Key Point: A military is only as strong as its soldiers.
In August 1882 in Incheon Bay near Seoul, four Japanese warships were locked in a tense stand-off with two Chinese warships that had brought troops to quell a revolt on the Korean peninsula.
On paper, the Japanese flotilla outnumbered the Chinese, but the hulls of the Japanese ships hid a deadly secret. Less than half of their crews could man their stations.
The Korean peninsula erupted into conflict on July 23. A soldiers’ protest against ill treatment, unpaid wages and poor provisions turned into widespread mutiny. Ousted from power, the former regent of the king set the mutineers upon the government—and against the Japanese advisers working to modernize the Korean army.
Korean soldiers cornered the chief military adviser in his quarters and stabbed him to death. Another 3,000 mutineers attacked the Japanese Legation. The ambassador ordered his men to burn down the compound and then led his staff to a nearby harbor where they caught a ferry to Incheon.
In lashing rain, the rebels chased the Japanese all the way to the port, killing six and wounding five. The roughly two dozen survivors boarded a small boat and cast off. The next morning, the British sloop HMS Flying Fish spotted the row boat and carried the refugees to Nagasaki.
It was a humiliating blow, but the Japanese were not gone for long. The ambassador soon returned to Seoul. This time he had backup.
Four warships sailed alongside to ensure the safe arrival of the ambassador’s government schooner. As ground forces led the ambassador back to Seoul, Kongo, Nisshin, Hiei and Seiki anchored in Incheon Bay. Two Chinese ships also sailed into Incheon at the request of the Korean king.
Tensions between Japan, China and Korea were at an all-time high. Japan was East Asia’s first modern imperialist nation and its neighbors felt threatened by its new ways.
Unknown to the Chinese and Koreans, the Japanese ships were running far below fighting strength. Disease struck down 195 of Kongo’s 330 sailors. Similarly Hiei was down to a third of her regular strength, and Nisshin and Kiyoteru weren’t faring much better. The sailors were lethargic, sluggish and—at worst—paralyzed.