Field Report: The Ruins of Suncheon Japanese Castle, South Korea (26 January 2020) – Part 1

Until recently, my interest in Japanese castles was geographically confined to Japan itself. (Hardly a surprise, since that’s where nearly all of them are.) That changed this past winter when I visited the ruins of a 16th-century fortress designed by the Japanese, built using Japanese techniques, and bearing all the hallmarks of a typical Japanese stronghold – except that it was located on the southern coast of Korea.

Welcome to Suncheon Castle (순천왜성).

Note: This Field Report is divided into three parts. Part 1 (below) and Part 2 describe my actual visit to Suncheon Castle. Part 3 contains background information and transportation advice.

My journey to this historic monument was just one slice out of a holiday in Honam (호남): the region that makes up the southwestern corner of the Korean peninsula. The focus of that journey was the city of Suncheon (순천), in the province of Jeollanam-do.

When I started planning this holiday, I was only faintly cognisant of the thirty-or-so castles built along the southern fringes of Korea in the 1590s by the invasion army of Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. (Note: To keep this post from becoming even longer and more unwieldy than it already is, I’ve banished most of the historical details and other background information to a separate entry.) The moment I learned that there was a half-forgotten Japanese castle in the very corner of Korea I was aiming for, my long-standing obsession kicked into overdrive and the sightseeing list I’d prepared quickly gained a new entry.

So it was that on a chilly Sunday morning in late January, I set off from downtown Suncheon and made my way towards the city’s eastern coast, near where its borders meet with those of Gwangyang to the north and Yeosu to the south. (Please refer to Part 3 for specific details about transportation there and back.)

After getting off near the castle, I paused for a moment to look at the massive industrial facility right across the street.

Nothing special about it, really … except that in 1597, when Suncheon Castle was erected, everything here – the factory, the road, the strip of land behind me – was part of the sea.

Although the castle and its immediate surroundings have been given some measure of protection, much of the landscape in this region has been irretrievably altered by Korea’s insatiable hunger for real estate. Seen from the air, the castle site – which was once right next to the sea – is very clearly hemmed in on all sides by reclaimed land.

Now use your imagination to brush away all the man-made accretions. There’s the huge plot towards the east and south, but don’t forget that low-lying patch of farmland to the north, next to the bridge. (As a guide, the village just above it was once right on the shore.) You’ll begin to discern the ghostly outlines of an ancient peninsula, jutting out into Gwangyang Bay with the tree-covered hill at its head.

To aid our imaginary spadework, let’s examine a small extract from an old U.S. Army map of the area. Printed in 1945, this topographic chart is essentially a copy of one published in 1918, when Korea was under Japanese rule. (This explains the alternate Japanese-sounding place names printed under the transliterated Korean labels). Note how the site of Suncheon Castle – marked here as “Waegyo” – once extended out into the muddy shallows along the edge of the bay.

Back to the present day.

After leaving the bus stop, I turned west and crossed a bridge spanning what one might have easily mistaken for a river. In fact, the far bank is the former shoreline, and the “river” is a sad remnant of the sea that’s now been pushed far away.

Still, this hideous concrete-and-steel imposition on the landscape did offer me one advantage.

A view that, long ago, would only have been possible had I been aboard a ship.

Long ago, the calm waters in the picture above were part of Gwangyang Bay, uninterrupted by the landfill that now separates this channel from the sea. Looking in the same direction more than four centuries ago, I would have seen fewer trees and more signs of human activity: walls bristling with armed sentries; watchtowers with coloured banners flapping in the breeze; an incessant stream of ships disgorging their load of soldiers and supplies upon the beach.

And gazing further on, towards the hill in the distance, I might have beheld a soaring white tower crowned with a tile roof.

As we’ll see in Part 2, most of Suncheon Castle’s surviving walls are on top of that hill, including the foundation of its main tower. These formidable structures would have been an awe-inspiring sight from this same vantage point – that is, from the sea – during the castle’s heyday, with no forest to conceal them.

They certainly left an impression on the Joseon government official Kang Hang (1567-1618), who was seized by Hideyoshi’s forces in the autumn of 1597 and shipped off into exile. Kang’s first-hand account of his time in captivity, the Kanyangnok – published in English as A Korean War Captive in Japan, 1597-1600 (trans. JaHyun Kim Haboush and Kenneth R. Robinson; New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) – briefly mentions the new stronghold being erected at Suncheon, where his vessel made a stopover en route to Japan.

Soon, many Japanese ships headed south … and arrived at Waegyo, in Sunch’ŏn [County]. The enemy was already in the process of constructing a fort, building high walls along the coast. Many ships were allowed to dock, but about a hundred ships with prisoners of war on board were made to strike anchor offshore.

This description dovetails with what we know about Suncheon Castle from other sources. For one, it was constructed at remarkable speed from around September to November 1597, which coincides with the time of Kang Hang’s capture and journey into exile. He wrote that “many ships” were able to dock there, and indeed the castle is believed to have been equipped with two harbours.

Note the name used in Kang’s memoirs: “Waegyo”. These days, Koreans refer to the castle as 순천왜성 (Suncheon Waeseong). “Suncheon Japanese Fortress”, which you’ll find in some sources and on local signage, is a direct translation of this – though my preferred English rendering is Suncheon Castle. The modern Japanese name for the site is 順天倭城 (Junten-wajō), which means the same thing.

