Lessons from a Japanese defector

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Lessons from a Japanese defector


The “Hang-wae” are Japanese people who defected to Korea in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). While there had been defectors since the early Joseon Dynasty, Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea in 1592 was the breakthrough. Some defected to Joseon and rendered distinguished service. Others were captured, fell behind, got injured or were abandoned.

Many of the Japanese defectors, however, displayed courage and loyalty. Gen. Gang Hong-rip (1560-1627) mobilized the Japanese defectors when he commanded an army to help Ming forces against the Later Jin in 1618. There is a legend that the all Japanese defectors under General Gang’s command refused to surrender to the Manchus and died with honor.

Kim Chung-seon (1571-1642) may arguably be the most well-known Japanese defector. Born Sayaga, he arrived in Joseon in April 1592 and defected immediately because he did not want to kill the innocent people of Joseon and had always revered the culture and civilization of Joseon and China. Kim served in the Joseon army, driving away Japanese forces, and taught Joseon soldiers how to use guns and explosives.

The Joseon government recognized his merits and gave him the title of general. He was also given the family name Kim.

After the Imjin War ended, Kim continued to serve in the military. He also participated in the Second Manchu invasion of Korea in 1627 and was posted in the frontier until he retired. Kim had devoted his body and soul to his chosen home. He also married a Joseon woman and settled down in Urok-dong near Daegu.

During the Japanese colonial era in the 20th century, Japanese officials and scholars tried to deny Kim’s existence. Some scholars visited Urok-dong and personally investigated the records handed down in the Kim family. However, they did not recognize him as Japanese. Rather, they considered him “half Korean and half Japanese” or just a fictional figure.

In 1930, Hidetaka Nakamura of the Japanese colonial government’s Korean History Compilation Committee conducted an investigation and confirmed that Kim Chung-seon was indeed a Japanese defector. Recently, a monument in memory of Kim was built in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. He had defected to Joseon out of skepticism about what he believed to be a war with no justification. His story should be a lesson to all of us today.

*The writer is a professor of Korean history at Myongji University.

By Han Myeong-gi
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