Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Interview with Samuel Hawley, Author of The Imjin War --Part Two

This is the conclusion of our two-part interview with author Samuel Hawley

SA: The rivalry between the two Japanese generals Konishi Yukinaga and Katō Kiyomasa is perhaps one of the more interesting sub-plots in the overall Imjin War saga. You refer to the disharmony between the two leaders quite a bit in your book. Do you think that this rivalry hindered or helped the Japanese cause?
SH: Hindered or helped? Some of both, I suppose, but I’d tend more toward “helped,” considering how the rivalry spurred each commander on to greater efforts. For pros like Kato and Konishi, it was almost like a game, seeing who could outdo the other in beating the hell out of the Koreans. Rivalries like this are often the stuff of great military campaigns.

SA: Were there any other persona from the Japanese side that you found interesting? Who and why?
SH: I definitely found Hideyoshi the most interesting character. I even flirted for a short time with writing a book about him, something that would appeal more to general readers than Berry’s biography. There’s the rags-to-riches story of his life, his later quest for gentility, his fretting about his heir...it amounts to a grand story. I’ve long since given up the idea of a book on him, though. Now that I know a bit more about the publishing business, I realize it would be a dead loss for me to write such a book.

It’s funny, but shortly after The Imjin War came out, I was interviewed by KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) Radio. The tone of the interview, as you can imagine, had a pretty anti-Japanese slant. A lot of it seemed to be, “How can we use the Imjin War to smear the Japan of today?” Anyway, when the interviewer asked me about who I found most interesting in the story, I didn’t give the expected answer, “Yi Sun-sin” or “Yu Song-nyong” or whoever. I said “Hideyoshi,” and went to express admiration for his chutzpah. Boy, the interviewer didn’t like that!

SA: I wouldn’t sell yourself short about your ability to write a story about Hideyoshi—you could definitely pull this off. Tuttle just recently re-released A.L. Sadler’s bio of Ieyasu and a new 96 pager book about Hideyoshi is coming out very shortly from Turnbull (published by Osprey). Hideyoshi sells specifically because he does capture the imagination of many people and his life story is interesting enough to transcend borders. And the same can be said of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, who stands out as the hero from the Korean side. However, the myth of his character and prowess has grown beyond reality, much like what has happened with the “cult” of Sakamoto Ryoma worship in Japan. Yi is certainly worthy of the title of hero, but do you think he maybe gets too much credit? What about the contribution of the Korean warrior monks and their role in bringing about the defeat of the Japanese? Is their contribution wrongfully overshadowed by Yi?
SH: In writing The Imjin War, I wanted to tell the story as Koreans know it, as imperfect as that might be, so that Western readers who know nothing about the subject could learn about the war and in turn something about Koreans. In other words, I wasn’t trying to be revisionist about anything (except, perhaps, my ideas on the turtle ship, which is a relatively small thing). In writing about Yi Sun-sin, for example, I presented him as Koreans tend to see him (but without the messianic touches of the two English-language biographies, which to Western readers come across as way over the top). Same with Hideyoshi, Konishi, Kato, etc. I did as much research as I could and then presented them in a way that I thought reflected the Japanese viewpoint. I wasn’t trying to put any sort of revisionist stamp on anything because I saw myself as a chronicler and storyteller (heck, it’s an interesting story and deserves to be told well), not as an academic trying to come up with some new interpretation.

Let me add here that, as sympathetic as I might appear to Koreans in The Imjin War, I actually took some flak from Koreans after the book came out for being too critical of their ancestors. For example, I received a letter from the foundation devoted to preserving the memory of Imjin War government official Kim Song-il, asking me to change some things in the book that they felt didn’t reflect well on their ancestor. I even got a blast from a descendent of Yi Sun-sin, who felt I had blackened Yi’s name. I think this had to do with the part where I describe Yi ordering the execution of a Japanese prisoner on the false charge of having killed his son (it’s right there in Yi’s diary). I liked this because it showed the humanity, the fallibility, of Yi. It shows that he was a real person, capable of doing the wrong thing, and not a messianic figure as he has been previously depicted. I guess some Koreans don’t see it that way.

