Documenting wrath of samurai in Korea

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Documenting wrath of samurai in Korea

It could be a temple, it could be a palace, but as anyone who has traveled in Korea knows, the signage is inescapable. “In the 1590s, this monument was burned to the ground by the invading forces of Japanese warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi....”
Hideyoshi’s invasion is remembered here as possibly one of the darkest periods in Korea’s history. But was it really that bad? Are the tales of destruction, pillage and kidnap not just extreme examples of the well-known Korean capacity for breast-beating victimhood?
Well, if we are to believe Stephen Turnbull, who has authored what is not so much the standard work on that war in English, but the only work on the war in English ― the answer is no.
In “Samurai Invasion,” Turnbull, a renowned samurai historian, depicts in shocking ― but gruesomely fascinating ― detail the apocalyptic samurai campaigns that slashed their way across the peninsula from 1592 to 1598. So atrocious was samurai behavior, we learn, that the publication of the diary of a Japanese Buddhist monk, Keinan, who accompanied the invading forces, was suppressed in Japan for nearly 400 years.
A number of the battle accounts are almost Monty Pythonesque. A Korean swordsman at the battle of Namwon was impaled through both arms, but attempted to fight on by waving his forearms as he was hacked to pieces. Individual samurai went to great lengths to capture heads in combat, and photos of the resultant huge burial mounds are sobering.
Some Korean setbacks echo eerily to the present: Failures by leaders to cooperate tactically, for example, would not be out of place in today’s National Assembly. And while Gyeongbok Palace was, indeed, burned down during the war, the flames were lit by Koreans who were livid at their own craven leadership.
The work does have some weaknesses. Turnbull has tracked down Japanese and Korean sources, but does not include any quotes from Ming Chinese. Also, his level of detail is such that the reader may get bogged down in the innumerable names of commanders, towns, castles, battles and sieges. Even so, this volume, from military history specialist Cassell, covers a war that is almost unknown in the West ― but which still hovers, shadowlike, over today’s strained relations between Japan and Korea. It is available from

“Samurai Invasion: Japan’s
Korean War, 1592-1598”
Stephen Turnbull’s book thoroughly explores the vicious, six-year run of samurai in Korea.

by Andrew Salmon
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