Sunday, August 19, 2012

Samuel Hawley, "The Imjin War"

READ THIS BOOK!  I haven't been as captivated by a historical novel since Sterling Seagrave's The Soong Dynasty.  I was originally going to do a quick report on Ozawa Ichiro's Blueprint for a New Japan, but then I got bored and migrated to Netflix just finished this one yesterday and was so impressed that I decided to do a write-up while the material is still fairly fresh in my head.

As the title implies, Hawley's novel explores, in incredible detail, the background and events of the 1592-1598 "Imjin" War between Japan, Korea, and Ming Dynasty China (Okay, sue me, it wasn't called China then, sheesh...)  Where does the name Imjin come from?  Turns out, it is simply the name of the year that the war started in, 1592, according to an ancient sexagenary calendar system from China.  In this system, there is a cycle of sixty years, and "each increment in the cycle was given a name consisting of one of ten "heavenly stems" derived from the elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, and an "earthly branch of one of the twelve zodiacal symbols: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig." (Hawley 133) The year 1592 happened to be the year of the water dragon, or in Korean, "imjin."

On a side note, I should mention that purists also use this same calendar to come up with the supposed date of the founding of the Japanese monarchy in 660 B.C by the mythical Emperor Jimmu.  The year 660 was apparently at the end of one of the 60-year cycles, and also the date of some sort of larger meta-cycle in the system.  Again, though, unless one is really a purist, it is perhaps more logical to conclude that the founding of the Empire may have been pushed to this date to fit with the calendar... (most historians agree that the Chrysanthemum Throne was founded in the 5th century AD)

In any case, this book provides a wealth of insight into the key players, tactics, motivations, and circumstances of the Imjin War.  The war, as explained by Hawley, served two purposes:  1.) To assuage the ego of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a megalomaniac dictator who united Japan after more than a hundred years of civil war, the country's so-called "sengoku" period; and 2). To channel the aggressive energies of Toyotomi's restless vassals.  These vassals had originally acquiesced to Toyotomi in part because of the generous rewards his rule offered.  Unlike his dictatorial predecessor and mentor, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi built much of his empire through his knack for offering generous settlements.  He much preferred to spare life where life could be spared.  He would attempt to spook his opponents into accepting lucrative agreements  through MASSIVE shows of force, in which they would receive comfortable fiefs and he would become their lord.   By 1592, however, with almost all of Japan united under Toyotomi's banner, there was no more unconquered land to distribute to his acquisitive daimyo (Japanese territorial lords).  Toyotomi hoped that his armies in Korea would be able to march into China, giving him a massive amount of land to divvy up among his restless vassals.

Why did I capitalize the word 'massive' a few sentences ago?  As Hawley emphasizes, the scale of Toyotomi's armed forces, as well as the resources available to him, were immense.  Likely unprecedented.  I found this point to be particularly interesting.  At the time that Toyotomi was launching his invasion of Korea, standing armies in Europe rarely amounted to more than 50,000 men.  Toyotomi's invasion force in Korea was more than 150,000 men strong.  While this number includes support troops and is not merely reflective of the samurai or peasant foot-troops (ashigaru) in his ranks, this is still a massive amount of men to assemble and transport at a single time.  Nor was this feat a one-time accomplishment.  As we will see, in a second invasion of Korea in 1597-1598, he easily mobilized another force of 140,000 men.  Even more impressive was that these numbers were outclassed by some of Toyotomi's domestic campaigns.  He once assembled nearly 250,000 men in a show of force to cow the daimyo of Kyushu into submission.

 My high school had about 2000 students, and the largest group of people I've ever seen gathered together is probably in the 5,000-6,000 range.  I can't even conceptualize what 150,000+ (not to mention 250,000) soldiers camped out in  Toyotomi's headquarters must have looked like.  Not to mention that this took place in the nutrition-scarce world of the 16th century.  Hats off to him, huh?  Maybe we should also thank the higher caloric efficiency of Japan's staple crop, rice...

I don't want to spoil all of the book, so if you are interested in reading Hawley's play-by-play account of the war itself, don't read on in this review!

Suffice to say, Hawley's description of the war is gripping.  I don't know where on earth he found such detailed source material, but his accounts of the battles and movements of the two sides is just addicting.  The most marked part of Toyotomi's invasion was the ease with which he executed it.  At the time, Korea was remarkably ill-prepared for war.  They were technologically and organizationally outclassed.  Toyotomi's forces, as had become common in Japan at the time, were equipped with deadly arquebuses, originally copied from the Portuguese in the 1540's.  Various Japanese daimyos perfected the weapon further and even came up with the first system of bullet standardization in the world, so as to make the weapons more efficient. (soldiers, unlike in Europe, did not have to carry around bags of lead pellets that worked only for their individual gun).  On the other hand, Korean forces were largely limited to bows, swords, and spears.  They did possess a superior knowledge of cannons and mortars, but this advantage was not pressed until later in the war.

