(11) Tsushima, An Island of Conflicts

By Yang Sung-jin

It is a pity that Japan unilaterally scrapped the fisheries agreement with Korea earlier this year. The Japanese know better than anyone else that such a move will anger Koreans, who harbor long-running grudges against Japan. Yet, Korean fishing boats were seized by the Japanese authorities in its arguable restricted waters.

In understanding the Korea-Japan conflicts, nothing is better than the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty filled with detailed information about relations between the two neighboring countries. Interestingly, the Annals demonstrates that Japan frequently kidnapped Koreans, including those on fishing boats, back in the mid-14th century.

The inhuman acts were mostly committed by the seaborne Japanese marauders or “waegu,” who raided and pillaged the Korean villages.

The central place where the waegu indulged in the reckless piracy was Tsushima island, only 49.5 kilometers away from the southern port city of Pusan. In fact, the Annals contains almost countless entries referring to Tsushima, suggesting its importance as the point where the two nations often collided with each other head-on.

The seriousness of the situation the intractable waegu caused is well reflected in the Annals’ account of the strengthening of the Choson naval force.

Yi Song-gye, founder of the Choson Dynasty, and the succeeding kings in the earlier period put much effort into increasing the naval power in an effort to confront the waegu. A document dated 1408 shows that the number of military ships reached as many as 613, with some 55,000 soldiers in the naval force.

King Taejong (reign: 1400-1418) was particularly concerned with building up naval power. An article of the year 1420 shows the king’s enthusiasm even two years after he formally retired from the royal office.

Participating in a field training exercise of the military ships, King Taejong pointed out the slow speeds of the Choson ships and ordered speedier ones built. Later, he supervised the first run of the newly built ships to make sure that they could catch up with the Japanese pirate boats.

The increased naval power of the Choson Dynasty, along with the strengthened coastal defense, made piracy more difficult for the waegu.

Japanese Boat People

With nowhere to raid, the Japanese increasingly opted for patriation in the Choson Kingdom, often crossing the sea aboard shabby boats. In 1397, ten Japanese ships surrendered to the Choson authority. In the same year, a Japanese monk named “Wonhae” applied for naturalization with his wife and children. According to the record in the Annals, Wonhae was given a surname, “Pyong,” and later appointed as a government official in the medical department, honoring his career as a doctor in Japan. At that time, the Choson government gave this particular surname to almost all the Japanese wanting to settle in Choson territory.

The number of the naturalized Japanese shot up because the Choson government adopted a carrot policy of accepting the Japanese to discourage the violent waegu, thereby keeping the coastal area in peace.

There is an episode which shows how badly the Japanese wanted to live in Choson. In 1426, the Choson government accepted 14 Tsushima islanders who applied for naturalization. What is intriguing is the fact that they wanted to sell liquor in Choson territory to make a living, which the Choson government allowed them to do later. Though selling liquor was by no means a respectable job, the Japanese had no other choice in order to survive.

The Choson government knew the reason why the Japanese were dying to get out of Tsushima. High-ranking official Huh Cho said, “Tsushima islanders are stealing and pillaging mostly because the island is rocky, thus unsuitable for farming. They are giving up their consciences because of hunger and starvation.”

The general perception toward the Japanese living in Tsushima island, was not be favorable. Official Yu Chong-hyon’s report to King Sejong in 1418, is especially revealing as to the Choson people’s idea of what the Japanese are like: “The Japanese on Tsushima island are so violent and wild that they don’t care about their own death. Also they take revenge over very small affairs, which makes it hard to predict what they will do to us.”

Also making the image of Japanese worse is a report dated 1429 by Park Suh-saeng, who visited Japan as a Tongsingsa (envoy to Japan): “Because there are many men, but little food in Japan, people often sell their servants for food. Meanwhile, some people kidnap other people’s children to sell them for food.”

The records related to the Japanese characteristics are numerous. Official Kim Ho-in traveled to Tsushima and reported to King Sejo in 1432: “The Japanese don’t know about leather shoes, wearing always wooden clogs. When they held a feast for me, the lord and his subordinate were sitting in the same position, and they had no class.”

Blind Loyalty, Reckless Suicide

In 1438, official Huh Cho pointed out the blind loyalty of the Japanese: “The Japanese emperor has never been challenged since time immemorial, and when the military chieftain is defeated and killed, all his subordinates commit suicide in a show of loyalty.”

