Faced with some 15,000 attackers and their alien weapons, the city’s 8,000 defending troops stood no chance. The Japanese celebrated the capture of Pusan in 1592 with an orgy of bloodletting.
Official Korean documents in the sixteenth century were dated according to the reign year of the Chinese emperor or the Korean king. Fifteen ninety-two, being the twentieth year of the reign of China’s Wanli emperor and the twenty-fifth year of the reign of Korean king Sonjo, was therefore referred to either as Wanli 20 or Sonjo 25. In everyday usage, however, a different and very ancient counting system was used to keep track of the passage of both the days and the years: the traditional cycle of sixty. Each increment in the cycle was given a name consisting of one of ten “heavenly stems” derived from the elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, and an “earthly branch” of one of the twelve zodiacal symbols: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.
Fifteen ninety-two was the twenty-ninth year in this cycle, the year called imjin, a name combining the ninth heavenly stem, seawater, with the sign of the dragon. The Koreans did not regard the year with any particular sense of foreboding. On the contrary, the advent of imjin may even have been considered fortuitous, for the year of the dragon was traditionally viewed as a time of opportunity and prosperity, tinged with just a hint of unpredictability.
Fifteen ninety-two changed all that. The events that would unfold on the peninsula beginning in May would sear the word imjin on the Korean consciousness as a synonym for death and destruction, the apocalypse, the end of the world. To this day imjin waeran, “the Japanese bandit invasion of the water dragon year,” remains the closest that Korea has ever come to the abyss. There have been other times in her history that have brought destruction and tragedy on a terrible scale, most notably the Korean War of 1950 to 1953. But nothing can ever surpass the utter desolation of imjin waeran—the burned-out cities, the scorched earth, the broken families and snuffed-out lives. Among a people as homogeneous as the Koreans, the memory of this catastrophe not surprisingly is still very much alive today, more than four hundred years after the event. Indeed, it might even be said that they have not entirely forgiven Japan for it. Imjin waeran remains to this day a sub-text to the resentment and at times animosity that Koreans still feel toward the Japanese for their occupation of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
It began on May 23, 1592. A dense mist hung over the sea off Pusan early that morning, obscuring any sign of activity offshore. Chong Pal, the sixty-year-old commander of the Pusan garrison, left the port early for a day of hunting on Cholyong-do, a forested island at the mouth of the harbor so named for its population of deer. Emerging from the trees some time in the afternoon, he was one of the first to spy the armada, “covering all of the sea,” approaching from the direction of Daema-do, as Tsushima was known to the Koreans. Suspecting that this could be the Japanese invasion that everyone was expecting and yet did not expect, Chong rushed back to Pusan to raise the alarm and prepare for the worst. Any doubts as to what he had seen were soon dispelled by corroborative reports from a lighthouse keeper farther along the coast and from a beacon-fire tender on a hill behind Pusan: a long battle line of ships, ninety in number, approaching from the south.
The lead ships of the Japanese armada soon reached the waters off Pusan harbor and dropped anchor. Kyongsang Left Navy Commander Pak Hong observed their arrival from his nearby base at Kijang and began to tally the numbers for himself. There were easily ninety, as reported. Then one hundred. Then one hundred and fifty. The afternoon waned, and the ships kept coming. Two hundred. Two hundred and fifty. Three hundred. The sun eased below the horizon, and still the number continued to climb. And Pak’s nerves began to fray.
Word of the Japanese arrival reached Kyongsang Right Navy Commander Won Kyun at his base on Koje Island to the west of Pusan that same afternoon. He could not at first bring himself to believe what was happening. In a dispatch to his colleague Yi Sun-sin, commander of the Cholla Left Navy based at Yosu farther to the west, Won reported that the approaching mass of ships was perhaps some sort of exceptionally large trade mission from Tsushima. As the afternoon progressed, however, and the number of ships crowding the bay off Pusan climbed to one hundred and fifty and beyond, Won was forced to the conclusion that an invasion was indeed under way and a disaster about to befall them.
Neither he nor Pak Hong, however, made any attempt that day or the next to attack the Japanese armada with the approximately one hundred and fifty heavy panokson battleships under their command, representing the bulk of the entire Korean navy. The two men simply watched and waited and sent off frantic dispatches, while the ships under their command, the most formidable weapons in the Korean arsenal and the first and most effective line in the nation’s defenses, sat idle in their ports.
For the Koreans, this frozen inaction on the part of Won and Pak was the first of many strategic errors that would be made in the early days of the Imjin War. For although the two naval commanders did not know it, the gathering armada, while numerically daunting, was in fact vulnerable to seaborne attack and could have been dealt a heavy blow before it ever had a chance to send a single man ashore.
In the order of battle he had signed two months before, Hideyoshi urged his daimyo to be particularly careful to get their troops safely across the sea to Pusan, warning them that “the loss of one man or one horse through bad judgment will be regarded as a grave offense.” To ensure their safety, the invasion plan had called for a force of battleships to travel in convoy with the transports to protect them from the very ships that now sat idle in the Korean naval bases of Kyongsang Province. But such convoying had not occurred. When the first contingents of the invasion force were leaving Nagoya for their forward staging areas on Tsushima, the navy was still assembling on the Inland Sea. When the transports were at sea between Tsushima and Pusan, the navy was only just arriving at Nagoya. In fact, it would be more than a week before Hideyoshi’s battleships would arrive at Pusan. Konishi had gambled that he could land his forces without their protection and was now in Korean waters with a fleet of light and largely unprotected transports—fishing boats really—that would have been no match for Korea’s panokson if the challenge had been made. Had a different admiral been in command of either Kyongsang fleet, one willing to put his ships to sea and strike at the enemy, the outcome of these first few days might have been very different indeed.
