The Hideyoshi War

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the March 2004, A.S. XXXVIII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

In 1592 Japan invaded Korea. Many reasons have been given for this act, none having to with Korea. The repercussions of this act lasted till the twentieth century. This is the story of that invasion.

The story begins in Japan. Beginning in the last half of the 12th century was the emperor slowly lost power to various military clans. Towards the end of the 15th century all central power collapsed. In 1560, the daimyo named Oda Nobunaga began his campaign to reunite Japan. He was assassinated in 1582 and succeeded by his lieutenant Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who ruled as kampaku, or regent. By 1591, he had crushed all resistance.

It was in 1591 that Hideyoshi announced his intention to cross to the mainland and conquer the Chinese Ming Empire. There has been much speculation about the reason behind this desire. A common reason given was that he wanted to occupy the now unemployed samurai warriors. Another was that he wanted to force open foreign markets to Japanese merchants. A third reason given was that it was his personal ambition that by this act he could loom large in history, perhaps invoked by the death of his only son that year.

Whatever the reason, Hideyoshi intended to reach China through Korea. So he asked for safe passage, but was refused. The refusal was based not only on that Korea saw herself as an allied vassal of China, but also because of low regard of Japan. Much of Japanese culture had filtered from Korea. Thus the Koreans saw the Japanese as primitive and barbaric. While the most common experience Koreans had with Japanese was from Japanese pirates. Thus in 1592, on April 13, with an army of 150,000, Japan invaded.

The initial results were disastrous for Korea. Unlike Japan, Korea had spent the last few centuries at peace, so her army was small and ill-prepared. In addition the Japanese infantry was equipped with muskets, introduced by the Portuguese in 1543. The demonic appearance of Japanese armour added to the sense of terror.

Korea’s response was furthered hobbled by factionalism. There were two political parties, the Suin (West) and Tongin (East). The sole purpose of these parties was to gain the ear of the Korean king and place their partisans in government offices. They had no philosophical differences. Thus leaders were continuously being undermined, and the advent of war did not stop the effort.

Such was the quality of Korean leadership that, in the first major battle (Chungju) to resist the Japanese advance, the Korean general made his stand sandwiched between mountains and a river, and was annihilated. In the second battle at Imjin River, lured a portion of the Koreas into a trap, which demoralized the remaining troops into fleeing. The final battle outside of Pyongyang, not only caused little damage to the Japanese, but also showed they the way across a river barrier. Seoul was occupied on May 3 and Pyongyang on June 16. By the end of July, the Korean king held only a small enclave along the Yalu River, though southwest Korea remained unoccupied as the Japanese armies raced north to Seoul.

Three things saved the Koreans. First, the Japanese army was under the joint command of two rival generals: Kato Kiyomasa the elder and a Buddhist, and Konishi Yukinaga who was a Catholic. Their rivalry made it difficult to coordinate their efforts. Second, there arose among the general peasantry an uprising with various local leaders waging guerrilla warfare. This tied down numerous troops and made overland supply unreliable. The third was the naval victory of Admiral Yi Sun-Shin.

The Japanese plan was to reinforce and re-supply the army at Pyongyang by sea. However on July 8, Admiral Yi was able to lure the Japanese armada into a trap off Hansan-do Island on the southern coast of Korea, and annihilated it. Much is made in this victory of the “turtleboat,” an iron spiked roofed vessel that is sometimes referred to as the world’s first ironclad. But more important is that while the Japanese had muskets, the Koreans had cannon. Under the inspired leadership of Admiral Yi, no Japanese fleet survived an encounter with the Korean navy.

On January 7, 1593 a Chinese army forced the Japanese out of Pyongyang into a forced retreat back to Seoul. Japanese forces in northeast Korea also retreated to Seoul. They spent the rest of the winter there with diminishing supplies and men. On April 18, after obtaining a truce with the Chinese, they left Seoul and retreated to the south coast of Korea where they created a series of fortified camps. They left behind desolation.

And there things remained for three and a half years. There was a series of dilatory truce talks, mostly between China and Japan. The guerrilla war continued, along with other skirmishes and one pitch battle for a town. Finally, Hideyoshi had enough and in the beginning of 1597 sent a second wave of warriors into Korea.

Again Korean politics aided the Japanese cause. In order to break the Korean Sea blockade, the Japanese leaked false information to lure the navy into a trap. While Admiral Yi was wise enough to sidestep that effort, it was enough for the Suin faction to pull down Yi and replace him with Won Kyun. Admiral Won undid much of Yi’s preparations and released Yi’s officers. As a result the Japanese invasion force reached Korea unmolested. Then on July 16, Won stepped into the very trap that Yi had earlier avoided. Thus destroying nearly all the Korean navy.

Again the Japanese surged northward. And again Admiral Yi saved the day. Reinstated after the disaster of Chilchon, he assembled the remnants of the Korean fleet to stop the Japanese supply fleet off the western coast. There in the Strait of Myongyang on September 16, he did just that against a fleet ten times his size. Again the Japanese were compelled to retreat to their camps.

The force behind the war finally went out when Hideyoshi died on August 5, 1598. He had been ill since the previous November, and the result was obvious since May. In his final will, he finally authorized the withdrawal from Korea.

While the Chinese were bribable to allow the Japanese to go, Admiral Yi was not so forgiving. While blockading one of the embarkation camps a Japanese relief fleet appeared. So at Noryang on November 19 the final battle of the war was fought. Again, Yi destroyed the opposing fleet, but while pursing the remnants he was fatally shot.

Korea never recovered from the war. Thirty years later she sided with the Ming against the Manchus only to lose. Thus she retreated into isolationism and became the Hermit Kingdom. In 1894 Japan again invaded, and this time succeeded. The effort to succor Korea depleted an already weaken Ming dynasty. Beginning around 1620 the Manchus began expanding into China, taking Peking in 1644, and ending the Ming dynasty. A power struggle ensued in Japan. This is best known from the book and mini-series “Shogun”. Japan also embraced isolationism. With the Meiji restoration, Hideyoshi was resurrected as a great hero to be emulated. This lead to Pearl Harbor.



Allan, Tony, ed. Powers of the Crown: Time Frame AD 1600-1700. Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1989.

Collcutt, Martin, Marius Jansen, and Isao Kumakura. Cultural Atlas of Japan. New York: Facts on File, 1988.

Hulbert, Homer Bezaleel. Hulbert’s History of Korea Vol. 1 & 2. Ed. Clarence Norwood Weems. New York: Hillary House Publishers, 1962.

Park Yune-hee. Admiral Yi Sun-shin and His Turtleboat Armada: A Comprehensive Account of the Resistance of Korea to the 16th Century Japanese Invasion. Revised edition. Seoul: Hanjin Publishing Co., 1978.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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