Extranational Pirate-Traders of East Asia

Murai Shōsuke

The national origin of the pirates and smugglers who plied the East China Sea during the medieval period has become a major bone of contention among East Asian historians. Murai Shōsuke argues that by attempting to reduce the so-called Wokou to one nationality or another we lose sight of their fundamental character and the nature of their role in East Asian history.

In 1993 I published a short book titled Chūsei Wajin den (Wajin in the Medieval Period), published by Iwanami Shoten. In fact, the subject on which I had been asked to write was the pirate-smugglers widely known by their Chinese name Wokou (倭寇; pronounced Wakō in Japanese). How did my theme evolve from Wokou (literally: pirates of Wa), to Wajin (people of Wa)?

The character for wo/wa has long been associated with ancient Japan, and for many years the Wokou were simplistically equated with “Japanese pirates.” Although many historians today agree that the Wokou of the sixteenth century were multinational and predominantly Chinese, the bands of pirates who raided the Korean coast in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are still widely regarded simply as Japanese brigands. That idea was first challenged in the late 1980s by Japanese scholars who cited historical documents in support of the notion that the Wokou bands of that time were dominated by Koreans, with only 10% or 20% Japanese membership—a claim that provoked quite a reaction among South Korean scholars.

While I found the new theory instructive, I also questioned the narrow emphasis, prevalent among both the theory’s proponents and its critics, on establishing what percentage of Wokou were Japanese in nationality and what percentage (if any) were Korean. It seemed to me, rather, that the essence of the Wokou throughout the period of their activity lay in their role as a marginal group existing between or outside national borders—beyond the reach of state control. My book attempted to challenge this nationality-oriented approach, in part by citing fifteenth-century documents in which Korean officials seem to distinguish between Wa and Japan (日本) and used the term Wajin (Waein in Korean) to refer to ethnic Koreans visiting the Korean peninsula from the island of Tsushima that lies between Kyūshū and the Korean coast.

Overall, what emerged from my research was a picture of an ethnically diverse, multinational group of people living not only by piracy but also by trading, fishing, and shipping. It seemed to me that by replacing the term Wokou, which keeps the focus narrowly on piracy, with the more general Wajin, one could gain better insight into this marginal, extranational group as a continuous phenomenon that extended from the fourteenth into the fifteenth century, when the policies of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897) caused many pirates to become traders, and then on into the sixteenth century, when multinational bands of pirates and traders increasingly made the Chinese coast their main arena of activity.

Clashing World Views

After my book was published, I had a number of opportunities to discuss its content with Korean and Chinese scholars, and I found them almost universally hostile to my understanding of the Wokou/Wajin in the medieval period. This was surprising because, generally speaking, the serious differences between Japanese historians and their Korean and Chinese counterparts concern modern or contemporary events, whereas ancient and medieval history tends to be far less controversial. But I soon learned, to my dismay, that I had ventured into one of the few truly contentious topics in medieval East Asian history—indeed, the most contentious of them all.

The two basic reactions to my thesis can be summed up as follows.

The first, reflecting the Korean perspective, is that the bands that sprang up near the end of the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392) were exclusively Japanese, their members complete outsiders from the perspective of Korean society. They consisted of medieval Japanese warriors who made war for a living and aimed to plunder the coast and accumulate provisions to sustain their armies during the civil strife of the Nanbokuchō period (1336–92). This is the view expressed by Professor Yi Young of Korea National Open University.

The second criticism, representative of the Chinese viewpoint, is that the Wokou and their Chinese collaborators along the coast undermined the system of official government relations that helped preserve peace in the region. To emphasize the historical role of the Wokou and the coastal-dwelling people who collaborated with them while stressing their marginal, extranational character is to make a virtue of evil and evade Japan’s responsibility for that evil. Professor Wang Xinsheng of Peking University presented this argument.

Common to both assertions is the notion that the Wokou were Japanese pirates, pure and simple, and that they were complete outsiders from the standpoint of Korean and Chinese society. This position denies the existence of any marginal space in which nationality is indeterminate and preserves the concept of clear-cut, internally homogeneous realms unified under the state. Anyone within such a realm who seeks to escape beyond the reach of state control is dismissed as a traitor or criminal, and as such poses no fundamental threat to the concept of an internally homogeneous nation. It is a world view that clearly reflects the ideal, if not the reality, of state control over the people under the modern nation-state system.

