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Reviewed by:
  • Frontier Contact between Chosŏn Korea and Tokugawa Japan
  • Nam-lin Hur (bio)
Frontier Contact between Chosŏn Korea and Tokugawa Japan, by James B. Lewis. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. 336 pp. Illustrations, maps, tables. $150 cloth.

James B. Lewis offers a detailed study of the Japan House (Waegwan), which served as the contact point of trade and diplomacy between Koreans and Tsushima islanders in the second half of the Chosŏn dynasty. His book represents the first major Western-language work devoted to this subject, which holds [End Page 86] the key to understanding the intricate contours of the Korea-Tsushima relations that evolved in the early modern period. The Korean embassy, commonly known as Chosŏn t'ongsinsa, or Chōsen tsūshinshi, has been a focus of research in pre-modern Korean-Japanese relations. However, in terms of frequency and practical impact, what happened at the Japan House was far more important than what happened at the embassy.

In discussing the Japan House, which he defines as a "frontier" that carries "a zonal connotation" rather than as a "boundary" or "border" that carries "a linear connotation" (p. 7), Lewis pays particular attention to the geography of ethnic mentalities through which the two peoples dealt with the issues of trade, authority, morality, worldview, and geopolitical order. For Lewis, the Japan House in Pusan, where Tsushima islanders were allowed to live, was "a site of identity maintenance and power negotiation" (p. 15). Based on a wide range of little-examined Korean and Japanese sources, Lewis does an excellent job of sorting out the multiple layers of ethnic identity and prestige built into the pragmatism of everyday life.

A distinct strength of Lewis's book lies in its detailed and thorough statistical analysis. Indeed, his empirical approach is so comprehensive and so meticulous that readers run the risk of becoming lost in a sea of numerical tables, charts, and (often multidimensional) graphs. Some of these illustrations are confusing; nevertheless, they set a new standard for studies of Korean history that, to this point, have championed descriptive records and discursive treatises.

In chapter 2, based on a wide range of statistical data weighed against the relevant socioeconomic and political contexts, Lewis establishes the close economic interdependence between Kyŏngsang Province (particularly Tong-nae County) and Tsushima; in chapter 3, he attempts to link the Japan House factor to Tongnae's relative population concentration; in chapter 4, he calculates Korea's costs of trade and diplomacy with Tsushima, which Korean officials regarded as being a waste of precious resources; and in chapter 5, he measures the political impact of the Japan House on Korean officials in charge of Tongnae County by analyzing instances of their appointments, transfers, and dismissals.

In the remaining two chapters, Lewis looks at the ways in which Korean officials tried to impose their authority upon Tsushima traders and diplomats. Indeed, the ethnic boundary that was formed around the walls of the Japanese House proved to be a site where "one set of moral standards and measures of excellence leaves off and another takes up" (p. 191). In the game of ethnocentric contestation, Lewis illustrates that the female body, which, on several occasions, was caught in the dispute over "illicit sexual relations" (p. 192), was heavily exploited as a testing ground for Koreans' alleged moral superiority, which highlighted "the ka-i (civilized-versus-barbarian) Korean worldview and its condescension towards the Japanese" (p. 208). [End Page 87]

According to Lewis: "Late Chosŏn-period Koreans saw the Japan House as a severe economic drain with an inexhaustible appetite; a difficult administrative challenge that demanded, even occasionally consumed, good men; and a pernicious establishment that defied Korean authority, bred crime, and threatened to subvert the integrity of the society and polity" (p. 216). One might wonder, then, why Korea maintained, or allowed, the connection with Tsushima. Lewis offers two reasons: (1) it was "less costly than military confrontation" and (2) Korea wanted to exercise "a moral duty to be generous towards its inferiors" (p. 216).

But there remains a more fundamental question about the whole scheme of licensed trade—a question that remains little answered in...


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