Field Report: The Ruins of Suncheon Japanese Castle, South Korea (26 January 2020) – Part 3

Here’s the closing entry in my set of Field Reports about the ruins of a 16th-century Japanese castle in Suncheon, South Korea. The preceding posts (Part 1 and Part 2) are concerned mainly with my visit to the site itself, whilst the present article supplies background information. I’ve also set out some practical advice on how to access the site from central Suncheon.

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


Historical background

Suncheon Castle is one of the most striking physical remnants of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s 1592-1598 invasion of Joseon. The whole operation consisted of two waves, one in 1592 and the other in 1597, with Japanese forces maintaining a toehold in the southeastern corner of the Korean peninsula.

A full discussion of motives, means, and antecedents is beyond the scope of this post. In admittedly (over-)simplified terms, the short-lived Korean adventure of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣 秀吉; 1537-1598) was but a stepping stone to an even grander dream of his: the conquest of Imperial China itself. For this to succeed, the Kingdom of Joseon would have to be persuaded into joining the Japanese endeavour as an ally; failing that, it must be subjugated and its territory opened up as a road for Hideyoshi’s forces to march through en route to Chinese territory.

After his overtures were rebuffed by the Joseon royal court, Hideyoshi launched the first invasion wave in May 1592 by laying siege to the port city of Busan. From here, the invading forces swept northwards at terrifying speed, capturing Hanseong (modern-day Seoul) within weeks and advancing as far as Joseon’s northeastern boundaries. The Koreans and their Chinese allies eventually pushed back the Japanese advance, though they were unable to completely dislodge the invaders and both sides settled into an uneasy truce that lasted until 1597. During that time, Hideyoshi’s forces maintained a tight grip on their much-reduced but strategic remnant of occupied territory through a defensive line of Japanese-style castles.

Hostilities resumed in 1597 with a second invasion from Japan, although this was checked more rapidly than the first and little lasting progress was made beyond the “castle line” that guarded the occupied coastal regions. There was, however, an attempt to extend that line slightly to the northeast and considerably further to the west by establishing new fortified positions. Suncheon Castle marked the western tip of the Japanese toehold, with Ulsan Castle holding the opposite end.

The closing months of the war saw key Japanese positions (including Suncheon) besieged by allied Korean-Chinese forces. Although the Japanese mounted a successful defence of their castles, there was clearly little prospect of furthering their territorial acquisitions, and Hideyoshi’s death in 1598 removed the prime driving force behind the expedition against Joseon. The ruling council that succeeded Hideyoshi decided to withdraw all remaining forces from the Korean peninsula, and by the end of the year the last soldiers had sailed back across the waters to Japan – leaving a string of abandoned fortresses along the southern coast as a tangible reminder of their presence there.

Japanese castles in Korea

In a 1593 letter addressed to his wife – translated by Adriana Boscaro and published in the collection 101 Letters of Hideyoshi (Tōkyō: Sophia University, 1975) – Toyotomi Hideyoshi expresses his regret at not being able to visit her immediately, tied down as he was with supervising the Korean invasion.

I have given orders to my men to do some construction work and other things in Korea, and it will take a little more time to complete this work. So [I shall not see you for a while, but] I shall certainly see you around the 7th or the 8th month.

A couple of months later, he writes again:

On the one hand someone has reported to me that the construction work in Korea will be finished soon, and on the other I have already given strict orders for the provisions. I think I shall have some free time during this month…

Whilst the nature of this “construction work” is not clearly spelled out, one might reasonably assume that Hideyoshi was referring to the defensive curtain of Japanese-style castles that was being raised to protect his toehold around the vital port city of Busan.

As we’ve seen in Part 1 and Part 2, wajō (倭城 as they’re known in Japanese) or waeseong (왜성 to go by the Korean term) – like the one in Suncheon – really do look like strangers in a strange land. They share few characteristics in common with Korean fortresses of the Joseon period, whether in terms of architecture or construction methods or even the choice of site. Although some were built on or near existing Korean strongholds, other waeseong were erected from scratch, at locations that had not been previously used for defence.

The key thing to bear in mind is that even though these castles were built in Korea, they are almost purely Japanese “imports”. Perhaps not in terms of materials (which would have been sourced locally) but certainly as to their design and execution. One author – Stephen Turnbull, in his Strongholds of the Samurai: Japanese Castles 250-1877 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2009) – writes:

[T]he wajō represented the transfer of Japanese castle styles into the continental environment. By the time of the Korean invasion the basic features of Japanese castle design had become well established, and had been used so often in Japan itself that when a new site for a castle was chosen the requirements for its construction could be assessed very rapidly.

He says further:

In terms of concept and overall design, if not in actual structure, the wajō were therefore ‘prefabricated buildings’, and it was only through the use of the local lie of the land that any was a ‘one off’.

But why not simply reuse captured fortresses, or adopt local designs and methods?

To put it simply: Korean-style fortifications were not well suited to the needs of the invasion force. I won’t go into the matter here – this post is long enough as it is! – but Turnbull’s Strongholds of the Samurai discusses some of the key issues in pages 190-192 (a few points from another book by the same author are mentioned in this Wikipedia article). Chapter 6 of Samuel Hawley’s excellent The Imjin War (Conquistador Press, 2014) also offers some insights.

