Warfare in Japan and Korea Research Paper

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Military conflicts occasionally occurred between Japan and Korea in the first millennium CE, although scholars debate the nature or even the existence of permanent Japanese military outposts on the Korean peninsula. China was a participant or target of both nations, but Western involvement in war was not a factor for Japan and Korea until the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries.

During the long histories of Japan and Korea, there were many times that their respective experiences with warfare would intertwine, with military forces moving from the Korean peninsula to the Japanese islands and vice versa on a number of occasions in the past two millennia. For the most part, however, warfare in Japan and Korea went their separate ways.

Premodern Korea

The great Chinese dynasties sought to control the Korean peninsula as one of many areas on the periphery of Chinese civilization. Thus, China’s Qin and Han dynasties (221–206 BCE and 206 BCE–220 CE, respectively) both made attempts to conquer the peninsula. The Korean kingdom of Koguryo (37 BCE–668 CE) defended itself adroitly, but the Han did establish a commandery in present-day P’yongyang. As the Han declined in the early third century CE, however, two other kingdoms on the peninsula rose to increasing prominence—Paekche (18 BCE–663 CE) in the west and Shilla (57 BCE–935 CE) in the east, with Shilla—aided by China’s Tang dynasty 618–907 CE)—eventually incorporating the other two in the seventh century to form a single state. Kaya, a small tribal confederation in southern Korea had been subsumed into Shilla in the sixth century. The relationship between the various Korean kingdoms and the clans on the islands of Japan is hotly argued. Japanese textbooks maintain that there was a Japanese military outpost in southern Korea and that Japanese forces were called upon to aid the various kingdoms in their conflicts with one another in the fourth and fifth centuries, but many scholars, both Korean and Japanese, have insisted that there is no evidence of a permanent Japanese outpost and dispute the nature of Japanese military activity. Most scholars agree on the major contributions Korean culture made to what came to be the dominant culture in Japan in the early centuries CE.

One aspect of Shilla’s social structure that contributed to its attaining preeminence over its neighbors was the hwarang, an elite group of young warriors who lived by a moral code that emphasized loyalty, fi lial piety, and courage; it also opposed indiscriminant killing. The Shilla kingdom also established a strong naval defense of the peninsula’s coastal regions.

The Rise of Koryo

Shilla gradually lost control over its territories in the ninth century, and the kingdoms of Later Koguryo and Later Paekche asserted independence. In 918 a general of the Later Koguryo kingdom announced the establishment of the Koryo kingdom (918–1392), and in 935 Koryo defeated the remnants of the Shilla state. Koryo also defeated Later Paekche, and in 936 the Korean peninsula was reunited. The Koryo rulers constructed a wall along their northern border to help keep out marauding nomadic Turks and Mongols, and they alternately allied with the Chinese Song dynasty (960–1279) and the Khitan Mongols to help preserve their independence.

Koryo began to break apart in the twelfth century; invaded by the Mongols in 1231, it was a vassal state of the Mongol Empire from 1270. Like Shilla, Koryo was a strong naval power; its navy made use of cannon and gunpowder in the late fourteenth century and used naval guns to turn back a Japanese maritime invasion in 1380, destroying more than five hundred Japanese battleships.

The Choson (Yi) Dynasty

Weakened by its dealings with the Mongols, the Koryo kingdom fell in 1392 to Yi Song-gye (1335–1408), a military leader who had risen to prominence battling the Mongols. Yi became the first king of the Choson dynasty (1392–1910).

Perhaps the most famous element in Choson’s military history is the development and deployment of the turtle ships—armored warships—in the sixteenth century. They were developed by the military hero Yi Sun-shin (1545–1598), who used them to repel the invasions of the Japanese general Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536/7–1598) not once but twice, in the 1590s, though aid from China was decisive in defeating those Japanese forces that made it to land.

