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The Japan-Korea Frontier: Thieves, Taxpayers and Tributaries

The identity of the nation and people of Korea are often seen as homogenous and unchanging. In reality, throughout its history, Korea has gone through dramatic changes and taken an active part in the political stage. Diverse peoples have settled in, traded with, warred against and otherwise contributed to the cultural, linguistic and political composition of Korea. Here I will focus in particular on the Chosŏn dynasty view of Japanese foreigners and their descendants living in Korea.

Hyanghwain: People Who Move Towards Edification

Pirates from Japan and islands to the southwest of Korea were referred to as waegu, Japanese raiders. These pirates attacked even as far as inland southern Korea, with fleets of fifty to two hundred ships (Bohnet, 33). There was frequent violence between Chosŏn and these raiders. The Sillok, the Chosŏn court annals, describes the first king of Chosŏn shooting an arrow into a pirate that dared to moon him, in 1377 (Baker, 45). Then, in 1419, after decades of conflict, a Chosŏn naval fleet attacked, the island of Tsushima, beheading a hundred people, razing their homes, destroying their fleet and uprooting their rice plants (Baker, 48).

Despite this apparent enmity, large numbers of Japanese merchants and pirates were allowed to settle in Chosŏn Korea and, in some cases, gain wealth and social status. For centuries, foreigners settled in Korea had been referred to as hyanghwain which literally means "people who move towards edification", with the implication that these foreigners emigrated to Chosŏn in order to become civilized. In the beginning of the Chosŏn dynasty, for a "submitting-foreigner" to settle they simply took on a Korean name and were not drafted in military service. For higher status submitting-foreigners, they would also be given land, clothing, and wives; this warm reception was originally conceived as a way of increasing tax revenue for the Koryŏ (dynasty preceding Chosŏn) court (Bohnet, 26).

This policy was more than a one-time measure taken to settle foreigners, though; it resulted in a specific social status group. Since the people of Chosŏn were already categorized into distinct social groups, the hyanghwain became a hereditary group with its own taxation rules and ranking (Bohnet, 42). In 1368, 2,000 Japanese raiders were settled in Gyeongsang province, and even more came as refugees from Tsushima. In 1494, up to 3,000 Japanese merchants lived in three ports on the southern coast. These hyanghwain could occupy many different social ranks. There was work for skilled laborers such as shipbuilders from Ryūkyū and monks from Japan. In one case, a Japanese raider named P'i Sago gained in rank as a royal guard after being defeated by T'aejo in 1395. His son was then able to become an official without taking the standard civil examinations and even interpreted on diplomatic missions for the Chosŏn court (Bohnet,46). Of course, this was an exceptional case; for the most part, submitting-foreigners had limited social mobility. But this exception is notable because it shows that his origins as a Japanese raider, somewhere between criminal and enemy, did not preclude him and his son from achieving significant social rank.

During the Chosŏn dynasty, social hierarchy was very important, and the court took increasing care in administrative efforts to categorize people. As such, Japanese hyanghwain were supposed to be kept separate from Japanese living in Japan, but this was impractical because of the diverse circumstances of hyanghwain (Bohnet, 50). Some of these submitting-foreigners actually lived in Japan but were granted this status because of displaced Korean parents caught up by pirates. Not only that, but some hyanghwain of Japanese parentage living in Chosŏn Korea became interpreters for diplomatic meetings with Japanese and Ryūkyūan rulers.

These diplomatic meetings required a certain amount of delicacy and caution, due to the nature of political instability within Japan and the tributary status of Chosŏn and Japan to the Chinese Ming dynasty. Moreover, at the time Japan consisted of multiple political entities. The Ryūkyū kingdom, which became the present-day Okinawa prefecture of Japan, had a different relationship with the Chosŏn dynasty than Japan. The before-mentioned island of Tsushima, now part of the Nagasaki prefecture, was a province of Japan lying between Korea and the Japanese mainland. Still, Tsushima was largely independent (Baker, 44), subjected at different times to Mongolian Yuan (Lee, 61) and Korean (Lee, 70) invasions, and acted as a diplomatic bridge between Korea, Japan and China (Bohnet, 17).

