Tsushima, an island of hybridity
Tsushima is located closer to the Korean peninsula than Japan; it is less than 50km away from the Korean island of Geoje. From the Kankoku Lookout in Waniura, at the northern end of Tsushima, the landmarks of Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, can be seen on clear days and even its fireworks at night. Since the beginning of history, the island has been a geopolitical mirror of Korea and Japan; its people have survived by negotiating the politics between the two. Indeed, the reason that the people of Tsushima are described as ‘cunning’ in a number of historical and literary documents may be due to their strategies for survival.
Over 90% of Tsushima consists of mountains and a ria coastline meaning that there is almost no flatland for agriculture. Residents can only make a living with fishery and hunting. This has resulted in an economic dependence on Korea, its closest neighbor yet a foreign country. Tsushima’s particular relationship with the Korean Peninsula and the rest of the islands of the Japanese Archipelago is illustrated in the earliest historical account of the island, which appears in the Biographies of the Wuhuan, Xianbei and Dongyi in the ‘Book of Wei’ of the Records of the Three Kingdoms. The passage mentioning Tsushima describes the navigation route from Korea to Japan: Daifang Commandery – Geumgwan Gaya – Tsushima Province – present-day Iki Island – present-day Kyushu.1 始度一海千餘里、至對馬國、其大官曰卑狗、副曰卑奴母離、所居絶㠀、方可四百餘里。土地山險、多深林、道路如禽鹿徑。有千餘戸。無良田、食海物自活、乗船南北市糴。(三國志 魏書 烏丸鮮卑東夷傳) It demonstrates that Tsushima was a key point in maritime travels to Japan from ancient times. The passage also mentions Tsushima’s farmlands and the underdeveloped nature of its traffic routes.
After the middle ages, Tsushima became a base for Japanese raiders and the powerful So clan was able to monopolize trade rights with Joseon by controlling the raiders. The system of governance by So clan endured through the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592 and up to the Meiji Restoration. The So clan established Japanese settlements at three Joseon ports for trade and diplomatic purposes, and it was due to such economic and diplomatic concessions acquired from making use of its geopolitical position that Tsushima could survive and the So clan’s governance could be continued.
Tsushima’s prosperity depended on peace between Korea and Japan, and therefore the island endeavored to avoid war even before the 1592 invasion. Upon unifying Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi sent word to Tsushima to request the King of Joseon for his surrender. Joseon obviously declined. Even when Joseon eventually sent a diplomatic envoy [Joseon Tongsinsa] to Japan, it was under the condition that Tsushima was to give up the leader of Japanese raiders. However, when peace negotiations fell apart and the invasion of 1592 commenced, Tsushima became an informant of Toyotomi, guided the Japanese troops, and even participated in battles.
After the end of the war, Tsushima acted as mediator for conciliatory diplomatic relations between the Tokugawa Edo Bakufu and the Joseon Dynasty in order to survive. When the Joseon Dynasty demanded a statement of apology for the invasion and the Bakufu refused, Tsushima forged an apology and succeeded in dispatching a mission for reconciliations. Once diplomatic relations were recovered, Tsushima was able to maintain its trade concession once again and even re-established a Japanese settlement in Busan. It was through such trickery and diplomatic aptitude that Tsushima was able to successfully act as an intermediary between Korea and Japan.
The Korean understanding of Tsushima is well illustrated in the journals of the Joseon Tongsinsa diplomatic envoys to Japan. The chief of the 1764 envoy, Jo Eom 趙曮, noted, as he sailed near the shores of Tsushima, that the pulse of the Korean Peninsula’s mountain range (the Baegdudaegan Mountain Range) is even connected to Tsushima through the Straits of Korea.2 盖聞石脈在水中、相連於我国長鬐地境、而自豊崎入海数十里、則或露出或隠伏（海槎日記 In this case, Jo Eom appears to be using nature to state his view that Tsushima was originally a subordinate area of Joseon. In a more explicit passage, he states that Tsushima had changed its belonging from Joseon to Japan without his knowledge.3 盖此馬島本是朝鮮所属、未知何国何時入於日本…（海槎日記） Indeed, at the time there was a wide spread awareness that Tsushima was de facto subjugated to Joseon even though it was officially within the Japanese domain.
Even in the modern era, the ties between Tsushima and Korea have been inseverable. In the late Joseon Dynasty, the island acted as a place of exile for independence fighters (such as Choi Ik Hyeon). Many residents of the island are said to have visited Busan to buy goods for marriage.
In the 21st century, the number of Korean tourists visiting Tsushima drastically increased, leading to a multifold increase in investments on the island. However, as a result of the souring of relations between Japan and Korea in 2019, visitors to Tsushima have decreased by almost 90%. This illustrates that, even in present times, the livelihood of Tsushima’s residents is directly related to Japan-Korea relations, as it has always been in the past. Tsushima is a geopolitical community that shares its destiny with both countries. The island’s hybrid identity has played a key role in ensuring a sustainable existence. How the residents of Tsushima will negotiate the troubled political currents and use the island’s hybridity to their advantage will be a litmus test for Northeast Asia in 2020.
Todoroki Hiroshi, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, College of Asia Pacific Studies. firstname.lastname@example.org