About the warrior monks, I’ll just say this: If I had written a dissertation on them, I bet I would have concluded that they had played a bigger role too. And if I had written a dissertation on the role of the Ming army in beating back the Japanese, hey, I bet I would have concluded that they had played the crucial role too. And if someone comes out with a book on the role of women in the Imjin War, I can tell you right now that the thesis will be that they played a darn big role. That’s the way it works when you set out to prove some sort of core thesis. My own book is not a dissertation; I didn’t have any core thesis to push, for example that the Koreans could have won the war on their own or something like that. I speculate on things along the way and express opinions, of course, but my ultimate purpose was just to tell the story.

SA: It’s disturbing but not surprising that you took some flak from certain corners in Korea. History sometimes tends to get shoe-horned to fit whatever the wearer wants in order to pursue an agenda or to support a certain “interpretation” of the truth. I should add that sadly, this can still be a problem in Japan as well. But let’s stay on the topic of the Korean warrior monks. Their units tended to be the strongest land forces the Koreans were able to deploy. What were some of the factors that made them such formidable fighters? Why were they so willing to die for a government that had persecuted their religion for many years?
SH: For the warrior monks, it wasn’t just about being loyal Koreans. Why should they be, after the way they had been treated during the Choson dynasty’s drive to establish Neo-Confucianism as the primary ideology? There was something of more personal benefit to gain: By proving their allegiance and worth to the Korean government—by doing the country a service—the monks hoped to win back some of the things that had been taken away from them over the years. For the individual monk, this was first and foremost the right to be officially ordained and recognized as a monk. (The government had previously done away with the law allowing for the ordination of monks.)

So why were the monks-soldiers such an effective force? Well, first of all, they operated as guerrilla fighters. In so doing they played to their strengths and took advantage of Korea’s mountainous terrain. Second, the monk community had a pre-existing organizational structure, complete with leaders that the monks highly respected and were predisposed to follow. Third, the monks as a body of men were conditioned to obedience and to seeing themselves as part of a cohesive group. It was religious obedience, and the cohesive group was monastic, but it translated well into the military sphere. When it came to fighting, they were therefore already conditioned to operating as a group, and to obeying the head monk or the abbot serving as their commander.

Finally, we should bear in mind that when we say that the monk-soldiers were an effective fighting force, we’re comparing them to the highly ineffective Korean government army. The army hadn’t been much of a cohesive group prior to the war, what with all the exemptions from service, the generals being kept in Seoul, etc. So you had the situation at the start of the war of a bunch of disparate, disorganized men being pulled together to form an army and a strange commander racing down from the capital to lead them. The result is that there was no sense of cohesion in the group, no shared sense of discipline, and no deeply ingrained respect and unquestioning loyalty for the commander.

SA: Who else from the Korean side did you find yourself drawn to during your research?
SH: Those few who stand out do so mainly because they left us some sort of personal record that gives us a glimpse of what sort of people they were (i.e. Yi Sun-sin’s diary; Yu Song-nyong’s Chingbirok; King Sonjo’s travails as revealed in Sonjo sillok). But that’s all they are—very small glimpses. The thing about writing about something that happened so far in the past is that it’s hard to get much of a feel for individual characters. People back then—and especially people in East Asia—didn’t lavishly reveal their personal feelings the way that we would come to do in the West in our private letters and our diaries and journals, which can sometimes be almost stream-of-consciousness stuff. In the diary George Foulk kept while traveling in Korea in 1884, for example, he rages against Koreans when their staring makes it impossible for him to take a crap in private. It’s this sort of intimacy that draws you to a historical figure; that makes you feel close to him. You just can’t say the same thing about anyone involved in the Imjin War. No one is “know-able” to such an extent. Even such a central figure as Hideyoshi. The little glimpses of him as a man that emerge in his private letters, his concern for his aged mother, his doting on his son—these are gems to seize upon precisely because they are so rare.

SA: While the famous “Turtle Ship” of the Korean Navy has often been described as the “First Ironclad”, this appears to have not been the case. Your book has an interesting anecdote about how a Western journalist might have been responsible for this misconception. Could you tell us more about that?
SH: Putting iron plates on the roof of the turtle ship would have been very unusual—something definitely worth noting. And yet Yi Sun-sin makes no mention of it in the ship description in his diary and reports. Neither does his nephew in his biography of Yi, which contains another description of the ship. Neither do the Annals of King Sonjo, which contain yet another description. They mention iron spikes, but not iron plating. This is what led me initially to question the notion of the use of iron plating. I became more convinced after realizing that iron plating would have been superfluous, a waste of metal, considering that these ships were already so heavily built that they were impervious to Japanese firepower. One thing that did confuse me was the record of the Koreans piling straw on the roofs of these ships to hide the spikes. My first thought was: “Well, in that case the roofs had to be iron-plated, for the straw would have caught fire once the fire arrows started flying and an exposed wooden roof would have burned.” But then I realized that the Koreans would have doused the straw with seawater, a logical response to fire arrows. Fire arrow striking the roof therefore would have been extinguished.

