Published on 7 Nov 2015
Yi’s life has been turned into a Confucian parable: a highly competent person who bore betrayal stoically and stayed loyal to the king. Since there was no record of his early life, that pattern is reflected in the way his early life is described. That pattern of thinking clearly influenced the historians who did cover Yi’s life, but while it stands out as unusual to those of us who aren’t familiar with that tradition, it has a subconscious impact on the people who were raised with Confucian thinking and wrote this history from it. If we looked at Western history from a foreign perspective, we would likely notice similar patterns being overlaid onto Western ways of telling history as well.
December 10, 2015
December 3, 2015
Published on 24 Oct 2015
After his success at Myeongnyang, Yi began rebuilding the Korean navy and strengthening his partnership with the Chinese. But then, Toyotomi Hideyoshi died. Japan’s new leaders had no interest in continuing the war, but although they sued for peace, Korea now held the upper hand and was determined to punish the people who had committed so many massacres against their people. Yi and the Chinese fleet bottled up the Japanese at the fort in Suncheon. When the Japanese called for reinforcements, Yi interrupted them in Noryang Strait. Again they were outnumbered, 500 to 150, but the Chinese commander did not yet understand Yi’s long range style of warfare and immediately closed for close combat. Yi ordered his flagship to rescue their allies, and as soon as the Japanese recognized him, they focused fire on him. This allowed the Chinese, suddenly forgotten, to fire freely on them. The Japanese realized their error and tried to flee, but Yi would have none of it. Beating the war drum himself, he urged his ships to chase the Japanese – to punish them for all the slaughter they brought to Korea. It was then that he was struck by a fatal gunshot. Before he died, he ordered his son and nephew to command the battle for him. They dressed in his armor to hide his death from the troops and continued beating the dream. Together, they carried the day – only for Yi’s tragic death to be revealed at the moment of victory. But although Yi did not live to see it, 300 Japanese ships were captured and destroyed that day and the rest of their invading force was rounded up soon after. For his tireless service, his brilliant leadership, and his unwavering devotion to Korea, Yi was given the posthumous title of Chungmugong, the Martial Lord of Loyalty.
November 26, 2015
Published on 17 Oct 2015
Yi’s success had forced the Japanese to give up offensive naval operations, but their huge fleet remained entrenched in Busan harbor. While Yi pinned them down, reinforcements from the Chinese army had finally arrived and helped the Korean army take back the country on land. Yi petitioned for marines to take Busan back from the Japanese, but his requests were ignored. Instead, he focused on making his base on Hansando self-sufficient: he promised protection to refugees in exchange for them working the island, building his equipment, and even researching military technology. But a truce was called with Japan, one that dragged on for years until Hideyoshi broke it by ordering a second invasion. An informant brought word of secret, unprotected Japanese fleet movements, but Yi recognized it as a trap and refused to go. However, his friend Ryu’s enemies at court seized on this as an opportunity to put Yi on trial for treason. They demoted him again, and gave his fleet to Won Kyon. Won Kyon fell into the trap Yi had refused, and a coordinated surprise attack from the Japanese resulted in the destruction of all but 12 ships. Yi was quickly re-instated, but ordered to disband the navy. He refused, and planned his counterattack carefully: he would fight at Myeongnyang Strait, where he hoped the natural currents would do what his numbers could not. His plan worked: the reversing tide caught the Japanese by surprise and flung their ships against each other right as he pressed the attack. With 13 ships versus 133, he once again drove back Japan with zero losses to his own navy. Word of his success brought other ships out of hiding and convinced the Chinese navy to ally with him at last.
