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Samuel Hawley is a writer of narrative nonfiction. His books are highly eclectic. He has written about 16th-century East Asian history, 19th-century Korean-American relations, Olympic sprinting and land speed racing and a circus elephant named Topsy who was electrocuted in 1903. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.


Published in Transactions of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 78 (2003): 35-55.

By mid-summer of 1593 the Japanese were confined to an 80-kilometer-long chain of fortresses around Pusan. The Koreans continued to urge the Chinese to attack them and drive them into the sea. The Chinese for their part continued to demure. After the losses they had suffered at Pyongyang and Pyokje, and with the Japanese no longer posing a threat to Beijing, they were now committed to ending the war through negotiation. The Japanese were equally willing to talk; to see what face-saving concessions could be pried out of the Chinese for presentation to Hideyoshi.

By mutual consent the fighting thus died down for nearly three years, but only after the Koreans had been dealt a final, terrible blow. In July 1593 the Japanese marched on the southern city of Chinju to seek revenge for their defeat there the previous November, when the city’s garrison under Kim Si-min had held out against a force four times its size. This time Hideyoshi’s commanders returned with an army usually cited as numbering 93,000.[18] They would be faced by between 3,000 and 4,000 Koreans under such notables as Chungchong army commander Hwang Jin, Kyongsang army commander Choi Kyong-hoe; and government-official-turned-guerrilla leader Kim Chon-il – who assumed overall command, much to the aggravation of city magistrate Seo Ye-won. There was no way this small group of defenders could stand against such overwhelming numbers, the largest single enemy force so far assembled in the war. “Red Coat General” Kwak Jae-u saw this clearly, and urged his friend Hwang Jin not to throw his life away trying to defend the place. Hwang agreed that Chinju was probably doomed. He had already given his word to Kim Chon-il and others, however, that he would stay and fight. As Kwak Jae-u rode sadly away, knowing he would never see Hwang again, the defenders of Chinju raced to stockpile food and arms in preparation for the coming fight. Then the gates of the city were closed and barred.[19]

In the second week of July a tidal wave of Japanese troops began marching west from the chain of forts encircling Pusan, burning and looting as they went. The ferocity of the advance drove thousands of terrified civilians to join the defenders holed up inside the city. By the nineteenth Chinju was surrounded “in a hundred layers,” and looked like “a small, lonely boat in the middle of a sea.” The assault began the following day, foot soldiers peppering the ramparts with musket fire, keeping the Koreans down while their comrades filled in portions of the moat that had previously been dug outside the north wall. With this obstacle overcome, a unit of sappers advanced to the wall itself and began prying stones out from the base. The effort came to an abrupt halt when a cascade of stones fell down on them, killing some and driving the rest back.

The fighting continued day and night from July 21 to 24, the Japanese taking turns assaulting the ramparts and removing stones from the walls, keeping up an unrelenting pressure on the Korean defenses. Then, around the twenty-fifth, it started to rain. It began for the Koreans as a welcome relief, for they were able to snatch a little rest when the Japanese, unwilling or unable to use their muskets in the wet, were forced to call off their assault. (By the late sixteenth century the Japanese had invented a cover for their arquebuses that allowed them to fire them in the rain, but it was an imperfect solution for keeping a taper lit and powder dry.) The downpour, however, soon turned into a curse, for it began washing away the soil at the damaged portions of the walls, weakening them further.

During the respite the Japanese sent a message into the beleaguered city demanding its surrender. “The Chinese have already given up,” it read. “Why do you dare continue to resist?” Korean commander Kim Chon-il sent a reply flying back over the walls: “Three hundred thousand Chinese soldiers have been sent to help us. When they arrive you will all be destroyed.” The Japanese scoffed at this bravado, hoisting their trouser legs above the knee and miming effeminate Chinese officials running away.[20]

From his camp outside the city, Kato Kiyomasa was making preparations for a renewed attempt to undermine the walls. This time he had his men fashion four kame-no-kosha, or “turtle wagons,” heavily built carts with stout wooden roofs. These crude vehicles were wheeled up to the base of the walls, and parties of men went to work with crowbars on the lower courses of stones, prying them out one by one. The Koreans could see what was happening below, but were unable to stop it, their arrows and musket balls and stones bouncing harmlessly off the roofs of the wagons. Someone finally had the idea of dropping oil-soaked cotton down onto the contraptions and setting them alight. Kato, perceiving the weakness, promptly ordered more carts built, this time with fire-retardant ox hides nailed to the roof. [21]

