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Hideyoshi and Korea

by Cesare Polenghi

April 25, 2003


‘Hell cannot be in some other place apart from this[1].’ These were the words of a Japanese Buddhist monk, who observed his countrymen slaughtering entire families, looting villages, and burning fields while invading Korea. The year was 1587, and it was the second wave of invasions in a conflict that lasted over seven years, ending only 1598, when Japan’s generalissimo Toyotomi Hideyoshi died.

Hideyoshi is an almost legendary figure in Japanese history. His uniqueness is due to the fact that he was the epitome of gekokujō (lit: the ones below overthrow the ones above), a social climber[2] with no equals, who rose from being a sandal bearer to a position of undisputed ruler of Japan - a country where, unlike its Confucian neighbor China, the only way to gain social status was to be born in a noble family. Under Hideyoshi, in 1592, the Japanese troops swarmed into the Korean peninsula, and began a merciless war. In Hideyoshi’s mind, Korea was supposed to function as a corridor to quickly reach his ambitious final goal: the conquest of China, and ultimately India. However, the Japanese troops were never able to cross the Yalu River and enter Chinese territory, and the whole campaign turned out to be a humiliating, disastrous defeat for Hideyoshi’s army.

This paper examines: (1) the possible reasons why Hideyoshi decided to attack the continent; (2) the dynamic of the campaigns, and the reasons for their ultimate failure; (3) the surprisingly quick way in which relationships were re-established between the warring countries; and (4) the consequences of the struggle.


The reasons behind Hideyoshi’s decision to attack Korea

Oda Nobunaga, the most powerful warlord in Japan, was on the verge of unifying the country in 1582 when Akechi Mitsuhide, a disloyal general, murdered him. Hideyoshi, who at this time was another of Nobunaga’s generals, quickly got rid of the assassin and proclaimed himself the new leader of the Nobunaga-leaded faction. Immediately, he declared that he would continue the campaigns of his predecessor, and quickly unify Japan. Given the fact that Hideyoshi was only a general, with obscure origins, he was promptly accused of bravado; nevertheless it took him less than ten years to accomplish what he promised[3]. In the early 1590s, after centuries of internal turmoil, the country was at finally peace. Despite their success, Hideyoshi and his warriors were apparently longing for more battles. The idea of invading other countries in East Asia can be traced back to Hideyoshi predecessor, Nobunaga[4].

Hideyoshi probably inherited Nobunaga’s plans, and early documents mentioning an attack on the continent go back to 1585[5], a year in which he achieved stunning victories in three key battles towards unification. In 1587, as a preventive measure, Hideyoshi ordered the Sō daimyo, who was conducting trade on regular basis with Korea, to capture a royal hostage. When this proved impossible, the unlucky Sō Yoshishige was executed[6]. In 1591 the Hideyoshi achieved the last victories on the domestic battlefields by defeating the northern provinces of Dewa and Mutsu. Less than a year later, wasting no time, he would launch his first major attack on Korea.

Why would Hideyoshi, who since 1591 was known as Taikō (retired imperial regent), endeavor in another risky campaign rather than being concerned about solidifying his position at home? Japanese historians have been debating on this question for centuries[7]. As already mentioned, Hideyoshi has always been generally seen by the Japanese as a virtuous, a hero, and his failure in Korea is generally downplayed - if not ignored - in his popular biographies. Nevertheless, he suffered harsh criticism as well. The most common accusation is that the Taikō, after conquering the whole Japan, turned into a megalomaniac, or, even worse, became a mentally unbalanced old man. To give some credit to these latter theories, in a first attempt of laying out an ideology to legitimize his rule and to justify his humble origins, Hideyoshi spoke of his conception as a miraculous event, in some ways similar to the story of the Buddha. In his letter to the King of Korea (Dec.3, 1590), he had written:

As I was about to be conceived, my dear mother dreamt that the wheel of the sun had entered her womb. The diviner declared: ‘As far as the sun shines, so will the brilliance of his rule extend. When he reaches his prime, the Eight Directions will be enlightened through his benevolence and the Four Seas replete with the glory of his name. How could anyone doubt this![8].’


