Ming-era war junk

Wokou (Japanese: Wako; Korean: Waegu), which literally translates to "Japanese pirates" or "dwarf pirates", were pirates of varying origins who raided the coastlines of China, Japan and Korea. Wokou came from a mixture of ethnicities. The term wokou is a combination of Wo, referring to either dwarfs or the Japanese, and kòu "bandit". There are two distinct eras of wokou piracy: 1) mostly in the 14th century and 2) mostly in the 16th century. The early wokou mostly set up camp on Japanese outlying islands, as opposed to the 16th century wokou who were mostly non-Japanese. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The early wokou raided the Japanese themselves as well as China and Korea. Records report that the main camps of the early wokou were the island of Tsushima, Iki Island, and the Goto Islands. Jeong Mong-ju was dispatched to Japan to deal with the problem, and during his visit Kyushu governor Imagawa Sadayo suppressed the early wokou, later returning their captured property and people to Korea. In 1405 Ashikaga Yoshimitsu sent twenty captured pirates to China, where they were boiled in a cauldron in Ningbo. According to the History of Ming, thirty percent of the 16th century wokou were Japanese, seventy percent were ethnic Chinese. Because of the extent of corruption in the Ming court, many Chinese officials actually had relations with the pirates and benefited from the piracy, making it difficult for central authorities to control. +

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “In the time of the Ming there also began in the east and south the plague of Japanese piracy. Japanese contacts with the coastal provinces of China (Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Fujian) had a very long history: pilgrims from Japan often went to these places in order to study Buddhism in the famous monasteries of Central China; businessmen sold at high prices Japanese swords and other Japanese products here and bought Chinese products; they also tried to get Chinese copper coins which had a higher value in Japan. Chinese merchants co-operated with Japanese merchants and also with pirates in the guise of merchants. Some Chinese who were or felt persecuted by the government, became pirates themselves. This trade-piracy had started already at the end of the Song dynasty, when Japanese navigation had become superior to Korean shipping which had in earlier times dominated the eastern seaboard. These conditions may even have been one of the reasons why the Mongols tried to subdue Japan. As early as 1387 the Chinese had to begin the building of fortifications along the eastern and southern coasts of the country; The Japanese attacks now often took the character of organized raids: a small, fast-sailing flotilla would land in a bay, as far as possible without attracting notice; the soldiers would march against the nearest town, generally overcoming it, looting, and withdrawing. The defensive measures adopted from time to time during the Ming epoch were of little avail, as it was impossible effectively to garrison the whole coast. Some of the coastal settlements were transferred inland, to prevent the Chinese from co-operating with the Japanese, and to give the Japanese so long a march inland as to allow time for defensive measures. The Japanese pirates prevented the creation of a Chinese navy in this period by their continual threats to the coastal cities in which the shipyards lay. Not until much later, at a time of unrest in Japan in 1467, was there any peace from the Japanese pirates. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The Japanese attacks were especially embarrassing for the Chinese government for one other reason. Large armies had to be kept all along China's northern border, from Manchuria to Central Asia. Food supplies could not be collected in north China which did not have enough surplusses. Canal transportation from Central China was not reliable, as the canals did not always have enough water and were often clogged by hundreds of ships. And even if canals were used, grain still had to be transported by land from the end of the canals to the frontier. The Ming government therefore, had organized an overseas flotilla of grain ships which brought grain from Central China directly to the front in Liao-tung and Manchuria. And these ships, vitally important, were so often attacked by the pirates, that this plan later had to be given up again.

“These activities along the coast led the Chinese to the belief that basically all foreigners who came by ships were "barbarians"; when towards the end of the Ming epoch the Japanese were replaced by Europeans who did not behave much differently and were also pirate-merchants, the nations of Western Europe, too, were regarded as "barbarians" and were looked upon with great suspicion. On the other side, continental powers, even if they were enemies, had long been regarded as "states", sometimes even as equals. Therefore, when at a much later time the Chinese came into contact with Russians, their attitude towards them was similar to that which they had taken towards other Asian continental powers.

