Friday, December 18, 2009

‘Superior Title, Inferior Book’-Kenneth Swope’s “A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail”

Kenneth Swope’s new book on the Bunroku/Keicho No Eki (the Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597) carries the title of another Japanese name for the conflict: “A Dragon’s Head and A Serpent’s Tail”, referring to something that has an impressive beginning but no real end. It’s an inspired title, easily the best among English language books on the war (if only because Stephen Turnbull’s publishers nixed the ‘Hunting the Tiger’ title Turnbull had originally planned for ‘Samurai Invasion’). In homage to Swope’s articles that have a ‘dual’ title (such as ‘Yi Said, Li Said’ or ‘Crouching Tigers, Secret Weapons’) we’ve went the same route and called this review ‘Superior Title, Inferior Book’. Disappointingly, the book has failed to even begin to live up to the expectations many had for it when Swope promoted it in his critiques of other English language books on the war. It’s a work written with no small amount of bias and many errors of fact and interpretation.

For the most part, one cannot fault Swope for a poor research ethic. There are fully 26 pages of works citied as sources, providing many excellent avenues of study for readers. As will be discussed later, the preponderance of Chinese sources works against it to a degree. For his Japanese sources, Swope relies too heavily on gunkimono (Japanese war tales, mixing fiction with reality and usually greatly exaggerated). He states that Chinese and Korean sources address supply, intelligence, and planning far more than Japanese accounts which stress the exploits of individual warriors. This is a direct result of relying on gunkimono-had Swope sought out letters and reports used by individual daimyo, he would have found them to be much the same as the reports of their mainland Asian foes. In another example, Swope uses as a source “Matsura Hoin Seikan Nikki”, a gunkimono written by descendants of Matsura Shigenobu (one of Konishi Yukinaga’s sub-commanders in the 1st Division). Here, Swope states “When he finally arrived at Nagoya, Hideyoshi stoked the troops’ battle lust with another bombastic speech…At the sound of a gong, the sails fluttered, and the vessels launched in unison, firing flaming arrows into the sky to mark their departure”. Well, obviously Swope is here using pejorative language when describing the Japanese (something he does throughout the book-more on that later), but that’s not the point. The point is that Hideyoshi was nowhere near Nagoya when the Matsura and the invasion force departed. Letters and other contemporary documents show he was still well over a week away. The “Matsura Hoin” was a history put together almost 300 years after the fact. It was written to not only play to the extreme anti-Korean sentiment of the Meiji era, but also to link the Matsura family with Hideyoshi (whose reputation was once again in favor during the Meiji period, both as a symbol of anti-Tokugawa rule and for his invasions of Korea). But again, Swope’s reliance on and inability to evaluate gunkimono (and using Meiji period gunkimono on top of that) results in presenting fantasy as fact. These contemporary letters and reports are harder to find than Korean or especially Chinese ones-matters of war were largely left up to individual daimyo rather than filtered through a bureaucracy and ending up in one place. Hence, the most reliable Japanese records tend to be scattered throughout museums, temples, and individual collections-but they’re out there and would have made far better sources.

Swope also uses secondary sources such as James Murdoch’s “A History of Japan” or George Sansom’s “A History of Japan” for descriptions and background. These works are considered outdated by the Japanese historical community and (in Murdoch’s case) largely of only historiographical use. Swope also curiously addresses sources and issues that haven’t been advanced by academia for many years-most notably the claim that the Japanese lost the war only due to the death of Hideyoshi, something that no scholar has seriously considered for years. Does anyone else consider Sansom a ‘modern’ writer? Despite all this, Swope has certainly done his homework and brought quite a bit of material to the table.

