1590s Military Technology Gaps

I recently ran across two separate references to the Hideyoshi invasions of Korea, both of which credited Hideyoshi’s initial success to firearms. That didn’t ring true for a few reasons, the first of which is that I’m a professional Japanese historian and didn’t remember ever seeing that sort of assertion before. My impression was that the initial Japanese success was a result of having a large number of battle-hardened veterans against a nation which hadn’t seen large-scale combat in over a century. The ability of the Ming to throw the Japanese back when they committed enough troops (and really, not that many, though the Koreans were committing a great deal more) seemed to me to argue against a significant technological differential.

I’ve sent a query to H-Japan, and the first reply I got back deepened my confusion. Andrew Dyche of UBC reminded me of the “Turtle Boats” which Korea used to such great effect against Japan’s military and supply ships. In that respect, at least, the technological advantage was in the wrong direction. I’m not a military historian by trade, but this doesn’t look good.

A bit of google work (all my relevant books are at the office, and it’s summer, so I don’t get in much) led me to this article about why Europe colonized the world. It has some interesting details about the reported effectiveness of both firearms and turtle boats, but also relies heavily on pretty old sources (which explains why, for example, Japan after 1636 supposedly only traded with the Portuguese instead of the Dutch, Chinese and Koreans). Interesting, but not dispositive, and certainly not the original source of the idea. Nor are these sites, though they are typical of the genre. All of them seem to indicate that Ming military technology balanced the war (and the Turtle boats tipped it in the other direction).

I suppose I’m going to need to go in and look this up, but if anyone knows of a good monograph on the subject of the 1590s wars I’d be grateful.

20 responses

  1. Dr Jay Lewis of Oxford University’s Oriental Institute is currently preparing a volume on the Hideyoshi Invasions, which I think is the result of an international conference he organised on the subject. Anyway, I expect he’d be a good person to ask about this.

    One thing that occurs to me is that it can’t have been long before the Chosŏn armies took up firearms. In wars there are always profiteers who are more than willing to arm either side or both. And Chosŏn certainly wasn’t technology-averse. I must admit I’m generally ignorant about his bit of Korean/Japanese history though.

  2. No monograph, but I’m currently reading Stephen Turnbull’s “Samurai Invasion: Japan’s Korean War 1592-1598” (Cassell & Co., London, 2002), which would probably be helpful, and seems to agree with your impression.

    Turnbull (so far as I have read) emphasizes the odd mixture of the obsolete, the ineffectual, and the brilliant in the Korean military response, confronted by the relative uniformity of competence and high level of experience displayed by the invaders at almost all levels.

    Turnbull considers the Japanese version of the arquebus superior to the Chinese-type guns used by the Koreans, and does give it credit for early successes. As for the Korean troops’ military flail, there seems to have been a good reason no other army used it as a general-issue weapon!

    Not so much that the Koreans were incapable of producing effective weapons, but that they went into the war badly equipped, with inexperienced commanders, suffered badly, and, with courage, and some able or lucky commanders, still somehow won. With, I gather, rather last-minute aid from the Ming finally persuading the Japanese to cut their losses.

  3. Thanks for the references. I’ll have to check them out!

    The Japanese samurai in the 1590s had to be at the top of their game, logistically, tactically, and in terms of sheer combat skill. The Koreans, though vastly more civilized in many ways (witness the vast cultural looting which took place, and how much Japan benefits by this war), had been at peace since the Choson dynasty was founded. I think firearms are a symptom of this: even without firearms, Japanese forces (which were awfully good with bows, individually and massed, before firearms came in) would have been initially overwhelming to Korean defenses.

  4. Johnathan,

    I checked Mary Berry’s Hideyoshi and Lee’s New History of Korea, and both mentioned firearms as one of the reasons that the Japanese were successful at first. More interestingly, Benjamin Elman in his new On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550-1900 claims that the turtle ships were based on Chinese models. On this point he cites Kenneth Swope “Crouching Tigers, Secret Weapons: Military Technology Employed in the Japanese Invasion of Korea, 1592-1598” Journal Of Military History forthcoming.

  5. Oh, Ian, damn your eyes. I was hoping to get through this month without expensive impulse book purchases.

  6. Well, one would think Hideyoshi had to send the restless samurais somewhere after he and his predecessor unified Japan. So why not send them to sleepy Korea? What an impressive nation-building exercise. Must have been a vacation after the hard work at home.