When interpretations of historical developments conflict, the only true recourse of the historian is contemporary source material, interpreted with objectivity and an open mind. Since the vast majority of extant source material regarding the Wokou and Wajin is in Korea and China, our first task is to give our complete attention to the contemporary Koreans and Chinese who speak through those documents to determine exactly what they saw and what they were saying.

Korean Concepts of Wajin

Let us begin by examining the Korean government’s perception of the Wajin (Korean: Waein) during the period in question.

In 1441, the governor of Gyeongsang Province reported that a Wajin by the name of Saemon Kurō had asked to remain in Korea and become a Korean, inasmuch as his mother and father were both Korean, and that he had been granted permission by King Sejong(*1). From this record we can gather that a Wajin with the Japanese-sounding name of Saemon Kurō, whose mother and father were both Korean, had traveled from Tsushima to Korea around that time. Several other similar cases have been identified, and I refer to such individuals collectively as Korean Wajin.

Next, writing in 1510 about a Wajin by the name of Jirō Tarō, the governor of Gyeongsang states the following: “He is not a Japanese Wajin but resides with his wife in Jepo [one of three Wajin settlements on the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula]. He understands Korean well, has great ingenuity, and is able to change his appearance at will.(*2) The fact that a Wajin living in one of the Wajin settlements was judged not to be “a Japanese Wajin” allows us to infer the existence of the category of “Japanese Wajin,” along with a third category applicable to such Wajin as Jirō Tarō, who resided on nearby islands like Tsushima or across the strait in the Wajin settlements. Clearly, we cannot simply equate “Wajin” with “Japanese person.”

In 1459, King Sejo identified a group of neighboring people engaged in piracy as Wajin from the “the Three Islands, Tsushima, Iki, and Hakata,” noting that “Japan is so far away [from Korea] that people rarely travel back and forth [between the two].”(*3)Another entry identifies the “four foreign peoples of Korea” as the Jurchen and the people of Japan (日本), the Three Islands, and Ryūkyū.(*4)Elsewhere, King Seongjong expresses concern that a Three Islands interpreter will not be competent in the Wa language spoken in “inner Japan,” thus indicating an awareness of linguistic differences between the two areas.(*5)As these examples suggest, the Korean ruling class regarded Japan (日本国) as something distinct from the Three Islands and the Wajin.

Late Ming Wokou and the Provincial Gentry

During the Jiajing era (1522–66) of the late Ming dynasty, piracy and smuggling were rampant along the coast of southern China, a phenomenon the Chinese refer to as the Jiajing Da Wokou, or “the great Jiajing piracy.” It is interesting to note, however, that in a 1555 report on five such incidents, a Chinese military commander in Nanjing wrote that “one out of ten are Yiren [夷人, signifying Wajin], two out of ten exiles, five out of ten from the Ningbo-Shaoxing area [Zhejiang province], and nine out of ten from the Zhangzhou-Fuzhou-Quanzhou area [Fujian province]” and that although “most of them refer to themselves as Woyi [foreigners of Wa], they are in reality ordinary people listed in the local family registers.”(*6)By this time, in other words, the majority of Wokou were Chinese, with Wajin accounting for only 10%.

Changes sweeping Chinese society played a part in the rise of the Wokou around this time. In the Ming dynasty, provincial society was dominated by the landed gentry, which supplied civil servants to run the vast Ming bureaucracy. Owing to the rapid economic growth of central China during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the money supplied by the central government began to fall short of the provincial gentry’s needs. And because of the Ming government’s prohibition on navigation and sea trade, the gentry on the southern seaboard were denied the opportunity to supplement their income through legitimate trade with Southeast Asia. As a result, they began to engage in contraband trade in collaboration with bands of Chinese smugglers and foreign pirates. Zhu Wan, the Zhejiang governor charged with eradicating the Wokou, lamented, “Eliminating foreign banditry is easy, but eliminating Chinese banditry is difficult. And eliminating banditry in China’s coastal waters coast is easier than eliminating banditry by Chinese civil servants.”(*7)

