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I was intrigued recently to see a blog post (from 2017) indicating that it’s actually quite common in Korean news (and other Korean contexts?) to refer to the current “emperor” of Japan [and also historically? I’m not sure] not as “emperor” (天皇, 천황, K: cheonhwang), but by terms such as “Japan king” (日王, 일왕, K: il wang). Interesting, right?

To begin, we must note that the association of these East Asian terms with the English “emperor” and “king” is a construction, and a somewhat arbitrary one. Neither term really “means” “emperor” or “king” directly, but rather they have very particular meanings within the long history of East Asian history, suggesting connotations of that figure’s relationship to Heaven (the ultimate source of sovereignty and legitimacy), to the land and the people, and to rulers of other lands within the region. We must also note that the use of “Japan king” (日王) in Korean vs. the term “emperor” (天皇) in Japanese is not merely a simple linguistic difference, an accident of how word usage differs from one language to another, like how Chinese uses 一天 (lit. “one heaven”), to mean “one day” while Japanese uses 一日 (lit. “one sun”). This “emperor” 天皇 vs. “king” 王 terminology difference is not like that.

Here’s the blog post: The reason why Koreans Call the Emperor of Japan as “King of Japan”

And the Tweet which brought it to my attention:

As the author of this blog post explains, English-language translations of these Korean news sources typically render such terms as “emperor,” as is the typical and standard way of referring to that individual in English. This is why most of us went on unaware of the Korean terminology for so long. This of course makes a certain sense in a journalism context – just quickly and easily making it directly clear to English-speaking readers who it is we’re talking about (the emperor), without getting caught up in matters of translation. After all, isn’t that in a certain sense what translation is all about? Conveying information, making information in one language accessible and easily understood in another; it’s not the journalist’s job to get hung up in linguistic complexities. In fact, to a certain extent, it is precisely the translator’s job to make the translation seem as natural as possible, hiding any awkward or unusual linguistic differences, and indeed hiding the fact that the passage even originated in another language to begin with.

But, of course, for those of us with just a slightly deeper interest in how Korean government, news media, etc. sees / views / understands Japan, the language is actually rather important (or, at the very least, interesting).

Why does this matter? Well, if you’ll permit me to ramble on about the historical usage of such terms for a moment….

Model, lost in the Oct 2019 fire at Shuri castle, of the investiture ceremony in which envoys of the Qing Emperor officially ‘invested’ the king of Ryukyu with the title and position of “king.” Photo my own.

In my own work on the Ryukyu Kingdom 琉球王国, and its relationships with the Ming and Qing “emperors” 皇帝, and with the shoguns of Japan, issues of terminology can sometimes come rather to the forefront, and can be rather interesting and important. In the traditional East Asian system of court-to-court (or “international”) relations, the “emperors” 皇帝 of China* granted recognition and sovereignty (investiture 冊封) to foreign rulers who were thus dubbed “kings” 国王. These “kings” included the kings of Ryukyu, Korea (Joseon), and Vietnam, among others. It was within this context that the Tokugawa shoguns sometimes requested that foreign rulers address them as “King of Japan” 日本国王, in order to emphasize the shogun’s legitimacy, significance, and roughly equal status to the Korean or Ryukyuan King with whom they were exchanging communications; and in this same context that those same shoguns at other times insisted on being called “Taikun” 大君 (sometimes translated as “Great Prince”) in order to extricate themselves from any implication that their power or legitimacy derived from recognition by China. At the same time, for over 75 years, from 1636 until 1712, the successive heads of the Shimazu family, samurai lords of Satsuma (Kagoshima) domain, called the Ryukyuan ruler not “king” 国王, but kokushi 国司 (sometimes translated as “provincial governor”), a title which thus denied the ruler’s independent sovereignty and his ties to China, and instead emphasized his subordination to the Shimazu and the idea that his legitimacy derived from an appointment by the Shimazu.