    And it didn’t hurt that they had European designed firearms. But I am not sure. Were the design introduced by the Dutch or was it an indegenous design? Taht is, where did the Japanese firearms used in the invasion originate?

    I would think that by Renaissance (post-Columbus), European firearms were superior to any in Asia – which along with many other innovations including social and scientific would enable them to colonize much of the world through to the 20th century.

    Thanks.

  7. The initial designs were introduced by the Portuguese, but Japanese craftsmen were making changes and improvements pretty soon on their own. By the 1590s, Japanese firearms were as good as any in the world, I imagine.

    There’s some doubt in many people’s minds about whether the samurai were indeed “restless” after unification. Certainly, there were still some succession issues to be decided, but the ease with which the samurai settled down to peacetime remains one of the most remarkable things in world history. The fighting in Korea, after the initial successes, was pretty intense, so “vacation” is not the word we usually use…

  8. I agree that such hyperbole like “vacation” and “sleepy” to describe a state of war does not have a place in objective discussions. And thank you for your clarification on the origins of the Japanese firearm used in the invasion.

    This is not directly related to weapons technology but can you point to any material (somewhat easily accessible to the lay person) which investigates whether the invasion of Korea served any nation-building purpose for Hideyoshi (e.g., to cement the unification of Japan under a single flag). You can email me instead of posting this as this may be a little off the topic.

    Once again, thanks.

  9. I am very much an amateur, not familiar with the period beyond summaries in standard histories, and obviously quite unable to spot-check Turnbull’s use of the documents (as I try to do with some European materials). So I’m relieved to learn from someone qualified that his account is reliable. I’m still trying to digest the abundant details.

    By the way, Turnbull’s slightly later book (at least in date of publication) “Samurai: The World of the Warrior” bluntly remarks about the invasion that “the ex-wako of Kyushu soon had the surprising duty of being commanded to carry out what amounted to a pirate raid with official government blessings.”

    The “ex-wako” here would seem to be only the “Samurai with a pinch of salt” who are the main topic of the chapter, although at first glance this seemed to take rather more seriously the possibility that the Japanese seamen conscripted from among “ex-pirates” were intentionally used as marauders by their commanders in Korea. Turnbull elsewhere emphasizes that Hideyoshi insisted that they, and recently de-militarized peasants, be employed only as unarmed sailors and laborers.

    I have the impression this marks a point at which Japanese state-building in the gunpowder era began to diverge markedly from contemporary European patterns. David Kaiser’s “Politics & War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler” (1990) put considerable emphasis on the perpetual problem of demobilizing mass armies after the old aristocracies had been subdued by centralizing monarchs, and how this sometimes suggested finding employment for them in foreign wars. But I won’t venture to guess whether the social policy issue was closely related to Hideyoshi’s motivation for the war, which Turnbull seems to think was based in part on basic misapprehensions, or just happened to be part of a larger complex.

  10. I come to this discussion late only having discovered this wonderfully-named site yesterday (are we not all frogs just seeing that patch of the world viewed beyond the rim of our well?)

    First, as to monographs, there is one I wrote (alas unpublished) in 1992 as an Advanced Research Project at the US Naval War College, College of Naval Warfare (cf., http://squidjig.blogspot.com/2005/01/studyin-war.html ).

    I will make some comments on questions, ideas expressed in the foregoing posts, to share my views on these signal events.