However, research is only the beginning-how it is used and interpreted is by far the most important part of the academic equation. Swope falls well short in this aspect, making the evidence fit his foredrawn conclusion (that the Ming army was a highly advanced and capable war machine that was the primary cause of the Japanese defeat) rather than let the facts lead him to one. While he examines Japanese sources with a critical eye (as well he should), this rarely extends to Ming sources which are almost always accepted at face value. Given the fact that Ming battle reports and memorials are well known to be every bit as self-serving and exaggerated as Japanese records (illustrated in his text by lies that were so huge, even the Chinese felt the need to investigate them), his faith in them is rather unwarranted. Swope further ‘gilds the lily’ by his choices of language and presentation when dealing with either side. For example, Swope writes about two different sieges-both situations where the defenders were sorely outnumbered and bereft of supplies, but in one case being the Chinese and the other the Japanese. Of the Chinese defenders of Namwon Swope writes “The overmatched defenders somehow managed to hold out against incredible odds for four days”, but the Japanese defenders of Ulsan are dismissed as “crumbling and they were on the verge of capitulating”. One would never suspect that the Chinese were routed by the Japanese in both battles. Among other superlatives, the Ming are routinely described by Swope as ‘heroic’, ‘superior’, ‘valiant’, ‘crushing’, and seemingly possessing nothing but ‘crack troops’. This type of wordplay glorifying the Ming and downplaying the Japanese (and also the Ming’s Korean allies) unfortunately infests the book and works to undermine Swope’s credibility. Swope states that the 2nd invasion “might have been avoided entirely had it not been for the pride of Hideyoshi and Sonjo, both of whom were too stubborn to yield to their rival.” Including Hideyoshi is completely justified. But not only was Sonjo completely left out of the peace negotiations, Swope ignores the fact that it was Ming inflexibility and pride combined with Hideyoshi’s that led to the second Japanese assault. The Ming are given virtually all the credit for the defeat of the Japanese forces in Korea-even though the Japanese were already defeated by the time the Ming found time to aid the Koreans. The Korean navy in concert with the Korean Righteous Armies and guerillas had strangled Japanese supply lines, stopped the Japanese assault, confined it to a narrow corridor, and begun to chip away at Japanese gains. Combined with some of the roughest terrain on Earth, the harsh Korean winter, and rampant disease, the Japanese defeat was just a matter of time. While there is no doubt the Ming numbers and presence sped up this process, to give them the lion’s share of the victory is a dubious proposition (especially since, outside of Chiksan, they were routinely defeated by the Japanese in most land engagements and performed poorly in those they managed to win, such as at Pyongyang).

The book leaves itself open to virtually all the criticism Swope leveled at other books dealing with the Bunroku/Keicho No Eki-these being primarily Stephen Turnbull’s “Samurai Invasion” and Samuel Hawley’s “The Imjin War”. Swope calls both Turnbull and Hawley to task for writing from an isolated perspective (Turnbull from the Japanese, Hawley from the Korean) and chastises them for using primarily Japanese and Korean sources. However, Swope comes right out and admits his work is written “primarily from the Ming perspective and relies far more on Chinese sources than those produced by Koreans and Japanese”. Further, while neither Turnbull nor Hawley seem to have a nationalistic agenda in mind, as discussed above it appears that Swope does. Turnbull is accused of “glossing over Japanese atrocities by blaming them on ‘lesser soldiers not in the first rank of samurai heroes.’” Swope does the same thing with Ming atrocities against their Korean allies, admitting to misconduct by the lower ranks but emphasizing (largely unconvincingly) that officers attempted to keep these under control. It's rather difficult to believe Ming officers weren't heavily involved with atrocities against the Koreans when the heads they presented to their superiors as trophies often included those of Korean peasant women. One can visualize a sheepish Ming officer mumbling "Gee, how'd THAT get in there?". And finally, in the course of a particularly vicious review left on Amazon for Hawley’s ‘Imjin War’, Swope calls Hawley’s book “little more than a basic narrative”. Swope admits his book is “to present a narrative of The First Great East Asian War for the broader community of military historians.” Turnbull and Hawley, meet the pot to your kettles.