The bands of smugglers and pirates who colluded with the local gentry grew increasingly multinational as time went on. In a memorial titled “Infestation of the Seas by Pirate Ships,” Zhu Wan wrote, “The pirate ships infesting the seas are all the work of our own pirates. During the season when the winds blow from the south, they recruit and muster foreigners [who come from] the islands of Japan, Folangji [a reference to the Portuguese], Pahang [on the Malay Peninsula], and Siam and come and anchor their ships in Shuangyu harbor in Ningbo prefecture. Our own villains go out to meet them and trade with them.”(*8)(Shuangyu was a port on Zhoushan Island that became a base for illegal trade in the 1520s.)

In short, the assertion that the Jiajing Wokou were made up of elements outside of Chinese society is clearly contradicted by the testimony of contemporary Chinese witnesses.

Japan and the Wokou

Although it is clear that the Wokou cannot be defined simply as Japanese pirates, one is bound to ask why contemporaries referred to them in that manner, using a character historically associated with Japan. The association between piracy and Japan stemmed from Japan’s special geographical and historical situation relative to the extranational, extralegal movement of people and goods through and across East Asian waters during this period. There are two dimensions to this.

The first pertains to what lies at the core of the Wokou concept. It is clear from testimony by both Korean and Japanese officials charged with combating the Wokou around the end of the fourteenth century that the pirates were based primarily on the outlying islands of Tsushima and Iki. It is equally clear that there was no national piracy campaign. To the contrary, the Wokou were rebels and pirates living on Tsushima and Iki, who refused to submit to the state’s authority. Indeed, contemporary records state that “They make their homes on boats,” indicating that most lacked even a fixed abode.(*9)Although their piracy subsided in the fifteenth century, Tsushima retained that image in the minds of contemporary Koreans, and it seems clear that when the Koreans spoke of Wajin, they meant the people of Tsushima.

From a fairly early date, the Wokou began to take on a multinational character as they were joined by fugitives and outlaws from Korea and China, including people who found themselves on the losing side of political conflicts and coastal dwellers seeking to avoid taxation or corvée labor. Nonetheless, these bands continued to make use of the islands between Kyūshū and Korea as their strategic base (although in the sixteenth century the center shifted from Tsushima to the Gotō islands farther to the south).

The second dimension relates to Japan’s peculiar social and political conditions during this era.

During much of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, Japan was rent by civil strife—from the wars of the Nambokuchō period (1336–92) to the Ōnin War (1467–77) and the successive conflicts of the Sengoku period (1467–1568); this greatly weakened the power of the central government. The situation was such that the Nihonkokuō shi, Japan’s official diplomatic emissaries, were scarcely distinguishable from the Japanese traders who had gravitated to settlements near and along the Korean Peninsula. In fact, during the sixteenth century, strongmen on the outlying western islands began to appropriate the title of Nihonkokuō shi for their own purposes, bestowing it on pseudo-emissaries as they saw fit.

Lacking even the power to prevent fraudulent use of that title, the central authorities were naturally helpless to prevent regional Japanese rulers from pursuing foreign trade and diplomatic relations independently. Far from taking steps to prevent their domains from becoming bases for illegal trade or piracy, the lords of Japan’s westernmost provinces (including the Sō of Tsushima, the Ōuchi near the western tip Honshū, and the Ōtomo, Matsuura, and Shimazu of Kyūshū) were eager to pocket a share of the profits. When Chinese government forces moved in to destroy Wokou bases along China’s coast, Chinese pirates like Wang Zhi, simply moved their base of operations to Japan’s outlying western islands.

Because modern historians have long focused on sovereign states as the basic unit of history, the Wokou and the larger phenomenon of extranational traffic and trade in medieval East Asia have been treated as a little more than a footnote. But during the sixteenth century they played an important role in world history from outside the framework of the sovereign state.