    Jonathan Dresner posited: “The ability of the Ming to throw the Japanese back when they committed enough troops (and really, not that many, though the Koreans were committing a great deal more) seemed to me to argue against a significant technological differential.” This is a simplification that might mislead. The Japanese had, indeed, passed through Korea and up into P’yongyang under Konishi Yukinaga 小西行長, the Christian general with a primarily Christian army, and deep into Hamgyong Province 咸鏡道 under Kato Kiyomasa 加藤清正、the Buddhist general with his primarily Buddhist army, like corn through a goose. They were in the process of consolidating their gains and had set up a series of fortifications along their land routes to secure their lines of communication; however, Hideyoshi had conceived of an invasion that would sustain itself through forage and exploitation until the sea communications could be established to bring supplies around the “corner” of the Korean peninsula and up along the west coast to what is now Seoul and on up to P’yongyang where Konishi had set up headquarters. The success of the Japanese invasion was also its vulnerability due to the destruction and pillage on their way up the peninsula the Japanese had taken losses despite their superiority (more about that shortly). While much of the Korean military, riddled with corruption and incompetence, weakened through factional maneuvering, and arrogant in their cultural superiority to all but China had proved relatively ineffective with a few exceptions, an insurgency of resistance to the Japanese occupiers arose in the form of Righteous Armies 義兵. The Japanese troops were spread out along their line of fortifications guarding their land routes, making their numbers necessarily even smaller at any location. Disease and malnourishment became a growing problem for these garrisoned Japanese troops. Moreover, winter was coming and prospects of resupply diminishing due to the succesful campaign being waged by Admiral Yi Sunshin 李舜臣in the littoral west of Pusan preventing the establishment of a sea route to supply much needed food, medicines, and ammunition, etc. The Japanese, a great land army, had failed to secure their sea lines of communication and over extended themselves. They were then, considerably weakened and spread out when China intervened with 6,000 troops. Following the first Chinese attack on P’yongyang and Konishi’s counterattack which killed two Chinese generals and left the Chinese in disarray, Konishi negotiated (dictated) terms with (to) the Chinese. The Chinese deceptively wrangled over peace while raising and dispatching a second force of 20,000. The Chinese demanded a Japanese delegation come out to conclude the negotiations and killed most, but not all of the delegation. Konishi (having lost one third of his original strength to all causes) faced a bitter prospect and sneaked out of P’yongyang by the dark of the moon over the frozen Taedong River and slipped away heading south, picking up additional troops from their line of forts as they made a strategic withdrawal (not owing to any apparent technological superiority of the fresh, well-supplied Chinese troops); however, I offer as further proof that the Chinese weren’t superior, the Battle of P’yokchegwan. In the meantime, Kato in the east had received word of the threat to his forces and he headed south through considerable resistance to meet up with Konishi’s withdrawal at Kaesong 開城. Kobayakawa Takakage 小早川隆影, at 61 the oldest of Hideyoshi’s generals in Korea, was then at Kaesong and, at first refused to budge. Senior generals from the invasion command headquarters in Seoul were sent to persuade him. He only agreed to leave when he was informed that they were massing further to the south to counterattack against the Chinese and provided that he and his troops be given the lead role in the battle. The Chinese pressed the rear of his retreating column too closely and he turned his troops around and stung the nastily. In late February as the snow began to melt on a hill south of Pyokchegwan he posted 10,000 of his men behind the hill and two groups of 3,000 each on its northern slopes. The footing was turning into a muddy morass as the Chinese army swollen with Koreans yearning for revenge attacked at dawn. The Japanese rained volley after volley of musket fire down on the attackers as men and horses became bogged down in the mud (shades of Agincourt?). The Sino-Korean forces slogged slowly up the hill after the slowly retreating Japanese. [Sun Tzu 孫子: “Apparent confusion is a product of good order, apparent cowardice, of courage; apparent weakness, of strength . . .”] Finally the Japanese ran down the back slope of the hill in full retreat and the Sino-Koreans plunged after them in the excitement of an apparent slaughter. They ran headlong into Kobayakawa’s fresh 10,000 and were cut to ribbons, finally in hand-to-hand combat at which the Japanese excelled. The Chinese plunged into retreat, leaving a small garrison in Kaesong and ran all the way to P’yongyang. The commanding general is said to have cried all night, lost his spirit and petitioned to be relieved of command. [Sun Tzu: “Do not press an enemy at bay.”] I continue my comments in other posts. I hope this might be of interest to some. Regards, Doc Rock [Dr. Edward D. Rockstein]

  11. Charles Park asked: “. . . where did the Japanese firearms used in the invasion originate?”

    Jonathan Dresner responded: “The initial designs were introduced by the Portuguese, but Japanese craftsmen were making changes and improvements pretty soon on their own. By the 1590s, Japanese firearms were as good as any in the world, I imagine. ”

    I’d add: In 1542 three Portuguese passengers on a Chinese junk (pirate ship?), Fernand Mendez Pinto and two others, ran aground on Tanegashima 種子島 a small island off of Kyushu, the first known contact of Japan by the Portuguese. While touring the island with the Daimyo 大名、Pinto killed a bird with his arquebus and, ultimately, he traded one with the Daimyo. The technology was quickly mastered, the weapon was copied (and greatly improved), and small arms quickly proliferated thrughout Japan. By 1550 the Portuguese had established the position of Captain-Major of the Japan Voyage and their black ships were making regular visits for trade. Moreover, in 1549 the Jesuit Missionary, St Francis Xavier, landed in Kagoshima and was well received by the Lord of Satsuma. Guns and God came arm in arm.