By the end of the second invasion, there was a long line of Japanese-style strongholds extending from Suncheon in the west to Seosaengpo and Ulsan in the east. Some elements had to be simplified or discarded under the circumstances, but these were truly Japanese castles in almost every sense except their geographic location. Old works of art depicting scenes from the 1592-1598 invasion show such distinctive elements as nested enclosures and sloping stone walls topped with wooden turrets, such as in this (highly stylised) representation of Ulsan Castle.

Many of the fortresses in the Japanese “castle line” were designed for coastal defence, and Suncheon was typical of these. The innermost citadel was sited on a prominent position such as a hill by the sea or near a wide river, overlooking one or more easily defended harbours for troop transports and supply ships. This was surrounded on the landward side by more enclosures, defended by earthworks and moats and gatehouses perched atop stone-clad bases. Within these barriers stood warehouses, workshops, barracks, and houses for senior officers.

Two letters written by Father Gregorio de Céspedes (1551-1611) offer a first-hand glimpse at what life was like in a large waeseong. A Spanish priest based in Japan – which in those days was still open to foreign missionaries – Fr. Gregorio had been dispatched to Korea in response to a request from several Christian daimyō serving in the expeditionary force. Amongst these daimyō was Konishi Yukinaga (小西 行長; 1558?-1600), who had been baptised under the name “Agostinho” (in Portuguese) or “Augustinus” (in Latin); he is referred to in the translations below as “Augustin”. Yukinaga would later serve as the commander of Suncheon Castle – which is the focus of these posts – but at the time of Fr. Gregorio’s mission he was based at Ungcheon Castle, closer to the Japanese headquarters at Busan.

The translations below were originally published in Volume XXVII of the Transactions of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (1937). Written sometime in 1594 or 1595, the original letters are much longer than the passages presented here; I have mostly restricted myself to a few lines that touch directly on life in the waeseong. For the sake of brevity, I’ve chosen not to use ellipses to denote gaps between paragraphs (which are frequent and substantial given my very limited selections from the whole). Italicised words in square brackets are my own additions.

From Fr. Gregorio’s first letter:

[O]n the following day we rowed up to the foot of Komangai fortress [i.e., Ungcheon Castle, which like many of its sister fortresses was located close to the sea].

The fortress of Komangai is impregnable, and great defensive works have been erected there which are admirable, considering the short time in which they were completed. They have built high walls, watch towers, and strong bastions, at the foot of which all the nobles and soldiers of Augustin [Yukinaga], his subjects and allies, are encamped. For all there are well built and spacious. Houses with stone walls are built for the chiefs.

From his second letter:

[Yukinaga] told me that as many gentiles came here from other fortresses to visit him, it was not convenient that I should be down where all his allies have their houses and temporary habitations, but that I should be lodged in the upper part of the fortress [presumably the innermost honmaru enclosure] with Vicente Heiemon-dono … so I am now living with the said Vicente in the highest part of the fortress, which is not a small desert … as it is a very high and craggy slope. When I have to go down for some confessions at night, it gives me much work, and when I go back I ride a horse and rest many times on my way.

In this fortress of Komangai there are Augustin, all his allies and their subordinates … All have their houses at some distance from the sea, and up in the fortress there are Yoseichi-dono, Augustin’s brother and Vicente Heiemon-dono on the look out.

The day after [my] arrival here, Dario Tsushima-dono [Sō Yoshitoshi, Lord of Fuchū Domain on the island of Tsushima], Augustin’s son-in-law, sent me his greetings, and two or three days later he came to visit me, and so began our friendship.

[Yoshitoshi then invited Fr. Gregorio to stay briefly at the castle under his command.] I was astonished to see the beautiful things he has; they surely did not seem to be of temporary use but looked as if they were intended to stay there all one’s life. He had many war objects and golden screens; not even his father-in-law could equal him, and it is he who has brought the most soldiers.

Although Hideyoshi sends food, so little reaches here that it is impossible to sustain all with them, and moreover the help that comes from Japan is insufficient and comes late. It is now two months since ships have come, and many craft were lost.

Compare and contrast: Japanese castles and Korean fortresses

This is just a high-level survey of the differences between these two types of stronghold. Although many of the structures featured below were either built or substantially altered long after the 1592-1598 war, the designs broadly reflect what one might have expected to see at that time.

These next three pictures are of Takeda Castle, in Japan’s Hyōgo Prefecture. Note the stone-cased platforms that make up the fortress, which would have required a considerable degree of “land sculpting” and site preparation. The turrets and parapets on top of these foundations would have offered defenders a host of viewpoints and firing positions, all enhancing the effectiveness of their weapons against besiegers.

These naked walls were once crowned with protective screens pierced by small gun ports and arrow slits, allowing defenders to rain death upon attackers whilst affording protection from return fire. The next picture, taken at Akō Castle (also in Hyōgo Prefecture), shows what an intact – or in this case restored – Japanese castle wall looks like with its protective screen on top.