November 19, 2015
Published on 10 Oct 2015
While Yi found success at sea, the Korean land army suffered terrible losses. Yi Il, the man who once accused Yi of negligence, lost one battle after another, until finally the regular forces were annihilated at Chungju. The Joseon court that ruled to Korea fled to Pyongyang, on the verge of being pushed out of their own country. But that same day, Admiral Yi tore through a Japanese fleet at Okpo. He moved on to Sacheon, where he baited the Japanese commander into a trap and debuted his turtle ship. The unstoppable turtle ship carried the day, so he used this tactic again and again he destroyed a Japanese fleet while suffering no losses of his own. Finally, Hideyoshi ordered his naval commanders to take Jeolla, Yi’s headquarters. Sadly for him, his general Wakisaka Yasaharu grew too eager and engaged Yi without backup at Gyeonnaeryang Strait, only to find himself lured into an even more sophisticated version of Yi’s bait-and-retreat strategy: a “Crane’s Wing” of ships that collapsed on the overextended target from all sides. In one of the largest naval battles in history, Yi scored a decisive win and again didn’t lose a single ship. He headed to Angolpo to attack Hideyoshi’s two remaining generals and seal his victory, but they refused to be baited. He had to settle for a long range exchange of cannon fire, which worked at the cost of many injuries to his own men. In the end, he destroyed all but a few Japanese ships, and those he only spared to give the Japanese some means to escape and stop raiding in Korea. But he had accomplished his goal: Hideyoshi ordered a halt to all naval operations except guarding Busan, and without this control of the sea, Japan could not re-supply their troops nor hope to resume the assault that would have finally pushed Korea’s leaders out of Korea.
November 12, 2015
Published on 3 Oct 2015
Japan invaded Korea after a series of long civil wars that had finally culminated in Toyotomi Hideyoshi leading a unified Japanese army. Their martial society had trained extensively with weapons like the arquebus, early guns, and the civil war had given them tremendous experience with siegecraft. By contrast, Korea had not been at war for hundreds of years: they were mostly troubled by raiders from without and corrupt government officials from within. However, their unique situation meant that they had great cannons for fighting off pirates and secure if minimal hill-top forts. As a tributary ally of the Chinese, the Koreans were startled and confused when Japan asked permission to march through their territory and make war on China. Many officials thought the Japanese were only bluffing, but Ryu Seong-ryong recognized the threat and made sure his friend Yi was moved to naval service to help defend the country. Yi trained his men and commissioned a new ironside ship design called the Turtle Ship. Unfortunately, other commanders did not take the threat seriously: even when Japanese ships appeared on the horizon, the southern commander convinced himself it was a trade fleet and took no action while the ships docked, then unloaded their soldiers onto Korean soil. The well-trained Japanese army crushed the Korean army and quickly advanced to Seoul. Meanwhile, Yi organized his small fleet of warships and launched quick strikes against the Japanese navy, catching them off-guard and on-patrol. He destroyed 43 enemy ships without losing a single one of his own, and was promoted accordingly to become the new Southern Commander of the Korean navy.
November 5, 2015
Published on 26 Sep 2015
Admiral Yi Sun-sin of Korea began his legendary career with a series of disasters. Fate (and corrupt officials) conspired against him to have him repeatedly knocked down from the success he had earned, often because his insistence on strict military codes and refusal to ignore corruption made enemies of his fellow officers. Even when his superior had him tortured and blamed after a loss to the Jurchen raiders from the north, Yi persevered. Stripped of his rank and now reduced to a common enlisted man, Yi nevertheless served Korea with distinction. Meanwhile his childhood friend, Ryu Seong-ryong, had risen to become the prime minister of Korea. Ryu recognized the threat of war from Japan looming on the horizon, so when Yi asked to retire in 1588, Ryu convinced him to stay.
October 14, 2015
In The Diplomat, Franz-Stefan Gady looks at the problem for Toyota because their vehicles have become the favourites of ISIS and other terrorist groups:
The United States has launched an investigation to determine how the terror group ISIS was able to acquire a large number of Toyota pickup trucks and SUVs ABC News reported this week.
Japanese car manufacturer Toyota, the world’s second-largest auto maker, has pledged full cooperation with U.S. authorities and is “supporting” the inquiry led by the Terror Financing division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
“We briefed Treasury on Toyota’s supply chains in the Middle East and the procedures that Toyota has in place to protect supply chain integrity,” according to a D.C.-based spokesperson of Toyota. However, “it is impossible for Toyota to completely control indirect or illegal channels through which our vehicles could be misappropriated,” he added.
According to Toyota sales data, the number of Hilux and Land Cruisers sold tripled from 6,000 in Iraq in 2011 to 18,000 sold in 2013. However, sales dropped to 13,000 in 2014.
Toyota Hilux pickup trucks – a lightweight virtually indestructible vehicle – have been prominently featured in various ISIS propaganda videos and played an important role in ISIS’ conquests of large stretches of Iraqi territory last summer by acting as a force multiplier.
