The Japanese pirates’ booty, 1350-1419

By Damien Peladan

Keywords : Piracy, wakō, waegu, wokou, China, Korea, Japan.

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figure 1: Japanese pirates pillaging an aristocratic dwelling in Koryŏ. Detail from the Samgang Haengsildo (三綱行實圖; “Illustrations of Exemplary Conducts of the Three Bonds” ; 1434, reed. 1579). © Waseda University Library

It is impossible to approach the history of medieval Japan’s foreign relations without touching upon the two great surges of Japanese (or Sino-Japanese) piracy in the East China Sea, the first one in the second half of the 14th and the early 15th century, and the second in the mid-16th century. Although historians have devoted much more attention to the latter, the first wave of Japanese piracy (known as waegu in Korean, wakō in Japanese and wokou in Chinese) was nonetheless a major historical phenomenon, which was as much the result of the political and military turmoil experienced by all three East Asian countries at the time as it was an aggravating factor of this instability. Fleets gathering dozens, even hundreds of ships and thousands of men (usually between two and three, but sometimes up to seven thousand) suddenly started in 1350 to set sail from the Japanese archipelago in order to plunder the Korean coast and went as far as the Northern shores of China from 1358 on. After 1369, some groups also began crossing the East China sea to Jiangnan, the economic heartland of the Chinese empire, sometimes pushing as far South as Guangdong, the Southernmost province of China. This piracy reached its peak of intensity during the 1370s and 1380s, the brunt of their raids then targeting Korea. At the turn of the 15th century, Korean authorities, as they explored new ways of repressing piracy, opened their ports to private trade with Japan, enticing many pirates to turn to legitimate trade, a strategy which managed to displace most of the raids towards the Chinese shores in the 1400s and 1410s. Large-scale piracy was, however, living its last moments. In 1419, a Japanese fleet caused troubles in Chosŏn (as Korea was called between 1392 and 1897) while it sailed past the peninsula towards Northern China. The exasperated Korean authorities launched in reprisal a large-scale expedition against Tsushima island, the main pirate base in Japan, while at the same time the pirate group responsible for the attacks in Korea suffered a decisive defeat at the hands of Chinese troops at the battle of Wanghaiguo (fig.7). Piracy waned rapidly after these events, before disappearing altogether in the mid-15th century. We should note here that even though Chinese or Korean people have at times taken part in the raids, be it of their own accord or under constraint, overall, the pirate crews were mostly composed of people from Western Japan, especially based in smaller islands in the Northwest of Kyūshū such as Tsushima, Iki, and Hirado (fig. 2).

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figure 2: Main pirate bases in Japan. Other areas of Japan, such as Southern Kyūshū, were also periodically involved, but the epicenter of piracy was located in the islands North-West of Kyūshū and to a lesser extent around Hakata (present day Fukuoka city), which used to be the main port city for Japanese foreign trade in the Middle period.

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figure 3: Routes of the three pirate fleets active in 1374 (map by author). While a first group was plying along the West coast of the Korean peninsula and the Northern shores of China, a second one sailed along the East coast of Korea, and a third directly crossed towards Southern China, went on to attack Fujian and then sailed back to Japan along the Ryūkyū archipelago (present day Okinawa pref.). The dotted line represents an alternate route for the third fleet. Ships sailing between Japan and Southern China usually set sails from the Gotō archipelago and called at one of the Zhoushan archipelago’s numerous islands, but pirate fleets would also sometimes sail by the southern coast of Korea before crossing to China.

Although piracy is by essence an economic activity, based on the violent appropriation of goods and people at one end and their commercialization at the other, the issue of the pirates’ booty has until now rarely been covered in contemporary scholarship, historians mainly citing as is the assertions of Korean and Chinese official histories, our main sources on the subject — pirates themselves did not leave any writings. These official texts tend to give the impression that pirates were only interested in two kinds of “goods” : cereals and foodstuffs on one hand, and slaves on the other. Our research has however led us to the conclusion that pirate fleets’ cargo holds contained a wide variety of objects, as we shall explain in this article.

Of course, cereals and slaves were undeniably an integral part of the loot brought back from the continent. For instance, pirates frequently targeted the maritime convoys which transported the taxes (paid in kind) from Korean provinces to the capital Kaesŏng, and ambushed, at the end of the Yuan period (1271-1367), the fiscal convoys which supplied the imperial capital Dadu (Beijing) with grain from the fertile Southern provinces. Once they had landed, the pirates plundered with the same constancy government granaries, which often contained hundreds of tons of grain. These cereals may have been used for the sustenance of local populations in the islands whence pirates came, or possibly in order to sustain the war effort of belligerent lords in a Japanese society engulfed in a long-drawn feudal conflict.

Sources also abound in mentions regarding the capture of slaves. The total number of Koreans and Chinese forcefully brought back to Japan between 1350 and 1420 is unknown, but probably reaches the tens of thousands. Given that Japan’s total population at the time is estimated to have been around nine million, and that many of these foreign captives remained in Kyūshū and the surrounding islands, they undoubtedly represented a substantive demographical input to local societies. These slaves were generally employed as workforce either aboard ships, in the ports or the in the fields, but those who possessed technical knowledge could also be employed in their field of competence and could on rare occasions find their place within Japanese society. Some captive women sometimes also served as “spouses” for the pirate leaders, a probable sign of the existence of sexual trafficking.

