In the late 16th century, one of the greatest and most devastating wars in the history of Asia, and an important event in world history, was fought among the three greatest powers of East-Asia, both then and today. The war in question is the Japanese invasion attempt of Korea, fought in two stages from 1592 to 1593 and from 1597 to 1598, where also China fought on the Korean side. It is known as the Imjin War (임진왜란, 壬辰倭亂) in Korea; the Wanli Korean Campaign (萬曆朝鮮戰爭) in China; and Bunroku Keichou no eki (文禄・慶長の役) in Japan. It does not have a commonly accepted name in English, but I will refer to it as the Imjin War here. Although the war is probably fairly well-known in Korea and China, it is virtually absent from Japanese history education, regarded there as little more than a misstep of the Japanese unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉), and it is largely unknown in other countries. Apart from the sheer scale of the fighting forces and the destruction they caused, the war also had long lasting consequences for all three countries involved, and arguably also for the rest of the world.
China, the greatest power in Asia (and possibly in the world) at the time, were in a suzerain relationship with Korea, China being the «father» and Korea the «son» in accordance with the Confucian ideals of a hierarchical order. That being said, the Korean state was almost completely autonomous, its status as a vassal mostly amounting to giving tribute to China, recognizing its own status as inferior, and much cultural and commercial exchange between the two countries. This relationship had a long history, and the Korean Joseon dynasty (조선, 朝鮮, 1392 – 1897) and the Chinese Ming dynasty (明朝, 1368 – 1644) were relatively close, having both come into existence in the aftermath of the Mongol empire’s (the Chinese Yuan dynasty (元朝, 1271 – 1368)) decline. While China always had uprisings in some parts of the country to put down, or raiding barbarians in their borderlands to fight off, Korea had experienced mostly peace since the Mongol conquest and subsequent 100 years of Mongol rule in the 13th century. Its borders were only to China to the north, and the sea in all other directions, and the only two exceptions to this peaceful period were the Jurchen (여진, 女真) tribes from Manchuria gradually brewing up trouble in the north, and the Wokou pirates (왜구, 倭寇, literally “Japanese pirates”) raiding the coast. In addition, Korea had not experienced any naval invasions since ancient times, and as a consequence its southern defences were weak, and its army was almost entirely reliant on peasant reserves.
Japan, on the other hand, had experienced anything but peace for more than a hundred years. When the Ashikaga shogunate (足利幕府, also known as the Muromachi shogunate, 室町幕府) lost power over the country in the middle of the 15th century, Japan entered what is called the Warring States period or sengoku jidai (戦国時代) for a hundred years, with constant civil wars among the local warlords. The country was temporarily unified by Oda Nobunaga (織田信長) in the middle of the 16th century, but there continued to be unrest. When Nobunaga was trapped in the burning Honnouji (本能寺) temple in Kyoto during an assassination attempt by the traitor Akechi Mitsuhide (明智光秀) in 1582, he promptly committed seppuku (切腹), and Japan was again thrown into turmoil. His successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉), managed to force the various warlords into submission again. However, he seems to have realized that having the country filled to the rim with veteran professional soldiers and officers, battle-hardened after a lifetime of fighting and suddenly with no more wars to fight, could in itself be a source of unrest. The hundreds of local warlords, many of whom were not at all content with the state of affairs and only loyal to Hideyoshi under the threat of force, did not improve the stability either. This is, at least, generally recognized as one of the reasons why Hideyoshi decided to send a huge army of samurai and accompanying foot soldiers to invade Korea and beyond in the beginning of the 1590’s. It was not the only one, though. Oda Nobunaga had himself expressed interest in eventually conquering Ming China, basically the entire world as known to the Japanese, and ostensibly Hideyoshi shared his lord’s dream. As more realistic goals were eventually set for later campaigns, however, it is of course possible that he was simply aiming for the conquest of Korea and securing its borders.
