From 1592 to 1598, the three Northeast Asian neighbors engaged in fierce military campaigns, with the Ming China joining in to help defend Korea against Japanese invaders. The war left the whole peninsula in ruins, but the ensuing two centuries saw Korea and Japan restoring their relations through active diplomacy. In October 2017, the records of the Joseon Dynasty’s diplomatic missions to Japan were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, under the official name “Documents on Joseon Tongsinsa/Chosen Tsushinshi: The History of Peace Building and Cultural Exchanges between Korea and Japan from the 17th to 19th Century.”
“Boat Carrying the Credentials of the Joseon Court Moving Up the River in Japan” (Detail), Edo Period. Artist unknown. Ink and color on paper, 58.5 x 1524 cm.
The painting depicts a boat sailing the Yodogawa River in Osaka, Japan, with a Korean mission on board bearing credentials from the Joseon king. Leaving from Busan in a ship, the mission transferred to a luxurious boat offered by the Tokugawa shogunate upon arriving at the mouth of the river. The boat is decorated with flags featuring emblems of the Tokugawa shogunate, and Joseon musicians are seen in the center playing their instruments.
When the court of the Joseon Dynasty dispatched its first mission to Japan in 1607, fewer than 10 years had passed since the end of the devastating seven-year war triggered by Japan’s invasions. After the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had led the campaigns, the Tokugawa shogunate requested that Korea send a diplomatic mission to mend relations between the two countries and maintain peace. Although the war had reduced the country to ashes, the Joseon government complied with this request.
The envoys, called tongsinsa (literally, “emissary for communication”), had a long journey that took more than six months from Hanseong (aka Hanyang, today’s Seoul) to Edo (today’s Tokyo). It was a large-scale endeavor, with each mission consisting of several hundred people. The delegations were warmly welcomed wherever they went, and the Japanese shogunate spent such a great amount of money on receiving them that it wound up in financial difficulties. By 1811, Joseon had sent a total of 12 missions, which significantly contributed to building peace between the two countries and served as a channel for mutual cultural exchange.
The records recently placed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register comprise 111 articles (333 items), including 5 diplomatic documents (51 items), 65 travel accounts (136 items) and 41 records of cultural exchange (146 items). They are currently in the custody of several institutions in the two countries: 63 articles (124 items) in Korea and 48 articles (209 items) in Japan.
The application was submitted by the Busan Cultural Foundation in Korea and the Liaison Council of All Places Associated with Chosen Tsushinshi in Japan. The successful inscription holds special significance as the result of joint efforts by the two countries.
Significance in World History
The inscription came when UNESCO’s International Advisory Committee (IAC) found itself in a delicate situation. Two sets of documents of conflicting nature involving Korea and Japan - those on the Joseon diplomatic missions and those on the women and girls forced into military sexual slavery by Japan during World War II - had both been nominated for inscription. The Japanese government and a host of Japanese scholars strongly opposed inscription of the documents on the “comfort women,” jointly submitted by 15 civic organizations from eight countries, including Korea and Japan.
The committee finally decided to postpone inscription of the controversial documents on Imperial Japan’s wartime wrongdoings and recommended inscription of the documents on Korea-Japan diplomatic contacts to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. Urging dialogue among the nominators of the latter documents and concerned parties, the IAC in effect declared that it would only consider joint nominations agreed upon by all concerned parties, as in the case of the Joseon Tongsinsa documents.
In the screening process of the Memory of the World Program, various selection criteria are applied, such as the social value, state of preservation and rarity of the nominated documentary heritage. The most important criterion is the significance in world history, specifically whether the proposed heritage concerns events or cultural achievements that influenced the history of humanity beyond the nation and region concerned. The IAC recommends Memory of the World inscription for documents that fulfill such criteria, and advises registration as regional or national heritage for those that do not.
To determine the global historical significance of the records on the Joseon emissaries to Tokugawa-era Japan, the historical circumstances at the time they were produced must be considered. Between 1607 and 1811, when the Joseon court dispatched diplomatic missions to Japan, Europe, which had embarked on the Age of Discovery in the early 15th century, was in the midst of globalization through maritime trade.
“Procession of the Mission into Edo Castle” (Detail), attributed to Kim Myeong-guk, Mid-Joseon period. Ink and color on paper, 30.7 x 595 cm.
The painting depicts the Joseon mission entering Edo Castle in 1636.
Above the figures are written their positions, thereby revealing their roles. The painting is presumed to be the work of Kim Myeong-guk (1600–?), who accompanied the delegation as a court artist of Joseon.
A Window on Northeast Asia in the 17th Century
European merchant ships had established extensive trade routes, reaching the Indian Ocean by rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, and constantly navigating from Aden on the Arabian Peninsula to India and Southeast Asia, as well as to Indonesia and the South Pacific Islands. The final destination of the great voyages was China, and by the mid-18th century, trade with China by the East India Company of the Netherlands and Great Britain came to account for a considerable portion of world trade.