Early Wokou in China and Korea

The early phase of Wokou activity began in the 13th century and extended to the second half of the 14th century. Pirates from Japan focused their raids on the Korean peninsula and spread across the Yellow Sea to China. According to Korean records, wako pirates were particularly rampant roughly from 1350. After almost annual invasions of the southern provinces of Jeolla and Gyeongsang, they migrated northwards to the Chungcheong and Gyeonggi areas. The History of Goryeo has a record of sea battles in 1380 whereby one hundred warships were sent to Jinpo to rout Japanese pirates there, releasing 334 captives, Japanese sorties decreasing then after. Some of the coastal forts built for defense against Wokou can still be found in Zhejiang and Fujian in China. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The first raid by Wokou on record occurred in the summer of 1223, on the south coast of Goryeo Korea. The history book Goryeosa states that "Japanese (pirates) attacked Gumju". Two more minor attacks are recorded for 1226, and continued intermittently for the next four decades. The Wokou resumed their activities in earnest in 1350, driven by chaotic conditions and the lack of a strong authority in Japan. For the next half-century, sailing principally from Iki and Tsushima, they engulfed the southern half of Goryeo. The worst period was the decade between 1376 and 1385, when no fewer than 174 instances of pirate raids were recorded in Korea. Some involved bands of as many as three thousand penetrating deep into the Korean interior. The raiders repeatedly looted the Korean capital Gaeseong, and on occasion reached as far north as the mouth of the Taedong River and the general area of Pyongyang. They looted grain stores and took people away for slavery and ransom. +

Wokou attack

According to Samurai Archives: “During the reign of the first emperor of Ming, great efforts were made to establish coastal fortifications to defend against the so-called "Japanese pirates." However, raids and attacks on the Chinese coast at this time were led primarily not by Japanese, but by the Emperor’s Chinese political rivals. [Source: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com |~|]

“Wakô [Wokou] raids were a major problem for Joseon Dynasty Korea as well at this time, and remain a prominent issue in anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea today. Unable to secure agreements from the Ashikaga shogunate to take efforts to curb the piracy - after all, the pirates were not subjects of the shogunate, and in fact most were not even Japanese - the Joseon Court took matters into their own hands. In 1419, it launched a Joseon fleet of over 200 ships in an effort to destroy pirate bases on the island of Tsushima. The raids were successful, destroying many pirate ships and villages, but within a few years, the pirate activity returned. |~|

“The court then turned to a different set of methods, granting titles and seals to members of certain samurai clans, including the Ôuchi of western Japan; these titles and seals conferred official permission to engage in authorized trade, in exchange for samurai assurances that they would take real steps to combat the piracy. In 1443, the Joseon court then entered into an arrangement with the Sô clan of Tsushima, granting the Sô an annual stipend of 200 koku of rice, official permission to send fifty trading ships to Korea each year, and permission to exact maritime fees and taxes on cargoes traveling to Korea, in exchange for the Sô ensuring that all trading ships bound for Korea from Japan were properly authorized, and taking action against those which were not (i.e. the pirates).” |~|

Ming-Era Policy and an Increase in Piracy in the Early 16th Century

In the early 16th century, relations soured and tensions arose between China and Japan. Ming China implemented a policy to forbid civil trade with Japan while maintaining governmental trade, known as Haijin. The Ming court believed that limiting non-government trade would in turn expel the Wokou. Instead, it forced many Chinese merchants to trade with Japan illegally to protect their own interests. This led to the second major phase of Wokou activity which occurred in the early to mid-16th century, where Japanese pirates colluded with their Chinese counterparts and expanded their forces. During this period the composition and leadership of the Wokou changed significantly to include greater numbers of Chinese. At their height in the 1550s, the Wo-kòu operated throughout the seas of East Asia, even sailing up large river systems such as the Yangtze. [Source: Wikipedia]

Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Boats caught defying the ban on maritime trade could be scuttled and their crews thrown in jail. These deterrents did not keep the merchants down — they simply became smugglers. "The ban was regularly ignored in southern China," says Wu Chongming, a colleague of Cui's who teaches at the Maritime Archaeology Research Center at Xiamen University in Fujian. Some historians theorize that the ban on international trade was originally intended to starve increasingly bold Japanese pirates. Rather than give up the business, Chinese merchants turned to piracy themselves — both smuggling and raiding. The Chinese still called smugglers and raiders wokou, a derogatory term for Japanese pirates, but just a few years into the ban, Chinese pirates had taken over the South China Sea. "There is a saying in Chinese," says Wu. "When the market closes, all the businessmen become smugglers." [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology, September/October 2011]

According to Samurai Archives: “The increasingly weak shogunate did not wield strong control throughout Japan, let alone overseas, and was unable to curb or halt the attacks by Japanese pirates, acting independently, upon the Chinese coast. By the 1530s, Sengoku (i.e. civil war in many parts of Japan) was in full swing, the shogunate held little power, and relations with China had fully soured. [Source: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com |~|]

“Roughly 1,200 junks, large and small, could be found along the China coast on any given day around this time. Most were simple traders, armed to defend themselves where the Ming authorities wouldn't, and considered "smugglers" under Ming law. Others made a living as armed arbiters, helping to resolve disputes and collect debts where the Ming authorities failed to intervene. Though the term wakô would come to be applied to a wide range of people, engaging in a wide range of activities, including Chinese traders and pirates, and Japanese traders, that is not to say that there were not, in fact, genuine Japanese pirates, raiders, brigands, or whatever term may wish to apply active on the seas at this time. The Murakami clan of Iyo province, known for their piratical activities in the Inland Sea, were among these; Murakami Zusho, lord of Nôshima is recorded as having led attacks on the Chinese coast, the Philippines, and parts of Indonesia. Iida Kôichirô of Iyo and Kitaura Kanjûrô of Bingo are also known to have commanded raiding parties around this time. One contemporary source relates that "the seven bands" of wakô, though presumably there were many more groups than that, grew to number as many as 1,000 men by 1555, if not earlier, incorporating people from a wide range of walks of life, including ronin, fishermen, and others, mainly from Kyushu and Shikoku.” |~|

In 1523, the Hosokawa trading party in Ningbo attacked its rival mission from the O-uchi clan and then proceeded to loot the city. It seized a number of ships, and set sail. The Ming commander sent in pursuit was killed in a sea battle. According to Samurai Archives: “Concurrent tribute missions sent by the Ôuchi and Hosokawa families clashed in 1523, and burned Ningpo, becoming labeled as wakô. The Chinese authorities responded by banning foreign trade in the area around Ningpo. This led in turn to a rise in illegal trade between the coastal Chinese on the one hand with Japanese and other foreigners. A number of Chinese officials and merchants came to owe great debts to Japanese (or other foreign) traders, and though they sought aid from the local authorities, the foreigners resorted to piracy in order to reclaim the funds owed them, and for survival in the face of Chinese authorities seeking to capture them for the crime of participating in illegal trade. Denied access to a satisfactory volume of official trade, the Ôuchi clan remained prominent for some time in commanding, backing, or otherwise encouraging some wakô bands. |~|

“As Chinese demand for, and Japanese supply of, silver rose in the 1530s-40s, a number of Chinese merchants established themselves at bases in Kyushu, selling expensive Chinese silks for Japanese silver, in violation of the Chinese bans. These merchants, along with their mixed Chinese and Japanese crews, were considered 'wakô by the Chinese authorities as well, despite not being Japanese, and not being involved in any true piratical or raiding activities. One Chinese primary source indicates that the proportion of ethnic Chinese among the so-called "Japanese pirates" may have been as high as ninety percent. |~|