In any case, despite repeated diplomatic missions sent to Japan to gauge the mood there, the Korean leaders completely failed to anticipate the invasion, until Japanese samurai were literally landed on the Korean south-east coast and already advancing northward. The first Japanese forces counted thousands, and caught the coastal city of Pusan (부산, 釜山) completely by surprise when they loaded off their ships, swords and arquebuses in hand, on the evening of May 23rd, 1592. The local Korean forces were totally overwhelmed, a bridgehead was made at Pusan for new forces to land, and the Japanese army immediately continued northward. They swept through the country, and put down the resistance they met with small losses, all the way to Seoul (서울, then Hanseong (한성, 漢城)), the Korean capital, which they entered on June 10th, the Korean king and his court having already left for Pyongyang (평양, 平壌). The Korean capital taken, the Japanese forces, now counting more than a hundred thousand soldiers, split up. Some turned towards the south-western part of the peninsula where Jeolla province (전라도, 全羅道) was, and the rest northwards, towards Pyongyang or all the way to the Yalu river (압록강, 鴨緑江) and China. The Jeolla expedition met fierce resistance, but the north-going forces advanced quickly. In a couple of months, by August 1592, Japanese forces were already engaging the Jurchen, the “barbarian” people living to the North of the Korean border (interestingly enough, Korean forces apparently joined the fight on the Japanese side (Wikipedia)). The conquest of Korea may have been regarded as largely complete, and the Japanese were preparing to continue into Manchuria and China.
Apart from superior numbers, tactics and experience, the Japanese also used more effective weapons than the Korean army. In addition to the samurai sword and spears, early firearms, arquebuses (火縄銃, hinawajuu), were widely used in combination with the more traditional weapons. The arquebuses had originally been presented to the Japanese by Portuguese traders at the end of the Sengoku-period in the 1540’s, but were soon produced in the hundreds of thousands in Japan. The Koreans had not imported any similar technology from abroad, and were largely reliant on the composite bow; a long-range powerful weapon, but initially ineffective against superior numbers of quickly advancing samurai. The Korean rocket-launcher Hwacha (화차, 火車, literally “fire cart”), capable of firing a hundred fire arrows at the same time, was deployed during the war, and must have been an awesome display. However, its effectiveness during the Japanese invasion is contested.
While civil war had prepared the Japanese well for a land-war, the Koreans were superior on the sea. Having had to fight off pirates along the coast for years, they had an experienced and technologically advanced navy. The Japanese “navy”, by contrast, largely consisted of modified merchant vessels for transporting troops, with little or no naval fighting experience. In the middle of June, less than a month into the invasion, the Japanese fleet suffered a crushing defeat in the battle of Okpo (옥포 해전, 玉浦の戦い) by the hand of Korean Admiral Yi Sun-sin (이순신, 李舜臣), often known in English as Admiral Yi. Admiral Yi became a legendary figure in Korean history, and is portrayed as being vital in almost all the important Korean naval victories. This is also supposed to have been brought on partly by his deployment of the mysterious “Turtle ships” (거북선, 亀甲船), although the scope of their use and efficiency remains largely unknown. In either case, the Korean navy largely managed to block the supply lines between Japan and Korea, the Japanese fleet having few means to answer the Korean ship cannons with. Although the Japanese gradually upgraded their fleet and managed to fit looted Korean cannons on some of their ships, the Korean naval supremacy lasted throughout the war, and is regarded as being an indispensable factor in the eventual Korean victory.
Another such indispensable factor was the Chinese military intervention. Although hesitant to help at first, and the Koreans hesitant to ask for it, by January 1593 the Ming had sent a sizeable force (reportedly 30.000 – 40.000 soldiers) to help their vassal state. The intervention may have simply been an attempt to repel foreigners invading “their” sphere of influence, Korea, but the Chinese may also by now have been aware of the Japanese plans to expand further once the Korean conquest was complete. Though smaller in number than their Korean allies, the Chinese soldiers were better equipped (with gunpowder firearms and siege weapons), and experienced from countless encounters with the Jurchen raiders. The Japanese advance came to a halt, and they were soon pushed southwards. In January Chinese forces took Pyongyang, and by April 1593 the Japanese pulled out of Seoul. The Chinese advance had robbed the Japanese of important sources of food, a big setback since the Korean navy were quite effectively cutting off the supply route from Japan. Given the dire situation, Hideyoshi started peace negotiations with Korea and China, and pulled back his troops to Pusan in exchange for most of the Ming forces pulling back to China. Although the negotiations did not lead to much, the Japanese troops slowly transported back to Japan, and by 1597 almost all Japanese and Chinese forces were out of Korea.