Organizationally, the Koreans were hopeless.  Hawley describes a number of incidents that highlight how factionalism, corruption, and mismanagement kept Korea's armed forces at half-capacity from the get-go, Japanese invasion or not.  For example, all of Korea's top generals were kept confined in the capital, away from any sort of army.  The founder of the reigning Choson dynasty had once been a general himself hundreds of years earlier, and had used his loyal army to topple his predecessors, the Koguryo dynasty.  As such, in order to avoid a repetition of such deception, all generals were confined away from their troops.  They were thus not on hand to direct soldiers in the event of an emergency, and after the Japanese invasion, were not dispatched for some time.

Coupled with a broken draft system and poor strategic planning, Korea was ripe for the taking.  The sheer size of Toyotomi's force frightened most of the low-to-mid level Korean commanders into desertion, and consequently, the Japanese were able to march up to Pyongyang almost unopposed.  The few remaining Korean armies were quickly pushed aside.  This part of the book was truly incredible.  I was amazed at how quickly the Japanese advanced, and even more shocked by the number of Korean commanders who abandoned their posts in utter panic.  In one almost laughable example, a commander of nearly half of the Korean navy mistook a (completely unprotected) fleet of 200-some Japanese transport galleys as a large group of battle ships.  He scuttled his ENTIRE fleet to avoid it from falling into enemy hands without once attempting to approach the Japanese and determine the extent of the threat.

It was dwindling interest in the campaign on Toyotomi's part, plus the consequences of his ailing health, that doomed the Japanese effort.  Japanese troops quickly occupied most of the country's major cities, but their grasp over the country overall was tenuous.  They had advanced so quickly that they merely controlled the cities and the territory around several main supply lines, and nothing more.  Toyotomi's old age and failing health ensured that he never arrived as promised to conduct the campaign personally, and the various daimyo commanders were slowly pit against one another by personal feuds.  The rise of Korean guerrilla forces at this time also initiated a deadly war of attrition.  Curiously enough, many of the guerrilla leaders were not official military leaders.  They were often disgraced and cast-off members of the Korean aristocracy (yangban class), or local grass-roots heroes.  Added to the picture were the Chinese, who, under the do-nothing Wanli Emperor, had finally gotten their act together and sent forces against the Japanese so as to protect their Korean vassal.  Although most of the early Chinese armies were routed and halted, their efforts still put enough raw manpower onto the side of the Koreans to stabilize the situation.  Eventually, the Japanese decided to retreat to the south, after careful negotiations with the Chinese.

Even so, the Japanese weren't going anywhere, and they would still be military dominant for most of the war.  If there is one thing I can stress from my reading of the book, it was the apparent supremacy of the Japanese forces in battle.  Their daimyo leaders were tough, courageous, and mind-numbingly cruel.  The troops were disciplined, well-equipped, and extraordinarily resistant to the deprivations of battle.

Another point I would stress, however, was the strength of the Korean navy under Commander Yi Sun Sin.  Yi was originally a military man, a low-level officer left to drift on Korea's northern border.  In the intrigue and corruption-filled Korean government, he had two flaws: a tendency to enforce discipline among his troops, and a knack for reporting his superior officers' indiscretions.  Yi, however, through an obscure connection at court, was rescued from anonymity and appointed as a naval commander amid the Korean government's hurried preparations for war (they had an inkling that Toyotomi was serious about invading by about 1591). After reading Hawley's book, I think it is fair to say that the Koreans might have lost entirely without the efforts of this renowned admiral.  Under other commanders, the Korean navy performed poorly during the war, despite having superior cannons and ships.  Admiral Yi, however, led the Korean navy to superb victories on multiple occasions, destroying hundreds of Japanese ships despite his inferior numbers.

The engagement that he is most famous for took place at the end of the war in 1597, and is known as the Battle of Myeongnyang.  Here, with a fleet of only 13 ships, he wiped out a Japanese fleet of 300 vessels (about 100 of which were actual battle ships).  Yi's tactics, reasoning, and personal leadership throughout the entire war were superb, despite being under constant pressure and stress from the attacks of jealous rivals at court.  He also pioneered the use of the so-called turtle-ships, or kobukson.  It is a popular misconception that these ships were completely plated in armor, in the same fashion as the Monitor or Merrimack from the U.S. Civil War.  Many still (wrongly) believe that Korea was thus the first country to pioneer the use of armor-plated ships.  Hawley does a great job tracing how, through gradual American contact with Korea in the 19th century, this idea took root.  In reality, Yi's turtle ships were likely just heavier and better-constructed than their Japanese counterparts, and were completely covered on top by large metal spikes. Hawley suggests that the spikes provided some form of armor in and of themselves.  The kobukson also rode low in the water, which ensured that their hulls were not as exposed to attack as their high-riding counterparts.  (Fun fact - Hawley notes that the first record of armor-plated naval ships being used in combat actually took place in Japan.  Toyotomi, in attempting to dislodge the powerful Mori family near Osaka in 1576, had a squadron of iron-plated ships constructed to wipe out the large Mori fleet.  They were, of course, successful.  It is not known why Toyotomi did not use these ships in Korea).

