By Yang Sung-jin
Korea-Japan relations soured after Tokyo unilaterally scrapped the bilateral fisheries agreement in February, followed by Japan’s seizing of several Korean fishing boats in its self-imposed restricted waters.
The recent dispute left a bitter aftertaste, which is embarrassing, yet hardly surprising. After all, history tends to repeat itself.
No historical document illustrates the long-standing conflicts between the two neighboring countries better than the Annals of the Choson Dynasty.
Historical records about Japan in the Annals abound. According to the search results by the CD-ROM Annals, there are a total of 12,710 articles under the category of “Japan.”
On the very first page of the Annals, the historiographer mentions Japan. As expected, it is not a friendly passage; it is about a military expedition in a bid to defeat the “waegu” or the seaborne Japanese marauders prevalent in the mid-14th century.
“The Choson’s diplomatic principle toward Japan in the early stages was focused on blocking the waegu’s raids and, to that end, the Choson government often resorted to conciliatory measures such as allowing the Japanese marauders to trade with the Choson,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.
In understanding the geopolitical situation of the day, the importance of the waegu cannot be emphasized too much. For instance, Yi Song-gye, the founder of the Choson Dynasty, was himself elevated into a national hero after defeating the Japanese pirates at the end of the Koryo Dynasty. Upon ascending the throne, Yi pushed ahead with diplomatic negotiations with Japan in order to tame the waegu.
In 1403, Choson and Japan exchanged formal diplomatic letters, opening a new chapter of bilateral relations. It is now known as “kyorin,” or diplomatic ties between Choson and Japan on an equal footing.
Equal But Not Always
“It’s true that the Choson king and the chief shogun in Japan were on equal terms but other local governors in Japan wanted to establish a diplomatic channel with Choson as a tributary state,” Lee said.
The Choson-Japan relations became multi-layered, not only because Japan’s political structure was decentralized, but also because Choson willingly allowed such a diversified diplomacy in a bid to resolve the waegu issue.
The mutual interest translated into a frequent exchange of diplomats and delegates. Choson dispatched formal delegates 65 times to the chief shogun.
“Most of the dispatches were done in the earlier period, reflecting a greater interest on the part of the Choson rulers at that time with regards to the waegu,” Lee said.
Japan, on the other hand, sent official delegates to Choson some 60 times. When it comes to individual contact, mostly from the less influential shoguns or local governors in Japan, the number goes upwards of 2,500, displaying how badly Japan wanted to trade with Choson.
Japan’s desperate position is understandable. The Japanese were in great need of necessities such as rice and cotton clothing, and Choson was the destination to get such items.
“An interesting fact is that most Japanese delegates wanted the Tripitaka Koreana when visiting Choson. At that time, new temples were sprouting up in Japan, and they wanted to own the sacred Tripitaka from Choson, a symbol of the highest authority for a temple or individual,” Lee said.
In the first half of the Choson period alone, Japan requested the Tripitaka Koreana 82 times. The Annals show that Choson distributed the sacred Buddhist writings along with other artifacts such as temple bells and Buddhist images on 46 occasions.
“There’s no question about the Choson’s immeasurable influence upon Japan’s Buddhism,” Lee said.
Also exported to Japan around the mid-15th century was cotton cloth. Choson’s exports of cotton cloth to Japan totaled hundreds of thousands rolls per year, suggesting its considerable impact on Japan where there was no cotton.
In exchange, the Japanese brought in rare minerals such as copper, tin and sulfur. Also imported to the Hermit Kingdom were luxury items such as medicines and spices.
Exchanges of officials, plus trade, resulted in greater exposure to each other’s culture and society. A Choson official named Park Suh-saeng traveled to Japan as a “Tongsinsa” (envoy to Japan) and reported what he witnessed there to King Sejong in 1429, which tells much about Choson society, as well.
One of the items that sparked Park’s interest in Japan was a water mill. “Japanese farmers are irrigating with a water mill, which operates automatically, using the natural currents of the water. Therefore, we have made a miniature model now, which can be used for our farmers in irrigation,” Park said.