    Owen Said: “One thing that occurs to me is that it can’t have been long before the Chosŏn armies took up firearms. In wars there are always profiteers who are more than willing to arm either side or both. And Chosŏn certainly wasn’t technology-averse. . . . ”

    I’d add: Keep in mind that there was very strict control of trade and industry in neo-Confucian Choson and profiteers were few and far between outside the bounds of government control. Government entities manufactured the needs of the government.

    The Korean _Ch’ingbirok_ 칭비록, sort of a “lessons learned” treatise about this war [任辰倭乱ーー文禄慶長の役], tells of a pre-war visit by Hideyoshi’s emissary to discuss Korea’s possibly permitting the Korean armies to transit Korea to attack China. One of the emissary’s gifts was a hunting gun, one of the first small arms known to be in Korea, th Koreans did have large bore guns and rockets. (The Koreans declined the opportunity.)

    Jonathan Dresner also noted: ” The Japanese samurai in the 1590s had to be at the top of their game, logistically, tactically, and in terms of sheer combat skill. The Koreans, though vastly more civilized in many ways (witness the vast cultural looting which took place, and how much Japan benefits by this war), had been at peace since the Choson dynasty was founded. I think firearms are a symptom of this: even without firearms, Japanese forces (which were awfully good with bows, individually and massed, before firearms came in) would have been initially overwhelming to Korean defenses.”

    My comment: The Japanese were, indeed, at the top of their game in land warfare. Hideyoshi (and some of his generals) besides being an outstanding strategist and tactician, was also skilled in military engineering. Moreover, in addition to beng able to produce severe damage with small arms, the Japanese swordsman with his sword was, perhaps, the greatest “real estate agent” in his day, able to command complete control of a circle of a couple of meters diameter through his fine sword and technique in its employ. Japanese archery was also powerful, but if you read Admiral Yi’s diary 乱中日記 you get a picture of a physically fit warrior who practiced archery diligently almost every day–whether this extends to many in the Korean forces, however, I can’t conjecture.

    With reference to the Turtle Boats, I’d argue while they may have contributed to Admirals efficacy in interdicting the Japanese sea lines of communication, rigorous training, knowledge of the waters, strategy, tactics, and superior cannon and fire weapons were, perhaps of greater overall importance. The Japanese had a long tradition of raiding from the sea、 the wako pirates 倭寇, but they were essentially a delivery vehicle delivering superb land fighters for coastal raiding and not well experienced in on water fighting with disciplined naval warfare trained sailors. Ironically, it was these very pirates that led the Koreans and Admiral Yi, in particular, to develop the boats and skills which enabled them to win the sea battles which, eventually, helped to turn the tide on land.

    More later. Regards, Doc Rock

  12. Thanks for the clarifications. As I say frequently, I’m not a military historian, except insofar as I find it a very interesting nexus of social, political, economic and technological aspects of civilization. Tactics, in spite of my role-playing past, remain somewhat obscure to me.

  13. Charles Park Opined:

    “Well, one would think Hideyoshi had to send the restless samurais somewhere after he and his predecessor unified Japan. So why not send them to sleepy Korea? What an impressive nation-building exercise. Must have been a vacation after the hard work at home.”

    The restless samurai syndrome seems pretty much an _ex post facto_ positing by several writers without serious examination of the record.

    In 1578 when Hideyoshi was sent to Chugoku by Oda Nobunaga to bring Mori Terumoto under control, Hideyoshi told Oda that after conquering Chugoku: ” . . . I will go on to take Kyushu and take the whole of it. When Kyushu is ours, if you will grant me the revenue of that island for one year, I will prepare ships of war, and prepare provisions and go over and take Korea. Korea I shall ask you to bestow on me as a reward for my services, and to enable me to make still further conquests; for with Korean troops, aided by your illustrious influence, I intend to bring the whole of China under my sway. When that is effected, the three countries (China, Korea, and Japan) will be one. I shall do it all as easily as a man rolls up a piece of matting and carries it under his arm.” (Walter Dening, _The Life of Hideyoshi_) 1578!! Fourteen years before the invasion of Korea!

    In 1586 after a visit to Osaka, Jesuit Father Luis Frois recorded that Hideyoshi had expressed his intention to put Japan in order and then entrust the affairs of Japan to his brother Hidenaga while he would turn his attention to the conquest of Korea and China. Hideyoshi also intimated that he had already ordered the construction of 2,000 ships for this purpose. 1586!

