You may have never heard of the island of Tsushima, but for hundreds of years it was the door between Japan and Korea. Tsushima’s location was ideal for international trade, situated roughly fifty kilometers from the Korean peninsula and one-hundred and forty-seven kilometers from the Kyushu port of Hakata (today’s Fukuoka). For over four centuries, that trade was controlled by the ruling samurai family of Tsushima, the Sō 宗.
Beginning in 1392, the Sō acted as intermediaries between the Korean court and Japan’s Ashikaga shogunate. In much the same way that Japan at some times in history sent missions to China, exchanging gifts and engaging in trade, so too did the Sō send missions to Korea. From the Korean point of view this made Tsushima a tributary of their court, just as Korea was a tributary of China. Whether or not the Sō viewed the relationship in that way is unclear, but they were at least content to let Korea continue to think so. Typical items imported from Korea included skins, ginseng, honey, and cotton cloth.
Pirates and Peace
During the feudal period piracy was a problem. Though many pirates that plagued Korea and China did not come from Japan, some did, and they were called wakou 倭寇 (“Japanese pirates”) by their victims. In 1419, Korea sent a force of 17,285 men to Tsushima to eliminate a pirate base there. The Sō convinced them to leave when their mission was over, and restored relations with Korea. From that time, Korea left the responsibility for controlling such piracy in the hands of the Japanese. The Koreans also realized that while protocol might force them to deal with the Ashikaga shogunate, the piracy problem was better directed to the Sō. This is indicative of just how little authority the Ashikaga had left. By 1467 Japan had fallen into samurai civil war that would last for a century.
The Koreans managed to reduce piracy by legitimizing trade with not only the Sō and other Japanese daimyo, but with pirate leaders as well. In fact, the line between larger pirate fleets and those of lords was often quite blurred. On the Chinese tributary model, the Koreans endowed these leaders with titles and copper seals, and made trade agreements. The Sō benefited greatly from this system, becoming the channel through which all official Korean-Japanese trade passed. All ships on their way to Korea were required to stop at checkpoints on Tsushima, and any ship caught without the proper paperwork from the Sō were considered pirates. The Sō themselves were usually allowed to send fifty ships per year, received a large stipend from the Korean court, and were able to levy duties and fees on the ships and goods that came through Tsushima’s ports. This went on uninhibited until the 1580s when the unifier and leader of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (c. 1536-1598) planned to invade the mainland. It’s easy to see why the Sō were unhappy with this.
Sō Much for Diplomacy
The reasoning behind Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s decision to invade the mainland remains unclear. His ultimate goal was China, but the “easiest” way to China was through Korea. To begin with, Hideyoshi tried a diplomatic approach, hoping that Korea would join him in his conquest of China. However, Hideyoshi’s attempts were not particularly tactful, beginning with a letter sent in 1587 requiring Korea’s submission and the dispatch of a “tribute mission” to Japan. This message was sent via Tsushima daimyo, Sō Yoshishige (1532-1588), who softened the tone of the message as much as possible into a request for a “goodwill mission.” Knowing that the message was still likely to incense the Koreans and wishing to distance his family from it, Yoshihige did not deliver the message personally.
Instead, it was delivered by a retainer of the Sō, Yutani Yasuhiro, whose diplomatic skills were lacking. As he made his way up the Korean peninsula to the court in Seoul Yasuhiro loudly demanded the best room in every inn. Furthermore, when some men assembled with their spears along the roadside, a long-standing custom meant to display Korea’s military power, Yasuhiro laughed at the shortness of their weapons. Finally, while dining at Sangju, “Yasuhiro commented on his host’s gray hair, wondering why a man who had never seen battle, but whiled away the hours with music and dancing girls, would ever turn gray.”
Needless to say, the mission was a complete diplomatic failure. Hideyoshi was so angered that he ordered the execution of Yasuhiro and his family. Unfortunately, Sō Yoshishige was also unable to escape Hideyoshi’s wrath. He was relieved of his position as lord of Tsushima, which was then bestowed upon his adopted son, Sō Yoshitoshi (1568-1615). Yoshitoshi was also the son-in-law of one of Hideyoshi’s top generals, and thus deemed more trustworthy.
A Fresh Approach
Sō Yoshitoshi was only twenty when he was sent to deliver a letter from Hideyoshi to the Korean court and request that they send envoys to Japan. He was described by Yu Sŏngnyong (1542-1607), Korean prime minister, as “young, sharp, and ruthless.” Because of this “the Japanese who accompanied him were very afraid of him.” The Koreans requested the extradition of some of their countrymen who had traitorously helped pirates before fleeing the country and getting captured by the Japanese. Yoshitoshi did not object, and had a dozen captives delivered. The king was pleased with this response, and rewarded Yoshitoshi with a horse from the royal stables and a large banquet, and eventually envoys left with Yoshitoshi in April of 1590.
