3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
The Home Front Coin of the Realm

 

Ch 12 - Japanese Invasions


Song of the Great Peace

Toyotomi Hideyoshi launched a second major invasion of Choson in 1596, but faced greater opposition from both Choson and Chinese forces. Unable to expand beyond Kyongsang Province, the Japanese finally withdrew in the winter of 1598. The final disastrous defeat of the Japanese fleet by Admiral Yi in the Battle of Chinhae Bay ended fleet actions by the Japanese for the next 300 years.

The pounding suffered by the Japanese navy at the hands of the Choson navy remained an acute embarrassment to Hideyoshi. When Japanese troops left Choson, they did so quite willingly, in large part because so long as Admiral Yi Sun-sin lived, and so long as his ships controlled the seas, Japan had no hope of reinforcing the peninsula. Nearly 180,000 Japanese had already died at his hands and the Japanese greatly feared him. The Japanese confidently believed that removing Admiral Yi Sun-sin would leave the Tsushima Strait virtually undefended. Well-aware of the festering political jealousies that permeated Seoul, the Japanese devised a plan they hoped would take the Choson admiral out of action permanently.

In late 1596, a spy arrived at the Yi court in Seoul with a tempting piece of totally false, yet totally believable intelligence. He carefully planted the story that a Japanese invasion fleet would be sailing past a coastal point on a certain day. The still frightened and suspicious Yi government took the bait and immediately ordered Yi Sun-sin to sea to intercept the invaders. Yi Sun-sin had an ego as big as his fleet however, and correctly interpreted the situation as nothing more than a great deception. He refused to sail.

Admiral Yi Sun-sin, the naval hero whose genius ensured Choson's survival during the Japanese invasion, received his appointment from a member of the Namin (Southern) faction and subsequently earned the support of the Tong-in (Eastern) faction as well. Despite the war, factional feuds raged unabated in the Yi court with the So-in (Western) faction holding the dominant position. The bickering between the Tong-in and the So-in factions led to the kind of ironic result that epitomized the senseless nature of factionalism and the Choson court's totally unrealistic attitude toward the Imjin War. Yet another telling example of this attitude is the manner in which King Sonjo issued awards. Eighty-six members of the retinue that followed Sonjo in his earlier retreat to the city of Uiju received status awards granted to merit subjects. Only eighteen men received such awards for meritorious service for combat against the Japanese.

In the aftermath of the accusations and innuendos that flew about the Yi court, King Sonjo ordered Yi Sun-sin's arrest. The court relieved him of his command, reduced him in rank to a simple soldier, and jailed him in early 1597. The victorious So-in (Western) faction replaced Yi Sun-sin with its own favorite son, Won Kyun, commander of one of the Cholla district naval stations. The So-in won a hollow political victory. Admiral Won Kyun proved to be an utterly incompetent naval commander with little taste for battle, which he carefully avoided whenever he could.

Hideyoshi made two fatal mistakes in planning his second invasion of the Korean Peninsula. First, he assummed that with Yi Sun-sin out of the picture, even if he should encounter trouble at sea, which he evidently did, he had no reason to fear major interference with his invasion. Second, and more devastating, he completely underestimated the probable opposition on land. He totally misinterpreted the fact that Japan's rapid advanced up the peninsula in 1592 was due more to China's slow response than Choson's weak military defense. He confidently expected an easy occupation, secure from any interference by sea.

The Chinese realized that in the first war they had moved too slow in sending troops to assist Choson and left too soon, allowing the Japanese to retain a foothold in the south. Suspicious of Hideyoshi's intentions throughout the years of deadlocked diplomatic wrangling, the Chinese poured troops into Choson, helping to defend virtually every city, town, mountain pass, and river ford in depth.

Japan's second expeditionary force of about 140,000 men safely arrived along the southern coast of Choson and landed unopposed on the south coast of Kyongsang Province in early 1596. Once they established a foothold however, the Japanese found Choson both equipped and ready to deal with an invasion. Even China responded quickly to the renewed threat, sending an additional contingent of 40,000 troops under the command of General Yang Hao directly into Kyongsang Province. The Japanese faced strong, stubborn opposition and could not break out of the southern provinces. Outnumbered at every step of their painfully slow advance, it took the Japanese six months of constant fighting to advance no father than a point which they had reached in only two weeks during the first invasion in 1592.

The Japanese land army achieved little more than local success in its engagements and remained confined largely to Kyongsang Province. By late 1596, the Japanese dug in and established defensive positions from which they launched numerous short-range attacks that kept the more numerous Chinese and Choson forces off balance. To avoid any chance that the leadership in Kyoto would doubt the fighting prowess of the Japanese commanders in Choson, the officers sent barrels filled with the pickled ears of nearly 38,000 of their victims to the capital as proof. The grisly remains were later given a proper burial a long way from home at Kyoto in the Mimizuka, or "Mound of Ears."

