The Ceramic Wars: Hideyoshi's Japan Kidnaps Korean Artisans

This Satsuma ware vase in now on display in the Santa Barbara Museum in California.
Satsuma ware vase, a style of Japanese Pottery created by captured Korean potters after Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Imjin Wars (1592-98).

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In the 1590s, Japan’s re-unifier, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had an idee fixe. He was determined to conquer Korea, and then continue on to China and perhaps even India. Between 1592 and 1598, Hideyoshi launched two major invasions of the Korean Peninsula, known together as the Imjin War.

Although Korea was able to fend off both attacks, thanks in part to the heroic Admiral Yi Sun-shin and his victory in the Battle of Hansan-do, Japan did not come away from the invasions empty-handed. As they retreated for the second time, after the 1594-96 invasion, the Japanese captured and enslaved tens of thousands of Korean farmers and artisans, and took them back to Japan.

Japanese Invasions of Korea

Hideyoshi’s reign signaled the end of the Sengoku (or “Warring States Period”) in Japan - more than 100 years of vicious civil war. The country was filled with samurai who knew nothing but war, and Hideyoshi needed an outlet for their violence. He also sought to glorify his own name through conquest.

The Japanese ruler turned his attention to Joseon Korea, a tributary state of Ming China, and a convenient ladder into the Asian mainland from Japan. Even as Japan had engaged in unending conflict, Korea had been slumbering through centuries of peace, so Hideyoshi was confident that his gun-wielding samurai would quickly overrun the Joseon lands.

The initial April 1592 invasion went smoothly, and Japanese forces were in Pyongyang by July. However, the over-extended Japanese supply lines started to take their toll, and soon Korea’s navy made life very difficult for Japan’s supply ships. The war bogged down, and the next year Hideyoshi ordered a retreat.

Despite this setback, the Japanese leader was not ready to give up his dream of a mainland empire. In 1594, he sent a second invasion force to the Korean Peninsula. Better prepared, and with aid from their Ming Chinese allies, the Koreans were able to pin down the Japanese almost immediately. The Japanese blitz turned into a grinding, village-to-village fight, with the tides of battle favoring first one side, then the other.

It must have been evident fairly early in the campaign that Japan was not going to conquer Korea. Rather than have all of that effort wasted, therefore, the Japanese began to capture and enslave Koreans who might be useful to Japan.

Enslaving the Koreans

A Japanese priest who served as a medic in the invasion recorded this memory of "slave raids" in Korea:

"Among the many kinds of merchants who have come over from Japan are traders in human beings, who follow in the train of the troops and buy up men and women, young and old alike. Having tied these people together with ropes about the neck, they drive them along before them; those how can no longer walk are made to run with prods or blows of the stick from behind. The sight of the fiends and man-devouring demons who torment sinners in hell must be like this, I thought."

Estimates of the total number of enslaved Koreans taken back to Japan range from 50,000 to 200,000. Most were likely farmers or laborers, but Confucian scholars and artisans such as potters and blacksmiths were particularly prized. In fact, a great Neo-Confucian movement sprang up in Tokugawa Japan (1602-1868), due in large part to the work of captured Korean scholars.

The most visible influence these enslaved Koreans had in Japan, however, was on Japanese ceramic styles. Between the examples of looted ceramics taken from Korea, and skilled potters brought back to Japan, Korean styles and techniques had an important impact on Japanese pottery.

Yi Sam-pyeong and Arita Ware

One of the great Korean ceramic artisans kidnapped by Hideyoshi's army was Yi Sam-pyeong (1579-1655). Along with his entire extended family, Yi was taken to the city of Arita, in Saga Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu.

Yi explored the area and discovered deposits of kaolin, a light, pure white clay, which allowed him to introduce porcelain manufacturer to Japan. Soon, Arita became the center of porcelain production in Japan. It specialized in pieces made with overglazing in imitation of Chinese blue and white porcelains; these goods were popular imports in Europe.

Yi Sam-pyeong lived out the remainder of his life in Japan and took the Japanese name Kanagae Sanbee.

Satsuma Ware

The daimyo of Satsuma domain on the southern end of Kyushu Island also wanted to create a porcelain industry, so he kidnapped Korean potters and brought them back to his capital as well. They developed a porcelain style called Satsuma ware, which is decorated with ivory crackle glaze painted over with colorful scenes and gold trim.

Like Arita ware, Satsuma ware was produced for the export market. Dutch traders at Dejima Island, Nagasaki were the conduit for Japanese porcelain imports into Europe.

The Ri Brothers and Hagi Ware

Not wanting to be left out, the daimyo of Yamaguchi Prefecture, on the southern tip of the main island of Honshu also captured Korean ceramic artists for his domain. His most famous captives were two brothers, Ri Kei and Ri Shakko, who began firing a new style called Hagi ware in 1604.

Unlike the export-driven pottery works of Kyushu, the Ri brothers' kilns turned out pieces for use in Japan. Hagi ware is stoneware with a milky white glaze, which sometimes includes an etched or incised design. In particular, tea sets made of Hagi ware are especially prized.

Today, Hagi ware is second only to Raku in the world of Japanese tea ceremony sets. The descendants of the Ri brothers, who changed their family name to Saka, are still making pottery in Hagi.

Other Korean-made Japanese Pottery Styles

Among the other Japanese pottery styles that were created or greatly influenced by enslaved Korean potters are the sturdy, simple Karatsu ware; Korean potter Sonkai's light Agano teaware; and Pal San's richly glazed Takatori ware.

Artistic Legacy of a Brutal War

The Imjin War was one of the most brutal in early modern Asian history. When Japan's soldiers realized that they would not win the war, they engaged in atrocities such as cutting off the noses of every Korean person in some villages; the noses were turned in to their commanders as trophies. They also looted or destroyed priceless works of art and scholarship.

Out of the horror and suffering endured by Korean artisans who were kidnapped and enslaved, Japan used their stolen skills and technical knowledge to produce amazing advances in silk making, in ironwork, and especially in pottery.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Ceramic Wars: Hideyoshi's Japan Kidnaps Korean Artisans." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). The Ceramic Wars: Hideyoshi's Japan Kidnaps Korean Artisans. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Ceramic Wars: Hideyoshi's Japan Kidnaps Korean Artisans." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).