Throughout this entire period, of course, in addition to the shogun and regional lords such as the Shimazu, Japan also had its own “emperor” 天皇, a term with a lengthy and complex history of its own. This is important, because by calling the emperor “king,” the Korean media is in fact promoting a historical confusion – the idea that either the emperor was historically the same person as the shogun, i.e. the “king of Japan,” or was somehow equivalent in status to the shogun, or that either the shogun or the emperor don’t matter at all – that only one or the other were ever “king,” or that both were the same person. All blatant falsehoods, misrepresentations. We understand, of course, that the Korean media today isn’t trying to infringe upon those sorts of “domestic” matters of relative statuses within Japan, but rather to suggest that the Japanese “emperor” isn’t any more special, or superior, to the Korean kings – or, indeed, the kings of any other country. That’s the key comparison they’re pointing towards. And, in a certain sense, that’s fair enough. After all, did any emperor prior to the Meiji Emperor (that is, prior to the advent in Japan of modern imperialism/colonialism, the Japanese takeover of Hokkaido, Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, and later on additional territories) truly control an “empire”? Was he truly in any meaningful sense more powerful or more important within his own country, by comparison, than the kings of England, France, Siam, or Hawaiʻi? Admittedly not. But, even so, let us return to the history:

The 1873 declaration of Ryûkyû’s demotion from an independent kingdom to a Japanese “domain” (藩), as represented in Ishikawa Mao’s 石川真生 “Great Ryukyu Photo Scroll” 大琉球写真絵巻, 2014. Photo of the artwork my own.

When an embassy from the “king” 国王 of Ryukyu visited Tokyo in 1873 to pay respects to the Meiji Emperor 明治天皇 following the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate + of the associated system of lords, the envoys were instructed that their ruler was now to be no longer regarded as a 国王 (king of a country, of a kingdom), but rather as a 藩王 (domain king?), a title no one else ever held before, or since. Just a few years later, that “domain king” was deposed entirely – he was stripped of his domain 藩 / former kingdom which was now designated a prefecture 県 of Japan, and was forced to relocate to Tokyo, taking the title Marquis 侯爵. “Meanwhile,” so to speak, roughly 20 years later, over in Korea, desperate to assert power, legitimacy, and sovereignty, to earn the respect of his neighbors, and to attempt to maintain his country’s independence, the King of Joseon (i.e. Korea) 朝鮮国王 declared himself no longer a “king” but now an “emperor” 帝. He was ultimately not successful: Korea was absorbed by the Empire of Japan only about 13 years later; but for that brief time, an “empire” – the Great Korean Empire 大韓帝国 (K: Daehan Jeguk) – ruled by an “emperor” 帝 was the dominant polity in Korea.

Korean Empire officials in Western-style military dress, in front of a traditional-style building with modern fixtures, 1909. Photo from gallery labels, National Palace Museum of Korea. Photo of the gallery label my own.

In recent years, some scholars of Okinawan history have begun to suggest that we call Ryukyu not a “kingdom,” but an “empire,” pointing out the ways in which the royal court at Shuri, that is to say the kingdom or polity centered on Okinawa Island, expanded its influence into the other islands of the Ryukyu archipelago, imposing its rule over the Amamis, Miyakos, and Yaeyamas by force, creating an “empire.” Of course, there is some merit to such suggestions, as they help throw into relief the fact that there was not a singular Ryukyuan identity, that residents of these various other islands considered themselves invaded, conquered, or otherwise subordinated or subjugated by Shuri; and, indeed, there was an unequal hierarchical relationship imposed upon them by forcible invasion, and they were obligated to pay heavy taxes or tribute, in a “tributary” relationship not entirely unlike other center-periphery / superior-inferior / lord-vassal relationships elsewhere in the region and elsewhere in the world. Including Ryukyu within our more global conversations about how empires function, how to characterize them, etc., has some merit. But, can we have an empire without an emperor? And if the ruler at Shuri is to be called an “emperor,” then what does that make his relationship with the rulers of China, Korea, and Japan? The problem is even more stark when we talk about it in Japanese; some scholars have discussed this revisionist interpretation by introducing a newly-invented term, “Ryukyu Empire” 琉球帝国. But can we have a 帝国 with no 帝? When not only scholarly conventions but also the whole of the corpus of historical documents refer to the Ryukyuan rulers as 王 or 国王 and not 帝, and their country as 国 or 王国 and never ever as 帝国?

Terms such as 王, 帝, and 天皇 have extremely long histories and complex meanings in the history of East Asian political culture, and it is important to remember that translating them to “king” and “emperor” in English is an arbitrary convention and not directly indicative of their actual meanings in context. Indeed, some scholars have argued fairly extensively that the term “emperor” is problematic, for reasons beginning with

(1) its gendered character when Japan had several female 天皇 (emperors) who are called 天皇 just the same as their male counterparts, as distinct from 后妃・皇妃・皇后 or other terms for “empresses” who are not the reigning sovereign but are instead the wife/consort to the 天皇, and

(2) because of the problematic or complex associations of the word “emperor” with its Latin origins in “imperator,” and its modern associations with “empire” and “imperialism.” Such scholars have made rather compelling arguments for calling the 天皇 the “sovereign,” “Heavenly Sovereign,” or simply tennô instead, but no matter how compelling the argument may be, the term “emperor” is extremely well-established and widely used, not only in scholarship and journalism, but by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan, the Government of Japan, etc. as well.

