Early Modern Korea & Japan
16th to 18th Centuries

Japanese Rulers (Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu) on the top and Korean Yangban elite on the bottom
Icon representing the Sengoku (Warring States) period of Japanese history
Although the civil wars of the Ashikaga period and the Onin War (1467-1477) in particular were bloody and wasteful, there were also factors leading to positive growth and development which were, as so often in history, operative at the same time. A notable increase in domestic and foreign trade, the rise of commercial towns, and improvements in agriculture began to cause far-reaching changes in the framework of society. Class lines between aristocratic warriors on the one hand and the common people, merchants, and peasants on the other were becoming much less distinct. All this led to the decline of feudalism, with its self-sufficient and mutually hostile enclaves, and rendered both possible and desirable a move toward unification of the country. ... The country was in a sense ripe for unification, but the task was not easily accomplished. Three strong men — Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1534-1616) — accomplished it, the last two building upon foundations laid by their respective predecessors. (Japan: Its History and Culture, 101-4)
Age of Samurai on Netflix (Click for Video)
Icon representing the Sengoku (Warring States) period of Japanese history
Portrait of Oda Nobunaga
In the middle of the sixteenth century, Japan was divided into roughly 120 daimyo domains, each of which was virtually an independent state. One relatively minor domain at Owari, in central Japan, belonged to Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582). The Oda family had emerged from obscurity while serving as deputies for the military governors of the province, and following the Onin War (1467-1477), they seized outright control of the domain for themselves. Oda Nobunaga was then catapulted into greater prominence in 1560, when he surprised the vastly superior forces of a neighbor in pouring rain and soundly defeated them. In 1568, an Ashikaga Shogun requested Oda’s assistance in regaining shogunal control in Kyoto, and Oda’s march into the imperial capital in that year is sometimes said to mark the beginning of the reunification of Japan. ... By 1582, Oda Nobunaga controlled about one-third of all Japan. In that year, however, he was surprised after taking tea in a Kyoto monastery and murdered by a treacherous vassal, and his great castle at Azuchi was demolished. (HEA, 188-9)
Oda Nobunaga superimposed on a map of feudal Japan
Icon representing the Sengoku (Warring States) period of Japanese history
Little survived of Oda’s castle, but his accumulated conquests remained as a base on which others could build. At the time of Oda’s death, his top lieutenant had been Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi sprang from such humble ancestry that he originally did not even have a family name (although the surname Toyotomi would eventually be bestowed on him by the emperor). He rose from the ranks of warrior farmers, at a time when the samurai class was still poorly defined, on the strength of his ability. When Hideyoshi learned of Oda Nobunaga’s treacherous murder, he moved quickly to punish the assassin, putting him to death within eleven days. Hideyoshi was then well poised to assume command over Oda’s forces and continue the process of reunification. Within eight more years, the reunification of Japan was complete. (HEA, 189)
Korean postage stamp with Admiral Yi Sunsin on his "turtle ship"
Late Choson Korea
The Hermit Kingdom
Following an age of extreme decentralization, ... Japan was reunified in the late sixteenth century by a series of three great warlords, including, in particular, one named Hideyoshi (1536-1598). Having completed his conquest of the Japanese islands, Hideyoshi boasted that he would conquer China too. Invading China involved going through Korea first, and in 1592, Hideyoshi landed a massive force of over 158,000 men on the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula. The Koreans were unprepared for the assault, and within three weeks, the fierce Japanese warriors had taken the capital, Seoul. The Korean court fled to the Yalu River on their northern frontier, and Japanese samurai overran virtually the entire peninsula. However, a resourceful Korean admiral named Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598) was able to disrupt Japanese shipping, making use of the world’s first iron-plated warships (called turtle ships), and win a stunning series of naval victories. The Ming Chinese, meanwhile, somewhat belatedly also sent a relief force of fifty thousand men to assist Choson, and anti-Japanese guerrilla warfare erupted in many places throughout the Korean countryside.
The Korean "Turtle Ship" Monument with scale model
Under these pressures, the Japanese invaders were driven back to a foothold on the southeast coast, and diplomatic negotiations began. When diplomacy stalled, Hideyoshi ordered yet a second invasion in 1597, but this time, the defenders were better prepared, and the Japanese enjoyed little success. Hideyoshi then died in 1598, and the Japanese warriors soon withdrew from the Korean peninsula. But seven years of bloody warfare had, in the meantime, laid waste to much of Korea. Notoriously, between one and two hundred thousand severed Korean and Chinese human noses (which were more easily portable across the water than the enemy heads that samurai had traditionally collected) had been sent back to Japan as tokens of Japanese martial achievement. Many of these were heaped into a (somewhat mistakenly so-called) Mound of Ears (Mimizuka) in Kyoto. Despite emerging as the winner, therefore, Korea had been devastated by these invasions, and the seeds of lasting bitter antagonism were planted between Korea and Japan. (HEA, 183-4)
Bolt of lightning splittling Korean and Japanese flags
Toyotomi Hideyoshi appoints "Council of Elders" to supervise the succession of his son after his death
Icon representing the Sengoku (Warring States) period of Japanese history
Portrait of Tokugawa Ieyasu
Hideyoshi not only completed the military reunification of Japan but also lived to die of old age. Part of the explanation for his striking success was that some of the most difficult fighting had already been accomplished by Oda Nobunaga, but Hideyoshi was also more willing than Oda had been to compromise. Many of Hideyoshi’s most powerful rivals simply were converted into his vassals. The price Hideyoshi paid for this successful approach, however, was that not only did many of the old daimyo continue to exist but some of the strongest were made even stronger, because the most generous rewards often had to be given to the lords who were already most powerful.
Map showing the unification of Japan from Oda to Tokugawa
For example, Hideyoshi’s foremost ally, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), was ultimately assigned control over the lands of Hideyoshi’s greatest defeated enemy, the Hojo family of Odawara, in the eastern Kanto region, after they were crushed in 1590. Tokugawa Ieyasu then became the largest landholder in Japan, with holdings rated at 2,402,000 koku — greater even than Hideyoshi’s own total. Inevitably, this made Ieyasu a serious potential threat to Hideyoshi, but at least in the short run, it also moved Ieyasu far away from the vital western region near the imperial capital and confronted Tokugawa Ieyasu with tremendous initial administrative challenges in bringing his new, and still potentially hostile, eastern domain under control. Tokugawa Ieyasu moved to the Kanto and established his headquarters at a small castle town called Edo (modern Tokyo). (HEA, 189)
At the administrative level, the shogunate developed the bakuhan system, so called because it combined the central authority of the military government (bakufu ) with the regional authority of the daimyo (lords) over their own domains (han). The loyalty of the daimyo was ensured by requiring each to divide his time between two official residences (usually spending a year in each location), one in his own domain and the other in Edo, where his wife and heir remained as virtual hostages. This system of “alternate attendance” (sankin kotai) resulted in a constant stream of travelers between Edo and the various feudal domains, which in turn led to the growth of urban centers and the development of a bustling economy.
Map of the Gokaido (Five major roads connecting Edo to the rest of Japan
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Woodblock print by Hiroshige from the Tokaido series

Edo Art and Culture

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