Of course, in 1597 people would have called it something else entirely. I haven’t the slightest idea what name its Japanese builders and residents once used, but the Joseon subjects outside the walls knew it as 왜교성 (Waegyoseong), which might be translated as “Japanese Bridge Fortress”. As we’ve seen above, Kang simply used the shortened form 왜교 (Waegyo), omitting the -seong suffix which denotes a fortified stronghold.

So much for names. Let’s return to the tale of my visit.

I continued east along the road, skirting what was once the northern shore of the long-vanished peninsula.

I soon encountered a sign pointing towards the castle grounds. The following picture was taken looking east (back towards the bridge where I’d come from earlier), so you’ll only see the unmarked rear side of the sign on the initial approach.

Facing the parking lot is a copy of a Ming-era Chinese painting depicting the Siege of Suncheon Castle (왜교성 전투, Waegyoseong Jeontu / 順天城の戦い, Junten-jō no tatakai).

One of the last battles of Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea, this siege was a failed attempt by allied Joseon and Ming Chinese forces to take control of Suncheon Castle. The sources I’ve consulted give varying dates, but they’re consistent in placing the operation within mid-October to early November 1598, just weeks before the final Japanese withdrawal in late December.

We’ll use a close-up of that painting (with labels added) as a general guide for what we’re about to see. (Click on the image below to enlarge.) Note that these labels are derived from the names on the signboards sprinkled around the castle, which don’t necessarily match what these landmarks were originally called or where they’re located. For example, the so-called “First Gate” – or “Gate Site 1” to use its signboard designation – couldn’t have been the actual “first gate”, given that there were other such openings in the outer barriers of the castle.

The paved footpath that loops around this part of the grounds was one of several improvements made to the site in recent years. The unfinished concrete pedestals visible in the following picture – newly poured, judging from their appearance – suggest that incremental development work is still underway. (I suspect that what we’re seeing here is the start of a new gateway, with perhaps a large sign overhead.)

There are no fences, turnstiles, or ticket booths; just walk in and enjoy the place at your leisure. Mind you, the former outer enclosure (west of the central moat) is now mostly farmland, so be cautious about straying onto private property if you’d like to examine what remains of Suncheon Castle’s outermost defences. For this visit, I stayed within the inner enclosure (east of the central moat) almost the entire time, since this is where nearly all of the extant remains are located.

The first information boards I encountered at the site gave a brief description of the ruins and their historical significance. Choose your preferred language – Japanese, Korean, or English – and read away. 🙂

The path took me along the edge of a shallow pond, which gradually narrowed into a ditch. This is what remains of Suncheon Castle’s inner moat, dug straight across the neck of the peninsula to separate the stronghold’s outer defences from its inner enclosures.

There’s some disagreement over whether it was a dry trench or a seawater-filled channel, or perhaps (as suggested above) dry but designed to be filled with water in the event of a siege. I tentatively favour the “wet” theory, picturing in my mind’s eye a direct connection between the moat and a small fortified harbour where the parking lot now sits.

In the following aerial view, you can observe the faint outline of the moat’s unrestored southern section snaking off towards the other side of the peninsula. Thanks to the dip in the land – which doubtless influenced what sort of vegetation took root within – the rest of the moat is vaguely discernible as a grassy strip that continues from where the restored northern section ends.

And somewhere in the middle, you’ll see two isolated stone platforms standing watch over the crossing point between Suncheon Castle’s outer, western enclosure (on the left) and its eastern, inner enclosure (on the right).

These are the heavily restored remains of a fortified gateway. At no point was it ever tested in battle since the outer defences (west of here) successfully held off the attacking Ming-Joseon army during the 1598 siege. Had they managed to penetrate that line and march right up to the inner moat, they would have found their way to the next enclosure blocked by a formidable set of wooden doors, perhaps surmounted by a tile-roofed gatehouse or at least a shielded platform. This superstructure would have spanned the gap between the stone bases, giving the Japanese arquebusiers an elevated vantage point from which to fire lethal volleys into the massed invaders below.

Given enough time and resources, the builders of Suncheon Castle might have erected something like the Ōtemon of Kōchi Castle, on the Japanese island of Shikoku. This is a good example of a yaguramon (櫓門): a heavily fortified entrance topped with a gatehouse.

Alternatively, the end product might have resembled the simple gate depicted below. This scene, from the pages of the Ehon Taikōki (an Edo Period illustrated biography of Hideyoshi), features Ulsan Castle: the fortress built to secure the eastern end of the Japanese defensive perimeter around Busan (with Suncheon Castle holding the extreme western end). Note the rough timbers and roofless superstructure, which reflect the straitened conditions prevailing in the final months before the withdrawal of Hideyoshi’s troops from the Korean peninsula.

Interestingly, the Ming Chinese painting we saw earlier shows no superstructure (apart from a plain lintel) above the opening.

On balance, I’m inclined to believe that it was more like the rough, hastily built gate at Ulsan rather than the fully equipped entrances of large castles on the Japanese mainland.

To be continued in Part 2.

2 responses to “Field Report: The Ruins of Suncheon Japanese Castle, South Korea (26 January 2020) – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Field Report: The Ruins of Suncheon Japanese Castle, South Korea (26 January 2020) – Part 2 | Within striking distance·

  2. Pingback: Field Report: The Ruins of Suncheon Japanese Castle, South Korea (26 January 2020) – Part 3 | Within striking distance·

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