Based on the text, it seems Swope has little more than a basic understanding of Japanese history. The book has a liberal dose of errors to confirm this, including small ones (such as stating that Akechi Mitsuhide forced Oda Nobunaga to commit seppuku, when in fact no one knows for certain how Nobunaga died) and medium sized ones (such as stating that Hideyori was Hideyoshi’s first son-he was actually his second, and the death of Hideyoshi’s first son was a major factor in the Taiko’s fawning upon Hideyori). There are larger errors as well, such as Swope claiming that Neo-Confucianism was introduced to Japan by Korean scholars kidnapped in the course of the war. By that time Neo-Confucianism had been around Japan for centuries (since the early Kamakura period, 1185-1333) with members of the Imperial Court such as the Fujiwara and other Japanese scholars of Chinese culture holding forth on it for the edification of various nobles and daimyo. However, it manifests itself most prominently in Swope’s apparent lack of knowledge of Japanese battle tactics. Time and time again we are told that the Japanese altered their tactics out of fear of the Ming army and the might of their artillery. For example, Swope states that “The Battle Of Pyongyang convinced them (the Japanese) that they could not go head to head with the Ming when the latter could bring their big guns to bear…For the rest of the war, the Japanese preferred to use ambushes and hit-and-run tactics against the Chinese.” He goes on to state that in response to Chinese artillery the Japanese preferred to fight from fortified positions. This was nothing new-the Japanese had been fighting this way for years and these tactics were in no way adopted in response to the Ming army. Ambushes, hit-and-run attacks with mounted archers, and surprise attacks had long been a favored weapon in the Japanese arsenal (dating back to at least the gunkimono of the 10th century). Preferring to fight from defensive positions also goes back that far, and became increasingly prevalent in response to the increasingly large number of firearms being used in the later years of the Sengoku. After Nagashino proved the strength of a well thought out defensive position manned with gunners (even as few as 1000 or less, according to some accounts), Japanese warfare increasingly had become a contest to see who could lure who out of their fortifications first. The defensive mentality of the Japanese is illustrated by the fact that at Pyongyang they fought from a fortified, defensive position-BEFORE they had encountered the supposed might of Ming artillery (and rendering Swope’s argument invalid). Their approach remained roughly the same throughout the war-the only real difference between Pyongyang and Ulsan or Sachon is that the Japanese were using Korean fortifications in the former, and their own better designed and more effective structures in the latter. Swope would have been well served to have had a scholar well versed in Japanese history read his manuscript before publication-many of these errors and misconceptions could have been prevented. This underlines one of the major roadblocks to a ‘definitive’ history of the Korean Invasions-it would be difficult to find a scholar with outstanding knowledge of the history of the three major parties. To date, the three major works have all been written from the perspective of one or the other.

Nomenclature also seems to be a problem for the book. Swope states that the Shimazu wajou (a Japanese-style castle built in Korea) on Cheju Island (containing 2000 men) had 105 artillery pieces. Yes, 105. It would make for an interesting study to see if there existed 105 pieces of what is traditionally considered artillery (a mounted gun, either in an emplacement or carriage) across the whole of Japan in 1593, much less in a small coastal fort staffed by only 2000 men in Korea. Instead, it appears that only one of the guns would be properly considered artillery (and was most likely a captured Korean gun at that) with the rest being the heavier gauge arquebus that many Japanese units had (and that were occasionally fired from improvised emplacements). This calls into question whether the figures given for Ming artillery use the same rather loose definition.

Problems extend to all facets of the book, ranging from largely useless maps to poorly-formatted endnotes. Most of the maps only show city locations, not troop movements, and the couple that do so look (quite) a bit like maps seen in Turnbull’s book. The maps are poorly coordinated with the text-there are plenty of locations and names plotted that are not mentioned in the text, but many that do appear in the text aren’t noted on the maps. Names used on the maps do not always match with the ones used by Swope (one would presume they’re using different methods of Romanization). Dates used on the maps differ from the text, one appearing to use the Chinese calendar and the other the Western calendar. There are also several maps of China proper that have little to do with the Korean conflict. Swope uses endnotes rather than the more scholarly footnotes, making it inconvenient to check and note sources. He also uses ‘block endnotes’-every citation within a paragraph is listed in a combined entry, at times making it difficult to tell which source a quote or statistic is coming from. Many times facts pertinent to a discussion are hidden this way, such as a Chinese account of a Japanese envoy telling them that Oda Nobunaga had slain the King Of Japan (Swope correctly states this as being false in the endnotes, but would have been better served doing so in the text). There are also the inevitable typos and grammar errors that work their way into any work of this size-for example, Song Yingchang (Ming military commissioner of Korea in 1592-1593) is spelled Sang Yingchang on page 301. And while not an error per se, the use of anachronistic words such as ‘blitzkrieg’ and ‘kulturepolitik’ in referring to the conflict does seem more in keeping with a popular rather than a scholarly account. Style wise, Swope repeats certain words and phrases over and over…and over and over and over. Some of these include ‘superior’, ‘crushed’, ‘heroic’, ‘crack troops’, and ‘rained bullets’. The book has also been criticized for reading like a chapter of a biography of the Wanli Emperor rather than an account of the Korean invasions.