Premodern Japan

During Japan’s Nara and Heian periods (710–794 CE and 794–1185, respectively), the aristocratic ruling elite made use of subordinate military clans for protection and to extend Japan’s frontiers east and north, pushing back the indigenous population, the ancestors of today’s Ainu (originally Siberian people now found only in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost major island). These military clans became more and more powerful, until in the late twelfth century one clan, the Taira, became the de facto rulers of Japan, only to be replaced by a rival clan, the Minamoto, whose leader, Minamoto Yoritomo (1147–1199), ruled Japan as supreme military commander, or shogun. The Kamakura period that followed (1185–1333), named for the seat of Minamoto power, witnessed the beginnings of a distinctive Japanese feudalism. Samurai, as members of the warrior class came to be known, ideally lived ascetic, disciplined lives guided by codes of loyalty and honor. They could carry two swords—a long sword for fighting and a short sword for ritual suicide to atone for failings and embarrassments. Japanese swords are famous for their hardness and sharpness.

The Mongol Invasion

After establishing the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) in China, Mongol leaders looked across the narrow waters at Japan. The result was two great, Mongol-ordered, mostly Chinese- and Korean-supplied invasions of Japan, whose defeat gave rise to the kamikaze legend. In 1274 Khubilai Khan (1215–1294) sent forty thousand men on nine hundred ships to Hakata Bay, on the southern island of Kyushu. The Mongol-Korean army overwhelmed the Japanese defenders with the famed Mongol cavalry, explosive missiles, and powerful composite bows. As the Japanese retreated to the fortress of Dazaifu, and the Mongols to their ships in the harbor, a great typhoon blew through and destroyed more than two hundred Mongol ships, causing the invaders to retreat to Korea and China. In 1281 Khubilai Khan sent a larger army, 140,000 men, back to Hakata Bay. The Japanese had prepared by constructing a stone defensive wall, but the Mongol invaders enjoyed early success. But several weeks after landing, yet another typhoon, which Japanese religious leaders called a divine wind, or kamikaze, blew through and once again destroyed much of the Mongol navy and ended this threat to Japan.

Ashikaga Rule

The economic and military strain of defending Japan from the Mongol attack contributed to weakening the Kamakura government, which in 1333 was overthrown by an imperial claimant determined to return de facto power to the imperial throne. The claimant’s initial backer, the general Ashikaga Takauji (1305–1358), eventually betrayed the cause and established himself as shogun, but Ashikaga rule (also known as the Muromachi period, 1333–1573) was much more decentralized than Kamakura rule had been, and Japan descended into civil war in 1467 that lasted for more than a hundred years. Toward the end of this century of war, Portuguese ships arrived bringing missionaries and fi rearms, which, by making it possible for a peasant foot soldier to kill a mounted warrior easily, portended the eventual end of the samurai class.

Reunification of Japan

In the 1570s, three great unifiers ended the century of warfare. Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) officially brought the Ashikaga shogunate to an end with his capture of the capital city of Kyoto in 1573; he was proceeding to bring Japan under his sway when he was killed by a vassal. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga’s best general, completed the job of reunifying Japan. Although himself of humble origins, Hideyoshi reasserted the division between warriors and nonwarriors, confiscating swords and firearms from all nonwarriors in 1588. Dreaming of vaster empires, Hideyoshi attacked Korea with an eye toward China; upon his death the Japanese evacuated Korea. Hideyoshi, like Nobunaga before him, left only an infant heir, and like Nobunaga, Hideyoshi’s eventual successor was an able general, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616), who established a new shogunal government with its capital at the city of Edo (presentday Tokyo).

The most salient feature of Tokugawa foreign policy was its closing off of Japan from the rest of the world. The Dutch—the only Europeans permitted to trade with Japan after 1639—were allowed only on the tiny island of Deshima in Nagasaki harbor; the Chinese were permitted entrance to Nagasaki itself. All other contact between Japan and the rest of the world was forbidden. Trade with Korea was permitted on the islands of Tsushima between the two countries. With the suppression of a revolt of Christian peasants and masterless samurai in Shimabara (in western Kyushu) in 1637–1638, Japan entered a period of peace that lasted more than two hundred years.