Armed with a .50 caliber machine gun the Hilux truck’s maneuverability provided insurgents quickly with close-range fire support during their attacks. Back in 2010, the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen referred to the Hilux as “a modern version of light cavalry. They move weapons into positions to fire, and can also shift people around very quickly, with a quick dismount.”
Full disclosure: I’m currently driving a ten-year-old Toyota pickup truck (a Tacoma, which I think is the North American version of the Hilux). My next vehicle is likely to be another Toyota pickup truck. They may not be technically indestructible, but I’ve been very impressed with the performance and durability of my particular vehicle.
July 13, 2015
In The Diplomat, Stephen Joyce reviews Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army, a recent book by Phyllis Birnbaum:
Divisive figures often make the most compelling biographical subjects; and Kawashima Yoshiko is no exception. During her life and in death opinions have varied markedly. Loathed by the Chinese as a traitor, extolled by the Japanese for her talents as a spy, more recently she has even become a heroine to the LGBT community.
In Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army, Phyllis Birnbaum provides a measured assessment of the fascinating rise and fall of this erratic, narcissistic, cross-dressing, bisexual princess.
Born in 1907 as Aisin Gioro Xianyu, Kawashima Yoshiko was the 14th daughter of Prince Su of the Qing imperial family. Soon after the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, she was unwillingly sent to Japan to be adopted by family friend Kawashima Naniwa.
Her formative teenage years were spent in Matsumoto being educated in Japanese language and culture. It was not the happiest of upbringings. An attempted suicide and sexual assault by her new father are noted as potentially life-defining events but are hard to verify. Whatever the root cause of her discontent, in 1925 she shaved her head and started wearing men’s clothes.
In 1927 she married a Mongolian prince in a politically convenient union that quickly failed and Yoshiko soon travelled to China to pursue her dream of a honorable return to power for the Qing dynasty, beginning with Manchuria and Outer Mongolia.
With Japan increasingly active in China she soon found herself a raison d’etre: a spy in the service of the Japanese. Several incidents define her status as a spy; all are shrouded in mystery.
Although it would be hard to argue that she had a major influence over the key events of her time, Kawashima Yoshiko is a superb subject for biography and should interest all lovers of Asian history. And despite living her life in the public and media glare her essential mysteriousness remains—even in death. Did the Chinese Nationalist government execute her (as Kim Bai Fai) in 1948 or, as some would have it, did she escape and live out her last days quiet obscurity? Birnbaum concludes that the latter outcome is questionable, to say the least. Assuming she was indeed executed, her memoirs reveal a wry acceptance of her ultimate fate, despite her life aims lying in tatters.
The sheer wealth of material — autobiographies, Yoshiko’s letters, interviews, press reports, sensationalist magazine articles and official documents — with which to write a biography to some extent serves to cloud rather than illuminate the life of Yoshiko Kawashima. Much like her futile efforts to restore the Qing dynasty in China, any attempt to firmly pin down her real life story and true character seems destined to fail.
May 17, 2015
At The Diplomat, J. Kevin Baird looks at Japan’s continued resistance to examining their own military and diplomatic history after the First World War:
Japan faces the expectations of its friends and neighbors to express itself on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will formulate and express those words. In doing so, he faces a dilemma. The focus of that dilemma is Yasukuni Shrine and what it speaks to regarding Japan’s view of the Pacific War. Will Japan demonstrate contrition in seeking atonement, or does it aim for exoneration by rehabilitating its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere motivations for the Pacific War? Histories yet to be may hinge on that choice.
In 2014, Shinzo Abe rejected the idea of Japan emulating Germany’s actions, citing differing political contexts for postwar Europe versus Asia. He implied the quest for European unification somehow mandated the German approach. A divided and adversarial East Asia, it seems, made Japanese attempts at atonement futile or counterproductive. That argument may be made, but it skirts the core issue of Japan’s stance, more deeply dividing the region and entrenching adversarial national relationships. Abe and his advisors surely understand this. Japan’s ability to shape regional and world affairs, as it is fully capable of doing and aspires to do, hinges upon how it is perceived by the community of nations, especially those of East Asia. Abandoning the ideal of reconciliation over its wartime actions cannot be an option on the Japan table. What strategy for realizing their ambition is at work? It may not be contrition and atonement.
