Japanese Army and Imjin War

Imjin War: The Realistic Approach

Each armed conflict has reasons and causes behind it that are often determined by historians. Sometimes, all the answers lay on the surface as they are provided by various historical documents. However, often, it is required to analyze the events of the past to determine the factors that were the so-called casus belli. In this regard, realistic approach can be considered the best as it allows defining the cases of the conflict as well as explaining the reasons for its development in a particular way with a high degree of accuracy. The following work focuses on the explanation of the Imjin War that is considered East Asias first modern hegemonic conflict from the position of realism.

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Prior to analyzing the Imjin War, it is necessary to define the position that will be used in the course of this analysis – realism. In the terms of international relations, realism is a direction in politics and the political science paradigm that has a pessimistic nature. In particular, according to it, each country on the global arena is primarily concerned with self-preservation. Moreover, under the condition of the lack of the international police force, the most rational behavior for the countries is to maximize their power, including the military one, which is necessary for the preservation of their independence. Nationalism is strong and the states are self-centered, which means that there is almost no trust between them and altruism is completely absent. The international rule of law and the global organizations are not able to influence the behavior of the countries significantly (Lieber 5). Thus, any attempt at remaking the world in accordance with any ideology is doomed regardless of the quality of the proposed abstract ideas.

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The explanation of the Imjin War is to be started with the analysis of its reasons, or the factors that had made Japan enter the conflict with Korea. In particular, by the end of the 16th century, the country had been united by Toyotomi Hideyoshi after many years of the internal struggle between the feudal lords (Sengoku period). As a result, its people were able to enjoy a short period of peace. However, Hideyoshi was not a noble ruler, meaning that despite his achievements, he was not able to claim the title of shogun, a military ruler, becoming a kampaku, a regent, instead. Naturally, he did not have much weight among the noble warlords of Japan. Moreover, after the conflict, the Japanese samurai army consisted of about half a million people. Most of them were left without a job due to the end of the era of warring provinces and the unification of the country. However, they were still a force to be reckoned with (The Imjin War 2). In particular, the primary weapons of a samurai included spears and bows, but firearms become increasingly popular. The Japanese army had enough of harquebus, albeit of a lower quality than those in possession of the Chinese army (Andrade 294). In addition, the personal training of a samurai warrior was considered one of the best in the world at the time. Naturally, without work, such people could have directed their energy to the activities like revolts and uprisings, undermining the foundations of Japan as well as the status of its current ruler.

By viewing this situation from the realistic point, one could say that under such conditions, Hideyoshi was primarily concerned with the preservation of a unified stated he had worked so hard to create as well the maintenance of his position as a ruler. As a result, he tried to legitimize his rule by military triumphs, which, in the absence of the internal conflicts, involved the invasion of the other countries, namely China (The Imjin War 2). Such a measure was to reduce the risk of potential internal riots due to an overabundance of samurai in the country who had to assault an imaginary external enemy. In addition, given the fact that Japan was a war state at the time, it would be possible to say that the motivation of the Japanese soldiers was quite high, which had also contributed to the relevance of Hideyoshis decision.

At the same time, the attack on China was impossible without the consent of the Korean authorities, since the Japanese troops had to cross the territory of Korea to reach the Chinese borders. From the realistic point of view, the primary reason for such a turn of events was the fact that the Japanese fleet was rather weak (The Imjin War 5). As an island state, Japan had a natural protection from the external threats, while the internal struggle required a significant amount of land troops. As a result, sea battles had never played an important role in the process of unification of the country, and Japan almost had no powerful warships and experienced sailors. Thus, a direct attack on China would be suicidal due to the might of the countrys navy as well as the abundance of pirates in its coastal waters. However, Korean lords refused to provide Hideyoshis army with a right of free passage through their lands (Perez 140). It is possible to say that actions were dictated by the concerns with the safety of the country as well as the lack of trust towards the representatives of Japan. As it was mentioned before, the Japanese army was well-trained and motivated, which meant that its march through the territory of Korea would have presented many threats to the state. In particular, there was no guarantee that the troops would not pillage the local settlements. Naturally, such a turn of events jeopardized the stability of the recently unified Japan. However, due to the state of events in the country, the invasion could not have been stopped. As a result, for the time being, Hideyoshi selected Korea as his primary target.

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Therefore, in early 1592, Japan started the invasion, which marked the beginning of the Imjin War. The Japanese forces, split into several groups, sailed to the coasts of Korea. The first group took the fortress of Busan while the second one landed in the estuary of the Nakdong River and headed to Joryeong, defeating the equestrian army of Koreans. These actions prepared the ground for the advance of the main forces. It should be noted that due to the poor preparation of the Korean army, the Japanese troops were able to move quickly across the country (The Imjin War 5). In particular, it took about three weeks to occupy Seoul and a few months to defeat most of the Korean ground forces such as infantry and cavalry (Perez 140). Clearly, Japan was much better prepared for a war.