Hideyoshi proposed to China a north-south division of Korea, where the southern part would belong to Japan, but his proposal was not accepted by the Chinese side. As a result, Hideyoshi launched a second invasion fleet, with around the same amount of soldiers as the first, early in 1597. Although he at least caught the Chinese, who had already pulled out all their soldiers from Korea, by surprise, the Korean forces were much better prepared this time over, and the Japanese had limited success. A large expedition was again sent towards Jeolla province, but it failed to conquer it, and the rest of the Japanese forces were largely confined to the south-eastern coastal area for the rest of the war. Ming China sent an even bigger contingent to help this time (perhaps 70.000 soldiers), including ships to help out the Korean navy, who again dominated the waters between Korea and Japan. The Japanese continued their fight until the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi on September 18th 1598. He is supposed to have given the order to withdraw from Korea on his deathbed.
The Imjin war was unique because it featured huge, centrally controlled regular armies (in the hundreds of thousands) fighting with modern (gunpowder) weapons, in a struggle for territory between Asian states. Although similarly scaled wars had been fought several times in China, these were mostly recognized as civil wars, or engagements with less well-organized “barbarian hordes”. The exception would be the Mongol conquests in the 13th century that led to a new Mongol dynasty in China, the Yuan, who led huge forces in successful campaigns all over Asia and even in Europe. Although it is difficult to assess the number of soldiers engaged in the Imjin war, Japan is estimated to have had up to 200.000 troops stationed at one time in Korea (Most of the numbers in this article are from Wikipedia, and even as ballpark figures they should be regarded with a fair amount of scepticism); China up to 80.000; and Korea several hundred thousand. These numbers are only slightly lower than the number of soldiers participating in the Thirty Years War shortly after in Europe, and Napoleon’s 19th century invasion of Russia. Although I do not know much about the subject, the Japanese invasion was probably one of the largest amphibious invasions in world history, on the same scale as the Mongol invasion attempts of Japan 300 years earlier, and possibly not eclipsed until the landing of the Allies in Gallipoli in the Ottoman Empire during World War 1.
In the entire Imjin war, there were perhaps 250.000 military casualties. The brunt of the destruction, however, was for the Korean civilian population to bear. The hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers who were stationed on the Korean peninsula for several years, were cut off from supplies from the Japanese islands, and were forced to rely on the local populace for food. Both the Japanese and the Chinese forces were reported to have been brutal to the Korean locals. In addition, almost all the fighting took place in Korea. In this regard, the war can be compared to the 19th century Japanese invasion of China, where many of the important battles between Japan and China were fought on Korean soil, and the 20th century Korean War, fought largely between the United States and China, entirely on the Korean peninsula. In all three cases, the Korean civilian population suffered, especially in the 16th and 20th century conflicts, but considering the population size the Imjin war can be said to have been even more devastating: Although impossible to estimate with any accuracy, around one million civilians are often thought to have died during the war, from a total population that was probably much less than 10 million. In the 1950s Korean war, around 2 million civilians died, but by now the population had grown to around 30 million. The loss of arable land in 16th century Korea, moreover, led to famines for years to come, and countless cultural and historical artefacts were destroyed.
Although certainly an important event in Korean history, the immediate historical consequences there, apart from the decimated population and huge losses of arable land, are ironically less obvious than in the two other power involved in the war. While the Korean Joseon dynasty managed to survive the war, and stayed in power until the late 19th century, the Chinese Ming dynasty fell some decades later to the Manchurian Jurchen, who established the Qing dynasty (清朝) in 1644. Although the takeover was not directly related to the Imjin war, the Ming state exhausted its resources in both the Korean campaigns and against the Mongols on the other side of its empire, while the Jurchen could amass larger and larger raids farther and farther into the exhausted Manchurian territories of China, until it grew strong enough to enter the capital of Beijing.