While this was going on, Japanese forces were applying pressure at many other spots all around the city. Elevated firing platforms were erected in front of the east and west gates, and a bamboo palisade was constructed along one side, allowing Kato’s musketeers to take up positions close to the walls. Inside the city, Hwang Jin, Kim Chon-il, and Kimhae magistrate Yi Chong-in fought desperately to repel these various advances, but their men were growing exhausted. During a lull in the fighting Hwang Jin leaned over the wall to assess the situation. “The trench out there is full of enemy dead,” he observed. “There must be more than a thousand….” At that moment a Japanese soldier hiding at the base of the wall aimed his musket straight up at Hwang’s exposed head and fired, sending a ball clean through the Chungchong Army Commander’s helmet and into his skull.

On July 27 the repeated forays by the Japanese to pry stones away from the fortifications succeeded in collapsing a portion of the wall. For the Koreans sheltering inside the end had come. They cried out to Kim Chon-il: “Commander! The enemy has breached the walls! What should we do?” There was nothing that Kim could tell them. He did not have enough men to resist the Japanese troops now pouring into the city, everyone was exhausted after a week of battle, every arrow had been fired, every stone had been thrown. And now there was no way to escape. Those who chose to die fighting did so with swords and spears and bamboo staves, no match for the muskets and swords of the Japanese. The rest abandoned their positions and raced from one wall to the other, searching in vain for a way to get out. As the Japanese proceeded to tear the city to pieces, Kim Chon-il and his eldest son Kim Sang-gon, accompanied by army commander Choi Kyong-hoe, guerrilla leader Ko Chong-hu, and a few others, retreated to the Choksongnu pavilion on the south wall of the city overlooking the Nam River. After bowing to the north, towards the capital and their king, the men embraced and, with tears streaming down their faces, bid one another farewell. Then they joined hands and threw themselves into the water below.

Yi Chong-in continued to resist until the bitter end, fighting off the attacking Japanese in a rearguard action that took him onto the rocks at the edge of the Nam River. Here he is reported to have seized two Japanese soldiers in his arms and shouted: “Kimhae Magistrate Yi Chong-in is dying here!” He then cast himself into the water, carrying the two soldiers down with him.

At least 60,000 Koreans lost their lives in the Second Battle of Chinju. Most were killed in the massacre that followed the taking of the city, an orgy of destruction that has been called the worst atrocity of the war.[22] The Japanese under Kato, Ukita, and Konishi had no mercy. They did not leave a cow or dog or chicken alive. In a frenzy of revenge against a nation that refused to be conquered, they pulled down the walls and burned all the buildings. They filled the wells with stones. They cut down every tree. When the destruction was finished, Chinju ceased to exist. Since the beginning of the war, the Korean annals would later record, no other place had been so thoroughly destroyed – nor had loyalty and righteousness been so magnificently displayed.[23]

The negotiations between China and Japan, meanwhile, were degenerating into fiasco. To keep the game alive and secure a settlement, Hideyoshi’s envoys altered his demands so profoundly that in the end Beijing was led to believe that all the would-be conqueror desired was to be accepted as a vassal of the Emperor of the Ming.

And so we arrive at Osaka Castle in the fall of 1596, where Hideyoshi is receiving the envoys sent from Beijing. His eager-to-please advisors have led him to believe that the Chinese have come to convey to him their government’s subservience and contrition. The Chinese, conversely, believe they have come to make Hideyoshi subservient to China by proclaiming him a vassal king. The charade finally ended when Hideyoshi had one of his scholar-monks translate the edict the Chinese had brought. “You, Toyotomi Hideyoshi,” the document concluded, “are…instructed reverently to conform with the imperial desire and to maintain your everlasting existence by…cheerfully obeying our imperial command!” [24]

Hideyoshi reportedly flew into a rage. He ripped off the silk robe presented to him by the Chinese; he tore the crown off his head and dashed it to the ground. The Ming envoys were sent packing, in fear for their lives. The second invasion of Korea would be the result.

The second invasion of Korea, called chongyu jaeran by the Koreans, the invasion of the fire-rooster year, unfolded more slowly and methodically than the first. Troop movements began in March of 1597 and continued on into the summer, until 141,490 soldiers were encamped in the south. Then they waited. They would not march inland until September, when Korean fields would be ready to harvest and a sufficient supply of rice assured. By September, moreover, the Korean navy would be virtually destroyed, removing from southern waters the impediment that had so hampered the first invasion.