Before departing, Yoshitoshi presented the Korean court with the parting gifts of two peacocks, a spear, a sword, and the first musket to come into Korean possession. Why the Koreans chose not to attempt to replicate the musket was unclear. It was unfortunate; as such firearms would come to be vital assets to the Japanese forces during the war to come. As Yoshitoshi and the Korean envoys made their way to Hideyoshi’s court they stopped at Tsushima, Yoshitoshi’s home.
Yoshitoshi insulted his guests by arriving late to a banquet, and by riding his palanquin all the way to the steps of the hall, rather than getting out at the gate. Yoshitoshi apologized by decapitating his palanquin bearers and presenting their heads to his guests. It was unclear whether Yoshitoshi committed this faux pas intentionally or accidentally. Most likely this was a cultural difference and Yoshitoshi had unknowingly made a mistake. Whatever the cause of the incident, Yoshitoshi was quick to rectify it. The episode shows how seriously Yoshitoshi took his family’s relations with the Korean court. He was probably even more careful considering that he was bringing the envoys to Hideyoshi, himself a man not above ordering the execution of those who failed him.
The Final Straw
Unfortunately, Hideyoshi was not the most diplomatic individual, and the meeting that followed reflected this. The envoys were impressed with neither the simple meal they were given, nor the lack of decorum. They were even less impressed when Hideyoshi left the room and returned carrying his infant son, who proceeded to urinate on Hideyoshi. With that unceremonious ending, the audience which the Korean envoys had crossed the straits and then waited a further five months for, concluded. They did not even receive the letter from Hideyoshi they had been sent to acquire. For this, the envoys were forced to wait for some time. When Hideyoshi’s letter did arrive, the envoys were disturbed by its content.
“My object is to enter China, to spread the customs of our country to the four hundred and more provinces of that nation, and to establish there the government of our imperial city even unto all the ages. As your country has taken the lead and visited Japan, thus displaying deference, you need have no anxiety…On the day I enter China, I shall be leading my soldiers and shall review my military headquarters; then we shall renew our alliance. My wish is nothing other than that my name be known throughout the three countries [of Japan, China, and India].”
Though the envoys wanted a revised and rewritten letter, eventually they were convinced to return to Korea with the one they had been given. At the time there were two major political factions within the Korean court, each of the two envoys belonged to a different one, and unfortunately they let their alliances dictate their reports to the court. One advised that Hideyoshi was a serious threat, the other that he was not to be feared. The latter opinion was favored, and as a result little was done to build up Korea’s defenses. King Sonjo sent a reply to Hideyoshi declining to help any invasion of China and chastising him for such a reckless plan. Sō Yoshitoshi tried three more times to convince Korea to allow the Japanese passage to China, but was unsuccessful. Soon the invasion of Korea was underway.
In 1592 the invasion of Korea began. Ships set sail from northern Kyushu and stopped at Tsushima for final preparations. The Sō, having difficulty raising the 5,000 man quota Hideyoshi placed upon them, impressed a number of Koreans into service. On May 23, 1592, the first division of Hideyoshi’s army landed at Busan, commanded by Konishi Yukinaga and Sō Yoshitoshi. These 18,700 men were later joined by the other divisions, for an army totaling over 158,800. During the early stages of the campaign, the Japanese swiftly cut a swath through the Korean peninsula as they made their way to Seoul, defeating the Koreans at every turn.
Japan’s early success in the campaign could be attributed to a few factors. Firstly, the Japanese armies were more experienced and more efficiently organized than their Korean counterparts. Secondly, the Japanese were also much better equipped than the Koreans. Their melee weapons and armor were of a higher quality than the Koreans’, and more importantly, they possessed firearms.
As mentioned in the last article, during one of the diplomatic missions prior to the war Sō Yoshitoshi had given the Korean king the gift of a musket. To their disadvantage, the Koreans chose not to try and replicate it. Though the Koreans did utilize a few types of cannon, the muskets used by the Japanese allowed for firepower combined with much greater mobility. When Chinese forces later joined the war, their use of muskets greatly enhanced the Koreans’ fighting capacity.
The one major advantage held by the Koreans was their navy. Had they been able to bring it to bear early on they might have prevented the advance of the Japanese. Unfortunately Korean politics once again hindered their military. However, after some time a resourceful Korean admiral named Yi Sun Sin was able to strategically bring their navy to bear. He used Korea’s superior ships (particular the famous armored turtle ships) to disrupt the Japanese supply line and occupy their forces long enough for Chinese aid to arrive.
Korea was a tributary state to China, but that relationship generally did not extend to military aid. Nonetheless, on this occasion China did eventually send in troops. Despite their initial successes, after the first year, the Korean campaign became a long, tedious occupation for the Japanese. Many commanders did not wish to remain in Korea, but dared not oppose Hideyoshi, whose power was well consolidated at home in Japan. With Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, his generals were finally free of their obligations and the processes of withdrawal and negotiation began.
