In 1592, Japan was united and ready to expand after years of continuous internal conflict. Under Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the neighbouring Chinese tributary state of Joseon (Korea) was the perfect target for Japanese expansion towards China. On land, the battle-hardened samurai made several swift advances, but at sea they suffered enormously. With their naval supply lines in ruins and the arrival of Chinese troops to support Korea, Hideoyshi’s force withdrew. But with an inconclusive peace agreement and the desire to not surrender, Japan returned in 1597, but once again faced setbacks, including Hideyoshi’s death in 1598 which prompted a full withdrawal.
Japan’s fearsome samurai armies had been relatively untested against a foreign power for centuries, mainly fighting amongst themselves in civil wars. This lack of experience can best be viewed by their performance at sea- Japanese atakebune warships (centre), with their heavy weight and lack of manoeuvrability, were not suited to fast-paced naval engagements and were only really useful for boarding actions. Weaponry was limited to mostly short-range arquebuses; few cannons were used due to their heavy weight and recoil. They were also built with low-quality wood compared to Korean vessels, thus making the ship’s overall structure weak.
In contrast, the Korean navy under Admiral Yi Sun-sin developed agile but powerful vessels, the most notable being the Geobukseon (left). Also known as ‘turtle ships’, they were equipped with cannon on all sides. A curved cover with spikes was placed on top to discourage boarding actions and deflect cannon/small-arms fire. The dragon placed at the rear could not only release cannon fire from its mouth, but also acted as a spout for smoke to conceal the ship. In addition to having oarsmen, two masts provided wind-powered movement if necessary.
Another fast and sturdy ship used by the Korean navy was known as the Panokseon, which featured multiple separate decks for oarsmen, archers and cannon to operate from. Like turtle ships it could also be powered by two masts as well as by oars. A small roofed platform was also used for a commander to stand and give orders from.
By Ibrahim Zamir