A Japanese Writer Dedicates a Novel Featuring a Korean Diplomat

Last month, a Japanese writer dedicated a novel featuring the life of a Korean historical figure to the Seok-gye Confucian Memorial Hall in Ulju County, Ulsan.

Noriyuki Kanazumi, a lawyer and novelist, wrote a novel entitled [Yi Ye, the First Joseon Tongsinsa], inspired by the Korean diplomatic envoy to Japan during the Joseon Dynasty. The Japanese writer is even planning on making Yi’s life story into a movie. Why has this historical figure, who is rather unfamiliar even to Koreans, drawn attention outside the country?

Self-made Man Rising from the Middle Class to the Nobility

Born into the family of a minor official of the provincial government office in Ulsan, South Gyeongsang Province in 1373, Yi Ye belonged to the middle class. His mother was kidnapped by Japanese raiders when he was eight years old. He looked for his missing mother throughout his life, acutely realizing the sufferings of people plagued by Japanese pirates who began to plunder Korean coastal villages in the later years of the Goryeo Kingdom.

Yi, a low-level government official, voluntarily joined a group of captives taken to Tsushima Island in December of 1396 in order to rescue the provincial governor, who had been captured by Japanese pirates. While being held hostage, Yi learned the Japanese language from a soldier and persistently pleaded for the governor’s release. Impressed by his loyalty and efforts, the Japanese pirates set the governor free. In recognition of Yi’s distinguished services, the royal court in Joseon raised his social status and gave him a higher government position.

When King Taejong came to throne, Yi was appointed as an official of Joseon’s diplomatic delegation.

Yi was Dispatched to Japan over 40 Times

Yi traveled to Japan over 40 times during the forty year period that he was first dispatched to Japan as a diplomatic envoy in 1401. In the first year as a diplomatic delegate, he went to Iki Island to facilitate the return of 50 Korean prisoners there. As a diplomat armed with professional knowledge, fluency in the Japanese language and excellent negotiating skills, Yi traveled back and forth between Korea and Japan every year until 1410 to help send 500 Korean prisoners in Japan back home, and 40 people in 1416. He contributed greatly to repatriating a total of 667 Korean captives in Japan in 15 batches.

In 1428, the tenth year of King Sejong’s reign, the name ‘Tongsinsa’ was first used to refer to the Korean diplomatic mission to Japan during the Joseon era. Yi was sent to Japan that year, becoming the first Joseon Tongsinsa. Yi met with the Japanese monarch in person in 1422, 1424, 1429 and 1433 in an effort to curb Japanese piracy against Korea.

Out of his personal desire to locate his mother and his patriotic duty to protect Joseon people, Yi continued to study the military situations in Japanese islands such as Iki and Tsushima, merits of Japanese vessels and culture as well as Joseon’s policy of developing friendly relations with Japan.

Yi took the initiative in forging the Treaty of Gyehae in 1443 (the 25th year of King Sejong’s reign), which laid the foundation of Joseon’s diplomacy toward Japan.

Signing of the Treaty of Gyehae

The Treaty of Gyehae is a trade agreement signed by Korea and the Daimyo of Tsushima. Under the pact, the Daimyo could engage in trade with Korea with up to fifty ships per year and Japanese ships sailing for Korea were required to get written permission. The treaty helped stabilize relations between the two countries during the early Joseon period.

Yi consistently negotiated over the conditions for Japanese’ entry to Korea and their residence, and led the process of establishing amicable relations between Korea and Tsushima Island. As a result, peace prevailed in southern coastal areas, including Ulsan, and in Tsushima Island as well, and Joseon was able to effectively control Japanese raiders, whom were a big source of trouble in national defense.

Watching Japanese culture closely, Yi also suggested that Joseon introduce Japan’s revolving waterwheel and sugar cane, while spreading Joseon’s Buddhist culture and printing skills to Japan through the dissemination of Buddhist scriptures. To honor his dedication to cultural diplomacy, Yi’s monument was erected at the Entsuji Temple in Tsushima City.

King Sejong favored Yi and bestowed a hat and shoes on him. The king was worried about Yi’s health when the 70-something man traveled to Tsushima Island in 1443, as the trip usually took three to six months. But he was willing to embark on the diplomatic mission to fulfill his last duty to bring seven prisoners to Korea. He died in 1445.

These days, keen attention is being paid to what qualifications a diplomat should have. Yi Ye ventured to cross the Straits of Korea to carry out his diplomatic missions. His life and achievements are vastly meaningful.