Wokou in the Early 16th Century

“Over time, the raids spread to encompass much of the South China coast. Though the pirates who emerged in the aftermath of the 1523 bans were largely traders, now regarded as smugglers under the ban, their crews gradually came to include people with little or no interest in trade, and more interest in violence and thievery. Huangyan, in Zhejiang province, fell in 1552 to a party of wakô said to number as many as 10,000. Raiders traveled up the Yangtze and attacked cities along its shores the same year, and attacked Nanjing and Chaozhou in 1555. By this time, many of the raiding parties made use of arquebuses (teppô); Meanwhile, the Ming armies were equipped with rather inferior firearms, as there were no centrally-coordinated factories or distribution depots, and generals were left to supply their armies on their own; as a result, Western-style firearms made by individual armies based on models had high failure rates, often failing to ignite, or even exploding in the soldier’s hands. |~|

“These coastal raids, in which wakô came onto land - sometimes fairly deeply inland - and attacked villages and outposts on land, constituted the majority of their activity, not seaborne combat. In fact, some Chinese sources from the time suggest that the raiders were far more effective at land battle than on the seas, and advocated trying to defeat them at sea, and to prevent them from coming on land. Over the course of the early 1550s, the wakô seized or simply defeated nearly every defense post along the coast, transforming many into their own bases of operations. The situation became particularly severe for the Chinese authorities when the pirate threat spread to Nanjing. After 1555, the wakô threat to the central Jiangnan region diminished, as the pirates turned their attentions to Fujian to the south, and Anhui to the north. Raids became fewer. Yet, altogether, eleven cities had been captured by the raiders, and countless coastal unwalled market towns attacked. After 1561, wakô attacks diminished even further, except in and around Fujian, and in 1563, Chinese military forces expelled a number of wakô from that region as well. |~|

“For six months in 1556, Zheng Shungong, an envoy sent by Yang I, the Chinese official in charge of dealing with the wakô, resided in Japan and collected information about the wakô. In his report, published as "A Mirror of Japan" (Riben Yijian), he writes extensively about Chinese spurring Japanese to engage in piracy and raids on the Chinese coast; he makes no mention of the involvement of Japanese daimyô, and portrays the wakô as decidedly headed by Chinese.” |~|

Shuangyu, Zhu Wan and the Zoumaxi Incident

After their ouster from the coastal ports of China, Japanese and Portuguese traders collaborated with illegal smugglers on island ports along the Zhejiang and Fujian coast. Among these ports, Shuangyu on Liuheng Island off the coast of Ningbo emerged as the primary emporium of clandestine trade. At first, Shuangyu only had temporary mat-sheds for the smugglers to house themselves and their goods during the trading season. Over time merchants, smugglers and various types of adventurers showed up. In 1544, this network was further expanded when Wang Zhi joined the Xu syndicate, bringing along his Japanese connections to Shuangyu. Thus Shuangyu reached its zenith as the biggest entrépot in maritime East Asia trading goods from Europe and Asia until its downfall in 1548. [Source: Wikipedia +] On 15 April 1548, a Chinese fleet in Wenzhou set sail for Shuangyu under Zhu Wan (a poweful official) and commanded by of Lu Tang and Ke Qiao. The fleet descended onto Shuangyu one night in June, under the cover of thick weather. Fifty-five to a few hundred smugglers perished in the attack, but the leading figures such as Li Guangtou and Wang Zhi were able to escape. Lu Tang then razed the town and rendered the harbour permanently unusable by filling it in with stones under Zhu Wan’s orders. Zhu Wan and his generals were greatly rewarded in silver for the victory, but he also drew the ire of his political enemies among the gentry, whose profits were directly affected by the destruction of Shuangyu. Eventually a pretense was found to demote Zhu Wan to the temporary position of inspector general, the argument being one man cannot control two provinces at the same time. +