By nightfall on May 23 some four hundred ships bearing Konishi Yukinaga’s first contingent had successfully traversed the seventy kilometers from Tsushima’s northern tip and were crowding the waters off Pusan. At seven thirty in the evening a single vessel separated from this force and advanced into the harbor. Aboard was So Yoshitoshi, the Christian daimyo of Tsushima, also known as Dario, who had served as Hideyoshi’s emissary to the Koreans since 1589. Accompanying him was the scholar monk Genso, a member of the Tsushima mission to Seoul in 1589. The two men sent a letter to the commander of Pusan, Chong Pal, asking one last time that the way be cleared to China for the armies of Japan. They received no answer, and eventually returned in their ship and rejoined the armada.
The die was now cast for a war with Korea. So Yoshitoshi and his father-in-law Konishi Yukinaga may have come to Pusan hoping that a show of force would cow the Koreans into acceding to Hideyoshi’s demands, thereby avoiding the necessity of a fight. Chong Pal’s rebuff ensured that this was not to be. With a huge invasion army waiting behind them on Tsushima, there was tremendous pressure on these two daimyo commanders not to spend time trying to arrange a settlement with the Koreans. It was, thought Konishi, “the will of Christ” that they now go ahead and use armed force.
For the next several hours the Japanese armada sat motionless offshore as the Koreans watched anxiously from behind the walls of Pusan Castle. Then, at four o’clock the next morning, May 24, the landings began. First ashore were the five thousand men under So Yoshitoshi. He was the logical choice to lead the way, for having visited Pusan several times in the past he knew the lay of the land and the nature of the defenses better than any of Hideyoshi’s commanders. The arrival of this familiar and formerly friendly face may also have been intended to cause the Koreans at least momentary confusion. If so, it could not have lasted long. So and his men clearly had not come this time to conduct diplomacy or trade; they had come for war. They came ashore clad in armor of iron plates and leather shingles tied together to form a flexible yet nearly impenetrable shell. It covered their torsos and arms and formed an apron in the front. They wore flaring iron helmets, some with stylized buffalo horns and antlers screwed to the front, all with a jointed cowling affixed to the sides and back to protect the neck. High-ranking samurai rode horses. They wore grotesque war masks with fierce, grimacing faces, and were armed with two swords: a long katana and a shorter wakizashi, finely crafted, very expensive, and highly valued by their owner. Some may have carried bows as well, and a lesser number spears. They did not carry muskets. These effective but fundamentally dishonorable weapons went to the ashigaru foot soldiers, along with one “loan sword.”
Next ashore was So Yoshitoshi’s father-in-law, Konishi Yukinaga, at the head of seven thousand men. They followed an unusual banner featuring a huge, stuffed rendering of the white paper bags used by Japanese druggists to dispense medicine, a reference to the Konishi family’s traditional involvement in that trade. There were very likely crucifixes in evidence as well, for Konishi and his men, like So’s company, were all Christians. Konishi himself rode a fine horse that Hideyoshi had presented to him at Nagoya before his departure, with the exhortation that he use it to “gallop over the heads of the bearded savages.”
After Konishi came Matsuura, lord of Hirado, the sole nonbeliever in the group. Then Arima. Omura. Goto. A total of 18,700 men in all, dressed for combat, ready to kill. The predominant colors were black and red: black armor and helmets, red banners and brocade. The multitude formed up in ranks, then split in two. Konishi led a portion of the men a few kilometers southwest along the harbor front to the fort at Tadaepo at the mouth of the Naktong River. The fort’s defenders, under garrison commander Yun Hung-sin, managed to repel the first assault but were overwhelmed by the second and all put to the sword. So Yoshitoshi meanwhile led the advance on Pusan Castle itself. He formally called upon garrison commander Chong Pal one last time to surrender, asserting yet again that they were on their way to China and would not harm the Koreans if they would only step aside. Chong refused. Until he received orders to the contrary, he replied, he was duty bound to resist the Japanese advance.
The aging officer then turned to his men and made his orders clear. “I expect you all,” he cried out, “to fight and die like brave men! If any man attempts to turn and flee, I will personally cut off his head!”
The day was just dawning when the Japanese sounded their conch-shell trumpets to signal the attack. The ensuing battle was fierce but short, providing the beleaguered Koreans with their first taste of the stunning power of the arquebus. Their arrows and spears were no match for them. The defenders of Pusan Castle were felled by the hundreds by the flying slugs of lead that these strange “dog legs” spit out, a deluge of death that “fell like rain.” The garrison fought until all their arrows were gone. Then Chong Pal himself was killed, and with that, at around nine o’clock in the morning, all resistance ceased.
Once over the walls, “We found people running all over the place and trying to hide in the gaps between the houses,” samurai chronicler Yoshino Jingozaemon would later record. “Those who could not conceal themselves went off toward the East Gate, where they clasped their hands together, and there came to our ears the Chinese expression, ‘Manō! Manō!’ which was probably them asking for mercy. Taking no notice of what they heard our troops rushed forward and cut them down, slaughtering them as a blood sacrifice to the god of war. Both men, women, and even dogs and cats were beheaded.” That it was assumed the Koreans spoke Chinese is an indication of how little the Japanese knew of their foe.
According to Japanese records, 8,500 Koreans were killed in the fall of Pusan and 200 prisoners were taken. Among the dead was Chong Pal’s eighteen-year-old concubine, Ae-hyang. Her body was found lying beside the fallen commander. She had taken her own life.