The Japanese were themselves already in the middle of a change of central power, but the outcome of the Korean invasion may have had strong influence on the evolution of this change. The Japanese defeat in Korea made the Hideyoshi clan very unpopular in Japan, the participating warlords being reluctant to join in on the effort even at the start of the war. With his death, new unrest ensued, and the next warlord to take control of the country was not one of Hideyoshi’s successors, but Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康), who won a decisive victory at The Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原の戦い) in 1600, and finally managed to do what Nobunaga and Hideyoshi had failed to: gather the entire country in one centrally controlled political unit and secure the internal peace. The political and social order that the Tokugawa shogunate (徳川幕府) established in Japan would remain essentially unchanged for 250 years, but it was probably quite different from what Nobunaga and Hideyoshi had had in mind. While the two first unifiers had conducted extensive trade and import of knowledge from abroad, and had ambitions to conquer the known world, Tokugawa became more and more sceptical to foreign influence, and limited trade and prosecuted Christians. By the 1630’s, the Tokugawa shogunate had introduced the sakoku (鎖国), or “closed country”, policy. It meant almost completely ending trade with the outside world, a ban on building ships capable of traversing the ocean, and an end to all foreign conquest ambitions. Although it is impossible to know, it does not seem improbable that some of these decisions were influenced by the complete failure of Hideyoshi’s Korean adventure.
In either case, it seems clear that had Japan been able to secure its Korean conquest, history might have taken a quite different course for all three countries involved. And such a possibility was probably not all that distant. Had the Japanese navy been better equipped and able to supply and reinforce the fighting forces, the initial conquest might have been even more overwhelming, and Korea could perhaps have been secured before the Chinese intervention. Had the Chinese decided to let the Koreans fight for themselves, moreover, Korea would probably have been conquered, and its future would be dependent on the endurance of its guerilla forces. Had the Japanese waited a little longer with the conquest of China itself, the crumbling Ming empire might also have been an easier pick. Of course, such thoughts are pure speculation, but considering the position China and Japan, and to a certain extent Korea, have had in modern world history, the actual and potential consequences of the war are truly momentous.
The Japanese invasions were also the start of the anti-Japanese sentiments in Korea (and in a sense also the anti-Korean sentiments in Japan) that lasts until today. These sentiments were, of course, strengthened with the Japanese incursions and eventual annexation of Korea in the late 19th and early 20th century, which were again partly excused with a wish to finish what Hideyoshi had started 300 years earlier. One of the few visible remains of the Imjin war in Japan, and a subject of contention between Korea and Japan, are the mimidzuka (耳塚), literally “ear mound”, of which there are several in western Japan. Japanese tradition required Japanese soldiers to cut off their enemy’s head and show it to their master; however, logistical difficulties with transporting tens of thousands of Korean heads to Japan led to the practice of cutting off the slain enemy’s ears or, more frequently, nose, pickle them, and send them back to Japan. They were then buried in earth mounds, originally called hanadzuka (鼻塚) or “nose mound”, but later known as mimidzuka. Though less well-known in Japan, movements in Korea have asked for the return to Korea of the noses and ears of tens of thousands of Koreans buried in Japan for 400 years. One such mound in Okayama in western Honshuu, found to contain 20.000 Korean noses, was dug up and sent “back” to Korea, where the remains were cremated. The others still exist, however, and the small mounds of raised earth in various locations in Japan can still remind us of the incredible Japanese ambitions when launching an invasion to conquer the entire Chinese empire, and the devastating effects this had on the Korean population.
This summary is based on Kyung Moon Hwang’s “A History of Korea” (Palgrave Macmillan 2010), various Wikipedia articles, and things I have read other places.
Even though put together I have lived in Japan for more than two and a half years, I have had an extremely narrow exposure to Japanese dialects. This has bothered me a lot, because I know that there exists a plethora of dialects around on the Japanese archipelago, with quite strong regional differences, to the point that inhabitants of some parts of the country would almost not be able to understand each other at all should they speak in their respective dialects. In fact, I have felt some regret at times that I didn’t apply for a rural university in Japan, instead of in Tokyo, since my own Japanese intonation as a result closely resembles that of the «standard» Tokyo dialect – and not a more «unique» dialect from the countryside. In Tokyo, the only dialects you ever hear is the Tokyo dialect, and sometimes a soft version of the Kansai dialect (which I will return to later). The same largely applies for television. If you by chance do encounter a sample of Touhoku-ben (North-Eastern Japanese) in a television drama, it will likely have been used solely for comedic effect, spoken by a poor, rural simpleton in a highly exaggerated and stylized manner.