Swope at times even mangles Chinese and Korean history. He states that Chinese commander Song Yingchang led troops into battle at Pyongyang. According to the "Ming Shi" (History Of The Ming) as well as Song's own letters, Song at no time was present in Korea. Swope is inconsistent with his Romanization of Korean proper and place names. He also seems to have 'picked and choosed' his Korean sources with an eye on glorifying the Ming-for example, he heavily leans on "Record Of A Rebuilt Tributary State", written by a Korean author who was known to have sung the praises of the Ming more than any other contemporary. But well known Korean sources that were critical of the Ming such as "Veritable Records Of The Choson Dynasty" are never mentioned, let alone used. This further points to only the evidence that supports his central thesis being presented.

This isn’t to say that the book is completely without merit. It does give some interesting insights into the bureaucracy of the Ming and their methods for raising, supplying, and deploying troops. It paints an excellent picture of the difficulties involved in fielding and transporting armies of this era in Asian history and the massive effect that supply had on strategy-an aspect of warfare that is too often passed over and downplayed in many histories. The overwhelming bureaucracy of the Ming and the involvement of civilian officials in warfare goes a long way towards explaining the substandard performance of the Ming army during the course of the conflict. When combined with the constant arguing with their Korean allies, it’s a miracle they were able to accomplish anything at all. Swope also takes some of the shine off the legend of Korean Admiral Yi, something which was sorely needed in English language treatments of the war. While Yi was indeed a major factor in the conflict and a master motivator who maximized the huge advantage his ships and armaments gave him, there’s little question his role has been glorified and overblown. Swope gives concrete examples where the legend did not quite match up with reality. There's a handy list of figures playing a part in the conflict with a short description of the part they played or office they held. Swope has a seven page listing of Chinese characters for many of the place and proper names used in the text, a great aid for those searching for more information and far preferable to including them piecemeal in the text (although it's touched by the error bug too, as when Mouri Hidemoto's name is given an additional spurious kanji character).

As is, “A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail” forms the weakest corner of a triangle comprised also of Turnbull’s “Samurai Invasion” and Hawley’s “The Imjin War”. Perhaps those enamored of the Wanli Emperor and convinced of the incredible fighting prowess of the Ming will find it a ‘must-have’-but in Swope’s words (if not his context), “Those seeking a serious and nuanced understanding of this conflict should best look elsewhere.” We found it a major disappointment-a biased and largely uncritical book with little to add that had not already been said by Turnbull or Hawley. The lack of new information is particularly galling in the light of Swope’s promises and hints that his much heralded Chinese sources would shed a whole new light on the war. In effect, all they did was prove that Ming officers and bureaucrats were easily the match of the Japanese and Admiral Yi in glorifying and exaggerating their accomplishments, and as quick to blame others for failures as the Japanese and Koreans. Swope also makes an unconvincing argument that the war should be considered “The First Great East Asian War”-do we really need another name for a conflict that has a dozen or more already? This book is destined to become the Chinese history counterpart to the Korea-centric “Admiral Yi and His Turtleboat Armada” (although, to be fair, not quite THAT bad). It is better than Turnbull’s 96-page stinker for Osprey, “The Samurai Invasion of Korea”, but not Turnbull’s original “Samurai Invasion” (which remains the strongest English language work on the war from a purely military standpoint). Hawley’s Imjin War, even with its assorted flaws, remains the best overall treatment of the conflict. Reading all three and getting each perspective would likely give the reader a solid overview of the war. However, the position of “Definitive English Language Account of Hideyoshi’s Korean Invasions” remains unclaimed and open. Any takers?


