“Arirang” is known worldwide as the quintessential Korean folk song. Its iconic status in contemporary Korea derives from its perceived role in strengthening Korean resolve to resist the cultural violence of the Japanese colonial occupation (1905–45). A musical “skeleton” capable of countless improvised variations and interpretations, some “Arirangs” explicitly assailed the Japanese and thus were censored by colonial authorities. However, in the 1930s and 1940s, precisely the time when assimilationist pressures in colonial Korea were intensifying, Japanese songsmiths, singers, and recording companies released “Arirang” renditions in prodigious quantities, sometimes in collaboration with Korean performers. “Arirang” became the most familiar song in the Japanese empire: Its persistent theme of loss spoke to Koreans of their lost sovereignty and to Japanese of the ravaging effects of modernity on traditional lifeways. For both peoples, it served as a mirror for self-contemplation and an “ethnographic lens” for gazing upon the other.

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