During the years between the two invasions, the reputation of Korean naval commander Yi Sun-sin had been tarnished by accusations that he disobeyed orders and was unwilling to fight. A good deal of the trouble stemmed from Yi’s own mastery of naval warfare: after his stunning successes in the opening months of the war, the government came to expect victories from him as a matter of course, victories he could no longer deliver once the Japanese began avoiding engagements and hiding their ships. The Korean government appears not to have understood this fundamental dilemma. Spurred on by scurrilous reports from Won Kyun, commander of the defunct Kyongsang Right Navy and an arch-rival of Yi’s from the start of the war, the government began pressing Yi to attack an enemy that was no longer there. When Yi failed to comply, he was accused of disobeying orders. Finally, in March of 1597, he was dismissed from office and ordered to Seoul to face trial. After a month in prison and interrogations that likely involved torture, the death sentence hanging over Yi’s head was commuted to loss of position alone. He was released on May 16 and sent south under guard to serve as a common soldier in the army of Kwon Yul, recently appointed Korea’s Commander-in-Chief.

On June 26 Yi Sun-sin consulted the Book of Divination to discover what the future held for his rival Won Kyun, who had replaced him as supreme naval commander. “The first sign,” he recorded in his diary that day, “came out as ‘water, thunder, and great disaster.’ This means that the Heavenly wind will corrupt and destroy the original body. It is a very bad omen.”[25]

Two months later, on August 20, 1597, Won Kyun, forced into battle by orders sent down from Seoul, led the Korean navy in a mismanaged attack on the Japanese navy at Pusan. His ships were easily beaten back, and retreated to Chilchon Strait on the northern coast of Koje Island. One week later the Japanese counter-attacked, annihilating the Korean navy and killing Won Kyun. When the news reached Seoul, Yi Sun-sin was hastily re-appointed. He would soon discover he had only thirteen ships left.

September 1597. The fields of Korea were ready to harvest. It was time for Hideyoshi’s commanders to launch their second offensive. They moved inland in two great armies, the “Army of the Left” swinging west then north into Cholla Province, the “Army of the Right” taking a north and then westerly course. The first objective was the town of Namwon, where 3,000 Chinese troops and 1,000 Koreans were garrisoned to block any northward enemy advance. The Left Army wiped them out in the last week of September, then proceeded to lay waste to the countryside around. Wandering about Namwon in the wake of the battle, the priest Keinen, who was serving with the Japanese army as a physician and chaplain, recorded in his diary that “the only people to be seen were those lying dead on the ground. When I looked around the fortress at dawn the next day I saw bodies beyond number heaped up along the roadside.”[26] He would later encapsulate the trauma of the scene in a poem:

Whoever sees this
Out of all his days
Today has become the rest of his life.

This was just as Toyotomi Hideyoshi had wanted. His second invasion of Korea was more about saving face than conquest: he wanted to demonstrate to the Chinese that he did not fear them or feel subservient in any way. He also wanted to punish the Koreans for resisting him. In the first invasion he had had hopes of winning them over, and thus had ordered his troops to treat civilians well so long as they were compliant. There would be none of this in the second invasion. Hideyoshi wanted the Koreans killed, soldiers and civilians alike, and evidence of the slaughter sent back to him in Japan. It was not practical because of the distance to collect severed heads, the usual trophies of war. Hideyoshi’s troops instead collected noses, possibly more than 100,000. These were submitted to nose collection stations set up across southern Korea for packing in salt in barrels and shipment back to Japan.[28]

While the Japanese army was cutting a swatch through Cholla Province and into Chungchong, the Japanese navy was advancing along the southern coast, confident that the way was now clear to the Yellow Sea. It was not. With a fleet of only thirteen ships, Yi Sun-sin was preparing to make a stand in Myongnyang Strait, the gateway to the Yellow Sea between Chin Island and the mainland on the extreme southwestern tip of the Korean peninsula. On the eve of what would be the most astonishing battle of the war, he gathered his commanders and said: “According to the principles of strategy, ‘He who seeks his death shall live, he who seeks his life shall die.’ Again, the strategy says, ‘If one defender stands on watch at a strong gateway he may drive terror deep into the heart of the enemy coming by the ten thousand.’ These are golden sayings for us. You captains are expected to strictly obey my orders. If you do not, even the least error shall not be pardoned, but shall be severely punished by martial law.”[29]