More interesting information shedding light on Japan is preserved in the official report written by Yun Chi-wan, who visited Japan as Tongsingsa in 1687. Yun stated in his report that the highest-ranking official in Japan, who recently took office, was unpopular among the people and the poor harvest of the previous year, coupled with infectious disease put to death as many as 600,000 people.

In 1809, official Japanese interpreters reported on the general situation of Japan, including the popularity of the Choson paintings and writings. “The Japanese admire our nation, and Tsushima island is respected by other local lords for its proximity to Choson. When they get our writings and paintings, they preserve them with great care as if they are precious treasures,” states the Annals.

On the one hand, the Japanese seemed to admire the Choson Dynasty. On the other, they sent spies and went on pillaging sprees, despite the conciliatory gestures of the Choson government. A spy incident in 1417 is a case in point. A Japanese named “Sul-na” was arrested by the Choson soldiers. Charged with the spying, Sul-na confessed that he was in charge of getting the information about the wealthy people in the seaside villages, which would be used for future pillaging.

A more serious problem than spying was the massive inflow of the Japanese from Tsushima, who crossed the sea to settle in Choson, risking their lives. Government officials were summoned by King Sejong to deal with the issue in 1434.

Carrot, or Stick?

An official named Chung Cho called for generosity: “The Japanese in Tsushima depend greatly upon us for their daily lives. It doesn’t matter at all if we accept a couple of the Japanese wanting to settle here.”

In contrast, official Choe Yun-duk thought the other way around: “The Japanese are like wolves. Even though our government shows generosity and takes care of them, they definitely will not work for us as our people do and instead will engage in spying activities.”

Choe continued to say, “They are coming to us not because they sincerely desire to be our subjects, but because they want some food since their island suffered a poor harvest recently.”

Indeed the Japanese wanted food, and more of and more of it. Worse, they became bolder in begging for it. In 1558, the lord of Tsushima requested military provisions six times larger than the usual request in the name of keeping the waegu from invading Choson.

A government report then reveals how the Choson officials reacted to the preposterous demand: “Tsushima islanders openly call themselves Choson people. Yet they have requested six years of military provisions for one installment this time. On the surface, they seem to be loyal; beneath it, their real purpose is suspicious. It seems like they are capitalizing on every opportunity, to our disadvantage.”

Despite the unwillingness on the part of Choson government, the Japanese requested more food and other materials such as Buddhist scripts, bells, and all sorts of books in return for the hostages they had kidnapped from the coastal areas.

In 1439 alone, more than 10,000 Japanese went to Choson territory in order to get food and other precious materials, using fake identification documents.

The government knew that many of the Japanese forged the documents, but gave them enough food in a show of generosity, which resulted in a huge hole in Choson’s budget, amounting to more than 100,000 soks (1 sok equals 5.12 bushels).

Later, the Japanese expanded the list of items they need from the Choson Dynasty. They demanded coins, lumber for shipbuilding and even nails and planes.

Beggars CAN Be Choosers

The unabashed Japanese even dumped the gifts they thought too small. In 1503, the Tsushima Japanese asked for 1,000 silver coins, which were unavailable in Choson. So, the Choson government gave the Japanese 100 rolls of cotton clothing, which they dumped at the port in protest.

The hopelessly treacherous Japanese in Tsushima island were, in fact, duly punished in the earlier period. In 1419, Japanese marauders invaded the Chungchong province, killing 300 civilians, which infuriated King Taejong, who was in retirement after handing over the throne to King Sejong. To be noted is that King Taejong was the very person who attempted a military attack on the island for the first time in history.

King Taejong declared a war against Tsushima island in a formal announcement dated June 9, 1419: “Tsushima island was originally in the Choson territory. Considering the poor condition of the island, I granted the Japanese could live there, but the ungrateful people steal like dogs and rats, killing our people every year. Formerly, I embraced the waegu out of sympathy, relieving their hunger and even allowing trade, but they invaded us again and killed our innocent people.”

King Taejong’s anger against the Japanese translated into 17,000 Choson soldiers on board 227 military ships that headed for Tsushima island for battles. The war that ensued cost more than 3,800 lives on the both parties, and ended with the surrender of the Tsushima lord on Sept. 29.

The policymakers concerning with the scrapping of the fisheries agreement by Japan should consider the historical facts in the wake of the Tsushima conquest by Choson in 1419. Over the following centuries, Tsushima islanders never gave up the two-faced tactic of shamelessly begging for food and then downright pillaging whenever possible.