Hundreds or thousands of officials kowtowing to the Son of Heaven, the Qing Emperor, in a scene from the film The Last Emperor, displayed at the Metropolitan Museum’s “China through the Looking Glass” exhibition, 2015. Photo my own.

So, given all this background, I hope you can see why I really appreciated this information, and explanation. Which, now that we’re on paragraph 10 (?), is really actually the key point of this post: simply to bring this rather interesting fact to your attention, and to link to this other fellow’s blog post about it.

I hope that, in a roundabout way, though I perhaps haven’t really addressed it directly, you might have some slightly deeper appreciation now for why it’s such an important matter that we use these terms carefully, and consider how they are being used in various contexts (such as Korean news media) and why.

While the idea of “empire” may be useful as a lens or characterization for how we understand Ryukyu’s (that is, Shuri’s) relationship with the various islands under its control, this becomes a problem when we consider the status of the “king” of Ryukyu relative to the “kings” of Korea and Japan, and the “emperors” of Ming and Qing.

And while the term “emperor” may be complicated and problematic in problematically associating the historical, premodern, Japanese “emperors” with “empire” – i.e. with expansionism, militarism, or control over a large ’empire’ incorporating multiple lands or peoples – and I certainly do chafe at associations of premodern modes of rule with modern ideologies of “imperialism” and “colonialism” and their associated (exceptionally distinctively modern, albeit with some very interesting counter-examples) modes of rule, at the same time, there is so much complexity and significance to the ways that the terms 国王 (“king”), 皇帝 (“emperor”), and 天皇 (“emperor”) were used in premodern and early modern East Asia, and their relationships with one another, including the very intentional use at times in Japan of the term 天皇 (and not any alternative) to assert the Japanese sovereign’s equal (non-inferior, non-subordinate) status with the Ming or Qing sovereign, and the very marked and intentional change of status by the Korean King Gojong to styling himself Emperor Gojong. Of course, a lot of this could be solved by calling the 天皇 “sovereign” or by some other term, and similarly calling the Ming/Qing ruler 皇帝 “sovereign” as well (or, as I’m quite fond, Son of Heaven 天子). But, since “emperor” is just so widely-used and well-established, I kind of think we’re stuck with it.

Reenactment of a Joseon royal procession, inside Seoul Incheon Airport. Photo my own.

Now, I’d like to return to the original blog post, and just point out a few thoughts and (constructive, positive) critiques.

A few points I wanted to question, though:

1) Let’s take a moment to note that whenever Chinese, Korean, and other sources referred to a “king of Japan,” they always used the term 日本国王 – 日本 meaning “Japan”, 国 being a “land” or “country,” and 王 being a ruler or “king,” and thus the entire phrase in full meaning something like “king of the land of Japan.” By contrast, this term “Japan king” (日王, 일왕, K: il wang) which we are told is often used in Korean media today, uses only two characters, and does not to my knowledge ever show up in historical documents. I know next to nothing about Korean language, Korean conventions, but from the perspective of someone who reads Japanese, this term 日王 strikes me as a term with a decidedly modern “color” or character to it, a newspaper’s abbreviation of convenience and/or modern political jargon.

2) Some have argued that the Ming or Qing investiture of someone as a guówáng 国王 is really more about designating them as an officially recognized diplomatic + trading partner, and that it doesn’t necessarily actually indicate anything about them being a “king” in the sense of having actual political control over any meaningful amount of land, i.e. a “kingdom.” They might, or they might not; some of the earliest “kings” of Okinawa might not have actually controlled very much territory at all, but only a good port, a fleet, some trade routes, and so forth. (for more on this, see Gregory Smits’ book Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press, 2019.)

3) I’m no expert on Korean history, but I am pretty well-read on scholarship about the so-called “Sinocentric world order,” “tribute system,” or 中華思想 (roughly, “Chinese civilization ideology”), and there were a few things in this blog post which puzzled me.