On October 26, in the Battle of Myongnyang Strait, thirteen Korean ships stood against an enemy fleet of at least 130 vessels – and won. By the end of the day, 31 Japanese ships had been destroyed without a single Korean vessel being lost. After that Hideyoshi’s navy fell back towards Pusan and did not venture west again. This stunning victory would mark the pinnacle of Yi Sun-sin’s naval career, the point where his leadership rose from the extraordinary to the sublime, and from there entered into legend. In the centuries that followed, no one would praise him more than his former enemy, the Japanese themselves. At a party honoring Togo Heihachiro’s victory over Russia’s Baltic fleet in 1905, for example, Togo took exception to one eulogy comparing him to Lord Horatio Nelson and Yi Sun-sin. “It may be proper to compare me with Nelson,” he said, “but not with Korea’s Yi Sun-sin. He is too great to be compared to anyone.”[30]

The furthest north the Japanese advanced in 1597 was to within seventy kilometers of Seoul. Here, at the Battle of Chiksan, they clashed with an advance unit of Chinese troops. With it evident that the Chinese had returned to Korea, Hideyoshi’s forces made no effort to hang on to the ground they had covered, leaving themselves exposed to counterattack with winter coming on. Instead they retreated south once more and established themselves again in a long chain of forts. The allied Chinese and Koreans soon hemmed them in, nowhere more so than at Ulsan, where forces under Kato Kiyomasa withstood a siege that saw many of his men starve and freeze to death. By reserving the bulk of the food and water for his crucially important musketeers, Kato was able to maintain an effective core of troops to repel the Chinese assault when it finally came. Similar defeats were inflicted on Ming forces later that year in October, when they tried to dislodge Konishi Yukinaga from his fort at Sunchon at the opposite end of the Japanese fortress chain, and Shimazu Yoshihiro from his Sachon stronghold at roughly the center.

After that the Chinese wanted nothing more of fighting. Word had recently been received of Hideyoshi’s death in Kyoto on September 18, 1598, and it was evident that his army in Korea was preparing to leave. The Chinese, now under the supreme command of Yang Hao, thus ignored Korean urgings to attack, and instead gave the Japanese time and space to depart. This was easily done for Kato Kiyomasa and his colleagues at Ulsan, Pusan, Ungchon, and points between. On the western end of the fortress chain, however, Konishi Yukinaga at Sunchon was unable to leave: the allied Korean-Ming navy was blocking him in. The final clash came on December 16, when a fleet from Shimazu Yoshihiro’s neighboring Sachon enclave sailed west to attack the blockade. In the ensuing Battle of Noryang Strait, at least 200 of Shimazu’s ships were destroyed and an “uncountable number” of his men were killed or drowned. For the Koreans, however, the victory was costly: they lost naval commander Yi Sun-sin. He was felled by a stray bullet in the chest while pursing the retreating enemy fleet back towards Pusan. His last words, spoken to his eldest son and nephew, were: “Don’t let the men know….” Struggling to maintain their composure, the two young men carried their commander’s body into his cabin before the calamity could be noticed. It was only after the battle was won that word of Yi’s death was allowed to spread through the fleet.[31]

By then Konishi’s forces had got cleanly away. There was talk amongst the Chinese of marching on the exposed heart of the enemy perimeter at Pusan. Before any serious movement was made, however, the Japanese there had evacuated as well. The last of their ships departed on December 24, 1598, bringing to an end the seven-year-long war.

Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea clearly ended in failure. His troops took back to Japan a long list of spoils: thousands of books, scrolls and paintings, religious artifacts, stone pagodas, movable type invented in Korea two centuries before – and 50,000 slaves or more, including potters with advanced skills the Japanese lacked. But it was scant compensation for the 70,000 or 80,000 soldiers that died.[32]

Chinese casualties easily ran into the tens of thousands as well. For Beijing, however, the impact on its treasury would be the more serious loss. According to one estimate, between 20 and 26 million taels of silver were spent to sent expeditionary forces to Korea to counter the first and second invasions, in weight of metal nearly one thousand metric tons.[33] This expenditure would substantially weaken the Ming government at the very time when a serious threat to its existence was emerging, the rise of Jurchen power on its eastern frontier. These Jurchen, soon to be renamed Manchus, would capture Beijing in 1644 and replace the Ming with a dynasty of their own, the Qing.

