This article features Mrs. Ahn, a Seoul native, who in the midst of war, leaves behind her baby and bedridden husband to work as a clerk for the Imperial Japanese Army, presumably handling paperwork for newly enlisted soldiers. Notably, her 7-year-old daughter is tasked with caring for her 2-year-old son, a decision that seems quite extreme by today’s standards.
Initially, I surmised that Mrs. Ahn was married to a Japanese man with the surname Hirahara, as they were wed ten years prior to 1944, in 1934. This was before the Sōshi Kaimei, the period when Koreans adopted Japanese-style names en masse. However, I now harbor doubts about this assumption. The reason for my skepticism lies in the name of their son, Huichang, which is so distinctively Korean. This raises the possibility that the newspaper may have ‘retroactively’ claimed that the family went by the Hirahara name in 1934, even though they might not have adopted that name yet at that time.
Mrs. Ahn’s portrayal in the article brings to mind the iconic Rosie the Riveter from the U.S. World War II era. However, unlike Rosie, who symbolized the American women working in manufacturing and production during the war, Mrs. Ahn is depicted as a clerk. Yet, both characters represent women stepping into roles traditionally held by men due to the demands of a global conflict. Mrs. Ahn is shown working longer, harder, and more efficiently than her colleagues, while accepting only a third of the standard pay. By contemporary standards, this portrayal seems to endorse a very toxic work culture, one that valorizes excessive work hours, underpayment, and overwhelming workloads, all in the name of national duty and conservation during the war. It makes me wonder just how much of an impact Imperial Japan’s legacy might have had in shaping the work cultures of modern Japanese and Korean societies.
Such representations of ‘model workers’ were not uncommon in propaganda campaigns globally, but Imperial Japan’s approach, particularly its praise for workers who eagerly accept lower wages on top of longer working hours, might be quite unique. Have you ever encountered any other piece of propaganda, anywhere in the world, where the model worker is praised for accepting lower wages?
Gyeongseong Ilbo (Keijo Nippo) February 5, 1944
Taking Over for Her Sick Husband, Mrs. Ahn Fights Three Times as Hard in Public Service
Working Women [Part 6]
Mrs. Ahn was at home where the warmth of the ondol barely kept the chill at bay. After putting her ten-month-old baby to sleep and attending to her bedridden husband, she boldly declared, ‘To defeat the British and American beasts, I must devote myself to public service with all my might!‘ She cast aside her traditional role and, holding a pen in her hand at the Yongsan District Office, she impressively completed 120 copies of family register transcripts per day, astonishing her male colleagues with her patriotic fervor as a Korean woman.
Mrs. Ahn Gi-jeong (안기정, 安基貞), a 28-year-old resident of Jongno-gu, Doryeom-dong, was born in Seoul, the heart of the Korean Peninsula. She honed her virtues of a good wife and wise mother at the prestigious Gyeonggi Girls High School. Ten years ago, she married into the Hirahara family, building an enviable and harmonious household. Unexpectedly, a few years ago, her husband, the pillar of their family, fell ill. However, with determination and grit, she tirelessly cared for him through the nights without sleep, bravely battling through the ordeal of nursing him to health. Through her tireless care, he is on the path to recovery, just as the massive cannons of the annihilation campaign against the Anglo-Saxons are tearing through heaven and earth like thunderclouds booming on a clear day. In this era, men born in the Empire resoundingly march through the military gates to the beat of their military boots, while women, in place of men, sweat profusely on the production frontlines. She, too, is a woman of the Empire.
Her patriotic sincerity blazes like a flame, which led her to put an end to her indoor, anbang life. ‘If my husband cannot serve, I will work twice as hard in his place,’ she declared, looking resolute in her navy blue office uniform. Last summer, amid the rainy season, she took up a position in the Yongsan District Office’s Family Register and Military Affairs Section. Comforting her two-year-old son, Huichang (희창, 煕昶), who clung to her and refused to leave her breast, she entrusted him to the care of her seven-year-old daughter, Aehui (애희, 愛姫). Starting work at her desk in the district office early in the morning, she immerses herself in her intense job at the office, staying well past 5 PM when most of the office employees leave work. Due to the current state of affairs, the Family Register and Military Affairs Section is so busy that they would even welcome the help of a cat’s paw, making it not uncommon for her special duties to continue late into the night.
A glance at her attendance book shows it filled with red marks, half of which are overlaid with a purple stamp indicating ‘special duty’. Her physical frame may be slender, but her spirit is robust; she has not missed a single day, akin to the diligence of an ox. Although it is not rare for employees to be diligent, she stands out for processing a large volume of 120 transcripts a day with lightning speed. Moreover, it is astonishing that, unlike the clock’s hands that may err, her writing is completely free of mistakes.
Mr. Tokumaru, the chief of the Family Register and Military Affairs Section, his cheeks flushed with emotion, said, ‘If we were to pay a copywriter five sen per page for the amount of work Mrs. Ahn does in a month, it would cost 180 yen in monthly wages. However, Mrs. Ahn’s salary is about a third of that. It’s not about the financial bottom line, but it can be considered a way of saving the expenses of the nation in wartime. Mrs. Ahn herself never dreams of criticizing the compensation for her skills. She minimizes her own living expenses and silently spreads fireworks at the tip of her pen. She is truly a treasure of our district office and an example of selfless public service‘.
Mrs. Ahn, who passionately speaks of her patriotism for the Korean Peninsula, humbly says, ‘When I return home after special duty, sometimes I am so tired that the telephone poles seem to double when I look at them. However, when I think of the brave soldiers of the Imperial Army, who, despite gunfire and heavy rain, fight with the lightness of goose feathers and wield demon-slaying swords in order to accomplish the grand undertaking of this unprecedented era, my fatigue seems insignificant. I fervently wish that more Korean women will take up the important task of supporting the holy war effort, and courageously spread sparks of struggle on the battleline of the workplace.‘ [Photo = Mrs. Ahn reviewing the de-registration records]
Industrial Association Discussion: At Yongsan Station, a regular discussion meeting was held in the instruction room at 2 PM on February 5th, inviting 170 members of the Seoul Iron and Steel Industrial Association to ensure full preparation for increased production.