My account of how the iron plating story may have come about is pure conjecture. To the best of my knowledge—and new evidence may have been unearthed since I wrote the book; I haven’t kept up on the subject—the idea that the turtle ship had been iron clad didn’t surface until the early 1880s. It started in part thanks to US Navy ensign George Clayton Foulk, who was in Korea from 1884 to 1887 and served as charge d’affaires, effectively Washington’s ambassador in Seoul. Foulk traveled extensively throughout the country in 1884, one of the first Westerners to do so, and was one of the first Westerners to master Korean. (I’ve done two books on him, America’s Man in Korea and Inside the Hermit Kingdom, both Lexington Books, 2007.) Anyway, in his reports, Foulk mentioned hearing stories about the Koreans having once possessed an armored ship, and reportedly saw the remains of such of a ship at the port of Kosong in southern Korea. This snippet found its way into newspapers in the States. Now here’s where I’m conjecturing, but it seems likely that Westerners would have related this notion of an armored ship to the famed ironclads that had recently been used in the Civil War. And it seems equally likely that the Koreans, emerging from their long isolation and finding themselves weak and vulnerable and far behind the West, would have latched onto this notion as a matter of pride, a shining example of, “Hey, here’s something we thought of first.”

As a sidebar that may interest your readers, here’s a passage from Foulk’s 1884 travel diary in which he relates a story told to him by his Korea attendant, evidently some sort of oral tradition. I believe it’s a convoluted account of Yi Sun-sin:

“Today Suil spoke long on Korean officers. He says for many years past it has been the custom of this government to get rid of strong men physically and mentally among the common people, fearing the use of their power against it. Thus such men are made to live in fear and silence. If by chance discovered, a charge, no matter how slight, is brought against them and off goes the head. The hero of Tongyang, after killing so many Japanese for his country (a man of the people), knew that this display of his power would cost him his life, and standing on top of his junk in plain sight of the Japanese fleet, shot himself with a Japanese pistol or gun, thus to avoid dying like a criminal! Thus it was that while at times of war with Japan and China strong good men would not serve the government, knowing that whether they lost or won, death was the result.” (Samuel Hawley, ed., Inside the Hermit Kingdom: The 1884 Korea Travel Diary of George Clayton Foulk, pp. 93-94.)

SA: Much of Japan's failure can be traced to their inability to keep their forces supplied, and in particular their inability to protect their shipping from the Korean navy. Well protected and armed Korean ships regularly pounded the Japanese fleet. In your opinion, why didn't the Japanese show a greater interest in upgrading the capabilities of their ships in order to address this gross imbalance? This has struck me and others as being incomprehensible, considering how flexible the Japanese in general, and Hideyoshi in particular, had shown themselves to be in the past when integrating new technology into warfare and tactics.
SH: First of all, the Japanese did greatly improve their naval ability for the second invasion, as evidenced by their almost complete annihilation of the Korean fleet under Won Kyun. One can’t blame this Japanese victory solely on Won’s poor leadership. The Japanese had definitely upped their game. The argument could perhaps be made that this represented the greatest naval improvement one could reasonably expect from the Japanese, considering that they had started the war with a fairly primitive notion of naval warfare (i.e. ships as floating platforms for soldiers).

Here’s something else to consider: the Japanese military machine that was sent to Korea was the result of a process of evolution that took place during the country’s long civil war. It was the result, in other words, of a period of intense Darwinian adaptation. This suggests that flexibility was key—and it was. But even the Japanese had limits. For example, the samurai refused to use muskets themselves, considering it beneath their dignity. So there still existed certain constraints on the Japanese notion of warfare. One of these constraints was that Hideyoshi and his daimyo had spent their whole lives mastering the art of warfare on land. They have taken land warfare to the heights of effectiveness. They have made themselves arguably the best land warriors in the world. So how willing would such a man have been to say, “Well okay, I’ll shift my focus to the water, even though I don’t know much about it,” and leave all the glory to be had on land to rival daimyo? It would be like a top NASCAR driver foregoing the Daytona 500 in order to take up horseback riding to compete in the Kentucky Derby. Sure, it could happen. But there would definitely be a tendency toward resistance.