Furthermore, he projected his future image as one of a universal monarch that would eventually rule the whole human race from his residence in Peking or in India[9]. Paradoxically, Hideyoshi preached about ruling a world he knew nothing about. In fact his general knowledge of geography was vague[10], and he had no experience, nor intelligence about international warfare. His army was extremely well trained after years of domestic strife; however, for example, it was completely inexperienced at sea (and this will prove crucial, as we shall see.) In addition, Hideyoshi probably had no idea of the might of the Chinese army. His ignorance in merit can be clearly spotted in a letter in which he declared that: ‘Take Ming [China would be] as easy as for a mountain to crush an egg[11].’

There is yet another theory about Hideyoshi’s motive to invade Korea. The idea of attacking the continent might have been a device to weaken some of the daimyo by sending them to war abroad[12]. Those daimyo were the ones from Kyūshū and Western Japan that historically have never accepted willingly to become subjects of the central powers, and were therefore more likely to prove disloyal in the long run.

Be that as it may, Hideyoshi might have been a megalomaniac or a cynical calculator, but what is sure is that he was undoubtedly a man who devoted all of his life to warfare, and who, in the early 1590s, was not yet tired of fighting. Once Japan was finally unified, he could look back at his career, and attest that he never had lost a single battle. In the letter he sent to the Korean King in 1590, he admonished him that: ‘anyone who turned against me was automatically crushed. Whomever I fought, I never failed to win; wherever I attacked, I never failed to conquer.’[13] Hideyoshi asked consequently for a passage toward the Ming Empire, and declared the he was ready to ‘Spread [his] fame throughout the Three Countries[14]:’ Japan, China and India. A promise of alliance with Korea was part of his missive, which, blended intimidation with assurance. Hideyoshi never received an answer from Korea[15]; however, for another year he kept himself busy with completing unification at home.

 In 1592, Hideyoshi was in his mid-fifties, and his health had already begun to fail him, as he was losing his view and his appetite[16]. In addition to this, he was concerned with one of the problems that historically afflicted most Japanese leaders of medieval period: finding an heir. Hideyoshi had been so far too busy with warfare, and his only son had died in his early years. This kind of domestic troubles probably troubled and bothered him, and by examining his belligerent character it is reasonable to infer that without ongoing battles, the Taikō felt like a caged tiger. He was in desperate need for action. This would be confirmed in an encounter he had with the Christian missionary St.Pedro Batista Blanquez, who resided in the Philippines and would visit Japan later, in 1593. Hideyoshi, after repeating to the priest the wondrous stories about his birth and his imminent conquer of the world, and after giving for granted his success on the continent, menaced to attack Luzon (in the Philippines) if his terms were to be refused, emphasizing how the menace had to be taken seriously, since: ‘[his men] had nothing to do as there were no wars at the time Japan[17]’. Hideyoshi was no man of peace. He would be at war until the last day of his life, and only his death would put an end to his dreams of conquest. But before that, we need to backtrack to May 1592, when he finally launched his attack on Korea, for what it will turn out to be the beginning of first, disastrous defeat.

The first invasion 1592-1593

pusan Hideyoshi himself never went to Korea. For the campaign he selected a few generals, most of them young but already experienced, like Katō and Konishi, who were in their early thirties[18]. From the appositely built castle, in the town of Nagoya, Kyūshū (not to be confused with the modern Nagoya, in the Aichi prefecture), the Taikō directed the operations of an army of 158,800 men. Not all of them were samurai warriors, for the campaign commoners such as farmers, fishermen and ordinary laborers were in fact mobilized and put aboard ships with destination Korea[19]. When the Japanese finally landed on the continent, on May 23, 1592, the Koreans refused to give them way, choosing resistance over dishonor[20]. In Japan, Hideyoshi proved often generous to the ones who surrendered to him, and treated them as loyal allied. Nevertheless, the Korean status as a tributary of Ming China would have put the geographically unlucky peninsula in perhaps even bigger troubles, had they decided to side with the Japanese.

