The relationship between Japan and Korea during the Tokugawa shogunate

(Posted on January 12, 2022.)

This ukiyo-e, a woodblock print, depicts a Joseon mission to Japan marching through Edo, then Tokyo, on its way to pay a visit to the shogun.  


It is a well-known historical fact that the Tokugawa shogunate (lasted from the beginning of the 17th to the end of the 19th Centuries) closed its borders to the outside world for nearly three centuries with the exception of Holland and China; the latter two countries were allowed to trade with Japan on a limited scale only at a special trading post in Nagasaki, southern Japan. Did you know that Japan and Korea managed to maintain both diplomatic and trade relationships during the same period? Let’s take a closer look at its background: why and how. 

The painting above shows horse-riding mission members with the Japanese band of ushers. 

Korea was then ruled by the Joseon kingdom (lasted five centuries from the 14th to 19th Centuries), which sought a neighborly relationship under strong Confucius influences and the pressure of mighty China with which Korea shared its borders. In line with this policy, Joseon sent its first mission to Japan in 1402 (during the Muromachi shogunate) in order to re-establish relations between the two countries. There were altogether twelve missions during the Tokugawa period. Incidentally, the first three missions accomplished the repatriation of prisoners from the Japanese invasion of the1590s.


Here is a brief description of a typical mission. Its members consisted of a top envoy, officials, lieges, artists, musicians among others, in all more than four hundred. How did they travel? By sea from Busan, southern port of Korea, to Osaka making various stop-overs along islands and ports, then overland to Edo in a total of about 70 days. The total journey took around eight to ten months.  


What was Japan’s role then? The Tokugawa shogunate assigned a Japanese clan on Tsushima Island as the country’s diplomatic mission granting the clan a monopoly on trading rights. Tsushima Island lies between Japan and Korea and had been an important stop-over between the two countries for centuries. To carry out this task and trading, the Tsushima clan set up a trading post in Busan, with the staff of 400 to 500 officials, traders, students learning Korean and medicine and more. What goods were traded? From Japan to Korea, they were mostly silver, sulfur and gold. From Korea to Japan, ginseng (highly valued for medicine), tiger furs, Chinese raw silk, silk fabrics and more. 


                        This was the Japanese trading post in Busan





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