Although Tan’gun, Korea’s mythical founding father, is often depicted as an undisputed symbol of Korean nationalism, this article sheds light on a more complex history in which Tan’gun stands at the center of contesting forces and ambiguous understandings. In fact, besides his nationalist deployment, he was also mobilized as a symbol of Korean-Japanese affinity, which, in turn, was based on centuries of Japanese engagements with the mythical progenitor. As a more cosmopolitan conceptualization of Tan’gun obtained imperialist dimensions in the early twentieth century, it also interacted with and stimulated Korean nationalist utilizations of the founding father. By investigating Tan’gun’s “other” history, this article complicates our understanding of how the figure of Tan’gun evolved into the prime symbol of Korean nationalism and how Koreans negotiated their historical identity within the Japanese empire.

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