The southern city of Pusan was taken in one day. The Japanese were a disciplined, well-oiled warring machine, and were armed with muskets, that had became the weapon of choice in Japan since the 1570s, when Oda Nobunaga used them to win crucial battles. On the contrary, the Koreans were unprepared and untrained[21]. Soon, the Japanese troops took over most of the peninsula. News of the easy victories boosted up Hideyoshi’s moral, and he expected his armies to reach Peking in a matter of months. In a letter to his mother he wrote:


By now we have taken various castles in Korea and I have sent my men to besiege the capital there. I shall take even China around the 9th month, so I shall receive the costume for the [next Chrysanthemum] festival of the 9th month in the capital of China.[22]


In the meantime, in the northeast of Korea, the Japanese generals applied to the Korean provinces the same rules that Hideyoshi had implemented in Japan: land was taxed, weapons confiscated, and resistance brutally repressed. But the early success of the Japanese was only illusory and proved to be short-lived. Invasion map The conquered regions never accepted Japanese rule, and almost immediately rebellions arose in every province. Many of the Koreans who collaborated with the invaders were the first to be killed by the insurgents[23], and the local guerrillas soon cut the Japanese communication lines. Hideyoshi’s army was at loss: they were clearly superior to the Korean regular armies, but they suffered the unpredictable guerrilla tactics, a kind of warfare they were not used to[24]. However, as predicted, the worst defeats for Japan came at sea. Admiral Yi Sun-sin, was in fact victorious in virtually every engagement with the Japanese thanks to his superior experience at sea and his ‘turtle ships’ fleet, which offered better maneuverability than the Japanese heavy vessels[25]. Hideyoshi’s men began to have troubles in shipping troops and supplies to Korea: their communication line was now cut at the origin. To make things even worse for the Japanese, the Ming ‘Celestial Army’ crossed the Yalu River and marched into Korea in June 1592. The Chinese lost the first battle at Pyongyang, but managed to destabilize the invaders tactics and to undermine their morale. The Japanese did not expect the Ming army to intervene so soon, and initiative was slipping out of the hands of Hideyoshi’s generals, who in the end had no choice, but retire to Seoul. On their way south, and once in the capital, they vented their frustration by slaying Koreans and setting houses ablaze randomly [26].


The interlude of 1593-1597, and the failure of the peace negotiations with the Ming Empire.

Hideyoshi was disappointed, but he tried to both gain some time and save face with a letter he sent to the Ming court in 1593. In it, he described China as a partner, and Korea as a sort of common vassal state, by any means not influential in the political scheme of the region. The Taikō tried to deal with the Ming Empire just in the same fashion he had used at home with the most recalcitrant daimyo[27], by asserting clearly enough his own interests, while using a certain moderation. Finally a group of Ming negotiators reached Nagoya in May, where Hideyoshi, after treating them in his famous ‘Golden Tearoom’, sent them back with a peace treaty in seven points. The first request was, interestingly, a Chinese princess, to be married to the Emperor of Japan. This could have been probably arranged, since the Chinese had at court an abundance of princesses, but the following six requests, centering on the Japanese permanent acquisition of the Southern four provinces of Korea, were clearly more difficult to accommodate[28]. The whole document was intended for the Chinese only, and, once again, Hideyoshi did not take the Koreans’ sovereignty over their own country into consideration.

