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Enemies of the Lineage: Widows and Customary Rights in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945


My dissertation examines Korean widows and their legal rights during the Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), focusing on widows and their lawsuits over property rights, inheritance and adoption. Utilizing civil case records from the Superior Court of Colonial Korea, I argue that women's rights were diminished by the Korean customs adopted by the judicial system under the Japanese colonial state. By examining the production process of Korean customs in the colonial civil courts, I emphasize Korean agency in the transformation of family customs during the Japanese colonial period.

Women's property and inheritance rights developed in close relationship with the Japanese family policy, which aimed to disintegrate the lineages in Korea into nuclear households. The Japanese colonial state strengthened the household system by protecting customary rights that allowed widows to become house-heads. Protecting rights of widows that straddled the ambivalent position between the lineage and the nuclear family, the colonial civil court effectively solidified boundaries between households that cut through traditional ties of family. Therefore, civil cases that involved widow rights became the battleground where the conflict between the proponents of the Korean lineage system and the family nuclearization policy of the colonial state unfolded.

As colonial family policy developed into the 1920s and the 1930s, women's rights became increasingly subjected to the patriarchal constraints of the nuclear household. The Japanese colonial state moved its attention from widow rights (which, after all, was too closely linked to the agnate adoption custom of the lineage system) to daughters' rights by promoting son-in-law adoption as a way to expand women's inheritance rights. Meanwhile, the colonial state denied women's demands for full inheritance rights that would infringe upon the rights the house-head of the nuclear household. The 1939 Civil Ordinances Reform, which implemented son-in-law adoption and household names, therefore, was the culmination of the family nuclearization policy of the Japanese colonial state.

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