The situation at sea was very different. With Yi Sun-sin out of the picture, the Japanese navy operated with unaccustomed aggressiveness. Events quickly overtook the freshly appointed Admiral Won Kyun that again threatened the survival of the Yi dynasty. When news of the approaching invasion fleet reached Choson, Admiral Won received orders to attack. His lack of leadership had reduced the Choson fleet to such a low level state of readiness that it was hardly an effective fighting force. Nevertheless, Admiral Won was obliged to obey. When he finally crossed paths with General Konishi's fleet, purely by chance as it turned out, his inept maneuvering nearly resulted in the elimination of the entire Choson fleet. Admiral Won's captains deserted him at the first contact with the Japanese and the Choson fleet scattered. Admiral Won saved his own skin by fleeing the battle. Konishi completely turned the tables and destroyed nearly all the ships in Admiral Won's weak command, the first great naval victory against a foreign enemy in Japanese history. When word of the disaster reached the Yi court, it was only the influence of the powerful So-in (Western) faction that prevented his execution.

King Sonjo had no alternative. Having already treated a national hero with insulting ingratitude, he hastily pardoned Yi Sun-sin and reinstated him as Admiral of the Navy and Commander of the Fleet. Yi Sun-sin, always ready to act in the service of his country, accepted his new command;  the twelve surviving ships from Admiral Won Kyun's disgraceful action against the Japanese. It is unclear whether these were all the ships that Won Kyun left him, whether the government feared he might stage the world's first naval coup d'état if he had more, or whether all he needed was twelve ships. Despite its small size, Admiral Yi's ships wasted little time in aggressively harassing the Japanese to great effect.

General Konishi, unaware of the change of command in the Choson navy, dispatched a squadron of ships to the west from Pusan to assist the garrisons in that area. As Admiral Yi Sun-sin sailed into the area frequented by Japanese shipping along the southern coast, Konishi's squadron sailed headlong into his approaching ships near Hansan Island, the site of his earlier decisive victory over the Japanese. The results were the same as they had always been. The entire Japanese squadron suffered a complete and disastrous defeat. Although it was only the loss of a small squadron and Konishi's fleet remained intact, news of the naval action sent shivers through the Japanese army command. Their past experience with Admiral Yi Sun-sin made them suddenly very cautious about taking any further risks.

The Japanese held their positions through the winter of 1596, constantly harassed and threatened from the land side, but free from assault by sea. Although Admiral Yi had destroyed one naval squadron, he was too weak in numbers to take on the main Japanese fleet. His reputation still haunted Konishi and his menacing presence on the Japanese western flank kept the Japanese general perpetually apprehensive. Matters remained indecisive well into the summer of 1597, yet Hideyoshi refused to admit he had been beaten. The mounting strain took a terrible toll on troop morale as the Japanese tried to maintain a position from which they had nothing to gain.

During the winter of 1597, a large Japanese fleet of 133 ships loaded with supplies sailed from the southern port of Oranp'o (modern Masan) bound for the Yellow Sea. At the time, Admiral Yi's small twelve-ship squadron was stationed in the Myongnyang Strait off South Cholla Province that lies between Jin Island and the Hwawon Peninsula, reinforced by a small squadron of Chinese ships under orders to follow his command. It is remarkable testimony to the great respect the Chinese held for the man, since on all other occasions of cooperation with Choson, the Chinese always insisted on taking supreme command. Lying in wait off Myongnyang, near the port of Mokp'o, secure in his knowledge of local high tides and torrential currents that roar through the narrow strait, Yi Sun-sin's twelve ships sat in ambush as the Japanese fleet carefully filed between Jin Island and the peninsula.

With his flagship anchored at the throat of the narrow channel, Admiral Yi held his position while his other ships sat at the ready to his rear. As the Japanese continued their advance, Admiral Yi's subordinate officers gave him up for dead and started rowing in retreat. At this critical juncture, Admiral Yi Sun-sin "whipped off the neck" of a sailor rowing back and hung it up high on the ship's mast, then roared, "Attack!" With predictable effect, the decapitation galvanized the fighting spirit of his men and they charged into the Japanese ships. Through sheer fighting skill and the spirit of his men, Admiral Yi's twelve fighting ships sank thirty-one Japanese ships, killed their fleet commander and scattered the remaining ships into retreat. The "Miracle of Myongnyang" put the seas once again under Choson's control and sealed the fate of Japan's land army.

In early 1598, the Chinese engaged the Japanese in a massive battle near the city of Ulsan. Although the fierce engagement did not break the Japanese position, it starkly reinforced the fact that Hideyoshi's army could not break out of its defensive perimeter in Kyongsang Province. Driven back into a shrinking perimeter along the south, central and southeastern coastal regions, the Japanese army found itself hemmed in both by land and sea. Japan's position in Choson became so bad by autumn that the Japanese field commander was on the verge of asking to negotiate an armistice. The stalemate was broken with the sudden arrival of news from the Shogun. Hideyoshi had died suddenly on September 18, 1598 The Legacy of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and his successor had decided to abandon the campaign. The Japanese army in Choson quickly sued for peace and agreed to a complete withdrawal.