After the loss of Shuangyu, the smugglers scattered along the coast of Zhejiang and Fujian to find good hideouts to trade. The deep water inlet of Zoumaxi ("Running Horse Creek") by the Dongshan Peninsula near the Fujian-Guangdong border was found to be a suitable place for trade since the terrain sheltered the ships from the winds, and the inhabitants of nearby Meiling had been greatly involved in the illicit trade. On 19 March 1549, Lu Tang and Ke Qiao ambushed two junks in Zoumaxi while they were trading with the Portuguese aboard resulting in 33 deaths and 206 smugglers captured. Among the captured were Li Guangtou and a number of Portuguese men, and Lu Tang had four of the more good-looking Portuguese pretend to be kings of Malacca in order to make the victory seem more complete. Fearing that the captives might bribe their way out, Zhu Wan executed 96 of the Chinese smugglers using his discretionary powers. +

Zhu Wan’s unauthorized executions of the Zoumaxi captives provided an excellent opportunity for his political enemies. On April 27, Zhu Wan was impeached for exceeding his authority since executions had to be sanctioned by the emperor. The Jiajing Emperor dismissed Zhu Wan from his post and ordered a full investigation on the matter. Seeing that the odds were against him, especially since his backer Xia Yan had been executed in disgrace in October last year, Zhu Wan wrote his own epitaph and committed suicide by drinking poison in January 1550. The investigation confirmed the allegations that Zhu Wan had killed the prisoners without imperial authorization, and so a posthumous death sentence was handed down. Lu Tang and Ke Qiao were also condemned to death, and the Portuguese smugglers were let off lightly, with exile as their punishment. The ordeal left Galeote Pereira, one of the Portuguese crewmen captured in Zoumaxi, very impressed by what he perceived as the impartiality of the Chinese justice system. +

Wokou invasions from 1555

Wokou in the Late 16th Century

According to Samurai Archives: “While there were certainly many Japanese who did engage in violent acts of piracy and raiding, however, one of the chief factors contributing to the growth of the phenomenon was the Chinese hai jin ban on overseas travel and trade, imposed in 1557. Formal trade with foreign countries (including Japan) was only allowed to occur within the framework of tributary relations, and only at certain designated ports. Strict restrictions were placed on Chinese contact or trade with foreigners. In theory, this was intended to prevent Chinese merchants or seamen from becoming involved with the wakô or other foreign forces, but in practice, such policies were ineffective in preventing contact and trade - a great many Chinese settled abroad and conducted trade and other interactions as "overseas Chinese" no longer subject to Ming law. Furthermore, in the eyes of the Chinese Court, Japanese seamen who sought to trade with Chinese, or to make port in China, as well as many Chinese seeking to trade with Japanese, were considered in violation of the bans, and were labeled criminals, and wakô. In this way, the numbers of the wakô, and their perceived presence, grew dramatically. [Source: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com |~|]

“The wakô are generally said to have made their bases on Formosa, in the Ryukyus, and in ports, castle towns, and more remote coastal sites on Kyushu. However, the question of the extent to which regional daimyô, particularly in Kyushu, supported and enabled wakô activity is a contentious one, and one of the chief issues involved in the subject of wakô. Arano asserts that the regional daimyô must have provided tacit consent, if not outright invitations, for these Chinese merchants to engage in such activities within their domains; the Chinese smugglers had similar relationships with local officials in China. As noted above, much of what was described as "wakô" activity was simply trade - illicit or otherwise - and not true piracy, in the sense of violent raids on coastal towns or on other ships. Chinese communities in Kyushu flourished in the 16th century, many of them located in castle towns, and directly encouraged and supported by the local daimyô. Chinese communities brought Chinese trade, i.e. income, as well as skilled craftsmen and other talented workers, thus making the idea of supporting a local Chinese community quite attractive for daimyô.