In the meantime, in Korea, the daimyo and the Koreans were living through a long, uneasy armistice[29]. Hideyoshi suddenly seemed to have become too busy with his succession to be bothered: his son Hideyori was in fact born in 1593, and the Taikō was struggling to arrange for him a safe future as the ruler of Japan, at least. Korea was clearly slipping out of Hideyoshi’s mind: in the first half of 1593 he had written at least nine letters from Nagoya, debating the campaign, but after the August of the same year, no reference on the war on the continent can be found in any of the following twenty-eight letters he wrote that came down to us[30]. Even his exchange of missives with his troops stationed in Korea is puzzling: it seems that all Hideyoshi was concerned about was to receive skins and organs of Korean tigers to be used as decorations and medicinal ingredients[31]. The requests to China were soon perceived as unreasonable by both his diplomatist in Korea, Dom Agostino Konishi (a Christian daimyo), and his Chinese counterpart Shen Wei-ching. The document was rewritten, and finally forwarded to Peking. In it, Konishi, in Hideyoshi’s name, blamed the Koreans for the whole incident, and admitted the Japanese submission as ‘children of the emperor of Ming[32].’ Three years later, in 1596, another Ming envoy reached Hideyoshi in his residence in Osaka, where the encounter soon turned into a pantomime. On the second day of the negotiations, the Taikō, all dressed up in Chinese garments he had received as a present from the Ming court, finally heard what the envoys came to tell him. Of course no mention of acceptance of his seven requests of 1593 were contained in the Chinese imperial document, and the main theme of the document was the Ming’s acceptance of Japan as a tributary state. Hideyoshi immediately grew furious toward the Chinese official and he abruptly dismissed them. Enraged and humiliated, The Taikō decided that resuming war was the only opportunity left[33].

The second campaign (1597-98), the death of Hideyoshi and the costs of war

Again, in 1597, the Japanese troops achieved initial victories; soon rebutted this time by a better organized Sino-Korean combined army. However, this time Hideyoshi allowed no retreats, and ordered his warriors to keep pushing forward[34]. The brutal war continued with no army achieving major gain or loss of terrain through 1597 and 1598, until the death of Hideyoshi, in August. As the Taikō passed away, the councilors and commissioners who temporarily held power in Japan, quickly tried to negotiate the retirement of troops by requesting to the Koreans only honey, wild animals skins, rice and a prince as a hostage[35]. Quite a remarkable difference if one compares with what Hideyoshi asked only four years earlier. Nevertheless, the Sino-Korean army seized the moment and taking advantage of the confusion reigning between the Japanese troops, launched an offensive. The Japanese generals and their soldiers, now worried about what could have happened at home after Hideyoshi’s death as well, made a narrow escape in December 1598. During one of the last battles at sea, The Korean Admiral Yi Sun-sin lost his life, and immolated himself as one of the greatest heroes in Korean history. The last Japanese left Korea on December 24th[36]. The war was finally over.

The whole campaign was characterized by the brutality of the Japanese army that, used to ruthless battles at home, slaughtered not only Korean soldiers, but civilians as well, including women and children[37]. The most reliable and impressive report of the second part of the war is the Chōsen Inikki (Korea day by day), a diary compiled by Keinen, a Buddhist monk who followed one of the Japanese generals as a physician in the second campaign. While most of the reports written by the Japanese glorified the massacre operated by the Japanese army, Keinen’s diary is filled with doubt, regret and compassion. In short paragraphs, completed by traditional styled waka poems, he dramatically described his countrymen’s army as formed by ‘battleground demons’, and gave ghastly details of their plundering and killing, of the consequent separation of Korean families, and the death of an ‘unthinkable number of men[38].’

It is impossible of course to determine accurately how many lost their lives in the campaigns, but the few, incomplete data we have are staggering. The Japanese warriors during the medieval period used to decapitate their dead enemies, and to send the heads on carts back to their superiors, to count as precisely as possible the number of enemies who had been killed. The whole operation had of course a martial valor as well. However, to send heads from Korea back to Japan was considered extremely unpractical, therefore Hideyoshi settled for his armies to send back only the noses. The macabre procedure culminated with a ritual in Kyōto, where the amputated noses were counted, and put together to form a mound in one of Hideyoshi’s gardens. General Kikkawa Hiroie’s contingent alone sent back 18,350 noses collected between September 1st and October 9th 1587[39]. The Japanese army as well lost an enormous number of men. In fact, it was calculated that one third of the ones who crossed the Sea of Japan to the continent in the first campaign, never returned to home[40]. Fifty-thousand to sixty-thousand Korean slaves were shipped to Japan during the war, mostly farmers, but also artisans and scholars. In the Tokugawa period (1603-1867) new, improved pottery and Neo-Confucianism would be two of the most visible legacies of the forced import of Korean skill[41].

