The Imjin War

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was one of Japan’s pre-eminent daimyō, warrior, general, samurai, and politician of the Sengoku period had an ambitious dream of conquering China. His way of doing so was to first invade neighboring Korea. Hideyoshi attempted to invade Korea twice in 1592 and in 1597. Though his dream would not come into fruition, both attempted invasions inflicted unimaginable devastation on Korea and its people.

Japan’s feudal era brought about a great warrior class we know as the samurai.

Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–98)

But the country was also experiencing so much chaos that strong leaders and strict reforms were needed to bring the whole country together.

Rising from obscurity, by 1590, Hideyoshi had practically destroyed all rival lords and unified Japan, allowing him and his huge army to conquer new lands, with China as his great trophy.

Hideyoshi needed passage through Korea to get to China. But with Korea refusing his demands, he led a large army of about 160,000 men, landing at the tip of the peninsula then moving northwards. Korea’s much inferior army was quickly overpowered and King Sonjo ,fleeing, had abandoned his capital city of Seoul with his two sons taken as captives.

Korea was saved from the onslaught and complete takeover by the arrival of Admiral Yi Sun-sin and his fleet of “turtle ships”, the first wooden ships made with steel plating which continuously defeated the Japanese navy.

China also sent 200,000 troops that captured Pyongyang and drove the Japanese forces south until they only held the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. Peace negotiations were unsuccessful because they could not agree on terms.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

The second attempt to invade Korea was in 1597 and did not go any further than the two southernmost provinces because this time the Korean and Chinese relief armies were prepared.

Upon Hideyoshi’s death, the Japanese forces retreated back to their homeland with their hopes of conquering China squashed. Hideyoshi’s successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu finally made peace with Korea in 1606.


The Mimizuka or “Ear Mound”, is a monument in Kyoto that is dedicated to the sliced ears and noses of more than 38,000 Korean and Ming Chinese casualties from the Imjin War. It was Japanese tradition to take severed heads of slaughtered enemies as trophies or souvenirs. However, the distance from Korea to Japan and the number of slaughtered enemies made it impractical to collect heads. Japanese soldiers instead opted to take the ears and noses of those they killed in battle. These were pickled in brine and sent back to Mimizuka.