But of course it was Korea that suffered the most in the war. Its economy was shattered. Towns and cities were destroyed. And Koreans died in uncountable numbers. Soldiers and civilians who were killed outright, who starved to death in famines, and who died in the epidemics brought about by the war, conceivably totaled two million or more, roughly twenty percent of the kingdom’s entire population.[34]

And what became of those severed Korean noses sent back to Japan? They were buried in a mound later misnamed the mimizuka (“ear mound”), in front of Toyokuni Jinja, the shrine where Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s spirit now resides. The mound remains there to this day, tucked between a playground and an alley. It is not marked on many tourist maps. Few tourists to Kyoto ever visit the place.



18. This figure of 93,000, which is the one commonly quoted in accounts of the battle, is taken from Japanese sources, and may be too high. According to Sonjo sujong sillok, the attacking Japanese army totaled only 30,000. (vol. 4, p. 24, 6/Sonjo 26 (July 1593).

19. Sin Kyong, p. 179.

20. Sonjo sujong sillok, vol. 4, pp. 26-27, 6/Sonjo 26 (July 1593).

21. William Griffis, Corea. The Hermit Kingdom (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894), p. 125; W. G. Aston, Hideyoshi’s Invasion of Korea (Tokyo: Ryubun-kwan, 1907), p. 36; Turnbull, pp. 158-159.

22. James Palais, Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), p. 83.

23. This account of the second battle of Chinju is based mainly on: Sonjo sujong sillok, vol. 4, pp. 26-29, 6/Sonjo 26 (July 1593); Sonjo sillok, vol. 9, pp. 61-64, 16/7/Sonjo 26 (Aug. 12, 1593); Yu Song-nyong, pp. 187-190; Sin Kyong, p. 177-180; Hong Yang-ho, Haedongmyong jangjin, in Yi Nae-ok, pp. 186-187. According to the Japanese account in the Taikoki, 25,000 Koreans were killed in the battle. Most of these “fell from the cliffs and were drowned.” (Turnbull, p. 160.)

24. Imperial patent of investiture from the Wanli emperor to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, in Kuno, vol. 1, pp. 335-336.

25. Diary entry for 12/5/Chongyu (June 26, 1597),Yi Sun-sin, Nanjung ilgi, p. 269.

26. Keinen, Chosen nichinichi ki, quoted in Yang jae-suk, Imjin waeran-un uri-ga igin chinjaeng iottda (Seoul: Garam, 2001), pp. 324-325.

27. Quoted in Turnbull, p. 196.

28. Receipts were issued for every cache of noses Japanese commanders submitted to “nose collection stations.” More than twenty of these “nose receipts” are reproduced in Cho Chung-hwa, Tashi ssunun imjin waeran-sa (Seoul: Hakmin-sa, 1996), pp. 116-125.

29. Diary entry for 15/9/Chongyu (Oct. 25, 1597), Yi Sun-sin, Nanjung ilgi, p. 311.

30. Kim Tae-chun, “Yi Sun-sin’s Fame in Japan,” Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, no. 47 (June 1978), p. 95.

31. Yi Pun, “Biography of Admiral Yi Sun-sin,” in Yi Sun-sin, Imjin changch’o, pp. 237-238; Yu Song-nyong, p. 225; Sonjo sujong sillok, vol. 4, pp. 159-160, 11/Sonjo 31 (Dec. 1598); Sonjo sillok, vol. 25, pp. 187-188, 27/11/Sonjo 31 (Dec. 24, 1598); Park Yune-hee, Admiral Yi Sun-shin and His Turtleboat Armada (Seoul: Hanjin, 1978) pp. 243-246; Jho Sung-do, Yi Sun-shin. A National Hero of Korea (Chinhae: Choongmoo-kong Society, 1970), pp. 224-228; Yang Jae-suk, pp. 259-262.

32. It is from these spoils of war that the Japanese would derive such names for Hideyoshi’s Korean invasion as “The War of Abduction,” “The Pottery War,” and “The War of Celadon and Metal Type.”

33. Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbanks, East Asia: The Great Tradition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), pp. 332-333. (1 tael = 1.3 ounces, or 36.855 grams.)

34. These figures are suggested by Tony Michell, “Fact and Hypothesis in Yi Dynasty Economic History: The Demographic Dimension,” Korean Studies Forum, no. 6 (Winter-Spring 1979/1980), pp. 77-79. By way of comparison, some one million Korean civilians died as a result of the Korean War of 1950-53.

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copyright 2011 Samuel Hawley