A few days ago, I watched a television program where some young female idols were ranked according to their sense of fashion. One of the girls’ dressing was judged to be unfashionable, and this was expressed as «You look like you come from a rural area.». The girl quickly frowned and said «Oh no!». Although one should be careful to read too much into examples like this, I believe they do somewhat reflect the intuitive perception many urban Japanese have of rural areas.
Japan has historically had strong regional cultural and linguistic traditions. In the Edo Period (1603 to 1868), the Tokugawa shogunate implemented a centralized feudal system, where communication and movement between the hundreds of hans (藩) – domains controlled by a feudal lord (daimyo, 大名) – was strictly controlled and limited. The result was large differences in culture and dialects between these isolated areas. At the time, although de facto power was wielded by the shogun in Edo (today’s Tokyo), the emperor and his court and the aristocracy still resided in the capital Kyoto. With the end of the Edo shogunate came the Meiji Restoration (meiji ishin, 明治維新), the capital with the emperor was moved to Tokyo, and a process of centralization of administration, communication and power that continues to this day was started. The national economy centered more and more around Tokyo, and the industry and international trade was largely situated in Osaka and Kobe, near Kyoto. For these and other reasons, Japanese language and culture can be very roughly divided into an eastern part, centered around the urban area around Tokyo (Greater Tokyo Area, shutoken, 首都圏), and a western part, centered on the urban area encompassed by Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto (keihanshin, 京阪神).
In Tokyo, home to the Japanese government, the biggest Japanese companies, mass media, and the most famous universities, people largely consider themselves to be speaking «standard Japanese». Indeed, Standard Japanese (hyoujungo, 標準語), as written in offical documents and spoken on national television, is very close to the dialect spoken by people in Tokyo and the surrounding area. This includes those Japanese who have moved from other parts of the country to Tokyo, whether you meet them on the street or on the television screen. With educational and professional opportunities being quite limited outside the big cities, people from all over the country have been immigrating to Tokyo since Meiji times, though the flow has been slower since the 1970’s . These newcomers are likely to change their dialect as soon as they hop off the train in Tokyo Station, already quite fluent after having been exposed to Standard Japanese on television since their childhood, and will probably hardly utter a word in their own dialect until they go visit family and friends in their home region. Announcers on national television are required to practice speaking as close to Standard Japanese as possible, and actors are expected to do the same – unless playing the odd role of a rural character, in which case she must speak it in a slow, clear manner, focusing on the intonation and the dialect words or suffixes well-enough known outside its region for speakers of Standard Japanese to understand it.
This way of treating dialects is fairly alien to me. In my native Norway, dialects have a relatively high status, and changing one’s dialect when moving to a new place is for most people out of the question. After living many years in a place different from where one grew up, one’s dialect may get quite thinned out, but it is usually straightforward to hear from someone’s intonation and choice of words what approximate region he is from. Both my parents are immigrants to my home-town, and they both still speak distinctly in their own dialects, while I speak the dialect of my home region. Although some dialect-related stereotypes persist in the media and culture, most Norwegians seem to be proud of their own dialects, as an important part of their identity and family history.
In Kansai, the region south-west of Tokyo which includes the urban Keihanshin area, dialects are wielded with a (possibly) similar confidence. Although there are many different dialects, they are collectively called Kansai-ben (関西弁, Kansai Dialect), and share a similar intonation which is distinct from Standard Japanese. Although even many people from Kansai will switch to Standard Japanese when moving to or travelling in Tokyo, many will not, confidently revealing their home-region through their speech (albeit tweaking their dialect a little for easier communication with Tokyoites). On television, too, one will sometimes hear Kansai-ben, but usually uttered by performers of owarai (お笑い) or manzai (漫才), a type of Japanese stand-up comedy. Performers have traditionally (and do still largely) come from the Kansai region, and Kansai-ben has therefore become the standard language of owarai.
