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  • Japanese: 対馬 (Tsushima)

Tsushima is an island in the Korea Straits (aka the Tsushima Straits), roughly 33 miles from Busan, Korea, and 56 miles from Kyushu. The island has been, at least peripherally, incorporated into the Japanese state since ancient times, as Tsushima province, and was one of the "eight islands" referred to when the Japanese archipelago was referred to as Yashima or Ôyashima. The island was also claimed, however, by Joseon Dynasty Korea (1392-1897) and at times by modern Korean governments to have been Korean territory since ancient times.[1] The island was generally administered as part of Kyushu (e.g. coming under the purview of the Chinzei bugyô in premodern times), and is today part of Nagasaki prefecture.

The construction of Kaneta fortress on the island in 667, built explicitly against the potential threat of Tang-Silla invasion, indicates that Japanese (Yamato state) agents extended control to the island at least that early.

Due to its prime position along maritime routes, and its peripheral location in both Korean and Japanese states, Tsushima was both a major intermediary point for regional trade, and was on numerous occasions the victim of foreign attacks, including in the 7th, 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th centuries. Both Mongol invasions (in 1274 & 1281) visited violence upon the island before moving on to Kyushu. In the 13th-16th centuries, the island was also a major center of pirate activity. Joseon sent a naval fleet to attack pirate bases on Tsushima in 1419, in what is known as the Ôei Invasion; in 1443, the Sô and the Joseon court then reached an agreement by which the Sô would act to curb pirate activity, and to ensure that all merchants traveling to Korea were properly licensed (i.e. were not pirates, brigands, or smugglers), in exchange for stipends and trading rights from the Joseon court.[2] In 1861, the island became the site of diplomatic incident once again, as the Russian ship Posadnik dropped anchor and demanded to build a Russian base on the island, remaining for quite a few months and refusing requests by Sô, Tokugawa, and even British authorities to leave, until ultimately word came from the Russian consul in Japan, and from Russian naval command, and the ship finally departed.[3]

The Sô samurai clan, governors of the island since the 12th century, were claimed as vassals by the kings of Joseon, as well as by the Tokugawa shogunate. During much of the medieval era, the Sô served as the chief intermediaries in Korean-Japanese diplomatic and trade relations, and under the Tokugawa, this position became even more formalized. At times in the 16th-17th centuries, the Sô also forged diplomatic documents, pretending to merely pass along communications from the shogunate, in order to either determine policy themselves, or to accrue the benefits of trade to themselves or their allies. While the Sô certainly negotiated for power against both the Joseon and Tokugawa courts, however, relations went smoothly for the most part in the 17th-19th centuries.

Throughout the medieval and early modern periods, the Sô made extensive use of merchants and others, formally brought into the service of the Sô as goyô shônin, to serve as interpreters and intermediaries. While the figures actually drafting communications and/or traveling to Korea were often samurai retainers, they were also often merchants, monks, or other such figures. Sixty-two families or individuals in particular were designated at one point, the "Tsushima 62 shônin." They were provided some degree of education and training in preparation for their roles as diplomatic intermediaries and interpreters, but it is said the emphasis was less on pursuing expert proficiency at language, diplomacy, or professional interpretation, and more on specifically representing Tsushima well (i.e. not causing the Sô clan to lose face), and on representing Tsushima (and by extension Japan) as a place of cultural refinement and education.

The removal of the Sô as domainal lords, and as Korean vassals, and the concordant further formalization of the incorporation of Tsushima into the territory of the Japanese nation-state in 1869-1871, caused considerable diplomatic tensions between Korea and Japan. The disputed status of Tsushima was resolved by the 1876 Treaty of Ganghwa, in which Joseon formally recognized the island as Japanese territory.[4]

In the meantime, in concert with the abolition of the han in 1871/7, the territory of the island was reorganized as Izuhara prefecture (Izuhara ken), then only two months later merged with Saga prefecture to create the short-lived Imari prefecture. In the 5th month of the following year (1872), the island was then separated from Saga prefecture again and attached to Nagasaki prefecture. That same year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Gaimushô) took over control of the Waegwan in Pusan, and Tsushima's special role in managing relations with Korea ended.[5]

In 1904-1905, Tsushima then became the site of conflict once again, as many of the battles of the Russo-Japanese War, the battle of Tsushima in particular, were fought in the Straits, and as many Japanese troops were transported across the Straits to fight in Korea.


  1. Jordan Walker, "Archipelagic Ambiguities: The Demarcation of Modern Japan, 1868-1879," Island Studies Journal 10:2 (2015), 202. Joseon considered Tsushima part of Gyeongsang province. Jeong-mi Lee, “Chosŏn Korea as Sojunghwa, the Small Central Civilization,” International Christian University Publications 3-A, Asian Cultural Studies 国際基督教大学学報 3-A,アジア文化研究 36 (2010) 308.
  2. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 31.
  3. Hellyer, 209-213.
  4. Hellyer, 245.
  5. Gallery labels, Tsushima Museum.[1]