A New Order
When Hideyoshi died, Japan was divided between those who supported his family and those who supported the Tokugawa family. The conflict culminated in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The victorious Tokugawa clan became the ruling family of shoguns for the next 267 years.
Following the battle, they divided the various lords of Japan into three categories, from most privileged to least: shinpan daimyo (those related to the Tokugawa), fudai daimyo (those who allied or fought with the Tokugawa at the time of the Battle of Sekigahara), and tozama daimyo (“outside lords” who fought against them or did not ally with them prior to the battle). The Sō clan did not take a side during the battle, and was thus placed in the third category. Although being an outside lord was a disadvantage, by repairing their relations with Korea, the Sō were still able hold a uniquely powerful position.
The Sō were able to repair their damaged relationship with Korea rather quickly. Though their first envoy following the war, sent in 1599, never returned, subsequent negotiations fared much better. In 1600, Yoshitoshi, returned 300 Koreans who had been held captive, as a goodwill gesture. Seoul responded by sending representatives to open talks. The Tokugawa tried to distance themselves from Hideyoshi’s invasion, saying they had never sent a single soldier overseas (technically true, though Tokugawa Ieyasu acted as a military advisor to Hideyoshi back home). The Tokugawa sent Yoshitoshi and the monk Genso to Korea on their behalf in 1603, after which several hundred more Korean captives were repatriated. By the following year Tsushima was once again trading (on a limited basis) with Korea.
Between 1601 and 1605 around 5,000 Korean prisoners were returned home. Throughout these negotiations, the Korean court dealt mainly with the Sō family and not the shogunate, once again highlighting the clan’s importance. One of the final conditions for restoring normal relations was official recognition from the “King of Japan,” by which they meant the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Titles were often a sticking point throughout the history of Japanese international diplomacy. “King” was the title by which the Chinese court generally recognized leaders of other large countries (Korea included), but by accepting that title the shogun would also be accepting that his status was lower than that of the Chinese emperor. When the Sō got word of this condition they knew it would be a problem, and they took the risk of forging letters from Ieyasu to the Korean king. It would seem that somehow they were never found out.
In 1609, the Treaty of Kiyu was signed, which allowed for limited trade with the Tokugawa under Sō supervision at Tsushima and Busan. In 1617 formal relations were established. Thus, the Sō recovered from the war, and became stronger than before.
Politics, Parades, and Profits
Once again, the Sō clan were gatekeepers of all official trade between Japan and Korea (and a lot more unofficial, but legal trade). Their position became all the more lucrative due to Tokugawa changes in foreign policy. By 1639 the shogunate had closed off most foreign trade. There were a few exceptions. One Dutch ship per year was allowed to dock at the tiny island of Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki. Some Chinese ships were also allowed into Nagasaki. The Satsuma domain traded with the Ryukyu Kingdom (modern day Okinawa). However, Tsushima was the only route for Korean trade.
Another aspect of relations between Korea and Japan was occasional Korean processions to Edo. There were twelve such processions during the Edo period. The first procession in 1607, and the two that followed were at the invitation of the Japanese and included the repatriation of Korean captives from the war. The fourth was a celebration of prosperity, and the fifth a birthday celebration for the shogun. All those that followed were to celebrate the succession of a new shogun. As they say, “Ain’t no party like a shogun succession party.”
Processions departed from Busan, crossed the sea to Tsushima, then Kyushu, where they slowly made their way up to the capital, Edo. There were hundreds of people in the processions, many brightly costumed, playing music and dancing. The processions were quite the sight and attracted many spectators, most of whom would never have seen a foreigner before. Getting a foreign court to pay its respects to the shogun also boosted the prestige of the shogunate and of the Sō family.
Cutting Out the Middlemen
All good things must come to an end, and with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867 and subsequent restoration of the emperor to power, change was on the way. After a bit of shuffling around, Tsushima became a part of Nagasaki prefecture in 1872, which it remains to this day. Like many former daimyo families the Sō were made members of the new peerage kazoku 華族 . Under the usual standards, the head of the family should have been made a viscount due to the small income of Tsushima. However, in recognition of Tsushima’s special role in Korean relations, the head of the Sō family was given the higher title of count.
Still, with the introduction of steam ships and later, airplanes, Tsushima’s position became less and less valuable. What exactly became of the Sō family was unclear from my research. One of the last references to the family I found was to Count Sō Takeyuki, who was married by arrangement to Deokhye, the last princess of Korea, in 1931. The marriage was an unhappy one, and they divorced in 1953.
For a few years following World War II, Korea disputed Japan’s control of Tsushima, but then relinquished their claim. It is true that over the centuries the people of Tsushima had adopted a number of customs and a few words from Korea. However, their language had always been Japanese. Their lords had received seals and investiture from the Korean court it’s true, but if that constitutes a claim to the island, then by that logic Korea should belong to China.
Though Tsushima always played both sides to their advantage, they seemed to favor Japan a bit more. If nothing else, the history of Tsushima and its lords attests to the ambiguous nature of national identity in pre-modern East Asia.