Seoul / How the Japanese occupation shaped the city of Seoul – Development inequalities

Seoul has known two main improvement plans during the colonial period. The first (1912) was characterized by radial streets linking the headquarter buildings creating the same pattern as the one used in Versailles and Washington DC as a way to affirm the power of the Japanese Empire in the public space.  In the plan for 1919, radial streets are moved and most of the plazas disappeared and were replaced by a grid pattern network of streets. At that time, most of the arterial streets of Seoul were built even if it didn’t seems as necessary as in other cases, like in the renovation of Paris by Haussmann. Indeed, during that period, the streets of the French capital were insalubrious and the dwellings overcrowded. The density was important with about 340 people per hectare, on the contrary in Seoul, the density was quite low during the Japanese occupation wih only 69 people per hectare. This proves that these transformations weren’t done at first to solve urban problems but to affirm the colonial rule and the superiority of the Japanese Empire.

However, the requests and protests of the Japanese settlers present in Korea changed the initial project planned by the Government General of Joseon. Indeed, the main part of the city improvements were located on the northern districts of the capital where mostly Koreans lived while Japanese mostly lived in the southern districts. After many conflicts, Japanese settlers finally obtained what they asked for, and the new towns created for them were much more developed than the Korean districts since there weren’t any large scale intervention into traditionnal urban tissues in which Koreans were established. This finally caused important disparities in terms of life standards and comfort, for instance, less than 28% of the Korean households had access to water supply while 85% of Japanese households did.

Road clearing in Seoul, early Japanese colonial period
Road clearing in Seoul, early Japanese colonial period (1912)
Changes in the urban structure of downtown Seoul (a) city fortress of Seoul before modernization (b) city ward improvement plan, 1912 (c) city ward improvement plan, 1919 (d) present-day urban structure of downtown Seoul
Changes in the urban structure of downtown Seoul
(a) city fortress of Seoul before modernization
(b) city ward improvement plan, 1912
(c) city ward improvement plan, 1919
(d) present-day urban structure of downtown Seoul
Map of Keijo
Map of Keijo

Reference:

Inha Jung (2013), Architecture and Urbanism in Modern Korea, University of Hawai’i Press
TODD, H. (2014) Assimilating Seoul: Japanese Rule and The Politics of Public Space in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945. Asia Pacific Modern. A Philip E. Lilienthal Book in Asian Studies