An Ancient Battle Where Japan Fought For Korean Independence
Over 1300 years ago, Japan attempted in vain to save the independence of an ancient Korean state.
Korea and Japan have had their fair share of conflicts and tensions. Japan invaded Korea on multiple occasions over the past 500 years and occupied Korea as a colony between 1910 to 1945. It is safe to say that these neighbours are on rocky terms even at the best of times.
But what is less known is that once upon a time over a millennia ago, Japan sent a huge armada of forces to support a Korean Kingdom’s desperate last stand.
This is the story of the Battle of Baekgang (백강) or Hakusukinoe (白村江の戦い).
Prelude: The Korean Three Kingdoms
During the 7th century AD, Korea was divided into three kingdoms. Goguryeo in the north was known for its massive territory and military prowess. Silla in the south-east was a bit of an ugly duckling spending most of history in the shadow of its two superior neighbours. Baekje in the south-west had been a strong trade power dominating the trade routes between China, Korea and Japan and had become incredibly wealthy kingdom.
For six centuries these three kingdoms vied for territory and influence in the fertile Korean peninsula and often formed alliances to balance out any one which became too strong.
In 650 AD, Silla formed an alliance with the newly formed Tang dynasty of China against the other two Korean kingdoms. Silla saw the alliance as an opportunity to escape their fate as the weakest of the three kingdoms. Tang, who was already in a war with Goguryeo welcomed the opportunity to open a second front.
Taking advantage of an exhausted Goguryeo, joint Tang and Silla troops successfully invaded their ally Baekje in 660 AD. Within a year, Baekje had crumbled and the joint forces captured Baekje’s final king, Uija.
While the official resistance was over, armed rebellions sprung up all over Baekje and this quickly solidified into an organised armed resistance against Tang and Silla.
One of the princes of Baekje, Buyeo Pung had been residing in Yamato Japan. The Baekje independence movement reached out to Japan inviting him to return and also requested Yamato Japan’s military assistance.
This prompted Empress Saimei, the leader of Yamato at the time to remark:
“The Land of Kudara (Baekje), in its extremity, has come to us and placed itself in our hands. Our resolution in this matter is unshakable. We will give separate orders to our generals to advance at the same time by a hundred routes”
She and her son, the future Emperor Tenji took action by building ships and drawing on troops throughout Japan to send to Baekje. Between 660–663, Japan would send a total of over forty thousand troops to Baekje. Empress Saimei even moved her capital to Kyushu where the shipyards were located to better oversee the work. This would be her last work as she died as soon as the last ships left for Baekje.
The Battle Of Baekgang
On 4 October 663, the armada of 800 ships and 42,000 troops from Yamato Japan attacked a much smaller Tang force of 170 ships and 13,000 troops.
The Baekje resistance’s capital, Churyu was under siege and the Japanese armada was trying to transport troops to relieve the city. While the Japanese troops had numerical superiority, they faced a highly disciplined Tang fleet that had arrayed battle lines at a narrow stretch of the Baek river.
Historical records do not tell us of the details, but it appears that after repeated failed Japanese attacks the Tang fleet counterattacked and successfully enveloped the larger Japanese fleet. In the resulting carnage, heavy losses were suffered by the Japanese fleet. In Japanese accounts, it was recorded that 400 ships were lost, a devastating loss.
A few days after the battle, the city of Churyu surrendered and ended 681 year old Kingdom of Baekje. While Buyeo Pung would escape to Goguryeo, when Goguryeo surrendered to the joint Tang and Silla forces in 668 he was captured and sent to China as a prisoner.
The end of the war resulted in a mass exodus of Baekje nobles and people to Japan. Some descendants of Baekje like the Ouchi clan would go on to play important roles in later periods of Japan.
Tang soon reneged on its alliance with Silla and in the ensuing war between the former allies, Baekje lands were eventually recovered and retained by Unified Silla.
Yamato Japan went into isolation mode and not knowing about the fallout between Silla and Tang, started building fortresses to defend against invasion. It is theorised many of these fortresses were built by Baekje refugee architects and workers. Many of these fortresses remain today, and are called “Korean-style fortresses” (朝鮮式山城).
Japan’s relationship with the Korean peninsula would never be the same again. With rare exceptions, Japan began bypassing Korea in favour of directly interacting with China. Japan embraced mass immigration from Baekje and Goguryeo, and it is likely their influence played a part in the cool hostile relationship that developed between the succeeding Korean kingdoms and Japan over the centuries.
Why Did Japan Help Baekje?
The help that Japan provided the Baekje independence movement has puzzled many scholars over the centuries. Forty thousand troops was an enormous number in ancient times and the losses suffered would have been catastrophic, especially to a Japan that had yet to centralise.
One reason was that Yamato had strong ties with the Baekje royalty. Japan even had a special name for Baekje, Kudara (百済). Many Baekje princes had resided in Japan over the past centuries. A reknown Baekje King, King Muryeong, (501–523) had even been born in Japan. Baekje became the source of many cultural influences such as Buddhism and architecture. For example the Kudara Kannon, an important buddhist treasure in Japan is named after the kingdom. It is also theorised that the famous Hōryū-ji temple in Nara which houses it the Kannon was built in a similar style to Baekje buildings and was assisted by Baekje architects and builders.
Another reason was that many in Japan had vested interests in Baekje. Japanese records of the nihonshogi and kojiki list many instances of immigration of nobles, artisans and common folk from Baekje to Japan over the centuries. Many of these people were granted areas to settle and given important roles and titles within Japanese society. These clans no doubt would have maintained their ties with their original homeland. Inter-marriage would have been common. An example is that Emperor Kanmu’s (735–806 AD) mother, Yamato no Niigasa was a descendant of the above mentioned King Muryeong of Baekje
The battle of Baekgang was a watershed moment in Korean history that ended one of Korea’s most famous and richest kingdoms. It was also an important event where Japan fought bravely but in vain to preserve the independence of its longtime Korean ally.