Book Review: The Imjin War: Japan's Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and the Attempt to Conquer China


by Samuel Hawley

University of California, Berkeley, 2005. Pp. xv, 702 . pp. Illus., maps, tables, notes, biblio., index. $24.95. ISBN:89-954424-2-5

The 1592-98 Imjin War was sixteenth century Asia's biggest international conflict and a war that set the tone for relations between the three major combatants, Korea, China and Japan, for four centuries. Yet it is a conflict that remains virtually unknown in the West.

Samuel Hawley's The Imjin War remedies that ignorance, and what's more, the writer does it with a writing style that reads more like a “Prelude” to Shogun than a dry academic text.

The Imjin War sprang from the desire of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the samurai warlord who reunited Japan after centuries of civil war, to conquer China and dominate Asia.

Hideyoshi wanted to attack China not only because of his vast ego, but also to maintain control of his restless followers. The coalition through which he ruled Japan was based on the sharing of spoils, especially land, among the powerful samurai lords that comprised Hideyoshi's power base. By 1592, land was a scarce commodity in Japan, and Hideyoshi needed to assault his neighbors in order to appease his rapacious supporters.

Unfortunately for the Koreans, the quickest way into China was straight up the Korean peninsula. Korea therefore became ground zero for Hideyoshi's marauding armies. The invasion which followed wrecked Korean society so thoroughly that parts of the capital of Seoul were still in ruins at the beginning of the 20th century.

The details provided in The Imjin War will please hard-core academics and amateur historians alike. The book's first section is a tightly written and highly informative account of the societies and politics of late sixteenth century China, Korea and Japan.

Hawley gives gratifyingly in-depth descriptions of the militaries of the respective combatants, with the complete Japanese order of battle for the 1592 invasion. He then provides his readers with detailed descriptions of Korean artillery and warship technology of the period, both categories in which the Koreans were superior to their Japanese attackers, whose chief advantage lay in Hideyoshi's highly disciplined mass army of ashigaru, or peasant musketeers.

Hawley's lucidly written tale is filled with liars, incompetents and cowards. Late in the conflict, when it became clear that the Japanese were losing the war, Hideyoshi's subordinates heavily sugar-coated his enemies' negotiating demands in order to get his approval for a face-saving peace agreement.

The war also tarnished the reputation of Korea's giant ally, Ming Dynasty China. In Korean eyes, Chinese troops were often no more than uniformed thugs masquerading as soldiers. One mark of military success in sixteenth century China was how many heads soldiers could take in battle. During the Imjin War, badly led and poorly trained Chinese troops often beheaded innocent Korean civilians in order to drive up their head counts to win favor with Beijing.

The Koreans often weren't any better. When the huge Japanese invasion fleet appeared off the port of Pusan on the first day of the war, the local Korean naval commander, Pak Hong, panicked and scuttled his entire fleet of a hundred ships without firing shot.

Yet, despite the formidable firepower of Hideyoshi's samurai-led armies, the wildly unprepared Koreans eventually defeated the Japanese. That Korea survived

Hideyoshi's ruthless assault was in large part due to the efforts of one man, Admiral Yi Sun-sin.

Commanding at one point only 13 ships, Yi thwarted Hideyoshi's dreams of conquest by skillfully using his small fleet to strangle Japanese supply routes. Dying a Nelsonian death, Yi succumbed to a bullet wound on the deck of his flagship during his final victorious battle against the Japanese.

Invading Japanese weren't Yi's only worry, he also had to endure backbiting from jealous colleagues as well. Due to the complaints of his influential but cowardly fellow commander, Won Kyun, Admiral Yi was actually relieved of duty,

Reviewer: Michael G. Gallagher    

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