Most, if not all, residents of these Chinese communities in Kyushu traveled to Japan illegally (travel to Japan was, itself, after all, illegal under Ming law), though many also came against their will, either as prisoners of the wakô, or of the samurai forces of Hideyoshi, who brought back many prisoners of war to Japan when he invaded Korea in the 1590s. Many captured by the wakô were sold as slaves; some 200-300 Chinese, for example, are known to have been kept as slaves in Takasu, Satsuma province, in the mid-16th century. Chinese and Japanese pirates captured Chinese and Japanese alike, selling them as slaves to willing buyers in the opposite land.” |~|

Social Forces in Japan During the Woukou Period

On Japan’s peculiar social and political conditions during this era. Murai Shosuke wrote in Nippon.com: “During much of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, Japan was rent by civil strife—from the wars of the Nambokucho period (1336–92) to the Onin 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 Nihonkokuo 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 Nihonkokuo shi for their own purposes, bestowing it on pseudo-emissaries as they saw fit. [Source: Murai Shosuke, Nippon.com, November 15, 2011 ]

“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 So of Tsushima, the Ouchi near the western tip Honshu, and the Otomo, Matsuura, and Shimazu of Kyushu) 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.

“Production at the Iwami Ginzan silver mine in southwest Honshu 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 Honshu, Hakata in northern Kyushu, 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.”

Ethnic Make-Up of Japanese Pirates

Kukiyoshitaka, a Japanese pirate

Murai Shosuke wrote in Nippon.com: “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. 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 percent or 20 percent Japanese membership—a claim that provoked quite a reaction among South Korean scholars.” [Source: Murai Shosuke, Nippon.com, November 15, 2011 ]

I “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. 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.

Chinese and Korean Perspectives on Wokou

Murai Shosuke wrote in Nippon.com: 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 Nanbokucho period (1336–92). This is the view expressed by Professor Yi Young of Korea National Open University. [Source: Murai Shosuke, Nippon.com, November 15, 2011 ]

“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.”

Korean Wajin (Wokou)?

On the Korean government’s perception of the Wajin (Wokou) during the period in question, Murai Shosuke wrote in Nippon.com: “In 1441, the governor of Gyeongsang Province reported that a Wajin by the name of Saemon Kuro 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. From this record we can gather that a Wajin with the Japanese-sounding name of Saemon Kuro, 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. [Source: Murai Shosuke, Nippon.com, November 15, 2011 ]

“Next, writing in 1510 about a Wajin by the name of Jiro Taro, 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. 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 Jiro Taro, 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].” Another entry identifies the “four foreign peoples of Korea” as the Jurchen and the people of Japan, the Three Islands, and Ryukyu. 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. As these examples suggest, the Korean ruling class regarded Japan as something distinct from the Three Islands and the Wajin.”

Chinese Wokou in the 16th Century

statue of Koxinga, famous pirate and Taiwanese hero

Murai Shosuke wrote in Nippon.com: 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 [ 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.” By this time, in other words, the majority of Wokou were Chinese, with Wajin accounting for only 10 percent. [Source: Murai Shosuke, Nippon.com, November 15, 2011 ]

“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.”

“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.” (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.

Why Were they Called Japanese Pirates?

Koxinga soldiers

Murai Shosuke wrote in Nippon.com: “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. [Source: Murai Shosuke, Nippon.com, November 15, 2011]

“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. 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 Kyushu and Korea as their strategic base (although in the sixteenth century the center shifted from Tsushima to the Goto islands farther to the south).