    In 1591 Hideyoshi sent a letter to the Portuguese Viceroy at Goa: “It is our desire to extend our ruling power over the Great Ming. A plan has been completed for sending our warships and and fighting men to China. It will be carried out before many days. After completing our heavenly mission of conquering China, we shall readily find a road by which to reach your country.” (Hideyoshi, 25 Jul 1591, to the Portuguese Viceroy of India)

    Also in 1591 Hideyoshi sent a letter to the Governor General of the Phillipines saying that Korea and the Ryukyus were alreading sending him tribute and threatening to attack them if they did not do likewise. In 1593 he sent a letter to Taiwan declaring that he had already attacked Korea and that a Chinese delegation had come to surrender to him. He also claimed that the Portuguese (Namban)and Ryukyus were already sending tribute.

    I don’t think the 1592 invasion of Korea was just a way to get restless troops out of the way.

    Doc Rock

  14. From my monograph on the Japanese Invasion of Korea 1592-1598:

    Military Technologies

    “To begin with, it was a new experience of a new class of weapon, and it by no means follows that the success of a new expedient will be repeated with anything like equal result.”
    Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy

    The Japanese land forces came to Korea armed with battle axes, spears, bows and arrows, short swords, long swords and firearms–muskets (arquebuses) and pistols. The Japanese long sword was a superior weapon for close combat compared to anything which the Koreans possessed. The Korean swords were shorter, double-edged stabbing weapons. The Japanese long swords were magnificent, strong and sharp cutting blades used with a skill developed through long, careful training.

    The Koreans possessed a flail, a kind of mace with the head connected by three links of chain to the handle. This weapon was employed by the Korean cavalry of the south and was considered to be an extremely effective weapon. It was effective, however, only in close combat and was no match for Japanese firing musket balls and arrows in hail storms of weaponry. The Japanese firearms gave the invaders a decided and terrifying advantage in combat on the land, especially since only the Korean officers wore armor consisting merely of heavy leather over-garments with some metal attachments.

    The Korean cavalry of the north were accomplished mounted archers in the fashion of the Mongols and Jurchens, but again were susceptible when the Japanese were able to lay down a concentrated field of fire with their muskets which had a longer range, but probably lower accuracy.

    As alluded to above, the Koreans had been driven to seek technological advantage in ship design and weaponry over the Japanese, goaded by the constant pressure of the Japanese pirates. The pirate ships were essentially land-fighter delivery craft and the Koreans developed a sea(coastal)-fighting suite of craft to counter them by threatening them in the coastal waters. Nonetheless, there was more coastline than could be effectively scouted or defended and the pirates countered the technological superiority of the Korean craft through randomness and speed of incursion.

    The Koreans invested their efforts in the realm of gunpowder-based weapons in developing anti-ship weapons–small cannon and fire-arrow propelling weapons were developed in several varieties, aiming at inflicting damage on vessels rather than on the development of anti-personnel gunpowder-based weapons. The Japanese, on the contrary, developed anti-personnel weapons, muskets and pistols, while producing few cannon for shipboard use. The cannon was employed in Japan primarily as a siege weapon in investing and reducing castles during the last stages of the Japanese civil wars. During these same civil wars, the Japanese rapidly developed and proliferated muskets and pistols based on the Portuguese technology washed up on the shores of Tanegashima. The Japanese acquired considerable experience with muskets in their civil wars and had developed doctrine and techniques for employing them effectively in combat just as they had for their long swords. Technological advantage doesn’t last long if the opponent survives. Within six months of the first invasion, the Koreans were already producing primitive muskets and looking to try them in combat against the Japanese.

    Korean Shipbuilding and Japanese Pirates

    Korean shipbuilding and Korean craft were regarded as technologically superior throughout the era of the Japanese pirate predations. The Korean craft were notably more seaworthy, faster (by the end of the 16th century), more maneuverable and better armed and armored for sea engagements. Korea had developed a navy not only under the impetus of on-going attacks by the Japanese pirates, but also because of aperiodic incursions of Jurchen pirates from Manchuria. The Yi developed three classes of warship–large, medium and small. The largest carried a complement of 80; the second, 60; and the
    third, 30. There were also reserve vessels called “non-combatant” vessels. The Korean war vessels were generally broad and slow, but there were constant efforts to improve their designs for greater speed. They were heavy for protection in combat. Ironically, throughout the first two hundred years of the Yi Dynasty, Korea constantly imported Japanese and Ryukyuan shipbuilders in order to study their techniques, some of which they incorporated into their shipbuilding technology. The Koreans also had experimentally developed a pedal-powered paddle-wheel boat in 1550.