The blog post identifies Sojunghwa 小中華 as having to do with the traditional (“tributary”) superior-inferior hierarchical relationship between China and Korea, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Based on Jeong-mi Lee’s article “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)), I was under the impression that Sojunghwa 小中華 refers to the idea that once China “fell” to the “barbarian” Qing (Manchus) in the 1640s [and all the more so after the 1680s], Korea was left as the chief remnant of Great Ming Confucian civilization, the last shining star of proper, upright, civilization, i.e. a small 小 version of central civilization 中華 (“central flowering,” or “the center of flowery [civilization/culture]”). Even while continuing to pay ritual lip service (and actual material tribute) to the Qing, the Joseon court increasingly cultivated itself as a Confucian royal court, and one which revered and honored the Ming emperors, decrying the “barbarism” of the Qing and the supposed decline of civilization within Chinese lands, and taking on the responsibility of performing ritual sacrifices and ancestral ceremonies for the Ming emperors no longer being performed in China. Vis-a-vis Japan, as well, Korea certainly saw itself throughout this period as the more upright, more civilized, more cultured, kingdom.

「泥絵 琉球使節江戸城西の丸登城図」, ”doro-e” painting of the 1850 Ryukyuan embassy entering Edo castle, to pay respects and bring gifts to members of the Tokugawa family. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

3) This blog post plays fast and loose with ideas of being a “vassal state” or “puppet state,” even saying at the very end that Korea was historically, and that North Korea is today, “part of China.” But of course this isn’t actually true in any meaningful sense. Ironic that someone calling attention to the importance of terminology – that is, specifically, the usage of the term “king” instead of “emperor”, and the significance of this difference in usage – should be so careless in how he describes the character of the historical relationships between these countries.

There is much evidence to support the idea that the kings of Ryukyu were “vassals” of the Shimazu and Tokugawa houses, and that Ryukyu can therefore be described as a “vassal state.” The fine points are perhaps a bit too numerous and complex to list out here, but though documents of the time often only use vague terms such as 付属 or 属する (i.e. that Ryukyu “belongs to” the Shimazu house or to Satsuma domain), I hope you will trust me and allow it to suffice to say that in some very meaningful ways, the kings of Ryukyu operated similarly to samurai houses which were vassals of the Shimazu and Tokugawa, giving gifts of swords and horses (which Korea and other foreign entities did not), and engaging in formal ceremonial interactions (audience rituals) with the Shimazu lords and Tokugawa shoguns which were quite similar to those in which samurai vassals interacted with their lords, ceremonies which bear little resemblance to those of China-Korea interactions.

If we are careful in how we apply terms such as “vassal,” understanding with some care how exactly lord-vassal relationships worked in “feudal” Japan (and in many parts of Europe), it immediately becomes clear that the Ming and Qing emperors didn’t have “vassals,” because they didn’t operate on a warrior hierarchy or a “feudal” system of loyalties/fealty between warrior houses the way Tokugawa Japan did.** The Ming and Qing emperors had tributaries, countries which paid them tribute, and they maintained a regional order in which, yes, the kings of Korea and Ryukyu were invested by the Chinese emperor, deriving their legitimacy and sovereignty from him, but, neither these kings themselves nor their lands were in any way directly under the political control of Beijing. Neither Ryukyu nor Korea were ever “part of” China, nor were they directly politically controlled by China in any meaningful way, nor were they false governments merely put into place by China for pretend, as the term “puppet state” suggests.

So, to be clear, Korea and Ryukyu were tributary states, fully independent and sovereign kingdoms (vis-a-vis China, at least), which paid respects to the Ming/Qing emperor as the supposed center and source of all civilization, the axis between Heaven and Earth, but not as their direct de facto lord or ruler.

In connection with this, we must acknowledge that Korea was always independent of China, and so it didn’t “gain independence” in the 1880s-1890s nor was it “given” independence by Japanese involvement. Korea was always independent from China, it just became independent of the so-called Sinocentric “world order,” the Sinocentric or Confucian ideological system of relations between courts.

—–
*Some recent scholarship has suggested that rather than thinking of “China” as a single entity throughout history, we might instead think of the Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing Empires as distinct polities, polities which truly fell, ceased to exist, and were replaced by new and different entities. This seems particularly compelling in the case of the Qing Empire, which some argue we should understand as a larger entity of which China was only a part – and i.e. that while Taiwan, Tibet, and East Turkestan were part of the larger Qing Empire, they were never part of “China.” … For this reason, I’ve taken to trying to talk about “the Ming and Qing Empires” rather than “China” where possible, but when we’re talking about the entire span of the last 2000 or so years, it’s easier sometimes to just say “China.”

**Or, if the Qing Emperors did have vassals, it was strictly within the Manchu family lineages, and/or the system of military “banners“, i.e. houses or families with particular hereditary or military relationships of honor or obligation to the Qing Emperor not as “emperor” 皇帝 but as Khan or Khagan. Or something like that. Manchu society, politics, and the banner system are not my specialty.

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