SA: Despite the fact that the future of their country was hanging in the balance, Korea was excluded from the peace talks that followed the Japanese retreat to the south coast after the Chinese offensive of 1593. What led to this situation, and how did it affect the eventual failure of the peace talks that led to the second Japanese invasion?
SH: The Koreans were aware right from the start that once they asked Ming China for help to repel the Japanese invasion, they themselves would be pushed aside to one degree or another and Beijing’s heavy-handed representatives would take the lead. That was the way things worked between China and its vassal states. It was why this was such a big deal for the Koreans, asking the Chinese for assistance. They knew it would mean losing some of their autonomy; that the Ming would start calling the shots. So while it certainly caused the Koreans anguish to be left out of the peace negotiations, it was perhaps not entirely unexpected.

I don’t recall if I describe this in my book as a contributing factor to the failure of peace talks leading to the second invasion. The Ming definitely would have benefited by listening more to the Koreans in order to get a clearer understanding of the true situation. Listening to them, however, might not have made any difference, for the negotiations seemed destined to fail. The whole thing was a farce of purposeful miscommunication between the Ming and Japanese envoys, miscommunication necessitated by the intransigence of both sides. They were just too far apart to reach common ground. Failure was the way it had to play out.

SA: And speaking of the Chinese, you, as well as Turnbull in his first book on the Imjin War, make it fairly clear that the Japanese would have lost in Korea with or without Chinese intervention. The participation of the Ming was just a mere catalyst that helped speed up an inevitable outcome. If this is the case, then what do you think of Kenneth Swope’s theory that Japan’s defeat in Korea had more to do with China’s involvement and more importantly, the military technology they deployed?
SH: The arrival of the Ming army certainly hastened the withdrawal of Japanese forces and in turn the end of the war. The Japanese were already bogged down in northern Korean, however, before the first Ming forces arrived. In the absence of the Ming, I believe the Japanese would have eventually exhausted themselves and pulled back into the south. Hideyoshi’s death in 1598 would have spelled the end of the adventure.

I in fact corresponded with Swope back in December 1999, when I was just starting to write The Imjin War and when he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. I still have the e-mails. His ideas of the central role of the Ming army were fixed even then—based, as he said, on his reading of Chinese sources. Maybe I’m biased, but I put a lot of stock in Korean sources like the Annals of King Sonjo (Sonjo sillok). I say this because the Koreans readily accepted their subsidiary role in a Chinese universe and thus tended to be more self-critical in their official histories. The Annals of King Sonjo, for example, contain a lot of self-deprecating history. You have Korean generals running away, the king fleeing in a completely ignominious fashion, Koreans looking incompetent in the face of the Japanese threat. To me, this smacks of truth. The Chinese, on the other hand, were more heavily invested in preserving the idea that they were pre-eminent. They were, after all, the Center of the World. It therefore gave me pause when Swope wrote to me in Dec. 1999, for example: “The amazing thing about the Chinese sources is that Admiral Yi is not that much of a factor. Some sources scarcely mention him at all!...Yi Sun-sin is often named simply as Chen Lin’s brave second-in-command.” So the Chinese admiral is placed at the forefront and gets the lion’s share of the credit in Chinese accounts. That’s surprising....

SA: Have you read Swope’s book, A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail? If so, what do you think of it?
SH: No, I haven’t read it.

SA: Swope took some shots at both you and Turnbull. I am not the biggest Turnbull fan, but think that Samurai Invasion is one of his better efforts and is worthy of praise. But with you, Swope seemed to go out of his way to post a very mean-spirited review of your book on Amazon.com as well as in one of his published articles. I for one, think your book is by far the best balanced work in English on the topic and found Swope to be completely out of line. The SA’s affiliated blog, the Shogun-ki, even addressed this issue in a post titled “Fear and Loathing in the Imjin War”. How do you feel about the negative campaign that Swope waged against you and Turnbull? Do you have any idea what motivated him to act so unprofessionally?
SH: What Swope wrote about my book on Amazon.com was ungentlemanly, to say the least. I assumed he was jealous, and I was surprised that he would reveal himself so clearly and make himself look so small. His comment about how readers should “look elsewhere” was of course self-serving. Back in December 1999 Swope himself wrote to me about his own dissertation: “So when I finish, something will exist in English [on the Imjin War], but right now there’s not much at all.” In writing The Imjin War, I was trying to fill the very void that Swope himself acknowledged needed filling. I guess he thinks he owns the topic. There is a lot of arrogance like that in academia. Swope is by no unique on that score. He’s just clumsier than most.