  1. Thanks for a most thorough and well-written review of this book. What a shame that it turned out to be such an inferior volume, given the impressive title, and the hopes some had apparently placed on it.

    I'm afraid I don't remember exactly what article it was that I read by Swopes, but I do have a vague recollection that, upon reading some of his works, I got the distinct impression - as you also point out - that he has something of a nationalistic agenda.

    Having re-read Turnbull's account of the 1609 invasion of Ryukyu last night, as I revamped the S-A Wiki article on the conflict, it sounds like your criticisms of Swopes in this book aren't too different from my own criticisms of Turnbull's in his Okinawa book. At least I think we can say that both leave us wishing there were a better, more definitive volume out there in English on the subject - there is a feeling of inadequacy and making do.

    It is truly a shame that there is no better source available on the conflict; but thanks much for sparing me judging this Swopes book based on its cover, and running out to get it, mistaking it for the definitive volume we've been waiting for.

  2. Lonny,

    My thoughts pretty much mirror yours almost to a T. Much hyped (no less by Kenneth himself) but an overall disappointment.

  3. Edward, it wasn't Lonny who wrote this-it was me. But thanks anyway.

  4. Sorry Tatsunoshi!

  5. A quick point - I'm not sure where or who came up with the statement about Murdoch or Sansom being "outdated" - quite the contrary, those two works are considered the best general surveys in English on Japanese history. They won't have fine details about the invasion of Korea, naturally, but they are both monumental works and top the list of any English-speaking university for general reference. This won't change in the foreseeable future - I know of no Western historian who is currently working on a book on the same scale as these two "life works" are. Any historian has to be very careful of revisionism in the popular media.

    B. H.
    Professor emeritus

  6. Both Sansom and Murdoch (especially Murdoch) are indeed considered outdated by virtually every scholar in the field of pre-modern Japanese history (and for that matter anyone who has done a bit of reading in the field). Both books are loaded with factual errors and Murdoch’s in particular uses fictional Edo period accounts as sources. Both also have severely outdated theories that are no longer accepted-I can think of several just dealing with the Genpei War era.

    Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single program that uses Murdoch as a general reference. Many do indeed use Sansom for survey courses both for its comprehensiveness and availability. However, even the professors that use it will tell their students that much of the information contained within is aged or incorrect. It’s valuable for giving students the outline and basics of a Japanese history timeline, but using it as a source-well, not the best of ideas. Unfortunately, scholarship has become so focused and specific (and pre-modern historians, especially for Japanese history, are rapidly becoming an endangered species) that it’s unlikely anyone will come out with a general history to replace it.

    I recently purchased Murdoch’s three volume set from a rare books dealer and found it a very enjoyable read-however, I would not think to use it as a reference. The number of factual errors in the book is staggering and Murdoch brings a quite biased viewpoint to many matters (as did many historians of his era). The professors that put the last volume together after Murdoch’s death even included notes on things he had gotten wrong that had came to light. As it stands now, Murdoch is primarily useful for showing the state of Japanese scholarship in the early 20th century.

    I do agree that both Murdoch and Sansom’s books are monumental works. To have put them together in an age without the aid of electronic information sharing, when the Japanese language was understood by only a handful of Westerners, and when even the Japanese had no real tradition of preserving their history in an accurate manner represents an outstanding achievement. They were pioneers in the field and laid the groundwork for everything that came after. But as with everything else, time moves on and more information is uncovered. The same thing will happen to the works that we consider cutting edge today-even books written as recently as ten years ago are now considered outdated by their authors. Jeffrey Mass spent his last years refuting much of what he had written in his first few books. It’s just the natural order of things. Edison’s commercially viable light bulb was a monumental achievement as well, but it no longer represents the forefront of lighting technology. The same goes for Murdoch and Sansom.