    During the Koryo Dynasty the Koreans had developed a ramming ship to counter Jurchen pirates. They later developed a wood-canopied ramming vessel, which they called the “turtle boat,” to counter Japanese pirates’ close-combat tactics by thwarting would-be boarders. These designs were adapted for use against the Japanese again in the 16th century.

    ==============================================================

    This war is very interesting from the point of view of
    competing military technologies and for its having been fought at
    an early stage of the introduction of firearms. It offers us an
    opportunity to hypothesize about technological advantage and to
    examine it in an extended war.

    “If he attains the virtue of the long sword, one man
    can beat ten men. Just as one man can beat ten, so a
    hundred men can beat a thousand, and a thousand can
    beat ten thousand. In my strategy, one man is the same
    as ten thousand, so this strategy is the complete
    warrior’s craft.”
    Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings,
    c. 1643, quoted in Wintle, The Dictionary of
    War Quotations 209

    We’ll start our examination of technologies, however, with
    the sword. The Japanese long sword was a great leap forward in
    the technological evolution or swords for warfare. Not only were
    the blades of superior material and workmanship compared to the
    Chinese or Korean blades, but they also were much longer. This
    technological edge was extended by the full development of
    technique for the employment of the weapon and by the rigorous
    training of those who were to employ the weapon. It raised the
    long sword, in a sense, almost to the level of a stand-off weapon
    since it gave the accomplished practioner such an edge in reach
    Moreover, through practice and experimentation, extensive
    doctrine and training in the tactical employment of this weapon
    in individual combat had been achieved–how to decapitate an
    enemy with one blow or how to slice through his trunk downward
    diagonally from one shoulder toward the other hip, etc. The
    Japanese swordsman wielding a long sword had the advantage over
    either his Chinese or Korean counterparts who used their weapons
    largely for stabbing or gross slashing.

    “One of the virtues of the bow is that you can see the
    arrows in flight and correct your aim accordingly,
    whereas gunshot cannot be seen. You must appreciate
    the importance of this.”
    Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings,
    c. 1643, quoted in Wintle, The Dictionary of War Quotations 210

    The Koreans and the Japanese were both quite accomplished in
    the production of long bows and in their employment. Both
    trained well in the application of this weapon in combat (Admiral
    Yi’s diary, for example, details nearly daily practice). The
    Japanese developed very large bows for the firing of both arrows
    and bolts, which required the use of machinery to draw the bows.
    These were for use in naval combat by the time of the second
    invasion. They were designed to combat some of the Korean fire
    power at sea. The Asian compound bows of bamboo and horn were
    superior bows in many respects. Both in land and sea combat fire
    arrows were important weapons although they were not always fired
    with bows, but rather, were often fired from guns.

    “Firearms, and not cold steel, now win battles.”
    Jacques-Francois Puysegur, 1656-1743,
    Principles and Rules of the Art of War,
    quoted in Wintle, The Dictionary of War
    Quotations 211

    Gunpowder was developed in China, but some of its most
    deadly applications were developed in Europe and then introduced
    first to China and then to the rest of East Asia. Korea sought for a long while to obtain the formula for gunpowder from China. Around 1375 Ch’oe Muson learned how to extract saltpeter from soil during a visit to Yuan China. Later, the Chinese court shared the secret of making gunpowder with Korea only because both were being threatened by repeated raids of Japanese pirates (and it appears that the Chinese figured the more pirates the Koreans killed, the fewer mignt come to China). By October 1377 the Korean government had established an agency for the manufacture and handling of explosives. 212

    The early Korean firearms all launched fire arrows and were
    employed primarily on warships. Later iron balls were also used
    although iron was expensive to produce and didn’t have a long
    range when fired from the crude cannons of the day. The Koreans
    next developed better cannon based on cannons recovered from a
    wrecked Ming ship and then they developed stone cannon balls to
    fire with their improved explosive gunpowder.