Another key point from the book which I found fascinating was the deception and outright lies that dominated diplomacy during this 16th-century conflict.  Halfway through the war, the Chinese government engaged the Japanese forces in a dialogue, in which both sides lied their pants - or should I say kimonos, am I right or am I right? har har - off.  By this point, many of the Japanese commanders were tired of war, and recognized the futility of incorporating and pacifying a swathe of land as large as China and Korea.  As such, in negotiations with the Chinese, they said only what was most likely to strike a sympathetic cord and delay combat further.  Japanese representatives, which included a monk skilled in Chinese calligraphy and several pro-peace daimyo, concocted a story in which the Koreans were largely to blame for the war.  The Koreans, the Japanese said, were unfairly blocking the Japanese from establishing peaceful tributary relations with the Chinese. (Keep in mind, Toyotomi had every intention of conquering the Ming dynasty outright and installing the Japanese emperor as the Emperor of China).  The Japanese negotiators passed this fiction on to their Chinese counterparts, who knew full well that the Japanese were lying.  But even they decided to keep this fiction alive, passing the story on to Beijing anyway.  They were also chiefly interested in stopping the war, even if temporarily, and they knew that the Ming government would halt its combat operations if Japan expressed a desire to become a tributary state.  With this fiction in hand, they could go back to Beijing, proclaim peace, and claim riches and honors.  Any renewed Japanese aggression would just look like deception, and not be the Chinese diplomats' fault.

Meanwhile, the Japanese also fudged the truth of the negotiations in their reports to Toyotomi, who was still very much interested in crushing China.  After negotiating a ceasefire and secure retreat to Pusan, a city on the Korean coast, the daimyo commanders responsible for the agreement painted it as a "temporary" arrangement in their reports to Toyotomi.  They alleged that the Chinese were suing for peace and seeking to mollify Toyotomi with tribute.  To this end, after one of the last great battles of 1593, Toyotomi issued a number of demands, calling for, among other things, "1.  As evidence of sincerity, the imperial families of [China and Japan] shall enter into marriage relations.  The Ming emperor shall send one of his daughters to Japan to be married to the emperor of Japan as his empress...4.  If all the foregoing terms are accepted by [China], not withstanding the fact that Korea had been rebellious against our country, we are willing, in order to show our good will to Tai-Min, to divide the eight provinces of Korea into two main divisions, and to return four provinces, including the one in which the national capital is situated, to the King of Korea..."

By this time, Chinese envoys had been sent to Japan, and were technically on hand to receive this proclamation.  Yet again, however, a series of hilarious deceptions kept Toyotomi's rude demands from upsetting the delicate fiction that had been built up in negotiations over the past year.  First and foremost, the Chinese envoys were not actually official envoys.  A Chinese general had merely dressed up two of his junior officers in official-looking clothing and sent them off to Japan.  At the time, the Japanese had demanded to negotiate with officials authorized to speak directly on the Emperor's behalf.  No such official with this special authority was on hand, so for the purpose of expediency, the general conjured up some Imperial envoys of his own.  Secondly, Toyotomi's list was immediately given to pro-peace daimyo, who promptly softened the language of the demands and eventually dropped most of them altogether.  Although the dignitaries on hand did initially hear the demands (and were accordingly outraged), the daimyo hushed the matter over and ensured that no such list would ever reach the Ming emperor in Beijing.

Meanwhile, Toyotomi withdrew half his forces from Korea while China answered his request, though thousands of Japanese troops would remain encamped in Pusan for the next three or so years.  While the rest of the troops remained in Korea, one of the most prominent pro-peace daimyo, Konishi Yukinaga, worked with a Chinese envoy to transform Toyotomi's pleas into something that would be palatable to the Chinese.  In effect, all of Toyotomi's demands were eliminated, and the two crafted a farce of a letter in which letter Toyotomi "begged" the Chinese to be invested as their vassal.  This, from a man like Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who wished to conquer much of the known world.  The Chinese promptly sent royal robes and documents of investiture that would make Toyotomi the "King of Japan."

