Remnants of a warring past
On the morning of May 23rd, 1592, at the order of Japanese general Toyotomi Hideyoshi, around 160,000 troops set sail from Tsushima, Japan aboard hundreds of ships, for the port of Busan. It was the first of what would be two large-scale invasions of the seven-year Imjin War. Hideyoshi’s primary objective was the crown of Ming Dynasty China.
Rebuffed on numerous diplomatic petitions for passage across Korea (a ludicrous inquiry) the Japanese general and “great unifier” of Japan, took the less attractive choice to subdue the peninsula before continuing west.
It was a product of strategic calculation, with Korea as the logistical linchpin. Hideyoshi could not conquer so great a power as China, so far from home, without a reliable chain of supplies to feed the war machine as it marched, galloped and rolled towards the Chinese Crown.
Once again, Busan would serve as the launching point for the squaring off of China and Japan. Three-hundred years earlier the machine was going the opposite direction with China twice invading Fukuoka under the orders of Yuan Dynasty China’s Kublai Khan.
The first attempt, in 1274, failed. As did the second in 1281. Incredibly, both thwarted by typhoon which the Japanese soon dubbed the “Divine Wind” or, as spoken in the native tongue, “Kamikaze.”
Three centuries later, Japan finally pieced itself together after years of civil war and was ready to make a go at China.
Busan quickly falls
Following a day-long journey at sea, Japanese troops stormed the beaches of Busan just after sundown, heading for the two primary fortresses in Dongnae. Armed with Portuguese firearm technology and battle-hardened by years of civil war at home, the Japanese troops, many of whom were Samurai, quickly routed the bow and arrow-wielding Busan forces.
One reason why local defenses folded so easily was strategically inept Joseon policy which forbade local commanders from engaging a foreign invasion force until a court-appointed general could arrive from Seoul with royal troops. This policy additionally prevented cities around Busan from coming to her aid without royal consent.
Interestingly, firearm technology had been presented to the Joseon court years earlier, but was mistakenly deemed an unnecessary tool for the art of war.
Over the course of the march on Seoul, Joseon was further harmed by internal dissent from Koreans known as Baekjeong (Those of the lowest social rank serving on the lands of feudal lords). Baekjeong viewed the Japanese as liberators from the harsh feudal system and capitalized on the loss of domestic security by setting fire to royal dwellings and government buildings including those where status ledgers for Korean slaves were held.
It would take three months before Hideyoshi controlled much of the peninsula. As in most wars, civilians suffer the greatest; especially those in the vicarious position of living along the supply line from Busan to Pyongyang. It was here that Japanese troops used ‘scorched earth’ tactics which seeks to destroy everything in its path.
Ming forces take field
With their suzerain status over Joseon Dynasty Korea at stake, and the Japanese at their borders, over 100,000 Ming Dynasty troops took the field alongside nearly 200,000 Koreans with Ming taking complete operational command.
As Kenneth Swope writes in the Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies, Korean rulers of the era had little say as to how their fate would play out between the two warring powers.
“At this point in 1593, the war entered a stalemate during which intrigues and negotiations failed to produce a settlement. As the suzerain of Joseon Korea, Ming China exercised tight control over the Koreans during the war. At the same time, Ming China negotiated bilaterally with Japan while often ignoring the wishes of the Korean government.”
Japan, following failed peace negotiations with the Ming Dynasty, invaded Korea for a second time in 1597. Hampered by the heroic efforts of Korean Admiral Yi Sun-shin and his fleet, Japanese supply lines suffered heavily during the second campaign. With large numbers of Chinese troops pouring in from the north, and Korean guerilla warfare activity, the Japanese were forced to expand construction of fortresses across the southeastern part of peninsula in an effort to maintain what they had captured. Over the course of the war, a total of 35 castles were erected, either from scratch or from the remains of conquered Korean fortresses.
According to Stephen Turnbull in his book Japanese Castles in Korea 1592-1598, Hideyoshi saw the castles, known as wajo in Japanese and waeseong in Korean, as a last ditch effort to maintain the Japanese presence on the peninsula.
The wajo line was essentially a response to the Chinese advance, and provided the last refuge for the occupying troops, writes Turnbull. The new fortresses may have had roles concerned with communications and harbour defence, but the principle underlying their creation was that of providing a final toehold on the Korean Peninsula.
Remnants of the past
Of the 35 castles constructed by Japanese forces, little more than fragments remain of most. A great place to get an idea of the structures that once straddled the Korean coastal area is the Gijang Cultural Center just outside of Busan. There you can see a model of the Imrang Fortress, which stood on the eastern coast as the northernmost Japanese defensive post in what were a series of ten castles east of the Nakdong River in the Busan area.
The castles built in Korea were similar to the Japanese mainland style of the 16th and 17th century, with towering stone walls and a command tower perched on top. The Imrang Fortress was erected on a hill overlooking the beach and it included a lower residence area around the port, though little of that remains today.
Much like the Imrang Fortress, there are still bits and pieces of these 16th century strongholds out there for those curious to witness a page out of the Korean peninsula’s past. To see the most well-preserved castle, head further north to Ulsan for a tour of Seosaengpo. Built by Japanese General Kato Kiyomasa in 1592-1593 during the initial stages of the Imjin War, many of the original walls still remain intact.
For more on Japanese castles in Korea, including an excellent interactive map, check out
wajo.japanese-castle-explorer.com or japanese-castle-explorer.com. You can also see more photos of Japanese castle remnants on Jens Walter’s German language blog at osnabrueck.wordpress.com.
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