Samuel Hawley: The Imjin War – Japan’s Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China
2nd Edition, Conquistador Press 2014
Originally published by Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, Seoul, 2005
How is it that a 664 page book only merits a brief review? Well, because as an historical book a proper review should only be written by someone with appropriate historical qualifications. My only qualifications are that I’ve read Stephen Turnbull’s Samurai Invasion, which covers the same period, and have visited various sites that loomed large in the narrative, such as Jinju fortress, Hansando and the location of the Battle of Myeongnyang.
Qualified or not, I can confirm that this is a thoroughly good read and I cannot remember ever flipping pages to skip over a particular battle scene: the narrative never gets bogged down in military details.
Despite its length, it can only be an introduction to the subject. Each reader will likely have their own particular area of interest in the period, and maybe that area of interest will change over time. At present, I’m particularly interested in the role played by the warrior monks led by Seosan Daesa and Samyeong Daesa, and of the civilian “righteous armies” led by colourful characters such as Kwak Jae-u, the so-called Red Coat General apparently because his coat was stained with menstrual blood. Hawley gives us enough detail to pique our interest, but to satisfy it to the full would require a book three or four times this length.
As it is, the book gives helpful background to the war explaining Hideyoshi’s motivations; it describes well the disastrous consequences for Joseon Korea and the aftermath for both Japan and Ming China. And it provides an insight to the type of diplomacy which is so different from today’s. Those charged with relaying Hideyoshi’s demands to the Ming Court, and conversely transmitting China’s conditions for peace back to Japan after the first phase of the war, knew that their messages would be unpalatable and so watered them down or twisted them, with the result that the initial cessation of hostilities was bound to re-start. Maybe there is something to be said for a terse tweet direct from the boss to make thinks clear from the start.
Note: the edition more readily available outside Korea is the second (paperback) edition by Conquistador Press, available from Amazon at £17. This edition lacks a set of photographs in the centre of the book, which are included in the RASKB’s first (hardback) edition, available from the RASKB priced KRW45,000.