Room 1

Origins

This room examines the circumstances under which the potters left Korea. What was their social position in Korea? Did they come willingly? Were there Korean potters in Japan prior to the war?

Hideyoshi's order

“If, among the Korean captives, there are any craftspeople, embroiderers, or women who are skilled with their hands, they must be offered to me…”

The Imjin War brought widespread demographic upheaval and displaced people across the East Asian region, including large numbers of captured Korean soldiers and civilians. 1 The majority of these captives were traded or sold as slaves and then dispersed throughout Japan. 2 A smaller number who had specialized knowledge, like scholar-official Kang Hang, were required to work for the daimyos who had brought them to Japan. 3

Bronze statue of the Korean scholar Kang Hang, standing with one hand raised against a blue sky.
Fig.1. Modern statue of captured Korean scholar-official, Kang Hang at Naesan Memorial Hall.© Lee Tonsam.

In the eleventh month of 1593, the ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, sent a communication to his commanders in Korea, ordering them to send him talented people from among the Korean captives.

If, among the Korean captives, there are any craftspeople, embroiderers, or women who are skilled with their hands, they must be offered to me…”

Fig.2 shows one of these now famous orders. It was issued to Sagara Yoshifusa. Identical orders were issued to Shimazu Yoshihiro, Nabeshima Naoshige, and Tachibana Mushishige. 4 It is traditionally understood that the term “craftspeople” would have included potters. 5

A piece of paper, yellowed with age, on which is written eight vertical lines of Japanese calligraphy. Stamped with a red seal belonging to Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Fig.2. Signed order from Toyotomi Hideyoshi, sent to Sagara Yorifusa in Korea, 29th day of the 11th lunar month of 1593. Keio University Library.

Many of the Japanese generals, including Shimazu Yoshihiro and Nabeshima Naoshige, did indeed bring potters back to their domains in Japan. However, there are no records of any potters being presented to Hideyoshi from among the captives.

The Shimazu records do include a letter from Hideyoshi, dated the 28th day of the Twelfth Month of 1593, one month after Hideyoshi’s order, thanking Shimazu Toyohisa for presenting him with a seamstress or embroiderer. 5

Two pages of a black and white woodblock printed book, yellowed with age. Each page contains a thin black frame, within which there is a drawing of a Korean robe in black ink, together with black vertical lines of classical Chinese descriptive text.
Fig. 3. Illustrated Book of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Treasures (Hōkō ihō zuryaku) Vol. 2, 1832. National Diet Library of Japan.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s prior interest in Korean embroidery may have been sparked by robes given to him as diplomatic gifts by the Chosŏn court prior to the war. Illustrated Book of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Treasures (1832), for example, records drawings of Korean costumes, which had been presented to Hideyoshi in 1590 (Fig.3).

Debated origins

The social and geographical origins of the Korean potters are uncertain and there are scant resources which might shed light on this question.

It generally is assumed that most of the potters were from southeastern Korea, which the Japanese military forces controlled for nearly seven years during the campaign. However, little is known of the potters who worked at the regional kilns in Chosŏn dynasty Korea. The social status of potters was quite low and they are almost invisible in Chosŏn history.

Fig.5 is a rare depiction of a Chosŏn potter at work, making storage jars.

Fig. 5. Kim Chunkŭn (act. 1880s–1900s), Tok (Storage Jar) Maker, Ca. 1886.
Fig. 5. Kim Chunkŭn (act. 1880s–1900s), Tok (Storage Jar) Maker, Ca. 1886. National Anthropology Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Moreover, the phenomenon of captured Koreans residing in Japan may not have been new.  The results of excavations in the area surrounding Kishidake Castle, south of present-day Karatsu City, suggest that prior to the Imjin War, potters of Korean origin were already active. It is possible that they had been abducted by Sino-Japanese pirates and brought to make pottery.

Hata Chikashi, the lord of Kishidake Castle near present Karatsu city, comissioned pottery before the war, and may have employed Korean potters to do so. 7

Fig. 6. Jar, Karatsu stoneware, 1590–1630
Fig. 6. Jar, Karatsu stoneware, 1590–1630Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

According to Documents of the Ariura Family in Hizen Province (1589), Hata had taken lessons from Hideyoshi’s tea master, Sen no Rikyū after 1588, and became increasingly interested in producing ceramics – especially tea wares. Works produced by the earliest Karatsu kilns (Fig.6) near his castle, Kishidake, reflect the influence of Korean ceramic technology. For instance, archaeological investigations prove that there is an obvious link between storage jars produced in the Saraya Kami kilns, which belonged to the Kishidake Castle group, and the Korean onggi  jars (Fig. 7) made in the kilns of Sunji-ri, Ch’ ŏngdo, North Kyŏngsang Province. 8

 

Fig. 7. Sherds excavated from kilns of Sunji-ri in Ch’ ŏngdo
Korean, 15th Century
Fig. 7. Sherds excavated from kilns of Sunji-ri in Ch’ ŏngdo Korean, 15th CenturyGyeongju National Museum

However, archaeological investigation has yet to find Karatsu ware at the consumer and residential sites excavated within the remains of the Hata family’s Kishidake Castle. 9 Based on this, some scholars date the beginnings of Karatsu ware to the period after the Imjin War. In either case, Karatsu ware began some time in either the 1580s or the 1590s, very close to the period of the Imjin War, and we can safely say that 16th century Korean potters were undoubtedly involved in its foundation.

