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The Island of Tsushima, a Beautiful Gateway to History

Widely known for the videogame "The Ghost of Tsushima," the island has been both a fortress and gateway to the world. Now, it's stepping up its tourism game.

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The stone walls of Kaneda Castle in Tsushima City, Nagasaki Prefecture, built in preparation for the invasion of the Tang and Silla armies, September 29. (©Sankei)

Tsushima, an island city in Nagasaki Prefecture, drew national attention this year. The mayor made headlines by rejecting a literature review related to the construction of a disposal site for high-level radioactive waste from a nuclear power plant. 

Tsushima overlooks the Korean Peninsula and is often called a border island. It is notable for historical sites that narrate Japan's history of international relations. Upon visiting the area, it became apparent that efforts were underway to revitalize the island and encourage those outside the city to once again appreciate its historical significance.

A Treasure Trove of History

On the west coast of Tsushima, gentle waves lap against Komoda Beach (Sasura). It is located less than 100 kilometers (62 mi) across the strait from the Korean Peninsula. On October 5, 749 years ago, a massive army from the continent landed on this shore. This marked the beginning of the Mongol invasions.

So Sukekuni, the deputy guardian of Tsushima, is said to have led over 80 cavalrymen to confront the invading Mongol forces. They faced the enemy bravely and died heroically. The Mongol forces, in turn, perpetrated a massacre and kidnapping of the people of Tsushima before advancing to Iki and Kyushu.

"So Sukekuni fought against the grand empire of the Yuan Dynasty. He is a hero no less than Kusunoki Masashige," says company executive Yasuo Takesue. In August 2020, Takesue, along with local residents, erected a statue of So Sukekuni on horseback at a shrine near Komoda Beach.

Site of Historical Battles

Takesue is actively engaged in initiatives to revive Tsushima's history, including commemorating the Battle of Tsushima. The battle was fought off the eastern coast of Tsushima, during the Russo-Japanese War in May 1905.

Furthermore, Tsushima appears in the Kojiki, Japan's creation mythology. It has held great significance for the Japanese people since ancient times. For example, Kaneda Castle, a Korean-style fortress was built here in 667. The ruins have been designated as a Historic Site by the Japanese government. Emperor Tenji commissioned the construction of Kaneda Castle after the Japanese forces were defeated by the Tang and Silla alliance in the Battle of Baekgang in 663. Frontier guards were also stationed in the area.

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"I want people to know the history of Tsushima, which has defended Japan throughout the ages," Takesue says.

The ruins of a massive artillery battery, constructed as a defense stronghold for strait blockades. The northernmost part of Tsushima Island, September 28. (©Sankei)

A Gateway to the World

Tsushima's history goes beyond wars. Through the Tsushima Domain, it became a hub for diplomatic relations and trade with the Joseon Dynasty during the Edo period. 

For example, the Jizo festival is held every July in the central area of Tsushima district, Izuhara. The festival is said to have been introduced by merchants from Osaka and Kyoto.

"While Nagasaki is famous as a gateway to the outside world during the Edo period, Tsushima was also open to the world," says Taeko Kagimoto, an NPO representative. "This fact is not widely known, even locally."

Kagimoto runs a cultural exchange facility at the birthplace of Meiji-era author Tosui Nakarai in Tsushima. 

Changes in Tourism

Following World War II, Tsushima's chances of drawing attention waned. Its rich diplomatic history was largely forgotten. As population outflow accelerated, the city's population fell from around 70,000 in 1960 to 30,000 in 2015.

Tsushima's Mayor Naoki Hitakatsu has underscored tourism as a key element in regional revitalization efforts. Historically, Tsushima's tourism sector heavily relied on visitors from South Korea. In 2018, the city welcomed around 410,000 South Korean tourists, measured by the number of visitors entering through Izuhara Port and Hitakatsu Port.

However, the number of South Korean tourists fell sharply in July 2019, when the Japanese government tightened semiconductor export regulations to South Korea. This was compounded by the subsequent impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. South Korean tourists virtually vanished from Tsushima in 2021.

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Following the easing of border restrictions, an international ferry route connecting Tsushima and Busan in South Korea was partially reopened in February 2023. Tourists are gradually returning as Japan-South Korea relations improve. Nevertheless, the city aims to pivot its focus from South Korean visitors to domestic tourists as it seeks to diversify its tourism sources.

Komoda Beach, where the Yuan army landed during the Battle of Bun'ei. September 13. (©Sankei by Yohei Ushijima)

Unfiltered Charm

Tsushima launched a tourism promotion plan in March 2022. The plan indicates that the city was not sufficiently catering to domestic and individual travelers. The plan's title can be translated to "Encounter the Beginning of Japan, the Island of Origins." It outlines a strategy for promoting integrated content including nature, food, and historical heritage.

According to a representative from the Tsushima Local Promotion Association, there has been a notable increase in tourists seeking to visit the unique features of the island's ria coast. In fact, sea kayaking during the summer has become so popular that it has become difficult to secure reservations. 

The representative says, "Instead of pursuing resort development akin to Okinawa, our goal is to spotlight the distinctive elements that make Tsushima special. We want people to be captivated by Tsushima's unfiltered, authentic charm."

The Resurgence of Tsushima

Among these developments, there is more good news for Tsushima. Manga, anime, and video games set in Tsushima during the Mongol invasions or illustrating the exploits of historical figures are quickly gaining popularity. 

A case in point is Takagi Nanahiko's manga series, Angolmois: Record of Mongol Invasion, serialized from 2013 to 2018. It was made into an anime adaptation in 2018. 

Similarly, the video game Ghost of Tsushima, launched in July 2020 for the PlayStation 4, has garnered global acclaim. Notably, the game depicts renowned locations in Tsushima, raising expectations that it will serve as a catalyst for attracting young tourists.

Professor Akihiro Iwashita from Hokkaido University is knowledgeable about border tourism. He says that traveling from south to north Tsushima requires a two to three-night stay. However, hotels and public transportation are scarce, mainly due to the absence of railways. This makes long visits inconvenient and unsuitable for casual travelers.

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Nevertheless, he emphasizes that Tsushima possesses a unique charm that cannot be replaced by other tourist destinations. He notes, "While there are mythical villages and historical heritages in other regions, Tsushima stands out as one of the rare places that offer the opportunity to see the national border." 

Where the Past and Present Intersect

Professor Iwashita continues, "Tsushima has remained open to the outside world [through exchanges with South Korea]. Therefore, it serves as a unique place where history and the present intersect. Tsushima is also one of the few places in Japan where people can cultivate an understanding of the world beyond their borders. Raising awareness of the current situation of Tsushima, which has served as a gateway to the outside world as well as a fortress, and the activities of its people, carries substantial importance."

Amid the rising military tensions in East Asia, including the Korean Peninsula, Tsushima aspires to offer tourism experiences that delve into its history while also taking into account the contemporary geopolitical landscape. The city continues to improve both tangible and intangible aspects of its tourism services toward this goal.

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(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Yohei Ushijima

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