Book Discussion: The Invitation Only Zone by Robert S. Boynton

More Than Just the Abduction Stories

When I first opened this book, I was expecting an account of the abductions conducted by North Korea since the 1970s. I was not expecting to learn how the Japanese imperialist government used ideas of race and anthropology to promote colonialism. But I’m glad that I did.

As the author Robert S. Boynton states in the Epilogue of the book, as he researched the abductions, he began to realize that “the subterranean link between Japan and Korea—whether by way of immigration, colonialism, or abduction—was the story.” (page 235 of The Invitation Only Zone)


Race and Colonialism

As I discussed in my post about social constructs, race is a social construct with very real consequences. It is based in ideas of shared appearance, including skin tone, facial features and body types. Ideas of race have been used to colonize, enslave and devastate people throughout history. In most cases (and I mean most by a wide margin), the perpetrators of these actions were white and the victims were not. White colonizers used the darker skin tones of people in other places as justification for colonizing these people and their land. They crafted a social narrative that painted white people as good, clean and civilized while darker people were viewed as savage, dirty and in need of saving from their uncivilized selves. (This is a quick and simplified version of the history of colonialism—one could write volumes upon volumes of books on the subject).

Ethnicity is a social construct based in shared culture– the place you were born, the culture you are familiar with, the religion you practice etc. One question that Boynton explores in The Invitation Only Zone is; how did the Japanese imperialist powers use ideas of race and ethnicity to justify colonization of groups that were generally viewed as racially similar to themselves (i.e. Koreans, Chinese)? As it turns out, anthropology played a significant role.

Modern-day Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

Japan, Anthropology and the Colonization of Korea

The following is a summary of ideas from Chapter 4 of Boynton’s book.

In the late 1800s, the “Nissen dosoron” or “common origin” theory dominated Japanese discourse about race and ethnicity. This theory claimed that Japanese people shared ancestry with other groups in Asia, including the Koreans. During this time, a professor of anthropology at Tokyo University named Ryuza Torri taught that Japan was an ethnic group that possessed all the best traits of Asia’s other ethnic groups. The Japanese racial discourse at this time framed the Japanese as superior because they were formed from a mixing of many Asian racial and ethnic groups through “natural selection.” It is important to note that the basis for many of these ideas were framed by European and American ideas of anthropology at the time, brought to Japan through literature and visiting anthropological scholars.

Many Japanese during this time viewed Korea as quaintly primitive, much like how many early European and American anthropologists viewed their foreign subjects of study. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Japanese colonial government actually promoted Korean ethnic pride, while simultaneously pushing Japanese nationalism. However, during the late 1930s up until 1945, Japan shifted their colonial tactics towards forced assimilation. Koreans were commanded to only speak Japanese, to worship at Japanese Shinto shrines, and to take on Japanese names. During this time period many Koreans moved to Japan, either on their own accord or because they were forced to by the Japanese military.

An aerial view of modern-day Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Ciaran O’Brien on Unsplash

Beginning around 1948, anthropology was used to support at different Japanese ethnic narrative. Based on the discovery of an ancient piece of skeleton on Japanese land, Tokyo University’s head of anthropology, Kotondo Hasebe, preached that Japanese people were descended from a long line of ancients who evolved on Japanese soil.

Meanwhile, both North and South Korea now sought to put as much space between themselves and the Japanese as possible. Each of the two new nations promoted their own brands of Korean pride and nationalism.

The Metro in modern-day Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo by Random Institute on Unsplash

How The Abductions Tie In

So, how does all this relate to the North Korean abductions?

Beginning in the 1970s, North Korea abducted citizens of many different countries, but it seems that most of the abductees were taken from Japan. Boynton’s book speculates on many reasons for the abductions, including the need for North Korean spies to learn Japanese, the need for stolen Japanese identities, and North Korea’s desire for revenge on Japan. Boynton states that during his interviews for the book, many Japanese interviewees expressed doubts about the returned abductees’ loyalties. Some felt that the abductees had become more Korean than Japanese after spending decades in North Korea. Many interviewees also mentioned the Japan’s struggle to “deal with” the Korean minority ethnic group still living in Japan.

Overall, Boynton emphasizes that the abductions are yet another event that shows Japan and Korea’s fates are intertwined. His account describes how social constructs about the relationship between the two cultures have been created and shaped overtime.


Why You Should Read This Book

I recommend you read this book for Boynton’s discussion of ethnic and cultural politics in Japan and Korea, but also for the incredible stories of the abductees and their return home (for those who were able to return). The ways that many of these abductees survived and built their lives while being held in North Korea are amazing.

Reading this book has brought back to me what I learned in university about anthropology’s dark past. It is important to remember that science and knowledge, like many other tools, can be used for good or bad, and can even be wielded like a weapon. We have to keep discussing and learning from the past.

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

What I Feel The Book Is Missing…

Overall, I thought that Boynton’s book was outstanding. He researched his topics thoroughly and conducted many in-person interviews with abductees, their families, and other key players surrounding the abduction issue.  If I could point out one missing element, it would be the lack of input from modern-day Korean and Japanese scholars or anthropologists on multiculturism and ethnic relations between the groups. Although Boynton used many current studies published by Korean and Japanese researchers on these topics, I would have liked to see some direct quotes from interviews with these authors. The first-person accounts of abductees are part of what make this book so great, so I would have liked to see some first-person interaction with experts on Japan-Korea ethnic relations as well, in order to see how perspectives may have changed.


A full citation for Boynton’s book:

Boynton, Robert S. 2017. The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project. NY, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


More on Japan and Korea Relations

I’m very interested in topics related to those covered in The Invitation Only Zone, so I’ve done a great deal of reading and watching on the subject. For more information on the topics of Japan-Korea relations, the Korean minority in Japan and the North Korean abductions, I recommend these sources:


Non-Fiction Book:

Ishikawa, Masaji, Risa Kobayashi, and Martin Brown. 2018. A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea. Seattle: AmazonCrossing.


Historical Fiction Books*:

Lee, Min Jin. 2017. Pachinko. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

Kaneshiro, Kazuki. 2018. Go. Translated by Takami Nieda. Seattle, WA: Amazon Crossing. (reprint edition)

*Yes, these are fiction, but they are well researched and based on the experiences of real people.


Inside North Korea’s bubble in Japan by Vice




News Articles:

A Korean Celebrity Couple Kidnapped By Kim Jong Il: ‘The Lovers and the Despot’ by Mark Jenkins via NPR


North Korean Abductions of Japanese Citizens: A Timeline by




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