In order to make peace with Korea and the Ming, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had less scruples about honor than his predecessor Hideyoshi, had to make amends for the war. He officially offered guilt, and sued for peace. Thousands of slaves were soon repatriated[42]. The Tokugawa policy of peace worked. The Korean officials visited Edo already in 1624, when the coronation of the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu, was an occasion to strengthen official relationships between the two countries. That, just 25 years after one of the cruelest wars ever recorded in history.


The war between Japan and Korea ended with no winners, and many losers. Korea was at the end of the 16th century a devastated and psychologically traumatized country, which would never fully recover. The Ming as well paid dearly their effort, in fact the energy they professed in helping the Koreans to repel the Japanese is seen by historians as one of the major reasons for the decline of the last Chinese empire, that ultimately fell to the Manchu in 1644. The Japanese lost an enormous number of lives, but perhaps more than that part of the feeling of invulnerability that they had achieved in the 13th century, when Japan was the only country that resisted successfully to the mighty Mongol army.

Japan would invade Korea again, in 1910. The occupation this time would not be as brutal as the one imposed by Hideyoshi, but no less humbling for the Koreans. No actual resistance was put on against the invasion, since the Japanese military power was too superior. The foreign rule lasted for 35 years, terminating only with the end of World War II. Undeniably, this latter invasion is still alive today in the collective memory of the Koreans, some of whom had to live through it and are still alive to remember it. However, it is undoubtedly the ruthless invasions of the end of the 16th century that tossed the seeds of hate and diffidence toward Japan that are still alive today among Koreans, and Hideyoshi, more than the invaders of the 20th century, is still considered today the worst villain that ever appeared in Korean history.

[1] Elisonas, Jurgis, ‘Japan’s Relationship with China and Korea’ in The Cambridge History of Japan, Vol. IV (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 293.

[2] Ibid. 269-70.

[3] Berry, Elisabeth, Hideyoshi (Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press, 1982), 215.

[4] Elisonas, 266.

[5] Ibid.

[6]Berry, 208

[7] Elisonas, 269; Berry, 211.

[8] Theodore de Bary. and Donald Keene, ed., Sources of Japanese Tradition, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 466.

[9] Ibid., 467.

[10] Berry, 213.

[11] Elisonas, 271.

[12] Ibid., 268-9.

[13] De Bary and Keene, 467.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Berry, 208.

[16] Ibid., 206.

[17] Cooper, Michael, They Came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640 (Berk;ey: University of California Press, 1965), 111.

[18] Berry, 206.

[19] Elisonas, 271.

[20] Ibid., 273.

[21] Elisonas 277.

[22] Boscaro, Adriana, 101 Letters of Hideyoshi (Tokyo: Sophia University, 1975), 45.

[23] Elisonas 276.

[24] Ibid., 277.

[25] Elisonas, 277-8; Berry, 213-4.

[26] Ibid., 279.

[27] Berry, 214-5.

[28] Elisonas, 282.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Boscaro, Adriana ‘An Introduction to the Private Correspondence of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, in Monumenta Nipponica, Volume 27, Issue 4 (Winter 1972), 415-421

[31] Elisonas, 286.

[32] Ibid., 283.

[33] Ibid., 285.

[34] Ibid., 287-8.

[35] Ibid., 288-9.

[36] Ibid., 290.

[37] Ibid., 291.

[38] De Bary and Keene, 467-72.

[39] Elisonas, 291. Quite surprisingly, Mimizuka, the hill that was build out of the Korean noses, still exists today in Kyōto.

[40] Ibid., 278.

[41] Elisonas, 293.

[42] Mc Cune, George M., ‘The Exchange of Envoys between Korea and Japan during the Tokugawa Period.’ The Far Eastern Quarterly, Volume 5, Issue 3 (May, 1946), 308-325.