Production at the Iwami Ginzan silver mine in southwest Honshū (recently registered as a World Heritage site) increased dramatically after the adoption the cupellation method of smelting, a technology brought to Japan from the Korean Peninsula in 1533. This technology transfer was the result of spying by Wajin active along the illegal trade route that connected the western end of Honshū, Hakata in northern Kyūshū, and Korea. In addition, as silver became the common medium of exchange in China, illegal trade networks allowed the Japanese to export vast quantities of silver in exchange for Chinese silk—a trade that generated huge profits for the Wokou smugglers who carried those goods, and even greater profits for the European merchants who moved in to grab a piece of the action.

The introduction of Christianity and firearms into Japan in the sixteenth century was also made possible by the Wokou and the Europeans who boarded their vessels. The Portuguese explorer credited with bringing the first firearms to Japan is thought to have arrived aboard a Chinese junk commanded by Wang Zhi, later to become the “king of the Wokou.” Similarly, Francis Xavier is said to have reached Kagoshima on the junk of a Malaccan Chinese pirate nicknamed Ladrão (the robber). The use of firearms was to play a decisive role in the outcome of the Sengoku civil wars, and Christianity was indirectly responsible for the adoption of a strict Buddhist temple¬ based citizen registration system that facilitated the shift from medieval to premodern society.

In a sense, the greatest Wokou of the age were the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the Jurchen chieftain Nurhaci. They built up powerful military states using the resources gained by appropriating the trade profits and production resources that expanded so rapidly in an environment of rampant extralegal, extranational economic activity. Building on those foundations, the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan and the Qing dynasty in China reestablished international order (in the form of a national seclusion policy) through a process of trial and error and reined in the extralegal trade and traffic of the previous centuries.

What Is the Aim of Historical Research?

In the attitudes of Korean and Chinese scholars toward the Wokou/Wajin, one senses an impulse to seek validation from history for the nationalistic beliefs of the present. With the answers to their questions foreordained, their role is to “discover” documentary evidence to support those answers by hook or by crook. This in turn goads Japanese scholars to counter with their own nationalistic assertions, supported in like manner (although many do resist the temptation), resulting in a series of pointless, counterproductive squabbles.

The University of Tokyo, where I teach, is often compared to Seoul National University and Peking University, and I imagine that many Korean and Chinese scholars think of it as a place where scholarship is pursued to serve the national interest. That is not how I approach history. My goal is to free myself as much as possible from the prejudices and constraints of our own age, including the impulse to force medieval history into the framework of the modern nation-state; and to portray the past from the perspective of a person living in that era. My motivation for studying history is that I find that process extremely fascinating and rewarding. And no aspect of my work is more rewarding than the satisfaction of knowing that I have interpreted a document correctly in light of the original historical context.

Even today, with evidence of the limits and perils of nationalism all around us, marginal spaces like the Northern Territories, Takeshima, and the Senkaku Islands remain mired in unseemly territorial squabbles that leave their potential untapped. It would be gratifying to me if my findings regarding the marginal spaces and marginal people of the premodern era could help point the way to solutions for releasing these territories from such disputes, thereby unleashing their potential. To my mind, there is no contradiction between that aim and the pursuit of historical research for the simple reason of personal enjoyment.

(Originally written in Japanese.)


(*1) ^ Sejong sillok (Annals of King Sejong) 23rd year, 6th month.

(*2) ^ Jungjong sillok (Annals of King Jungjong), 5th year, 6th month.

(*3) ^ Sejo sillok (Annals of King Sejong), 5th year, 4th month.

(*4) ^ Ibid., 14th year, 3rd month.

(*5) ^ Seongjong sillok (Annals of King Seongjong), 10th year, 10th month.

(*6) ^ Ming Shizong shilu (Annals of Ming Emperor Shizong), 34th year, 5th month.

(*7) ^ Ming shi (History of Ming), vol. 205, Zhu Wan zhuan (Biography of Zhu Wan).

(*8) ^ Huang Ming jingshi wenbian (Ming Documents on Statecraft), vol. 205.

(*9) ^ Goryeosa jeolyo (Essential History of Goryeo), U 13th year, 8th month, and Taejo sillok(Annals of King Taejo), 4th year, 7th month.



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