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Book review: Frontier Contact Between Chosŏn Korea and Tokugawa Japan

Frontier Contact coverJames B. Lewis: Frontier Contact Between Chosŏn Korea and Tokugawa Japan
Routledge, 2003, 340pp

What a relief to return to some non-fiction. And although at LKL we are wholly unqualified to review academic works, we don’t mind saying why we it is that we like a particular book.

Frontier Contact paints a fascinating picture of the interconnectedness of Gyeongsang Province and Tsushima in the 17th to 19th centuries, focusing on Dongnae County (modern Busan) for the light it can shed on broader Japan-Korea interaction and mutual attitudes in the period. All regular contact between Joseon Korea and Tokugawa Japan needed to be via Dongnae County, where the official Waegwan (Japan House) was located – the only place where the Japanese could legally reside on Korean soil: this is where official and unofficial trade, and regular diplomatic exchanges took place. The Japanese were predominantly from the island of Tsushima, which provided a sometimes ambiguous channel of communication with Edo.

The study seeks to untangle many complexities. Some (such as the conversion rates between different commodities and other economic units of exchange involved in the trade) can possibly never be resolved with certainty, but although precision cannot be achieved a big picture can be painted, at least in terms of perceptions: the “cost” of ongoing trade with Japan / Tsushima absorbed half of Gyeongsang Province’s tax revenues. Of this, around a third was a true cost – entertaining the official envoys without whom the official trade trade could not have occurred – while the rest was in exchange for Japanese commodities such as copper, silver and tin, though not necessarily at free market exchange rates (there was the perception that Joseon paid through the nose).

Korea accepted this uneven balance of trade in exchange for intangible benefits borne of benevolence and pragmatism. Firstly, there was a feeling of Confucian superiority: the Japanese metals were designated as “tribute” while the goods Korea gave in return were “gifts”. As with the periodic (and hugely costly) embassies to Edo, Joseon regarded itself as being a civilising influence on the barbarian Japanese. Secondly, there was a recognition that Tsushima was a barren island: without the Korean rice that they obtained through trade the islanders would starve. But rather than starve, the people of Tsushima would likely turn to piracy, and so there was a considerable element of pragmatism in Korea’s acceptance of the burdens of trade. The Imjin Waeran and the previous piratical assaults were sore memories.

Lewis tracks the impact of the relations between Gyeongsang and Tsushima – which he argues should be regarded as a single economic region during the period under consideration – on the demographics, economy and politics of the region. And while the big picture is interesting, there is even more interest to be found in the human case studies which illustrate the big picture: the difficulties that the Dongnae county magistrate had in dealing with the pesky Japanese; the fate that awaited Korean women caught in the act with Japanese men (quite apart from Korean sexual mores being stricter than Japanese, mixed race offspring could be a threat to national security, bearing in mind that the Hideyoshi invasion army included around 1,000 Korean speakers). The case studies are even more interesting when we have both Japanese and Korean documentary evidence of a particular incident. For example, there were strict rules that confined the Japanese to the Waegwan compound – rules that the Japanese occasionally flouted in order to put diplomatic pressure on the unfortunate Dongnae magistrate. In one such incident a Japanese samurai managed to get himself clubbed on the head by a Korean civilian and got his sword stolen – an embarrassing occurrence for the Japanese which made the intricate negotiations about the grievances which gave rise to this disorderly outing even more complicated.

Altogether an enjoyable read for the curious general reader (and, for this particular reader, a welcome relief from a couple of Korean novels which seemed to be going nowhere.) The 2003 hardback would have been prohibitively expensive, but a cheaper paperback version became available in 2010 (Buy from

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