A large part of the reason that people from Kansai use their own dialect even in Tokyo, is probably that it was until relatively recently (150 years ago) the capital of Japan, and still retains some confidence and prestige. It is also home to the second largest urban area in Japan, the Keihanshin area, which together with the Greater Tokyo Area is home to 42% of Japan’s 128 million inhabitants. In comparison, the south-western islands of Kyuushuu and Shikoku seem like backwaters to the central urban populations, even if densely populated compared to most other countries. The north-eastern region, Touhoku, was traditionally home to the nomadic Ainu, an ethnically distinctive people now very few in number in Japan. The region was only slowly conquered by the Japanese nation and populated by peasants, but the cold and harsh conditions made for a (relatively) sparse population, a pattern which persists until today. The traditional image of Touhoku as a primitive, almost barbaric, region, probably still has an influence on many Japanese’s impression of the area.
When the restriction of movement between the hans was lifted with the Meiji Restoration, the influx of people to Tokyo, that continues until today, was largely economically motivated. The new economic and educational opportunities that came with the political reformation were mostly located in and around Tokyo, and the rural areas of the country was left with their rice paddies and other agriculture. The result was a poor countryside, and the dream of many young Japanese was to go to Tokyo to escape their destitute situation. While the situation has changed somewhat since then, rural Japan still has a poor economy and lacking educational opportunities, and this is likely reflected in many Japanese’s image of the countryside. This is probably part of the reason why many Japanese do not want to speak their own dialect when in Tokyo; they do no want to be associated with the stereotypical poor, uneducated simpleton from the countryside.
Another reason may be that their dialect might simply by unintelligible to people from other parts of the country. Norwegians can speak to each other in whatever dialect they wish, because everybody will understand them – why, we can even understand the language of our neighbouring countries (Sweden and Denmark), not ever having studied it! In Japan, however, the much larger population and the historical regional isolation has contributed to very different dialects, to the point where communication between speakers of them must sometimes be performed with a third common dialect (Standard Japanese). It is worth to mention, however, that this is partly because Japanese have almost never been exposed to other dialects in the first place. National television has always almost only shown them Standard Japanese. There are from time to time also programmes about dialects, but they typically feature slow and clear (and thereby unnatural) speech, with words and phrases that are regarded typical for that dialect. Japanese have little opportunity to get used to the sound of other dialects. Japanese moving from one part of the country to the other do not have to learn a whole new language to live there – they just need some time to get used to the dialect there.
Whatever the reason, many Japanese seem to be embarassed by their own dialect. This link features a typical example: A young man from a rural area moves to Tokyo because of his job, and switches to Tokyo dialect as a matter of course. However, when his parents come to visit him, they embarass him by speaking loudly in their home town dialect, even when the three of them happen to meet a co-worker of the young man on the street. The man asks what he should do, or if anyone else have had similar experiences. Such feelings are probably enforced when speaking of dialect almost invariably causes smiles or laughing by listening Tokyo residents.
On the other hand, dialects are probably spoken widely within their actual regions. Although national television exposes people to Standard Japanese, the increase of regional television channels and more recently Internet television and radios lets people from the Touhoku region hear Touhoku-ben even in the mass media. While difficult to assess from here in Tokyo, I suspect that many dialects within the regions are disappearing as villages become de-populated, and that dialects in general converge around regional centers. I would assume this is also common elsewhere in the world. It is definitely a subject I would like to study in more detail. In the meantime, I think it would improve understanding between the rural and urban areas if dialects were spoken in more settings. Communication might be a little harder at first, but as knowledge of the various dialects spread throughout the nation, I believe it would have positive long-term effects.
My main motivation for making this blog is to organize my thoughts around certain subjects that interest me or things I have recently read about in books, by putting them down on paper before I forget about them or lose interest. It should also give me valuable training in writing better texts. I certainly have enough free time to spare a few hours every week to write a structured text, so my goal is to (for the time being) update this blog with some kind of content once a week. Since spending hours writing a well thought-through article into a text-file, only to save it to my hard drive and never letting anyone read it, is not very motivating, I decided that I will release my thoughts for a potentially wide audience that is the Internet, and invite my family and some of my friends to have a look, though none of them should in any way feel obligated to read my posts here (though i am certain my mother will follow my posts closely). Any and all feedback is appreciated.