Under such conditions, the rulers of Korea were forced to flee to the northern part of the country – to the Chinese border. Moreover, to ensure the survivability of their state, they sent a plea for help to the Ming dynasty, the rulers of China. At the same time, China did not intervene until the beginning of 1593 (The Imjin War 5). Such a behavior could be explained by the fact that the speed, at which the Japanese army was able to defeat Koreans, was astonishing. Thus, it would be possible to assume that the Chinese military leaders had doubted that such a feat was possible. As a result, the plea was likely to be perceived as a provocation, which would coincide with the theory of political realism – the absence of trust between the countries. Still, in 1593, it became clear that the situation was dire, so the Chinese army was transferred to Korea.

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By joining forces with the remaining Korean troops, the well-armed Chinese forces managed to repel the attacks of the invaders and started moving in the direction of Seoul (Perez 141). At the same time, they were backed up by the Korean navy, which, on the contrary to the countrys ground troops, was rather powerful and experienced due to the constant battles with pirates. The fleet commander Yi Sun-sin, who brought together the naval forces of the country, caused a series of crushing defeats to the numerically superior Japanese fleet. As a result, it became possible to capture the storage terminal on Tsushima Island, crippling the logistics of the Japanese army (The Imjin War 5). Naturally, such a state of affairs had a direct effect on the course of the war.

Being pushed back, the Japanese troops were completely cut off from their support, which made their advance impossible. Thus, it was decided to cease hostilities. In mid-1593, Japan agreed to negotiations (The Imjin War 5). However, as it was mentioned before, the process of invasion could not have been stopped, as it would have jeopardized the fate of the recently unified country. Thus, for Hideyoshi, the negotiations were a way to gain the time to prepare for a new offensive.

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The negotiation process lasted for several years, involving the Japanese and Chinese generals (Perez 141). However, both sides had to wage a war in the foreign land (Korea), which did not benefit them. In particular, Japan did not originally plan to invade it as it had been forced to change its strategy after not receiving the permission to pass through the Korean peninsula. On the other hand, China entered the conflict responding to the plea of the Korean authorities but having no interest in losing people in a meaningless battle. As a result, the negotiations dragged for a long time and ended in a failure (The Imjin War 5). As a result, Japan has started the second invasion of Korea. However, this time, Koreans were ready to repel the attack, preventing the Japanese troops from reaching the shores of their country.

As it was mentioned before, the Japanese Navy was rather weak, especially in comparison to the Korean one that was equipped with armored turtle ships the first of their kind (The Imjin War 9). Being led by Yi Sun-sin, who had gathered the remnants of the fleet from the southern provinces after the first invasion, the Korean fleet was able to win over the huge Japanese one. To do this, Yi Sun-sin had successfully used the navigation conditions at the Korean shores, knowledge of the characteristics of flows, and heights of tides.

Most of the Japanese ships were lured into a narrow strait and crushed against the coastal rocks. As a result, Koreans only had to finish the remnant of the enemy fleet (Perez 140). Naturally, such a loss had crippled the Japanese army as it lost the means to transport the troops to Korea. Moreover, after the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the man that had initiated the Imjin War to maintain peace in the country as well as his status of a ruler, it was pointless for Japan to continue the conflict, as the Japanese troops were exhausted and incapable of rebellion. Thus, by the end of 1598, the Japanese expeditionary army was evacuated from Korea (The Imjin War 5), ultimately ending the war.

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In the end, the consequences of the war were rather devastating for both sides. Japan had lost many people and most of its fleet as well as obtained the status of an aggressor, which affected its relationship with the rest of the Asian countries. On the other hand, Korea had suffered significant damage despite being the winning side. Its population reduced by 30% (The Imjin War 5), and many fields were destroyed, resulting in a great famine. The war had caused a serious damage not only in the economic and demographic but also in the cultural terms since many historical monuments and records were destroyed along with the imperial palaces in Seoul (Perez 140). As for China, the Korean campaign was the countrys last successful foreign operation. The exhausted finances of the state had caused the decline of the economy, which, in turn, negatively affected the combat capability of its army, resulting in the downfall of the Ming dynasty.


In conclusion, it is possible to say that from the realistic point of view, the Imjin War has occurred due to the efforts of the Japanese and Korean authorities to maintain the stability in the controlled lands. In the case of Japan, there was a need to find a new enemy of the country to keep the army busy. Moreover, victories would have improved the image of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a commoner, in the eyes of the nobility. On the other hand, Koreans did not want to take risks by allowing the Japanese troops march over their land, primarily due to the weakness of the Korean army. Such a clash of interests contributed to the development of the conflict between the two nations, which ultimately resulted in as full-scale war that ended with the defeat of Japan. At the same time, by taking into account its consequences, it is possible to say that in the end, there was no winning side as the losses were heavy for all sides.


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