Here are two additional examples, both from the extensive network of walls surrounding Kumamoto Castle in Kyūshū.

Another common feature was the use of multiple enclosures (kuruwa or maru) surrounding or adjoining a core citadel (honmaru), with each section shielded from attack by walls, moats, and ditches. This gave the garrisoned force a huge advantage, as any besieging army would have had to penetrate not just one but several layers of defence – all the while being showered from above with musket volleys, arrows, rocks, and whatever else was available.

The following scale model, depicting Kōchi Castle as it originally looked during the Edo Period, shows one example of this nested layout. We have the sannomaru (“third circle”) on the lower level towards the left, followed by the ninomaru (“second circle”) higher up at the centre and right – and in the distance, crowned by a tower, the innermost honmaru securely situated on the highest level. There’s even an outermost ring that envelops all these, surrounded by a wall and moat and fitted with a heavily fortified main gate.

And of course, one shouldn’t forget the soaring main tower – tenshu or tenshukaku – rising up from the castle’s highest, most defensible point. Not all castles had a main tower, but it’s such a prominent feature in many of the most famous castles that one might see it almost as a defining element. The following image shows the tenshu of Himeji Castle, in Hyōgo Prefecture.

Now for the Korean version.

The three images that follow were taken at Namhansanseong, a Joseon-era mountain fortress in Korea’s Gyeonggi Province. There’s very little pre-construction landscaping in evidence here, with the sinuously curved walls simply following the natural peaks and troughs of the site. One might also note the absence of turrets or watchtowers, as well as the relatively low height of the battlements on top of the wall (which would have offered little protection from enemy fire unless the defenders crouched low behind them).

Korean fortresses of the time also tended to lack concentric rings of defence, relying on a single main circuit wall – supplemented by outer works and projections – rather than on nested enclosures as in the Japanese model. There might be smaller walled compounds within, like royal villas or military command posts, but these were not stoutly fortified and it’s unlikely that such places could have held out once the outer wall had been breached. Moreover, these fortifications were often designed to enclose entire towns or villages, which meant that a single garrison would have to spread itself thinly to defend miles upon miles of wall.

To illustrate, here’s a detailed scale model of the fortress-city of Hwaseong, which now forms the historic core of Suwon in Gyeonggi Province. As at Namhansanseong, the main wall appears to have simply been slung over the landscape, rising and falling with the contours of the terrain. There are also no inner fortifications that defending troops could retreat into should their enemies penetrate the outer perimeter. And unless there was an exceptionally large army posted within, the defenders would have had great difficulty manning that entire length of wall during a full-blown siege – especially if the attacking army was big enough to stage a complete encirclement.

And now for a peek at Suncheon Castle itself, in a sampling of pictures from Part 2 (showing the walls of the innermost honmaru enclosure and the iconic tenshu base). I think there’s little doubt as to which of the fortresses we’ve looked at above it resembles most.

How to get there

In terms of straight-line distance, the castle sits roughly 8 kilometres southeast of Suncheon Station. (That’s about 10-13 kilometres by road, depending on your exact route.) It’s a little out of the way, and public transport coverage in that part of the city is limited at best.

Bus Number 21 offers the most direct route from Suncheon Station, taking about 40-50 minutes (1,250 won with an IC card). The bus stops at 왜성 (“Waeseong”), which is just outside the castle’s parking lot.

Here’s the catch: services are very infrequent, so be sure to have a Plan B in case your timing isn’t perfect. Use a local navigation app – more on that in the last paragraph – to help plot out alternative routes.

My own outbound journey from central Suncheon involved two stages. First, I rode Bus Number 77 to a stop called LF아울렛 (“LF Outlet”, a.k.a. LF스퀘어 “LF Square”).

After a considerable wait, I transferred to Bus Number 3 and got off at 현대제철 (“Hyundai Steel”, a.k.a. 현대하이스코 “Hyundai Hi-Score”), from where I walked across a nearby bridge and on to the castle site.

The return journey was from that same stop, or rather its counterpart across the street for travel in the opposite direction. Bear in mind that unless your timing is precisely right, you’re in for a long wait due to the poor service frequencies (mine was around an hour or so).

A taxi would take about 20-25 minutes to cover the same distance, with estimated fares (based on my Korean navigation apps) hovering around KRW 10,000-13,000 depending on the route. Be warned: taxis are plentiful in central Suncheon, but you may have some difficulty flagging one down in the vicinity of the castle when heading back.

To make commuting easier, download either KakaoMap (iOS / Android) or Naver Map (iOS / Android) onto your smartphone. They’re free to use and are a massive help with navigating the intricacies of this country’s dense public transportation networks – especially bus routes. Both have English interfaces available, with Korean text employed to varying degrees in generating outputs. I personally like KakaoMap better and I use it a lot more on the ground in Korea, though bear in mind that certain details (like specific stop names) may be rendered only in hangeul. I’m a bit less keen on Naver Map, although it’s more English-friendly with greater reliance on transliterated names.

2 responses to “Field Report: The Ruins of Suncheon Japanese Castle, South Korea (26 January 2020) – Part 3

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

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

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