Orders for reembarkation were issued and in early winter the Japanese began the slow process of moving aboard ships for the journey home. Although neither Chinese nor Choson troops made any effort to grasp the opportunity at hand, the Japanese exercised extreme caution during their withdrawal, trying to prevent the sizeable forces nearby from taking tactical advantage of the movement. The withdrawal was successfully completed in due time, and the transport ships set sail for Japan, escorted by the main Japanese fleet under the command of General Konishi, the first to arrive in Choson some six years earlier and now the last to leave.

The Japanese still faced the challenge of recrossing the Tsushima Strait, a stretch of open water where the implacable warrior Yi Sun-sin still held command. Admiral Yi felt little sympathy for his landbound colleagues, who sat and watched the Japanese leave without striking a farewell blow. He was resolved that on his element at least, they should feel one. Having already been dealt with so unceremoniously by King Sonjo's court, Admiral Yi felt certain that jealous factions would again try to bring him down in disgrace after the war. Before that could happen however, he determined to win one last great victory against the Japanese.

Carefully watching for his chance, Admiral Yi Sun-sin hurriedly moved northeastward from Chungmu just as the evacuation convoy was fully underway. On December 16, 1598, Admiral Yi led his fleet against some 400 Japanese ships in Chinhae Bay off Noryang Point. The small Choson squadron had no difficulty catching up with great lumbering fleet moving slowly toward the Tsushima Strait. Far outnumbered, Admiral Yi used his ships like sheep dogs to encircle the Japanese and herd their ships into a confused and helpless mass. General Konishi put up a gallant defense during the long and fiercely contested naval engagement that followed.

Near the height of the battle, under a sky covered by the smoke of burning ships, with arrows and rifle balls flying in all directions, a random bullet fatally wounded the fifty-four-year-old Yi Sun-sin as he proudly stood in the prow of his flagship. Lying mortally wounded on the deck of his ship, enjoying the satisfaction of seeing the last of the Japanese invaders leaving his homeland, Yi Sun-sin ordered his men to keep his death a secret until a decisive victory had been won. Both sides suffered heavy losses in the fighting that ultimately broke the Japanese convoy into a number of smaller groups. As the stragglers broke free of the fighting and made their way to safe ports, the last great naval battle of the Imjin War faded into history. Although Japan did not suffer the complete defeat handed the French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar, the outcome of the winter Battle of Chinhae Bay ended any fleet battle actions by the Japanese for the next 300 years.

Few naval commanders ever more thoroughly justified Napoleon's words that, "war is an affair not of men, but of a man." The fact that Admiral Yi Sun-sin fought aboard a ship of his own design with such superior fighting qualities that nothing else afloat at the time could match it does not lessen the magnitude of his success. If the object of a war is to win, then the nation, or man, that attains that goal by the intelligent production of better weapons is fully entitled to the success achieved. Yi Sun-sin did more than just design a better ship. He never made mistakes. He went to war without the guidance of existing principles of naval strategy and literally improvised and acted on his own initiative as he went along. Not a single instance of any importance in his whole record of service was marred by faulty judgement.

Admiral Yi Sun-sin realized at the very outset of the Imjin War that he could not make the sea impassable to Japan by splitting his fleet and stationing squadrons along the southern Choson coast. He clearly understood that instead of picking the fruits of victory piecemeal, the best way to reach the fruit was to take a sharp axe and cut down the entire tree. In his first major campaign near Okp'o, he went directly after the troop and supply ships on which all else depended. Having destoyed them, the impact was felt throughout the Japanese command, right down to the soldier in the field.

The Imjin War cost the Japanese thousands of lives and an untold amount of their national treasure, all without any measurable material gain whatsoever. If Hideyoshi's two wanton and unprovoked invasions in 1592 and 1597 accomplished anything, they virtually devastated Choson and left a broken and desolate landscape. Nearly every one of Choson's eight provinces had been an arena for pillage and slaughter. While the Choson navy sank or destroyed by fire over three hundred Japanese ships in its first four naval campaigns, Admiral Yi's naval actions were the only true bright spot of the Imjin War.

In 1598, the poet Pak No-gye described the horror of the Japanese invasions in an epic entitled "Song of the Great Peace";

For 10,000 li the waving battle-flags
   darken the sky.
With a great roar the cries of the soldiers
   seem to lift heaven and earth.
   --------
Higher than mountains, the bones
   pile up in the fields.
Vast cities, great towns
   become the burrows of wolves and foxes.

The Choson economy depended heavily on grain production and Japan's occupation of the southern rice-producing areas and the war demands they placed on the people created vast shortages of food and other supplies. The widespread foraging activities of Chinese and Japanese troops further aggravated an already serious grain shortage. As the grain shortages became more acute, famine and disease spread across Choson along with open banditry and peasant uprisings. The two attacks by Japan scarred the country for years afterward and left a legacy of undying hatred toward the Japanese, a bitter feeling handed down from one generation to the next. In the view of some historians, the country never really recovered A Tragic Legacy.

One of the most important aspects of the Imjin War was that resistance against the Japanese emerged from among the people of Choson instead of being directed from the Choson government. For the first time in their long history, Choson's united guerilla resistance against an alien invader gave the Koreans a sense of nationalism and self determination.

 

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