Chosŏn Diplomacy with Japan and the Ryūkyūs

In the beginning of the Chosŏn dynasty, Ming China set up tributary sea lords in the Ryūkyū islands to act as trade intermediaries, which ultimately resulted in the formation of the Ryūkyū kingdom (Bohnet, 33). There was also a scholarly exchange between Ming China and the Ryūkyū kingdom, with Chinese scholars from Fujian settling in the city of Kume-mura, and a three-to-four year overseas program in Fujian for Ryūkyūan students. At the same time, Chosŏn, also a Ming tributary, met with Ryūkyūan diplomatic envoys from 1389--1637, effectively using them for the same purposes as the Ming and establishing a hierarchy and trade network of tributary states. The close contact with the Ming was a sign of merit for the Chosŏn court, and Ryūkyūan people were held in higher regard than those from the Japanese mainland (Baker, 47).

On the other hand, the governance of Japan went through a lot of upheaval during the Chosŏn dynasty, and the language used to refer to Japanese people was often derogatory. In the early Chosŏn dynasty, Japan was ruled by the Muromachi shōgun, a military dictatorship, but there was a high degree of local control by powerful landowners called daimyō. So, the Chosŏn court established diplomatic relations with both the shōgun and the daimyō, carefully recognizing their hierarchies and shifting power dynamics with diplomatic etiquette (Bohnet, 33). In fact, the Ryūkyū kingdom was overtaken by one of these Japanese states in the early seventeenth century unbeknownst to Ming or Chosŏn and continued acting as a tributary state to both, facilitating trade between Japan, China and Korea (Baker, 44). There is a situational irony here because the scholars of Chosŏn continued to write about the Ryūkyūans and Japanese in very different terms, unaware of the political reality.

Korean Images of Japan

The word waegu is written with the character "倭" or wae, which is a Chinese character used to denote the ancient Japanese Wa kingdom but with the derogatory meaning of "submissive" or "dwarf". Thus, the word can be read as "Japanese pirates" or "dwarf pirates" and similarly for waeno (dwarf minions) and waejeok (dwarf bandits). Such terms were used even in the Sillok, the official court annals (Baker, 49). This may be surprising for a court that highly values etiquette, welcoming foreigners, and even civilizing its subjects through moral behavior. However, it makes sense given a context of violent disputes and enmity. These terms were most frequently used during the sixteenth century, when the Disturbance of the Three Ports, frequent pirate raids and most importantly the invasions launched by Toyotomi Hideyoshi devasted Chosŏn. During the war that followed, the Imjin War (1592-1598), a third of the farmland was destroyed, villages and palaces burned, and nearly a fifth of Koreans died or were taken captive (Lee, 127).

All the same, negative attitudes towards Japan did not immediately disappear with the return of peaceful relations. The broad-scale political relations between Korea, Japan and China had an impact even on a personal level for Chosŏn scholars' views of Japanese people. Immediately following the Toyotomi invasions, Chosŏn writer Kang Hang, who had been held captive in Japan, wrote that it was "a repugnant place...not yet graced by King Yu's influence," the legendary King Yu here representing Chinese and Confucian values and mannerisms. A century later, Chosŏn diplomat Wŏn Chunggŏ wrote that the Japanese people were not as barbaric as many had come to believe, citing their literacy and social cohesion -- it was not a glowing testimony but enough to change the conversation (Baker, 49). After Japanese scholarship on Confucian philosophy reached Korea, the Chosŏn aristocracy had a chance to see a side of Japan that fit in with their idea of civilization and could thus be given greater consideration and engagement. A prominent example of this is the pair of essays written on Japan at the end of the eighteenth century by Chŏng Yagyong, also known as Tasan. In one, he drew a parallel between Japan and ancient Korea, arguing that literature, scholarship and moral pursuits drove the Chosŏn court's peaceful diplomacy and the beautiful prose written in Japan indicated the same change. In the other, he argued that it was not in Japan's best interest to attack Korea again (Baker, 53). These arguments are interesting because they suggest 1) that the sources of concern for Koreans were fear of war and cultural differences, 2) a shift in opinion, or at least an atmosphere that could allow such a shift, and 3) for Tasan, this was a topic of enough significance to merit publishing a persuasive essay.


The relationship between the peoples of Japan and Korea during the Chosŏn dynasty was characterized by war, overseas trade, and the spread of culture and idea through diplomacy. There were also intermediate regions, such as areas in the southern provinces of Korea and the islands north of Japan, where people of different parentage and speaking different languages shared common space and culture. Japanese people occupied many roles within the Chosŏn dynasty, which influenced national identity as understood by Chosŏn writers.




Ariel Fitzmorris (Applied Mathematics, UCLA '21), “The Japan-Korea Frontier: Thieves, Taxpayers and Tributaries,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed October 1, 2023,