only Korean traders and laborers were allowed to enter Fusan and Japanese were forbidden from entering Pusan.
Fusan was made up of over 430 Euro-Japanese style wooden buildings and had a population of about 3,000 Japanese. Almost everyone was involved with trade. There were sixty large trading firms competing with 160 independent commissioners or agents, known as Nagasaki Sho, who possessed very little, if any, capital. Even tradesmen and restaurant owners speculated in exporting Korean agricultural products.
Many did fairly well, but in the summer of 1881, trade in Fusan was almost non-existent. Following a severe drought and fearing famine, many of the Korean farmers were unwilling to sell their crops and subsequently the price of rice quickly skyrocketed. Unable to buy and export rice, most of the residents of Fusan found themselves in economic straits — especially the Nagasaki Sho who were described by one Japanese newspaper as “beggars”. According to another newspaper, most of the Japanese in Fusan were in the “direst poverty, and borrow money from the Coreans to buy rice with, and can hardly live.”
There were often violent encounters between Koreans and Japanese — usually when the Japanese intruded into the Korean city. In late May, Mr. Ito, a student who “was very desirous of learning the opinions and customs of the Koreans” traveled to Fusan where he dressed himself in Korean clothing and then set out for Pusan to see for himself how Koreans lived. His short hair and “imperfect knowledge” of the “Korean tongue” gave him away and he was promptly beaten and stoned by an angry mob of Koreans. He was then arrested and put into a Korean jail.
The Japanese consul, learning of Ito’s fate, sent the Japanese police to rescue the student — which they did. The Korean governor later notified the Japanese consul that Ito’s assailants had been beheaded “as a warning to other persons inclined to behave in the same outrageous manner.”
On August 18, four Japanese sneaked into a Korean village and attempted to purchase some goods. A dispute over the price resulted in the Japanese severely beating the merchants. Angered by the attack, a large mob of Koreans began to beat the Japanese with sticks and stones causing the Japanese to flee back to Fusan. The four would-be merchants then “quickly spread word of their attack exaggerating the offenses of the Koreans and downplaying their own transgressions.” A mob of Japanese, armed with swords, spears and rifles marched to the village causing panic amongst its inhabitants.
“Men, women and children, old and young, were thrown into great consternation, everyone running hither and thither; some even jumping into the water to escape the danger, whilst others took refuge in the mountains.”
A Japanese military patrol was able to persuade the mob to return to Fusan but later another group of 50 men made their way to Pusan. There they began harassing and threatening the Korean population with swords while drinking sake and eventually stabbed and killed a Korean man. The Japanese police later arrived and disarmed the drunken men but did not arrest them for the murder. After disarming them, the police left and the drunks continued to harass the frightened Korean population.
As a consequence of these two incidents, the Japanese consul issued a proclamation banning Japanese merchants from rising up and taking the law into their own hands.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.