German artist Hans Haacke wrote, “Museums are managers of consciousness. They give us an interpretation of history, of how we view the world and locate ourselves in it. They are, if you want to put it in positive terms, great educational institutions. If you want to put it in negative terms, they are propaganda machines.” A museum and shrine in Tokyo may bring Abe’s strategic posture on reconciliation into sharper focus. Yushukan Museum stands on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine. Therein is locomotive C5631, identified as the first to trundle down the Thai-Burma rail line, where more than 100,000 forced laborers and prisoners of war died in its construction.
A memorial to Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal also stands on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine – a member of the International War Tribunal for the Far East panel of judges, he wrote of the Class A war criminals, “I would hold that every one of the accused must be found not guilty of every one of the charges in the indictment and should be acquitted on all those charges.” Pal considered the Pacific War provoked by the Americans and the war tribunals a sham. He stood utterly alone in this dissent among his 11 peer judges, but Japanese nationalists hold his views as authoritative and see Pal as a heroic figure. In 1968, Japan secretly enshrined 1,068 executed war criminals at Yasukuni as divine martyrs. Like those who did not survive the war, the executed soldiers had nobly sacrificed their lives in defense of the Japanese motherland against European Imperialism. The museum explains this defensive nature of the Pacific War. Abe and many other prominent Japanese statesmen regularly pay homage to those men.
April 20, 2015
I think the nastiest drink I’ve ever drunk in my life was some stuff called mezcal in a Mexican market town. It’s made, I find, from the same aloe-like plant that gives us tequila, of which mezcal is a kind of downmarket version, if you can imagine such a thing. When I bought my bottle at the grocer’s it had a small packet tied to the neck. Inside was what looked like a shrimp in talcum powder. “What’s that?” I asked my American friend. “That’s the worm,” he said, “the best part. You can try it without.” I tried it without. My head filled with a taste of garage or repair shop — hot rubber and plastic, burnt oil and a whiff of hydrochloric-acid vapour from the charging engine. When I sold Mack the rest of the bottle he emptied in the pounded-up worm, recapped, shook, and poured himself a tumbler of greyish liquid with little pink shreds in it. Give me Tizer any day.
I haven’t yet sampled Ruou Tiet De, a North Vietnamese mixture of rice alcohol and goat’s blood, or Central Asian koumis, fermented from mare’s and camel’s milk. Sake, a sweetish rice beer from Japan, goes well with Japanese food, so if you happen to like eating raw fish and seaweed this is obviously your tipple. You drink it warm. I may say that when I heated some on the stove recently to check that it was as horrible as I remembered, it took all the deposit off the lining of the saucepan.
You needn’t go as far afield as that to find a drink offensive to any person of culture and discrimination, especially if mixes are on the agenda. In South Wales you’re likely to find them throwing down Guinness with Lucozade and Ribena, or Mackeson and orange squash — not in the more refined areas, true. In Scotland they put fizzy lemonade in their whisky. Yes, in respectable places in the Highlands there are quart bottles of the stuff on the bar alongside the Malvern water and the siphon. The objection is not that it’s vulgar, but that, of course, it kills the Scotch and tastes frightful.
Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008.
February 16, 2015
Within a couple of months of the Invergordon mutiny, Japan intervened in Manchuria, deaf to all the entreaties of the League of Nations. While, today, we are used to the fact that a ringing denunciation from the United Nations is probably the single most ineffective tool in international relations, the revelation of its predecessor’s impotence came as a disagreeable surprise. So many statesmen had placed their faith in collective security that the naked aggression of the Japanese left them floundering for a response. In 1931 the British people had more pressing concerns than remote Asian wars, but the lesson was not lost on Germany’s rising political star Hitler, nor the posturing Mussolini in Italy whose Fascist Party dreamed of a new Roman Empire.
Max Arthur, The True Glory: The Royal Navy 1914-1939, 1996.
December 7, 2014
I watched Tora! Tora! Tora! recently. That movie is supposed to be the most historically accurate and truthful ever made about the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was an entertaining and informative movie packed with good performances and some of the most spectacular plane crashes and stunts on an airfield I’ve ever seen.
And at the same time, the sequence of events that led up to the Japanese attack were almost inconceivable. The level of incompetence, stupidity, bad luck, mistake-making, and almost deliberate failure to let the Japanese attack be so successful defies imagination. This was one of those legendary sequences where truth is stranger than fiction.