  7. Here is my problem with your review. You're coming from a almost history connoisseur's angle where you're nitpicking (perhaps justifiably) every flaw in Swope's book. Perhaps valid perhaps not, I'm not knowledgeable enough to know although you sure seem like you know what you're talking about.

    But from my perspective no matter how flawed the book is its a important cornerstone in getting more english language books out on the Imjin War. I mean how many western people (european, american) even know this war existed period? I feel like even a flawed book is better than none especially for a war that has a grand total of three major english language books about it and Hawley's book is ridiculously expensive to buy (I guess its out of print) while Turnbull's earlier, superior book is also out of print. Swope's book is easier to find and cheaper which makes it more readily available to a more casual history audience. So I feel like for the more casual history fans this is better than nothing no matter how flawed it is.

    And at the risk of sounding snide (if I'm not already) why don't YOU write the "Definitive English Language Account of Hideyoshi’s Korean Invasions"? You seem to know it all about this war to the point where you can trash other mens work. Go ahead, really. I'm not even being insincere. I'm desperate for some more books about this war. You're the expert who I'm going to guess is fluent is Japanese and has read some good books (or primary sources), so go ahead smart guy, write a book, and I'll buy it immediately.

    Really I don't even want to write in this tone but your review gave off such a air of arrogance I can't even help it. I've noticed arrogance is a common trait for every japanese history buff I've come across, its really unbearable.

  8. That last sentence invalidated any constructive comments you may have had. Too bad.

  9. Thanks for your thoughts. I take it you’re a Korean history buff? Misplaced anger seems to be a common trait for them (see the discussion page on Wikipedia’s Japanese Invasion of Korea’s pretty brutal).

    I’m sorry but I have to disagree that simply getting out more books on the Bunroku/Keicho no Eki is a milestone. Getting out GOOD, WELL RESEARCHED, UNBIASED books on it would be. And therein lays the problem with Swope’s book. It’s loaded with factual errors-the ones I listed are just a few of the ones I found. And it oozes bias from every page. As I mentioned, it does add to our sum total of knowledge of the conflicts, particularly in the logistical concerns and organization of Ming forces. But don’t you think prospective readers would want to know that it is a flawed work? Wouldn’t they want to know exactly what they are getting? If a non-academic like myself can spot so many undeniable errors, what would a real specialist find? It’s not arrogance. It’s simply letting people know the book’s flaws by methodically giving concrete examples of mistakes and errors. An attitude like “we need more books on this subject in English” is why utter crap like Turnbull’s early works, ninja books, and books glorifying bushido and ignoring history get printed. Sure, it’s better than nothing as a starting point, but the problem is that the information in it will become the accepted version and subsequent, better researched works will be ignored. This happens all the time...47 Ronin myth, anyone? Ninja? Musashi?

    And thanks for offering to buy my unwritten book on the invasions, but I already have a satisfying career that keeps me very busy. And quite frankly, I’m just as unqualified as Swope in writing the “Definitive English Language Account of Hideyoshi’s Korean Invasions”. Yeah, from the Japanese side of things, I’m much better informed, but Chinese? Not so much. And Korean? Better than Chinese, but still woefully lacking. I think to write that definitive history you’d need a collaborative effort between Japanese, Chinese, and Korean scholars. Not going to happen, especially with academia’s reluctance to take writing about warfare seriously.

    But anyway, I do appreciate your comments (seriously). Obviously you have a desire to learn more about the conflict, and if you do, get Hawley’s book. It’s the best that’s out there, and yes, it’s ridiculously expensive, but sometimes knowledge has its price, particularly in academia. You’ll find it well worth it if you have a serious interest, and a much better investment than going with the inferior book at the cheaper price.

  10. I just picked up this book from the library, just to check on a direct citation, to see what the other scholar is pointing to in Swope's book.

    If it's as problematic as you say it is - and I really trust you that it is - I find it rather worrying that such renowned scholars as Timothy Brook and John Wills have such positive things to say on the back book cover...