The University Record, February 22, 1999

Imjin War diaries are memorial of invasions for Koreans

By John Woodford
News and Information Services

During Korea’s two Imjin Wars against Japanese invaders—in 1592 and 1597—the Korean people endured incompetent leadership, famine, the destruction of their villages and bloody assaults that resulted in a “mountain” of pickled noses and ears of 38,000 Koreans placed on display in Osaka, Japan.

The Imjin invasions and earlier and later ones—chiefly the Mongolian in 1231–70, the Japanese of 1910–45, and the Korean War of 1950–53—have profoundly shaped Korean history and literature, Kichung Kim said in his Jan. 20 lecture “Survival and Abduction: Documentary Literature of the Imjin Wars (1592–98),” but the “most brutal” were the Imjin Wars.

Kim, professor of English and American studies at San Jose State University, told an audience at the International Institute that diaries and memoirs of those who survived in Korea and those abducted to Japan provide the main documentation of Koreans’ efforts at self-definition in the Imjin period. The Korean Studies Program sponsored his lecture.

Disembarking suddenly in Pusan on Korea’s southern coast, 150,000 Japanese troops overran Korea in two months. Meeting little resistance, the Japanese ravaged the civilian population, which also found itself beset by homegrown bandits and by the Ming Chinese army that moved in from the north, ostensibly in assistance to the Koreans.

Within four years, 90 percent of Koreans were uprooted from their homes and forced to wander the countryside in search of meager food and shelter. One of these wanderers, the scholar O Huimun, compiled a nine-year diary that describes the roads lined with corpses, the destruction of farmland, mass rapes, suicides of women who sought to escape capture, and reports of cannibalism in the starved population. Those who survived over the worst four years tried to reoccupy their homes only to find that their own government’s demands for taxes or forced labor made it unwise to do so.

When O Huimun re-entered his home village, only one-tenth of the inhabitants remained and its rice fields were uncultivable. The village’s nearby oak forest, leveled for charcoal, now contained just one tree.

Another prized document is the vivid and eloquent memoir of Korea’s statesman of the time, Yu Songnyong, who left a view “from the top of society,” Kim said. Yu’s goal was to be “brutally honest about the mistakes the Korean leaders made before and during the war.” He charged that the Korean government had been foolish and negligent about Japan’s plans for war, ignoring the reports of its own envoys who reported on Japan’s plans. “The Korean military took half-hearted defensive measures,” Kim said. Rather than training their troops, the top generals merely ordered an inventory of all weapons. The Koreans possessed scarcely any guns, and when warned of the Japanese force’s big edge in cannons and muskets, one commander said dismissively, “They can’t hit their targets every time they shoot, can they?”

“Our leaders were irresponsible and incompetent,” Kim said, adding that he regrets that no records were left by “the ordinary people who suffered the most.” Few could read or write, he said, “and of those, probably none could afford paper and pen. We get incidental glimpses of their experiences, however, from scholars’ and officials’ memoirs.”

Japanese records show that their main objective was plunder. Japan deployed six special units with orders to fetch books, maps and paintings from the more culturally advanced Koreans, craftsmen (especially potters) and their handicrafts, people to be enslaved, precious metals, national treasures, and domestic animals. “Whole villages were swept up,” Kim said. Japanese merchants sold some to Portuguese merchants anchored offshore and took the rest to Japan.”

A few of the more than 100,000 Koreans taken to Japan over the six-year war left memoirs or letters. They reported how Koreans were sold in lots in Nagasaki. An Italian bought five Korean boys “very cheaply” and took them to the Portuguese territory of Goa, where he freed all but the one who had learned Italian the fastest. That boy he took to Florence, Italy, and named Antonio Corea. Corea, who is believed to have been the model for one of Rubens’s paintings, settled in Rome and established an Italian clan.

Support from China’s Ming court and heroic victories at sea led by Yi Sunshin, one of the world’s greatest admirals, foiled both Imjin invasions. Some Japanese stayed in Korea, however, and some Koreans abducted to Japan stayed there after learning that, unless they were rich, liberated Koreans were often mistreated, cheated and re-enslaved by the Korean elite upon their return.

What is the meaning of these documents to Koreans today? Kim called them “an enduring literary memorial that speaks for all Koreans, even the illiterate, who experienced the tragedy of the Imjin War. We owe it to them to listen to what they say and reflect soberly on their words. These documents were preserved by families for 600 years before being published by clan leaders starting about 100 years ago.”

Kim illustrated another lesson the Koreans learned by citing great power diplomacy. The Koreans wanted the Chinese to expel the Japanese completely after the first invasion, but the Chinese were uninterested in doing more than clearing the Japanese from the Chinese-Manchurian borders. They delayed and stalled when Korea asked for further assistance and humiliated the Koreans in many ways. In one telling incident, a Chinese official almost sentenced Korea’s chief minister Yu Songnyong to a flogging on the basis of a Chinese servant’s false report.

“It shows you,” Kim concluded, “that if you don’t want your nation to be kicked around, you’ve got to be strong. All the Korean government of that time did for its people was to demand all the grain they had and force them to work.”