4/27/12 - mounds of ears and noses

In today's excerpt - through most of its long history, sandwiched between the perennially powerful China and Japan, Korea has been on the defensive, subject to invasions and intrigue from both countries, forced to be wary and distrustful, and surviving in part by playing one off against the other. Two such invasions were by Japan in the 1590s at a time when Korea was one of China's tributary states:

"Korea, caught between China and Japan, was often a battleground. Invasions from Japan led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1592 and 1598 were among the most brutal ever, and are remembered by many Koreans today as the most devastating event in their difficult history. Japanese warriors sliced off enough ears and noses from enemy soldiers and civilians to create a huge mound with them near Kyoto, called the Mound of Ears (Mimizuka). The body parts were intended not only to inspire terror and serve as trophies of war but also to demonstrate samurai successes so that the warriors could be rewarded proportionally.

"These conflicts were among the first large-scale modern wars involving huge armies, advanced military technology, and massive casualties. The invasions were intended as a prelude to the conquest of China. Many Korean artisans were forcibly transferred to Japan, where they had a major impact on the development of Japanese ceramic and textile technologies and aesthetics.
"The Korean author Heo Gyun, who was over the course of his life a refugee, a diplomat, and a political dissident and reformer, was among those who fled from Hideyoshi's invaders. Heo, in his early twenties, was living in Seoul when the Japanese invaded. His young wife was pregnant. The Koreans were unprepared for the attack and offered little resistance.
"As Heo and his wife fled the city they saw it burning behind them—slaves had set fire to government offices to destroy the records that bound them. They were heading for his hometown of Gangneung on the east coast of Korea, far from the centers of fighting, where Heo's father was governor. The refugees were traveling through a rugged mountainous region during the heat of summer. When Heo's wife went into labor there was no opportunity to find sanitary conditions. She died in childbirth, and their newborn son also died a few days later. ...
"The Japanese advance began to stall. Though Korea's army was outmatched, its navy—which had honed its skills defending the country against Japanese pirates—had success in disrupting the invaders' supply lines. As news of the invaders' brutality spread, impromptu militias rose up to supplement the inefficient and bureaucratic official military.
"China's Ming court viewed the impending defeat of its tributary state with alarm. In 1593 the Wanli emperor dispatched a large army to fight the Japanese. Fierce battles devastated the countryside, as the two superpowers fought to stalemate. For several years an uneasy truce held while a negotiated settlement of the conflict was sought; then in 1597 the Japanese launched another attack. This time the Koreans were better prepared. Inconclusive fighting continued until September 1598, when Hideyoshi died. On his deathbed he ordered the withdrawal of Japanese forces."


Thomas Christensen


1616: The World in Motion




Copyright 2012 by Thomas Christensen


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