    The earliest muskets introduced into Korea were gifts of the
    daimyo of Tsushima to the King of Korea. Their value was not
    well appreciated until after the Japanese invaded Korea. Then
    all the muskets were gathered together and studied by Chong
    Sajun, a craftsman surnamed An, and two slaves all under the
    command of Admiral Yi Sunshin. They made muskets based on the
    Japanese model with a Korean-designed firing mechanism. In March
    1593, Korean troops were already beginning to be trained in
    musketry.213

    I discussed above how muskets were first introduced to Japan
    when a Chinese junk carrying Portuguese with muskets wrecked on
    Tanegashima off Kyushu. The musket, as a one-man-portable, anti-
    personnel, weapon was immediately attractive to the Japanese
    military involved in a seemingly unending series of civil wars.
    The Japanese developed muskets and pistols, rapidly incorporating
    them into their tactical scenarios. They quickly came to realize
    how much more effective these weapons were than swords, pikes,
    spears, maces, and axes, and how readily peasants could be trained to employ them without years of training and instruction on theory and doctrine of their employment. The Japanese were in a period of transition and the gun was becoming a key addition to
    their war fighting:
    “When troops come to Korea] from the province of Kai,
    have them bring as many guns as possible, for no other
    equipment is needed. Give strict orders that all men,
    even the samurai, carry guns.”
    Asano Yukinaga, 1598 letter to his father,
    Asano Nagmasa, veteran of the 1592 invasion 214

    The Koreans had been driven, over a long period, to develop
    their naval capabilities since their primary external threat was
    from pirates–Japanese, Jurchen, and Chinese. The Koreans, during
    the Yi Dynasty, developed ships capable of successfully battling
    pirate ships. The ships were designed to resist boarding,
    protect the crews, and to provide increasing speed and
    maneuverability. In 1413 the Koreans developed their first
    turtle ship. It was designed to counter the close-combat tactic
    of Japanese pirates. It was a ramming ship and included a wooden
    canopy to protect the crew.215

    In 1591 Admiral Yi, looking forward to a possible Japanese
    invasion, launched a program to repair ships in his inventory and
    fit them for combat against an enemy with relatively known
    capabilities. Working with Na Taeyong, a naval architect, he
    came up with a revamped design for the old turtle ship concept
    which would provide technological advantage over his projected
    enemy even if the enemy had superior numbers. The older Korean
    version of the turtle ship was the T’ongjeyong- (Fleet Flagship
    Base) type (cf., illustration). The new model was the Cholla
    chwasuyong- (Cholla Fleet Admiral of the Left Base) type
    (cf., illustration).216

    There is considerable discussion about whether or not the
    new turtle ship was iron clad with all writers tending to speak
    ex cathedra on the subject. The major argument against the iron
    cladding view, besides the fact that it would mean the Koreans
    did this way before the West with its industrial revolution did
    it, is that the iron cladding is not specifically mentioned in
    the collected writings of Admiral Yi. On the other side of the
    ledger we may place the fact that there is a Japanese report that
    it was iron clad. What tips the balance for me, besides the
    strong Korean tradition that it was iron clad, is that in 1593,
    the Japanese government placed levies on the daimyos to supply
    iron plate for building warships!

    The turtle ship was improved further after the development
    of the Cholla chwasuyong-type and this was described in a report
    written by Admiral Yi’s cousin, Yi Pun, which stated:
    “Another special war vessel has been developed. About
    the size of a p’anokson . . . planked cabin-junk, its
    surface is planked, with narrow passageways through
    which sailors can move about. The whole surface of the
    ship, other than the passageways, is covered with
    blades and spears so that no enemy can walk over it.
    At the bow is a dragon head from which cannon can be
    fired; another cannon is installed at the stern. It is
    also called a turtle ship from its appearance. During
    battle, the blades and spears are hidden under heaps of
    seaweed as the ship charges into the enememy fleet.”217

    What made Admiral Yi’s turtle ships so effective was not
    just the great technological leap forward that they represented,
    but also the fact that Admiral Yi was able to develop and
    implement tactics which permitted the Koreans to take full
    advantage of the new weapons system qua platform:

    “Tactical and technological developments are so
    intertwined as to be inseparable. That is why Mahan
    rejected (rather too readily) constants of tactics
    while he promoted principles of strategy…. To know
    tactics, you must know weapons. ”
    Hughes, Fleet Tactics 218

    “How often will the effect of new technology be great
    enough that, exploited in a series of battles, it will
    affect the outcome of a war? That is, what is likely
    to be the frequency and magnitude of technological
    opportunity?”
    Hughes, Fleet Tactics 219

    My opinion is, and the events of this war bear it out, that technological advantage is extremely transitory in a long war. If that advantage does not, together with the entire war effort,
    gain victory quickly enough, either defensive technologies to
    reduce or eliminate the advantage will be developed, or new and
    superior offensive technologies will be developed to balance the
    scales. We see that on both sides in this war. The Koreans
    rapidly developed muskets. The Japanese improved their ship
    designs, ship’s armor, and anti-ship weapons, although they
    appeared to shy away from making cannon indigenously, preferring
    to get it from Western sources. The Chinese came up with thick
    hide cloaks to protect soldiers in sieges from Japanese muskets.
    The Koreans armored their ships. The technology-counter-
    technology battles continued throughout the war.

