The Imjin War: Japan’s Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China by Samuel Hawley


Samuel Hawley taught English in East Asia for many years. His books include Speed Duel, about the land speed rivalry in the 1960s between Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons; I Just Ran: Percy Williams, World’s Fastest Human, about one of Canada’s greatest yet least known sports heroes; the companion volumes America’s Man in Korea and Inside the Hermit Kingdom on George Foulk, America’s representative in Korea in the mid 1880s; and the novels Homeowner With a Gun and Bad Elephant Far Stream. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.

This is a great book on a war that few in the West know about. [Equally great, in my view, is Stephen Turnbull’s “Samurai Invasion: Japan’s Korean War 1592 -1598.” Compared to Turnball, Hawley delves a little deeper into the Korean perspective, while Turnball has a wealth of detail on the Japanese. But this is not a criticism of either; I read them both, Turnball first, then Hawley, and in so doing it reinforced many of the key points of the war.]

One of the most gripping chapters in Hawley’s book deals with “The Annals of The Chos’n Kingdom” and how these priceless historical records were nearly destroyed. Koreans are meticulous about record keeping, and the Annals which began in 1413 CE and ended in 1910 are claimed to be the longest continual record of a single dynasty in the world. They were written without interference from the king and his court, and followed the Confucian belief that records kept in the present would help future generations learn from the past. It was also felt that record keeping encouraged the living to follow principles of integrity and benevolence in order to keep their own legacy unmarred, and that this sense of responsibility towards one’s legacy should apply especially to the king.

As an example of the independence of the Annals, there is an actual entry that documents the king falling off his horse. Embarrassed that the fall would enter into the Annals, he told his scribes not to record the fall. They silently nodded and wrote away. The Annals recorded both the fall, as well as the king’s order not to record the incident.

The Koreans kept four identical copies of the Annals in different locations, so that a fire or other disaster in one location would not wipe out the entire historical record. During the Imjin War, the invading Japanese army found and burned three copies of the Annals, and narrowly missed the fourth. The last remaining copy was then taken to a remote location where it survived the war. After the war, the court used the surviving Annals to once more make additional copies of their kingdom’s history.

Lessons from this book are as true today, as they were in 1592: some wars begin because of a colossal misunderstanding (the Japanese thought that the Koreans would welcome them, and could not understand why they fought back); not keeping up with the technology of the time can put you on the losing side (the Koreans did not exploit the matchlock firearm, which was used by the Japanese against them, to devastating effect); leadership is the ultimate force-multiplier (Admiral Yi Sun-shin’s leadership of the Korean Navy enabled it to rule the waves against the Japanese, even when greatly outnumbered); politics and personal agendas frequently trump the common good (one of Admiral Yi Sun-shin’s Korean rivals succeeded in getting him fired during the war; he was later reinstated).

A final observation is on the sheer savagery of war. In some battles, the victorious Japanese killed every man, woman, child, dog, cat, cow, pig, and chicken that they could. Both sides routinely cut the heads off dead bodies, in order to bolster claims of battlefield success. At least 60,000 Koreans lost their lives in the Second Battle of Chinju, most of them massacred after the taking of the city. The Japanese sent approximately 30,000 noses from dead Koreans to Japan as war trophies, and to this day they remain buried in an enormous mound in Kyoto, misnamed “The Mound of Ears.”

The war left Korea in terrible shape, nearly bankrupt, and it took them centuries to recover and to rebuild. As examples, two hundred years after the war ended, the Koreans still could not afford to rebuild their destroyed palace in Seoul, and agricultural production was still below pre-war levels.

Perhaps even more than the 1910-1945 Japanese colonization of Korea, this war goes a long way toward understanding why Koreans have ill feelings toward Japan.

Hawley is to be commended for his scholarship, and for being a pretty good writer, too. The book is very readable.

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