When the radar crew (which stayed longer than their night shift required) spotted the incoming Japanese planes, they were mistaken for B-17s being delivered to the airbase and the radar station was told “yeah? Well don’t worry about it.”
When intelligence services using cracked Japanese codes figured that an attack was imminent, they were unable to radio Hawaii about it because the atmospheric conditions were bad. So they sent a telegram, which was shelved for eventual delivery because it wasn’t marked “urgent.”
On and on it went, delays, mistakes, confusion, circumstances, almost a perfect set of events that if you read about them in a book you’d complain was too contrived and unbelievable. That would never happen! you’d cry and close the book in disgust.
But that’s what really happened.
Christopher Taylor, “TORA TORA 9-11”, Word Around the Net, 2014-09-10.
November 20, 2014
If you’re of a skeptical turn, you may have wondered just what your friend’s new tattoo really says in Chinese, or Russian, or whatever script their tattoo artist just inked into their skin. My suspicion is that at least a significant proportion of the new ‘tats are the equivalent of these Japanese discount store shirts with random English words:
Reddit user k-popstar recently moved to Japan to teach English. Over the last few months he has been wandering into various discount stores and taking photos of shirts with random English words on them. I have to admit, that potato one is pretty sweet!
That second one is almost poetic. If I knew what “thirstry” was.
H/T to Coyote Blog for the link.
October 14, 2014
A certain amount of this rings true:
Imagine you’re a college graduate stuck in a perpetually lousy economy. That’s a problem Japanese twenty-somethings have faced for more than 20 years. Two decades of stagnation after the collapse of the 1980s real-estate and stock bubbles — combined with labor laws making it tough to fire older workers — have relegated vast numbers of Japanese young adults to low-paying, temporary contract jobs. Many find themselves living with their parents well into their twenties and beyond, unmarried and childless.
Then again, they do have plenty of time to dress up like wand-wielding sailor girls and cybernetic alchemist soldiers from the colorful world of anime cartoons and manga comics. Indeed, Japan’s Lost Decades have coincided with a major spike in “people escaping to virtual worlds of games, animation, and costume play,” Masahiro Yamada, a sociology professor at Chuo University in Tokyo, recently told the Financial Times. “Here, even the young and poor can feel as though they are a hero.”
It’s hard to blame them. After all, it’s not that these young adults in Japan are resisting becoming productive members of the economy — it’s that there just aren’t enough opportunities for them. So an increasingly large number of them spend an increasingly large amount of time living in make-believe fantasy worlds, pretending they are someone else, somewhere else. This is a very bad thing for the Japanese economy.
And guess what: America has a growing number of make-believe “cosplay” heroes, too. Many of the 130,000 people who attend the San Diego Comic Con every year invest big bucks in elaborate outfits as a way of showing off their favorite Japanese characters, as well as those from American superhero movies, comics, and “genre” televisions shows such as Game of Thrones. And this trend is growing — the crowd at Comic Con was one-third this size in 2000. In 2013, the SyFy channel even created a reality show about the trend, Heroes of Cosplay.
H/T to Ghost of a Flea for the link.
October 11, 2014
Wayne Moore on the recently discovered remnants of a unique Japanese weapon that was used to bomb the North American mainland during World War 2:
Seven decades after thousands of “balloon bombs” were let loose by the Imperial Japanese Army to wreak havoc on their enemies across the Pacific, two forestry workers found one half-buried in the mountains of eastern British Columbia.
A navy bomb disposal team was called and arrived at the site Friday in the Monashee Mountains near Lumby, B.C.
“They confirmed without a doubt that it is a Japanese balloon bomb,” said RCMP Cpl. Henry Proce.
The forestry workers found the device Wednesday and reported it to RCMP on Thursday.
Proce, a bit of a history buff himself, accompanied the men to the remote area and agreed that the piece appeared to be a military relic.
The area was cordoned off and police contacted the bomb disposal unit at Maritime Forces Pacific.
It was a big bomb, Proce said. A half-metre of metal casing was under the dirt in addition to approximately 15 to 20 centimetres sticking out of the ground.
“It would have been far too dangerous to move it,” Proce said. “They put some C4 on either side of this thing and they blew it to smithereens.”