Nineteenth-Century Warfare

The coming of the modern West to eastern Asia in the mid-nineteenth century helped precipitate a major change in Japan. The Tokugawa shogunate (1600/1603–1868) had grown old and had lost energy, and the arrival of eight ships under U.S. commodore Matthew Perry in the mid-1850s, demanding trade, helped bring it down. Samurai from provinces that had been on the periphery of power during the Tokugawa shogunate orchestrated the overthrow of the shogunate and called for the reestablishment of the emperor to power. After this Meiji Restoration (1868), Japan set about securing itself from European domination by modernizing itself furiously—not least its military.

War with China and Russia

In 1894, Japan intervened in internal Korean politics to force a Chinese reaction, which brought about the brief Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). The small but modern and well-led Japanese army and navy quickly defeated the larger, older, outdated, and poorly led Chinese forces, which resulted in the Treaty of Shimonoseki, through which Japan gained Taiwan and the Liaodong peninsula of Manchuria. Its acquisition of the latter brought about the Triple Intervention of Russia, Germany, and France to preserve Russia’s interest in China’s northeast. Tension between Russia and Japan continued for a decade, culminating in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). A Japanese fleet attacked the Russian fleet at anchor at Port Arthur in southern Manchuria; fighting continued for more than a year. Hard fighting and huge losses sapped the strength of both sides, and they agreed reluctantly to a U.S.-brokered peace (the Treaty of Portsmouth). Japan had demonstrated its might not only against other Asian nations, but against a Western power. The Treaty of Portsmouth recognized Japan’s interests in Korea, and, emulating Western imperialism, in 1910 Japan annexed Korea.

The Second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War

In 1931–1932, the Japanese seized control of Manchuria from China; in 1937 the second, and much larger, Sino-Japanese conflict began. Japanese atrocities during that conflict, including a massacre of 100,000–300,000 in Nanjing, have made for cool relations between the two nations ever since.

Japan’s surprise attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor in 1941 was designed to keep the United States from interfering in Japan’s plans to build a self-sufficient empire in Southeast Asia. Following the attack, Japan took control of the Philippines, Indochina, Thailand, Burma, and the Dutch West Indies, as well as numerous islands in the Pacific. When the tide started turning against the Japanese, privations at home grew great; the government encouraged the people by emphasizing the strength of the “Japanese soul”; recalling the thirteenth-century victory over the Mongols, young recruits were transformed into kamikaze suicide pilots to attack enemy ships. But in 1945, after experiencing two atomic bombs, Japan surrendered. The U.S.-imposed constitution required Japan to foreswear all future military aggression. Although the constitution forbade it, Japan now maintains a very credible Self Defense Force with an army, navy, and air force.

The Korean War

In August 1945, to fulfill a promise made at the Yalta Conference and reiterated at the postwar Potsdam Conference, the Soviet Union transferred a great many divisions to the Far East, sliced through the weakened Japanese army in Manchuria, and quickly moved into northern Korea. Meanwhile, beginning on 15 September, the U.S. Army’s Fifty-Fourth Corps liberated Korea south of the 38th parallel. Within several years there were highly antagonistic regimes on both sides of the tense border and, on 25 June 1950, war erupted when 135,000 troops from the north, backed by Soviet T-34 tanks, invaded the more lightly armed south.

The Korean War had five phases. The North Koreans pushed south, and U.S. president Harry Truman committed U.S. armed forces to slow the North Korean rush and to maintain a perimeter around Pusan, in the southeast, as a base for reinforcements and supplies. Beginning on 15 September, the United States, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), and some United Nations forces broke out of the Pusan Perimeter to link up with a daring amphibious invasion at Inchon. This counteroffensive carried the U.N. forces up to the Yalu River separating Korea from China and the Soviet Union. When the United States ignored Chinese demands to halt, the new Communist rulers in Beijing sent in troops, and in this third phase veteran Chinese Communist divisions slipped behind and around isolated U.S. and South Korean forces, driving them back across and slightly below the 38th parallel. Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his command, and in the fourth phase the U.N. forces, commanded by General Matthew Ridgway, drove the Communists back across the parallel by early spring 1951. The fifth phase consisted of a twenty-seven-month period to negotiate the truce that currently reigns on the peninsula, where tensions continue to exist, fanned in the twenty-first century by fears of North Korean nuclear weapons.


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