In a hilarious twist, when these envoys finally reached Japan, they were portrayed by his wily commanders as bearers of tribute.  Toyotomi and his vassals enthusiastically put on the robes and feted for several days.  Hawley describes this awkward period in wonderful, hilarious, biting detail.  In one comical situation, when the Chinese delegation attempted to perform the ceremony of investiture, the entire house of cards nearly came falling down.  The Chinese expected Toyotomi to supplicate to the Emperor's banner and kneel.  Toyotomi, staring at these strange foreigners, thought that these envoys were offering him tribute.  When it came time for Toyotomi to kneel - and of course, he did no such thing - Toyotomi's handlers alleged that Toyotomi had a painful boil on his knee which made kneeling impossible for the time being.  So, the ceremony was performed with Toyotomi standing, and all was well.

Eventually, however, Toyotomi brought in his own personal experts (they were monks) to examine the documents that had been given to him by the Chinese.  When the monks truthfully reported what was written, he flew into a rage and nearly had the envoys killed.  After the envoys were sent away he cooled down, however, and eventually requested that they not raise the issue further in Beijing.  Though appearing more calm, the egotistical Toyotomi was still not about to let the incident pass entirely.  He directed his anger towards the Koreans, who had not sent a high-ranking official along with the Chinese, and planned to invade again.  Thus, in 1597, came invasion number II.  This would be an immensely bloody campaign, waged purely to "teach the Koreans a lesson" and show the Chinese that Toyotomi was still a force to be reckoned with.  The Japanese slaughtered civilians on an unprecedented scale, wiping entire cities and towns off the map.  When the Japanese withdrew from Korea after Toyotomi's death in 1598, Korea's economy would not fully recover for more than a hundred years.  The King's burned-out palace in Seoul, Gyeongboggung, would not be fully rebuilt until 1867.  For almost three hundred years, much of the complex remained a burned out ruin, too costly to repair.

For the Japanese, the war was, on the whole, a disaster.  They did not come away with any permanent territory in Korea or China, and thousands of men had lost their lives on Korean soil.  One silver lining, though!  The Japanese were able to capture large numbers of Korean potters and scholars, leading to a renaissance in various cultural arts for Japan.  As such, in Japan, it is sometimes known as the "Pottery (yakimono) War".

All in all, a fascinating book, and I earnestly recommend it!  Also, I can't end this blog without a reference to Kato Kiyomasa.  Google this man.  I swear, based on Hawley's description, he seems to have been the physical embodiment of some sort of angry, ranting war god.  He was the most virulent and aggressive of Toyotomi's commanders, wielding a massive three-pronged spear and orchestrating some of the most crushing defeats for the Koreans during the war.  He pops in and out of Hawley's account, but eventually becomes an essential character in all the drama, serving as a counterpart to the peace-seeking Konishi Yukinaga.  On one hand, you can't help but hate the guy for his cruelty.  He committed some of the worst atrocities of the war, and I would fancy him a psychopath were it not for evidence of other positive qualities in the man.  One example from the book stands out in my memory:  "By this time the order to fall back to Seoul had reached [Kato Kiyomasa] at Anbyon on the border of the remote northeastern province of Hamgyong...Kato, in his own mind the most daring and successful of all the daimyo commanders in Korea, was not eager to of [the advancing Chinese army] was brought to Kato by an envoy sent from Pyongyang by Ming commander Li Rusong, together with an order that he surrender with all his troops.  But Kato was not the surrendering type.  By way of an answer he had one of his Korean captives, a young woman reputed to be the most beautiful in the kingdom, tied to a tree, and then with the Ming envoy looking on he impaled her with a spear.  With this demonstration of Kato's determination in hand, the Ming envoy turned about and headed west to make his report."  Yikes yikes yikes yikes.

On the other hand, Kato was also probably the most loyal towards his lord, Toyotomi.  He diligently followed his master's plan of conquest every step of the way.  He advanced into the farthest reaches of northern Korea, even attacking the Jurchen of Manchuria, and wrote constantly for further instructions from his lord.  He also consistently attempted to point out to Chinese envoys that Konishi Yukinaga was lying  about Toyotomi's intentions, but they never much cared.  During a spell in Japan, when Toyotomi's castle at Fushimi (near Kyoto) was destroyed by a massive earthquake, Kato was also the first to rush back to the carnage to ensure that Toyotomi was safe.

There is also evidence, I think, to show that Kato was a tough commander who shouldered the same burdens as his men.  At the siege of Tosan, in which a small garrison of Japanese troops was hopelessly outmatched by a huge Chinese army, he sailed into the doomed fort to take command.  After weeks of bitter cold and absolute starvation (some of the men inside the fort resorted to cannibalism), he was able to lead the troops in fending off the Chinese, who suffered enormous casualties.

As such, by the end of the book, you end up developing a strange sort of respect for the man.  He is portrayed to be much more sincere and loyal than most of his fellow daimyo, and his cruelty to the Koreans notwithstanding, he was probably one of the best Japanese commanders in Korea.  Anyway, a fascinating individual, check him out.

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