Admiral Yi Sunsin
Korea’s naval strategy was one point of success in the country’s struggle against the Japanese invaders. Led by a remarkable admiral, Yi Sunsin (1545–98), the navy was able to cut off Japanese supply lines, which extended from Seoul to the Chinese border, by repelling Japanese ships sailing around the southern and western coasts.
Admiral Yi had prepared a strong navy whose fleet included some “turtle boats,” ships with a protective covering of metal plates to make them impervious to the fire arrows of the enemy. These turtle boats were the first ironclad warships in the world. More than the ships, however, Admiral Yi’s knowledge of the Korean waters and skill in planning an attack were the decisive factors in Korea’s naval victories. Having reached a stalemate, the combatants entered a protracted period of negotiations from early 1593 to 1597. During the break-in fighting, officials at court turned to faultfinding.
One of the tragedies of the war was that one of Yi Sunsin’s rivals at court raised an indictment against him that for some reason the king accepted. Yi was arrested, relieved of his command, and reduced in rank to a foot soldier. When the war resumed, the new commander, Won Kyun (d. 1597), believed a spy’s false report that the Japanese forces were marshaling near a certain island. Admiral Won sailed into the trap and lost nearly every ship.
Admiral Yi was then restored to the command, and the naval battles went once again in Korea’s favor. In the final battle of the war, Yi Sunsin died at the helm of the command ship in a story as dramatic as any story of heroism in combat found in history or fiction: He was mortally wounded but had his nephew, who was fighting at his side, keep him upright so the sailors would not be disheartened by seeing the loss of their commander.
The renewed warfare was occasioned by a breakdown in negotiations between the Chinese and the Japanese; the unfortunate Koreans, on whose territory the war was fought, were powerless at the side of the superpowers at the negotiating table. The sticking points of the negotiations were largely symbolic.
Having given up on their dream of conquering China, the Japanese wanted to be recognized as an empire of rank equal to that of the Chinese. In the worldview of the Chinese and, of course, the Koreans, such a thing was impossible. The war raged again until Hideyoshi, who had never left Japan, ordered the retreat from his deathbed in 1598. The Chinese and Korean ships had formed a blockade, which the Japanese broke through to land onshore and load the last foot soldiers on the ships.
Then the Japanese ships had to break out of the blockade to sail home to Japan, and in this naval battle Admiral Yi died. The Koreans and Chinese could have let them go with-out a battle, but they did not. Rather, perhaps fearing that the Japanese might return again, the combined forces fought the retreating Japanese forces vigorously in this last battle of the war (Ledyard 1987, 81).
The aftermath of the War
The war left 2 million to 4 million Koreans dead and destroyed most of the homes and farms of the countryside. Very few buildings made of wood or documents made of paper that predated the Japanese invasion are to be found in Korea today. The destruction and chaos must have been nearly total. Amazingly, the court survived, and the social order remained intact.
The king returned to Seoul, and the rebuilding process began, though slowly. All five palaces in Seoul had been burned; the main palace was not rebuilt until 1865. In a sense the Choson dynasty limped through the remainder of its tenure, as symbolized by the slow-ness to restore its palaces to their former glory.
Japan lost soldiers and sailors, but its people and land were not affected by the war. After the death of Hideyoshi, the Japanese soldiers returned home, alas to more warlord confrontations. Hideyoshi’s heirs were not able to maintain power, and eventually one of Hideyoshi’s rivals, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616), succeeded in uniting the islands once again. He founded the final shogunate of the Japanese line of sho-gun dynasties, which ended in 1867.
The Europeans, who first arrived in Japan in the mid-16th century, brought with them technology, goods, and missionaries. The relation-ship had a great impact on Japan, especially in terms of economic and technological developments. The following years came to be called Japan’s “Christian Century” until the missionaries were expelled by the Tokugawa shogunate in the first half of the 17th century.
Among the Catholic converts at the time was one of Hideyoshi’s generals, Konishi Yukinaga; in the invasion, he took with him in his entourage a Portuguese priest, Gregorio de Cespedes, who is believed to be the first European to set foot in Korea. For Korean Catholics it is a bitter piece of history that the first Catholic arrived with a murderous invading army.
In addition to physical objects the Japanese took from Korea living treasures—potters, whom they carried off as captives to Japan. For centuries thereafter to the present day, the finest ceramics, teacups, and teapots for the tea ceremony, a symbol of Japanese culture, were produced in the villages where the Korean potters were forced to settle.
There were four such villages, one of which, a place called Okawachi, a part of present-day Imari city, was famous for the porcelain ware it produced.
China did not fare well in the war’s aftermath. The Ming dynasty had spent so much of its capital and manpower in the war with Japan that it became vulnerable to its northern neighbors, the Manchu. The Manchu toppled the Ming dynasty and set up their own rulers, the Qing dynasty, in 1644.
China’s weakness can be attributed, in part, to one of the last Ming emperors, Wanli (r. 1573–1620), who was derelict in his duties, leaving his eunuchs to run the country while he devoted himself to his pleasures, particularly eating.
He became so obese that he could not walk without assistance, coming to personify the corruption and incompetence of royalty, but it was the war with the Japanese in defense of Korea that set up China for the Manchu takeover.
The war’s greatest legacy may be the resilience of the Choson state and people. Of the three warring states, Choson Korea lost the most people, including a large number of civilians, unlike the Chinese and Japanese. Koreans also lost nearly all developed property.
Some palaces were not restored for another two and a half centuries. Although Japan saw a change of shogunate and China was soon conquered by the Manchu, the state of Choson, unquestionably the greatest victim of the war, did not fall.