Decline of the Wokou

Koxinga cannons

According to Samurai Archives: “The later years of the reign of the Ming Jiajing Emperor (1521-1567) saw a peak in wakô activity, which subsided when, in 1567, the Ming Court lifted the bans on Chinese trade and interaction in Southeast Asia, thus allowing many so-called "wakô" to become legitimate traders and seafarers in the eyes of the Chinese authorities. Many smugglers still engaging in activities deemed illicit, such as trade with Japan, moved their bases at this time to Taiwan or the Philippines. Wakô attacks on Korean vessels and territory subsided at the same time, due in large part to these factors; agreements between the Korean court and the Sô clan of Tsushima in 1557 and 1567 allowing the Sô to send thirty ships a year to engage in legal trade may have contributed to the decline in wakô activity as well. [Source: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com |~|]

“Toyotomi Hideyoshi helped further weaken the wakô with a 1588 edict banning piracy. Hideyoshi established a definition of "Japanese waters," and declared that force could not be used to settle disputes within those boundaries; further, this edict severely weakened the ability of provincial daimyô to support, benefit from, or otherwise directly associate with pirates, i.e. the wakô. Though the actual wakô were somewhat weakened by these and other steps taken by Hideyoshi, his invasions of Korea in the 1590s were viewed by China and Korea as part and parcel of the wakô phenomenon. His samurai forces, who raided, plundered, and pillaged, destroying and stealing much financial and cultural property, and kidnapping many craftsmen (especially potters) and others, were seen as no different from the wakô pirates. This is somewhat ironic, as, according to some sources, Hideyoshi’s goal in invading Korea was to press China for access to the so-called "tally trade" (kangô bôeki), the very same formal trade relations which were cut off by the Ming court in response to Japanese refusal or inability to curb wakô raids. |~|

“The imposition of maritime restrictions in the 1630s dealt a major blow to the wakô. All but three ports were closed to foreign trade, and Japanese were forbidden from leaving the country or returning. Wakô activity still continued among Japanese, and others, based overseas, who traded (or raided) in China, Korea, and Southeast Asia, as well as among, presumably, some small number of smugglers who continued to engage in illegal operations along the Kyushu coast. Following the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, Ming loyalists continued to fight against the Manchu conquest for forty years; these loyalists, and others associated with them, may have been at times referred to as wakô in Qing documents. It was only with the turn of the 18th century that the wakô phenomenon really petered out and came to an end. The Tokugawa shogunate solidified its control over Japan - including, to the extent it ever would, over the Kyushu daimyô who allowed or encouraged wakô activities in earlier times. Meanwhile, greater European presence and activity in the region (though not in Japan itself) brought a degree of stability.” |~|

Ming-Era Pirate Ship Found in the Marine Silk Road

19th century rendering of a Chinese pirate attack

Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Just off the coast of the southern Chinese island of Nan'ao, Chinese archeologists are excavating the underwater wreck of a Ming-era ship. Named the Nan'ao Number One, the wreck lies along a stretch of ocean that Chinese historians regard as the country's "Marine Silk Road." During China's heyday as a maritime power during and shortly after the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279), the route was popular with traders but prone to dangerous storms, resulting in a trail of sunken ships. [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology, September/October 2011 ==]

“In this litter of wrecks the Nan'ao Number One is unique. It is the only known wreck from the late Ming Dynasty. Archaeologists estimate the ship sailed between 1573 and 1620, a period when China had turned inward, banned maritime commerce, and begun to dismantle its once-great fleets. In another time, the vessel would have been a merchant ship, following a busy trade route. But when China closed its shores and docks, maritime trade and commerce became piracy and smuggling. Officially, the Nan'ao ship never should have been in the water---it was likely moving along the coast illegally. ==

“The Nan'ao ship is a rare find, but its fate is a familiar one in this part of the ocean. "This is a dangerous passage," Chinese archaeologist Cui Yong told Archaeology. As the boat snuck along the coast, something, whether bad weather or hidden rocks, caused it to sink and deposit its load of contraband---ceramics, copper coins, and ironware---onto the sea floor. ==

“The wreck, which contains more than 10,000 pieces of Ming Dynasty porcelain, much of it still stacked for transport, was discovered in 2007 by local fishermen who pulled Ming Dynasty porcelain out of the ocean with their catch. When Cui arrived at the island and made his first dive, the Nan'ao site proved better than he had imagined. The wreck was unusually well preserved and the conditions were good for excavating. It was deep, but the water was clear and the mud at the bottom of the ocean soft and manageable. "I got lucky," he says. ==

