ANCIENT WAR REVEALS METTLE THAT SECURED INDEPENDENCE FOR JAPAN
I recently read a fascinating book—The Battle of Baekgang: Upheaval in Seventh Century East Asia. Written by a renowned scholar of Japanese literature at Asia University, it was published in 1974 by Kokumin Bunka Kenkyu-Kai (National Culture Institute). The battle was part of a war fought in 663 A.D. between two of the three ancient kingdoms of Korea, Baekje and Silla. Yamato Japan supported Baekje, while Tang China supported Silla.
In September 1974, while Yaku was still writing the book, Japan and the People’s Republic of China normalized diplomatic relations. About the Japanese government’s subsequent breaking of its diplomatic ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan), Yaku has this to say: “I viewed it as nothing but a deep national disgrace for Japan.”
Compared with the pro-Beijing diplomacy pursued in the early 1970s by the cabinet of then Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, Yaku further observes: “The Battle of Baekgang was a justifiable campaign in which Japan, although defeated, was right to come to the aid of its ally on the Korean Peninsula.” Continues Yaku: “As a result, Japan had Tang recognize its status as an independent nation, and influenced Silla to subsequently fight against Tang to achieve the independence of the peninsula from the Chinese.”
Why should one look back on this ancient battle nearly 15 centuries afterwards? The reason is simple: as Japan faces monumental change in the region, the time has come for us to once again come to grips with the ancient history of the Korean Peninsula and China’s influence on it.
Putting itself at the center of the world, ancient China ruled its peripheral nations as “barbarians.” China today makes no secret of its ambition to once again restore itself to the status of a great empire. The ambition of the People’s Republic of China can safely be said to be embodied in Chairman Xi Jinping.
Last October, Xi positioned himself as the “core” leader of the Chinese Communist Party in an effort to join the same revered ranks as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. To solidify that position at the fall Communist Party congress, Xi wishes to have this lofty status recognized at the Beidaihe “summer summit” in Qinhuangdao City, Hebei Province, where party elders congregate.
Xi cannot afford to get in hot water with the Trump administration, which is why his administration has kept a low profile towards Washington. While taking a modest attitude towards America the super power, however, the Chinese continue to regard the Korean Peninsula as nothing less than an object of their absolute control.
The Chinese see Japan as an extension of that policy. To them, Japan, too, is an object of their eventual control.
When we take a fresh look at the battle of 663, it is obvious that it has extremely important implications for today’s Japan. At a time when the Trump administration cannot possibly become the champion for the values that have led to the stability and prosperity of the Western world, I believe it important that we understand what Japan gained from the battle nearly 15 centuries ago.
It was a campaign that Japan felt necessary to fight in order to rescue Baekje which had fallen to Tang. Preceding the battle by a half century was the expedition to Goguryeo by Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (581-618).
Yang, the second emperor of Sui, devoted a large number of troops to the expedition annually for three years beginning in 612. Yaku writes:
“Zhuo County (in Hebei Province today) was designated as the jumping-off point of the huge army, comprising 1,138,000 soldiers gathered from across the country. On the Shandong Peninsula, 300 ships were hastily built, while the districts of Kanan, Huainan, and Konan were ordered to provide 50,000 war chariots. The number of those requisitioned as laborers numbered 2,300,000, half of whom were recruited from within the nearby Shandong districts.”
Yang was notorious for his savage rule. Yaku points out: “It was inevitable that the farm lands deprived of their workforce would fall fallow,” adding:
“Shipbuilding work done on the beaches of Penglai, Shandong, was the very depths of misery. After months of working in water from the waist down day and night, maggots grew in the ulcerated wounds of the workers, leading three to four out of every ten workers to die. The lives of laborers tasked with land transportation were no less miserable. Given little rest in the scorching heat of May and June in the old lunisolar calendar, many men, horses, and cattle fell dead on the street one by one. ‘The dead lay one upon the other, with a stench filling the streets,’ according to an ancient document.”
In 612, Emperor Yang’s expeditionary force comprising one million soldiers thus headed for Goguryeo from Shandong. Following the troops was a logistics corps twice the size of the main force (charged with transporting provisions, clothing, and munitions), the total length of the column allegedly having stretched to 1,000 Chinese li—or 400 kilometers (or 250 miles).
The means of delivering orders were in no way sophisticated then. Inevitably, important orders failed to reach the rank and file. As a result, many troops went missing or mistook their destinations. Yaku writes that the Goguryeon forces purposely let their adversaries infiltrate the areas close to Pyongyang, then attacked them from all round, cutting off their retreat. Yaku notes that the 305,000 Sui soldiers who invaded Pyongyang had been reduced to a mere 2,700 when they finally were ordered to withdraw.
Obviously learning no lesson from this blunder, Sui attempted expeditions to chastise Goguryeo successively in 613 and 614. But Yang’s troops were devastated by hunger and disease, and the emperor rapidly lost power.
Yaku has this to stay about Yang’s Korea expedition: “Since the birth of the written word, nothing so horrible as this expedition has been seen in terms of human misery, the loss of lives, and the destruction of a nation.”
Fighting China on Even Ground
Thus ended the Sui Dynasty, with the Tang then gaining control of China. Taizong, the second emperor, was the man who put the “great” in the Great Tang Empire.
Under Taizong, China once again invaded the Korean Peninsula. As mentioned earlier, Japan had dispatched troops to its ally Baekje, but was defeated by the Tang. Once defeated, Japan concentrated on fortifying its domestic defense in preparation for a likely invasion by the allied forces of Silla and Tang.
Silla was greatly influenced by Japan’s spirit of national defense. The extent of Japan’s influence on Silla is obvious from its decision to launch an offensive against Tang in 670, when it had been expected to join with the Tang in closing in on Japan.
In deference to Japan, Silla at the time officially referred to Japan as “Nippon,” refusing to call it “Wakoku”—a derogatory term used by the ancient Chinese. Yaku calls this “a significant distinction in East Asia in the latter half of the seventh century.”
Yaku notes that Japan fought China as equals, and quotes the late jurist Masajiro Takigawa as pointing out that even after its defeat “ (ancient Japan) refused to sue for peace, and stood face to face with Tang for over 30 years, strengthening its national defense…and as we admire the stouthearted mettle of our ancestors and reflect on my own deeds and thoughts, I cannot but feel more than a little ashamed of myself.”
What we Japanese must learn from the Battle of Baekgang is the sense of dignity and self-respect Japan as a nation fully demonstrated at the time. It lost the battle against Tang, but managed to maintain its resolve as an independent nation, long exercising significant influence on the Korean Peninsula.
At this juncture where China is aiming to revive itself as a great empire, constantly increasing pressure on peripheral nations, we must keep the example of our ancestors clearly in mind.
The Trump administration is proposing that China and Russia be added to the Group of Seven advanced nations. As the world order continues to rapidly change and becomes less stable, there is much we can learn from our own history.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 756 in the June 8, 2017 issue of The Weekly Shincho)