- The Profane Wars of the Heavenly Warriors Reassessing Medieval Warfare
Recent historical research on premodern East Asia has shown a notable upsurge of interest in the history of warfare and violence, not only in Anglophone publications,1 but also in Japan.2 The focus, however, is not on political history or military history as such, but rather on historical anthropology and social history: How can violence be explained, how does it emerge, how is it related to social change, and how can it be contained? That Japan, with its roughly seven centuries of military rule, can serve as a formidable case study, is beyond question. Let us catch a glimpse of how new kinds of approaches based on new kinds of sources can contribute to this discussion.
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As an exemplar of the kinds of sources historians are making increasing use of we may start with a new edition of a work that has been known for some time: Chōsen nichinichiki by the priest Keinen (1536-1611?). When [End Page 219] sixty-two-year-old Keinen was summoned by his lord, Ōta Kazuyoshi to accompany him to Korea, this head priest of the Honganji branch temple An'yōji in what is today the city of Usuki , Ōita prefecture, knew instantly it meant trouble:
I had not imagined in my dreams that my old bones should go to war. Moreover, traveling without experience was very troublesome. … In particular, as this Korea was said to be a cold country and the sea route was 10,000 ri long with the danger of shipwreck, it was uncertain whether I would come home again. Because it was, given my old age, an unheard-of event, I made up my mind to write for the first time a diary and to compose heavy-handed comical poems that could become the laughing stock of posterity. (p. 3)
Keinen left for Korea on 7 August 1597 (Keichō 2.6.24) and returned to Japan on 9 March 1598. It goes without saying that his journey took place in the context of the Keichō campaign—Toyotomi Hideyoshi's second invasion of Korea. Serving his lord as a physician, the priest Keinen became an eyewitness to Japanese-style warfare on the Asian continent. It was a rare event, because, between the eighth and sixteenth centuries, Japanese warriors had had very little occasion to fight abroad. And Keinen was a rare witness, because, as a member of the Buddhist clergy, he was not particularly interested in tactical or strategic actions, but dwelt more on the collaterals of warfare. What he observed immediately after putting his feet on Korean soil proved shocking and devastating:
On 15 September (Keichō 2.8.4), I and the others jump quickly off the ship to loot, kill, and rob—a rather disgusting sight…. On the sixteenth (8.5), we burn houses. Seeing the smoke rising, I cannot help thinking of my home…. On the seventeenth (8.6), we burn everything, beginning with the strongholds, on plains and hills, slay people, or put their hands and necks in pillories [to abduct them]. This is my first time to see the miserable sight of parents lamenting over their children and children searching for their parents…. On the nineteenth (8.8), we catch Korean children, while we slay their parents, and they will never meet again…. On the twenty-seventh (8.16), we kill all men and women in the castle without taking prisoners. A small number of people are, however, caught...