In hindsight, the whole thing has become kind of funny, what with the heat Swope has taken. It’s been a real-life example of the saying, “You reap what you sow.” I wonder if he’s learned anything from this self-generated teaching moment.

By the way, as I mentioned before, I finished writing The Imjin War in 2003, the year that Turnbull’s Samurai Invasion came out. It was a pretty big disappointment to realize that I wouldn’t be the first to come out with a book on the topic (I was already shopping mine around to publishers as “the first book-length account in English,” etc.). But that’s life. I swallowed my disappointment—it never occurred to me to “Swope” Turnbull—and I ordered a copy of his book and found it to be a valuable work. I think he did a good job. In the two years it subsequently took me to get my own book published, I ended up incorporating some things from Turnbull’s Samurai Invasion, and I thank him for it.

SA: Can you tell us about what you are currently working on?
SH: Since giving up teaching in 2007 and moving back to Canada with my wife, I’ve been working full time writing more popular books for a wider audience. My first effort in this new vein is Speed Duel: The Inside Story of the Land Speed Record in the Sixties (forthcoming from Firefly Books, Aug. 2010). It’s about the rivalry between Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons, who pushed the LSR up through 400, 500, and 600 mph between 1963 and 1965. My next book, which I’ve already finished but haven’t yet signed a deal for, is about Canadian Olympic sprinter Percy Williams. It’s entitled I Just Ran: The Life and Times of Percy Williams, World’s Fastest Human. I’m now starting work on my third book since leaving Korea, Bad Elephant, about a circus elephant named Topsy that was electrocuted in 1903.

SA: Any plans to return to writing about East Asian history?
SH: My only involvement in East Asian history today is my link with the Royal Asiatic Society. Last year they asked me to return as general editor of their annual journal Transactions. So I’m doing that. Here’s the link to our Call for Papers:

As for writing another book on East Asian history—no, I’ve done that and now I’ve moved on. I enjoy researching new topics in different fields, whatever I stumble on that strikes my fancy, and then crafting what I learn into a book. So the “bestial Swope” need have no fear on that score. It’s unlikely I’ll stray onto his quarter-acre again.

SA: It’s been a real pleasure and treat to interview you. Like your book The Imjin War, this has been a most informative and delightful experience. On behalf of the Samurai Archives, thank you very much and wish you the best with your new books!
SH: My pleasure. All the best to you and the folks at SA.


  1. There is one thing to point out obviously, first is that the official history of China (such as Ming Shi) are almost always compiled AFTER the dynasty's collapse by it's eventual successors, so that the people actually self invested in those events were long gone and the new dynasty usually had plenty of motive to NOT make their predecessors seems all that great, espeically on events that have some relationship with their eventual downfalls. the Imjin war on the Chinese side of things actually didn't get much record, and it was basically lobbed along with two other campaigns that were essentially slighly serious internal rebellions.

    Most more serious student of Chinese history within China tend to focus on the details these sources reveal, and generally just ignor the descriptions, since they realize that the officials, especially those that aren't at the very front line, often had no clue on what they're talking about anyway.

    Though it is a bit sad that the Chinese history community haven't made that much attempt to get their own history out to the international market, there have actually been some decent works done here and a lot of the previously unknown first hand source were discovered more recently, I have a suspicion that Swope's sources are far more common onces but i'll try to find the time to take a look.

  2. RollingWave,

    The dynasty coming in has plenty of reason to paint the past dynasty in a positive light. They are not necessarily motivated to cast the past dynasty in a negative light. One reason for this is that the incoming dynasty is trying to attract the loyalty and commitment of the past dynasty from the scholar class. Often times, in a confucian environment, the scholar class of the past dynasty leave government once the new dynasty inserts itself. However, if the new dynasty says they will commission a chronicle of the past dynasty, the old scholars feel that it is their duty to write the history of the past dynasty they had formally worked for with great loyalty. So, it's usually the scholars from the old dynasty that write the histories and the new dynasty allow for a positive spin because it solidifies their recruitment and loyalty of the old educated class that had served the old dynasty.