    Finally, as a sidelight, it should be noted that Japan
    gained several new technologies as a result of this war.
    Japanese troops swept up Korean craftsmen and technicians and
    shipped them off to Kyushu, often with their equipment. Two
    notable advances were in the fields of ceramics (where a large
    portion of the craftsmen were all taken to Japan and one of them
    made the first find of kaolin in Japan which marked the beginning
    of the production of porcelains in Japan), and printing. The
    Japanese carried off Korean printers and moveable type, Chinese
    character fonts (the Chinese invented moveable type long before
    Gutenberg was born and the Koreans were the first to cast and use
    metal moveable type fonts–Gutenberg’s real contribution to
    printing was the application of the press to printing) to Japan.

    Doc Rock

  15. Jonathan Dresner wrote:

    “My impression was that the initial Japanese success was a result of having a large number of battle-hardened veterans against a nation which hadn’t seen large-scale combat in over a century.”

    I fully concur as far as that statement goes; however, let’s consider that the Choson Army had seen little to harden them or to inform their training and develop their battle doctrine and strategies. The same was not true of the Choson naval forces which had been called upon regularly to deal with and grow against Manchu and Japanese pirates. They trained better, performed missions, improved their technologies, doctrine, and strategies. Hideyoshi’s forces were as experienced as any armies in their world in land warfare and siege conduct. Even the Japanese 倭寇pirates, while raiding from the sea, were mainly a land force. The Koreans, while grown soft, corrupt, and ill-trained in land warfare, remained relatively sharp and advanced in defending their coastal waters. The Japanese, for their part, superior in land warfare, failed to prepare for the defense of their sea lines of communication and lost a continental Asian land war in the Korean littoral.

    Doc Rock

  16. In number 17 above I used the term “Manchu pirates.” It would have been
    much more appropriate to say “Jurchen pirates.”!! Doc Rock

  17. From “Imjin Changch´o Admiral Yi Sun-sin´s memorials to Court” translated by Ha Tae-hung, edited by Lee Chong-Young

    “Clear. Attended office in the Main Hall, then received greetings of the local subordinate officials from town; ordered flogging of officers and men at Pangtap for not repairing waships. I wondered why the lieutenants and ensigns neglected checking the repair work. Judging from their selfishness for personal gain without paying attention to public duties, I can guess at their future. Pak Mong-se, a local sailor residing under the city wall, pretending to be a stone-cutter and went to the quarry but played with his neighbor´s dog, so I ordered him flogged with 80 blows”

    Park Yune Hee writes in the book “Admiral Yi and his turtleboat armada” Hanjin Publishing Company, page 70-71:

    “Unfortunately the korean navy began to decline as external peace and internal stability led the koreans to neglect their security problems”

    “Most frightening was the suggestion to abolish the vaval fleets completely”

    Furter more:
    Yi advanced rapidly up the ranks and was then demoted to “private” and trough the recomendations of his childhood friend he was reinstated as admiral.

    Yu Songnyong, Book of Corrections:
    “and the king ordered the border defence council to recommend competent individuals to take the office of military command. Therefore I was able to recommend Yi Sunsin”

    My point is that the korean navy as well as the army was in a horrible shape, the political rivalry among the confusian schoolars had its effect on the navy just as well as it had on the army. There was no clear distinction from army and navy one officer could be transfered from the navy to the army, and from army to navy.

    That Yi practiced archery regularely dosn´t mean it was the general practice in the navy. When the Japanese invasion came they annihilated the the navy in Kyongsang (if I am to judge from Park Yune Hee around 250 ships) Yi Sunsin and Yi Ok-ki cammanded 48 ships in total, so I am doubtfull that the korean navy up to that point was superior to the japanese.

    I think the difference lies primarely in one man, Admiral Yi Sun Sin, he mannaged to uphold a navy that was ready for war and his leadership/luck was superior to the japanese

    Regards
    Thomsen Paul

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