Spies and collaborators?

Some records suggests that potters cooperated with Japanese forces. Is this accurate?

As noted above, few records exist about potters in Korea prior to the nineteenth century. In fact, it was during the Imjin War that a potter’s name appeared in the official Chosŏn government historical record, The Veritable Records of the Chosŏn Dynasty, for the first time (Fig.8):

The potter of Ch’ungju, Han Mak-tong became a spy for the Japanese forces and reported on the activities of the Chinese military. Therefore, he should be punished as a matter of urgency.” 10

Fig. 8. Sŏnjo sillok 39 (1593/06/12)
Fig. 8. Sŏnjo sillok 39 (1593/06/12)National Institute of Korean History

A similar narrative is included in a nineteenth century document co-authored by an official from Satsuma domain in Kyushu and a descendant of Korean potters who had been taken to Satsuma during the war. Record of the Origins of Korean Potters in Tateno and Naeshirogawa (1823) suggests the prior contact between Satsuma and the Korean peninsula meant relations were good, despite the invasion, and that the Koreans recognized Satsuma’s crest (Fig.9):

 

Although [the Shimazu armies] were part of the attacking forces, previously there had been ships from Chosŏn arriving at the ports and estuaries of Satsuma, at Maenohama in Kagoshima, and at the Toso harbour, so relations were good and they issued orders with respect…

Fig. 9. The Shimazu Family Crest: Cross Within a Circle (Maru ni jūmonji).
Fig. 9. The Shimazu Family Crest: Cross Within a Circle (Maru ni jūmonji).Wikimedia Commons

Therefore, when it later became known that men from Satsuma had come over to Chosŏn, people there already knew the [Shimazu family] crest with a cross on it…When the [Shimazu lords] were present in their fortress, the people of Chosŏn would come secretly to them to pass on intelligence, pottery masters would offer them ceramics…The lords had but to issue an order requesting help and it would be offered.” 11

Since this account was written in Satsuma in cooperation with the domain authorities, the picture it paints might be intended to cultivate an image of good relations between the potters and the domain. However, the story does match up with the account of collaboration in the Korean document (the Veritable Records, above) suggesting there is some truth to the claim that potters collaborated with the Japanese troops. Koreans who secretly aided the Japanese were subject to punishment after the war and some of the spies fled to Japan to prevent reprisals. 12 Potters may have been among their number.

Fleeing destruction

Ultimately, the agency of the potters must be understood in the context of the devastation caused by the war.

Whether they were captured or whether they came willingly, the potters’ actions were circumscribed by conditions during the war and in the postwar period. Famines and epidemics ravaged the peninsula, and the conflict caused huge environmental and economic devastation. Much of Korea’s arable land was ruined and forests were cut down. 13

Fig.10. Battle at P'yŏngyang Fortress between the Japanese and the Chosŏn-Ming Alliance in 1593. Korea, Late Chosŏn Period
Ten-panel screen. National Museum of Korea.
Fig.10. Battle at P'yŏngyang Fortress between the Japanese and the Chosŏn-Ming Alliance in 1593. Korea, Late Chosŏn Period Ten-panel screen. National Museum of Korea.

Fig.11 contains a rare depiction of the suffering caused by the war. The image in question is an early eighteenth century Kamno or nectar ritual painting. The bottom third of this particular Kamno painting, which shows soldiers with guns is believed to depict an Imjin War battle, with fleeing women and children hiding in the hills. 14

Fig.11 Nectar Ritual Painting (Kamnowangdo), 1701, Color on silk
Fig.11 Nectar Ritual Painting (Kamnowangdo), 1701, Color on silkNamjang Temple Cultral Heritage Administration

One record written by a group of Korean potters who settled in Japan, suggests that they regretted being there and wanted to go back to Korea. Record of the Origins of Naeshirogawa includes the following account:

They made plans to return to their own country from Kushikino, and put boats out to sea night after night. But it was too difficult to go home. 15

Fig.12. Map of western Japan and the Korean peninsula, showing location of Kushikino.
Fig.12. Map of western Japan and the Korean peninsula, showing location of Kushikino.© Baihui Duan.

Rough seas and a journey of several hundred kilometers would have proved impossible, and the potters had no choice but to make a new life for themselves and their families in Japan.

In the next room, we will explore the every day lives of the potters once they were settled in Japan.

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