“The Nan'ao sank at the mouth of a particularly dangerous stretch of water. It sits at the northern edge of present-day Guangdong Province, near the entrance to the strait between the coasts of China and Taiwan. Typhoons frequent this passage and could blow shipsinto hidden rocks or smash them along the coast.” ==

Underwater Excavations of the Ming-Era Pirate Ship

Item slvaged from Nanao No. 1 site

Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: Excavations at the site move painstakingly slowly. Because of the depth of the site, around 90 feet down, a diver is only allowed 25 minutes at the bottom and only one dive a day. If a storm hits, or if the wind is simply too high, no one dives. This, says Cui, generally rules out fieldwork nine months of the year. And even on good days, he is concerned for the safety of his divers. They descend in pairs and keep close tabs on bottom time. Cui is quick to point out one of the key features on his boat is a decompression chamber. [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology, September/October 2011 ==]

“Cui's excavation team was given permission to begin digging in 2009. Since then he has spent as much time as weather permits floating above Nan'ao Number One. After one excavation season, nearly half the wreck is exposed. The top decks have been worn away, but its belly lies undisturbed, oriented along a northnsouth line. Two curves of wood are exposed toward the stern, hemming in rows of porcelain bowls, platters, and cups, many still stacked neatly. On excavation maps, archaeologists have filled in where they speculate the sides of the boat continue, and they estimate the Nan'ao runs around 90 feet from bow to stern. ==

“The excavation of the Nan'ao and tales of a Ming Dynasty pirate ship attracted a fair amount of attention. Wrecks like the Nan'ao, Cui said, help attract media and increase government funding. But the increased exposure also attracts looters and adds pressure. It is a delicate balancing act involving journalists sharing deck space on his boat with border patrol officers in fatigues and orange life jackets. The border guards help retrieve and clean pieces of porcelain as they come up from the wreck and remain on guard even beyond the excavation season because the risk of looting by local fishermen is high.” ==

Items Found on the Ming-Era Pirate Ship

Item on Nanao No.1 shipwreck

Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: The pieces Cui's team are bringing up were likely not the most valuable items onboard, explains Cui. They were probably, in fact, an afterthought for the Ming Dynasty smugglers. "It was probably ballast," says Cui. Other cargo, such as tea or the strings of copper coins that have been found on the wreck, would have been the ship's real treasure. [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology, September/October 2011 ==]

“Chen Huasha, a researcher from the Beijing Palace Museum, who has spent time on the Nan Tianshun for two years running, believes the bulk of the porcelain uncovered comes from kilns that were operating in China's Fujian and Jiangxi provinces. When asked how she can tell, Chen says, "There are characteristics." Chen selects a large dish that shows a woman plucking a flower. The round dish, she explains, represents the moon, and the woman standing at its center is Chang'e, the moon goddess in Chinese folklore. The flower, she says, could have to do with success at an imperial examination, a process that was called "picking flowers" at the time. Later, Chen pulls out a dish decorated with the figure of a woman with a bouffant hairdo. "Her hair looks like a flower," Chen says. "This was fashionable among royal women during the late Ming Dynasty." The subjects on the porcelain are so characteristically Chinese that Chen suspects they were intended for other Asian markets, such as Japan or the Philippines. ==

“In addition to its porcelain, Nan'ao Number One stands out for its weaponry, bronze cannons. Xiamen University's Wu told Archaeology, "This is the first boat found with cannons on board," he says. They could have been used to protect the smugglers from imperial forces. "They would confiscate your goods, put you in jail, and sink your ship---the stakes were high." The cannons could also have served to protect the boat against other pirates or raiders. The sailors might also have feared becoming entangled in the intermittent battles that occurred between the Dutch and Portuguese through the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth. ==

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek, Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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