The Chinese government, however, was more interested in the political order of Northeast Asia than in trade with Europe. This region, far removed from events in other parts of the world, had its own established order. When the Ming Dynasty collapsed soon after the Japanese invasions of Korea, diplomatic relations between China and Japan were severed. China stopped trading with Japan and Japan maintained a closed-door policy. However, due to cultural bonds forged through the common use of Chinese characters and the influence of Confucianism, the rupture did not mean the complete termination of contacts. Moreover, both China and Japan needed each other for trade. Japan needed Chinese goods, especially books, and China had to import silver for its currency from Japan, where the precious metal was found in abundance. When political tensions interrupted China-Japan trade, Korea, thanks to its geographical location, served as facilitator of indirect transactions between the two countries.
In this political, economic and cultural order set up in Northeast Asia in the early 17th century, records were compiled not only on Joseon’s diplomatic missions dispatched to Japan but also on its emissaries to China, referred to as yeonhaengnok (records of journeys to Beijing, then called Yanjing, or Yeongyeong in Korean).
Therefore, analyzing both sets of documents together is useful to understand how Northeast Asia maintained its independent order before the Opium Wars paved the way for Western powers to accelerate their colonization of the region. These documents also shed light on the historical background of late South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s advocacy for Korea’s “balancing role” in the region.
In the overall Korea-Japan relations at the time, the dispatch of emissaries represented just one segment of broader diplomatic activities by the Joseon government.
However, the missions played a key role in building peace between the two countries and enabled Korea to facilitate indirect contact between China and Japan.
“Collections of Travelogues” (Haehaeng chongjae) is a compilation of records written by members of Korean diplomatic missions to Japan during the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties. It consists of 28 titles, most of them dated to 17th–18th centuries during the Joseon period. They are known to have been compiled by Hong Gye-hui (1703–1771), a scholar-official who served under the reigns of two Joseon kings, Yeongjo and Jeongjo.
In other words, the documents on Joseon missions to Japan and China at the time are not mere historical records but crucial legacies with direct relevance for analyses of current events in the region.
Furthermore, there is a need to pay attention to the distinctiveness of Northeast Asia in the context of world history. During the Age of Discovery, Europeans built colonies in all corners of the globe, except for Northeast Asia, which later emerged as an important axis in world history.
The circumstances from the time of the First Sino-Japanese War, fought to gain supremacy in the region in the late 19th century, up until the end of the Pacific War in 1945 had far-reaching implications for the emerging international order. In the Cold War that followed, the confrontation between East and West resulted in a proxy war and prolonged tension on the Korean peninsula. Toward the end of the 20th century, the rise of China drew further attention to Northeast Asia.
In this context, the records on Joseon missions to Japan are historical evidence of the roots of the great powers’ strategic interest in Northeast Asia today. Thus they hold significance beyond their value as sources for study of Korea-Japan relations.
“Procession of the Korean Mission in Edo” by Hanegawa Toei. 1748.
Ink and color on paper, 69.7 x 91.2 cm.
After delivering the credentials from the Joseon king to the shogun upon arriving in Edo, the mission passes through the city on the way to their lodgings in Honganji Temple at Asakusa.
Korean Views on Pre-Modern Japan
In addition to their historical value, the records on Joseon missions to Japan are unique in their contents and organization. Consisting of diplomatic documents, travel accounts and records of exchanges among intellectuals, and accompanying illustrations, the records may be regarded as a compilation of Koreans’ overall experience of Japan at that time.
Especially interesting is the inclusion of written dialogues between intellectuals from both sides. Despite the language barrier, they held lively conversations using Chinese characters and Confucian philosophy as their common means of communication. Strictly speaking, the conversations were private exchanges, but both Korea and Japan treated records of such exchanges as official documents, believing that they represented major trends in their respective societies. Joseon could continue to dispatch large-scale missions over two centuries due to the awareness of those intellectuals that their dialogues not only contributed to exchanging useful information on both countries but also helped to keep peace through their mutual understanding of each other’s circumstances.
The inclusion of these dialogues in official documents represented a unique protocol of the diplomatic and cultural exchanges in Northeast Asia.
Illustrations Help Convey Information
The records on Joseon missions are also noteworthy for how they processed and conveyed information. Joseon had a rigorous tradition of record keeping based not only on writing but also on visual images, as evidenced by the “Uigwe: The Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty,” documenting state rites and ceremonies in texts and illustrations, which were inscribed on the Memory of the World Register in 2007. The records on Joseon missions are another fine example of this tradition.
To record the sojourns of diplomatic missions, artists traveled with the delegations or local painters were hired to produce illustrations. The practice shows how seriously the visual materials were considered in recording and conveying information. At a time when opportunities to travel overseas were extremely limited, most people had to rely on vicarious experiences through reports by envoys, and the illustrations played a vital role in offering detailed and accurate information.
In the overall Korea-Japan relations at the time, the dispatch of emissaries represented just one segment of broader diplomatic activities by the Joseon government. However, the missions played a key role in building peace between the two countries and enabled Korea to facilitate indirect contact between China and Japan. The documents now placed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register are a vivid testament to Korea’s mediating role in Northeast Asia. They have gained recognition as important primary sources on the history of diplomacy and international relations, and as a testimony to the origin and evolution of geopolitics in this part of the world, where peace and violent tensions have intersected throughout the 20th century - a volatile situation that continues to this day.