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  • The Imjin War: Japan’s Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China
  • Joy S. Kim (bio)
The Imjin War: Japan’s Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China, by Samuel Hawley. Seoul: Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, Publications and Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 2005. xvi, 664 pp., illus. $45.00 cloth.

Samuel Hawley’s book is a recent addition to the growing number of academic and general monographs on the Japanese invasion of Chosŏn Korea at the end of the sixteenth century (1592–1598), often referred to as either the Japanese invasion of Korea or the Imjin War (imjin waeran). It was one of the most significant regional military conflicts in premodern East Asia, with the newly unified Japanese military forces battling against the combined forces of Chosŏn Korea and Ming China. The war left indelible legacies in all three countries involved, especially Korea, yet despite its importance little scholarly attention has been given to it outside of Korea. It is therefore encouraging to see increasing interest in this topic, and indeed we have seen a number of new works, including Stephen Turnbull’s Samurai Invasion: Japan’s Korean War, 1592–1598 (Cassell, 2002) and Byonghyon Choi’s translation of Yu Sŏngnyong’s The Book of Corrections: Reflections on the National Crisis during the Japanese Invasion of Korea, 1592–1598 (Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 2002).

Hawley does not shortchange his readers when it comes to detail, but he does when it comes to adding meaningfully to our understanding of the war. More than 650 pages are divided into thirty chapters, which are further grouped into six parts. Each part is devoted to a different stage of [End Page 186] the war, beginning with the context of the war and ending with the aftermath( s) of the invasion (in the greater East Asian context). Although the author’s extensive knowledge of all things Korean is clearly evident, the monograph is difficult to get through and generally unwieldy. Instead of taking us beyond existing scholarship, Hawley spends a great deal of time recapping conventional knowledge and standard interpretations of the war that are readily available in Korea. Hawley’s primary innovation is to deliver the existing knowledge with a mix of anecdotal tales, yet the results of this approach lack the benefit of illuminating new perspectives or helping us deepen our understanding of the war’s events and meaning. Unless the reader has a particular interest in military history, it will be a daunting task to finish many parts of the book that are filled with novelistic detail of the battles and weaponry. He relies heavily on secondary sources and basic introductory materials, such as anthologies and sourcebooks in English, and somewhat outdated introductory textbooks. Given the wealth of primary sources available from Korea, Japan, and China, it is truly unfortunate that Hawley relies primarily on the secondary and introductory materials. Citations are rare and spotty in this book, a deficiency that is paired unavoidably with the tendency to overgeneralize and oversimplify a very complex war.

More than length or level of detail, the distinguishing aspect of Hawley’s work is his attempt to tell the tale from a “Korean perspective” (p. xii). Unlike existing works that mainly profess a Japanese perspective or focus on the military technology of the war, Hawley’s approach is both refreshing and admirable, especially given the state of Asian studies that often neglect the “Korean perspective.” The end product, however, fails to deliver and instead adds little to our understanding of either the war itself or the “Korean perspective.” Hawley repeatedly “defends” Korea from the standard narrative of Chinese superiority—he asserts that Korean historians were far superior to their Ming counterparts in their record keeping (p. 295)—and emphasizes the naval prowess of Admiral Yi Sunsin of the Chosŏn navy. Though Hawley’s love for Korea is obvious, his form of “defending” Korea often comes off as unnecessarily didactic and patronizing. His portrayal of post-Imjin Korea is one of sheer devastation from which it would “not fully recover for centuries to come” (pp...


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