Another exotic thing to the eyes of Choson people is a bathhouse in Japan. Park witnessed numerous private and public bathrooms, and thought it not only convenient but also very helpful for other purposes.
“In Japan, when a person boiling the water of the bathhouse blows a whistle, everybody pays money and takes a bath. We should establish bathhouses in public places in order to help our people to know how to use money,” Park said. Which means Choson had yet to establish a coinage system.
Yet, Park’s exciting experience was not without troubles. Above all, traveling to Japan across the East Sea was highly risky, to say the least. In addition to the turbulent conditions at sea, the Japanese marauders intent upon seizing the travelers were a constant threat.
“It took at least nine months for the Choson delegates to visit Japan and return safely. And the difficulties of the travel are not hard to imagine. But Choson kept sending those delegates in the hope of maintaining peaceful relations with Japan,” researcher Lee said.
But the peace was likely to fall apart mainly due to the intractable waegu and other Japanese preferring smuggling and pillaging to an official route.
In 1419, King Sejong sent Yi Chong-mu to attack Tsushima to wipe out the bases of the Japanese marauders. As a result, the waegu’s activities subsided, but not for long.
Unable to produce enough food on their mountainous rocky islands, the rulers of Tsushima repeatedly sent missions to Choson to express their regret. The Choson government, in response, granted the Japanese limited trading privileges.
In 1443, Choson reached an agreement with Tsushima, allowing them to do limited business here. The annual trading ships from Japan were regulated to under 50, and the traders had to show their credentials authorized by the lord of Tsushima.
According to the agreement, three ports — Chaepo (Changwon), Pusanpo (Pusan) and Yompo (Ulsan) — were opened to the Japanese traders along the Choson’s southeastern coast. And a restricted zone named “waegwan” (trading and living quarters for the Japanese in Choson) were established in order to control the Japanese visiting Choson.
Yet, the Japanese were not satisfied with the official trade; many of them resorted to smuggling. In 1438, the Uijongbu (State Council) reported to the king: “The Japanese are cheating the documents to get more food, which should be resolved immediately. Also, more strict checks on the visitors are needed to prevent them from cheating.”
On the part of the Japanese, trading with Choson meant a handsome profit. Therefore, they wanted to get into Choson desperately, resulting in a sharp increase of trade and more trade vessels, which violated the agreed treaty of 1443. At one point, more than 3,400 Japanese were staying in the waegwan in Chaepo alone.
However, more Japanese led to more troubles. In 1510, the Pusan governor punished a Japanese criminal in order to tame the increasingly violent and unruly Japanese in the waegwan. But it triggered the Japanese’s anger in three ports. With the supporting soldiers from Tsushima, the Japanese rose in arms against the Choson commander. The disturbance was put down immediately, while the privileges at the three ports were abolished and trade relations were severed.
But the lord of Tsushima begged for a resumption of trade with Choson, which resulted in another treaty in 1512. The agreement stipulated that the number of ships allowed to trade was cut in half and the Japanese in the three ports were expelled.
The trade, resumed by the request from Japan, broke apart when 20 Japanese vessels intruded into the Choson territory without permission in 1544.
Again, the Japanese entreated for the resumption of trade, which Choson accepted on the condition that stricter regulations would be placed upon them.
Then again, in 1555, the Japanese marauders invaded a port in Cholla-namdo and killed the people and pillaged the villages, resulting in another souring of relations between Choson and Japan.
After the disturbance, Japan did not send a diplomatic mission to Choson for some 30 years, a blessing for Choson, eager not to be bothered by Japan.
However, it was a curse in disguise. The Japanese were building up their political and military power during this time and invaded Choson in 1592, which is now called the “Hideyoshi Invasion.”
Even after the devastating war, Japan repeatedly requested for trade with Choson. Trade eventually resumed again, along with the establishment of waegwan, which turned into a trouble spot saddled with crime.
On the fair-weather nature of the Japanese, Tongsinsa Park Suh-saeng commented in his report to King Sejong, which reminds us of today’s fisheries agreement unilaterally scrapped by Japan: “In general, the Japanese are ignorant of decorum and politeness. They are quick to send delegates when they want something from us, yet slow to honor our affairs when they are in need of nothing.”