Although sources chiefly mention attacks against fiscal convoys, government granaries and other official buildings, it is evident that pirates did not limit themselves to such targets, and ransacked just as regularly private or religious buildings, such as affluent dwellings or the numerous Korean Buddhist monasteries. Such depredations against private establishments are only briefly alluded to in the historical texts but are clearly attested by archaeology. Excavations conducted on the remains of the Kam’ŭn monastery (感恩寺) in Kyŏngju (North Kyŏngsang prov.) have for instance brought to light a gong bearing an inscription according to which the artifact had been made in replacement of an earlier one stolen by pirates in 1351 (fig. 4). This gong clearly attests to the fact that raiders did not merely steal cereals and slaves, but also seized other types of goods, such as Buddhist liturgical artifacts. It is probably not a coincidence that the temples and shrines of Northern Kyūshū and the surrounding islands, where most of the pirate fleets were based, still hold scores of Korean statues, sutras, gongs, bells paintings religious artifacts dating to the Unified Silla (668-935) and more commonly Koryŏ (918-1392) periods. The island of Tsushima alone holds close to a hundred Korean Buddhist statues, two of which have recently been stolen by Korean tourists and are at the center of a legal dispute between Japan and South Korea (Nagatome 2013). The Korean gong of the Takuzutama shrine (多久頭魂神社) in Tsushima bears an inscription commemorating its donation to the shrine in 1357, likely right after having been stolen from the Hŭngch’ŏn (興天寺) monastery near Kaesŏng a few weeks earlier. The same goes for the Lotus Sutra painted with gilded letters which Shōni Yorihisa (少弐頼尚; 1292-1371), steward of the Tsushima estate, donated to the Tenmangū (天満宮) shrine in Dazaifu (Fukuoka pref.) on the 12th month of 1357 (Yi 2008). Pirates went as far as taking down the massive bells of Korean monasteries and ship them back to Japan, where they fetched a good price (10000 cash coins according to one source in 1375). Among the sixty Korean bells identified in the archipelago, eighteen bear a Japanese inscription, eleven of which are dated to the second half of the 14th century, and nine just for the decade from 1372 to 1381, i.e., during the high peak of piracy in Korea. Although none of these inscriptions mention the precise circumstances under which they arrived in Japan, there is little doubt that many of them were imported on the pirate ships.

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figure 4: Gong from the Kam’ŭnsa
© Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, 1997

In addition to these liturgical artifacts, the pirate vessels’ cargo holds also transported quantities of ceramics. Pottery industry in Middle Japan was lagging far behind its continental counterparts, and Japanese elites imported Chinese ceramics massively. Korea had also perfected the craft of high-quality celadons, but this production was only exported to Japan in very limited amounts. That is until the mid-14th century, as archaeological layers reveal a sudden and sharp increase in quantities of Korean celadons present in the country (mostly concentrated in Western Japan) between the second half of the 14th and the first half of the 15th century. Surely this increase has much to do with piracy in the 14th century on one hand, and the development of legal trade with Korea in the early 15th century on the other. Again, textual sources barely pay any attention to the pirates’ taste for this type of products, but recent archaeological discoveries in South Korea show that tax transport ships also transported ceramics (fig. 6), so that when pirates seized these transports, they would also often obtain quantities of vases, dishes and other tableware. A sherd from a bowl baring the mark “Chŏngnŭng” (正陵), i.e., the name of funeral mound of Queen Noguk (魯國; 1336-1365), king Kongmin’s (恭愍王; r. 1352-1374) spouse, was excavated on the remains of the Kanzeonji (観世音寺) in Dazaifu, the familial monastery of the Shōni clan (fig. 5). These bowls were made in the government kilns of Kangjin (South Chŏlla prov.) for the religious service of the Queen’s tomb between 1365 and 1374 and transported by sea to the capital. It is therefore highly likely that this bowl was seized by the pirates on a tax transport ship and brought back to Kyūshū. This sherd undoubtedly represents but a fraction of the vast quantities of bowls, vases, cups, plates, dishes and other objects brought back to Japan in the pirate ships’ cargo holds, as they were either seized on transport ships, or in the numerous monasteries, administrative buildings and dwellings they ransacked.

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figure 5: Sherd from a Koryŏ celadon bowl baring the mark "Chŏngnŭng", excavated on the remains of the Kanzeonji in Dazaifu.
© Kyushu Historical Museum, 2007, p. 356 ; photographed by author

As to the Chinese objects, although we have not been able so far to identify in the archaeological record those which may have been seized by the pirates, the latter undoubtfully laid their hands on a wide array of valuable goods in China as well, some of which ended up being sold in the Korean ports when private trade with Japan was allowed in the early 15th century. This fact is clearly attested in the writings of Korean authorities, which as a result were caught between a rock and a hard place: was it preferable to incur the wrath of the Chinese imperial court by allowing such a trade, or that of the pirates by banning it? Fortunately for them, this dilemma was eventually nullified by the sudden decline of Japanese piracy after 1419.

To summarize, it is quite clear that although cereals and slaves occupied a sizeable share of the pirates’ dealings, in reality they seized a wide variety of goods holding potential market value. Statues, gongs, sutras, bells, paintings or ceramics, but also probably textiles, medicinal products or even books — which do not resist well to the passing of time and leave very few traces in the archeological record — were part of the ordinary cargo of the pirate ships to be sold in Japanese, and even at times Korean ports.

Identifying the objects sought after by the pirates not only gives us an insight into the material culture which underpinned piracy, but also brings new data to the ongoing debates surrounding the nature of relations between pirates and Japanese feudal lords. While some historians consider that pirates operated on the margins of established power structures, others hold the view that they worked at the behest of one or even several lords. As mentioned above, the Shōni clan seems to have largely benefitted from the economic circulations induced by piracy, especially during the 1350s and 1360s. This implies that the clan was somehow involved in the early stages of its development, although the specifics of this relationship elude us. In general, the feudal lords’ attitudes towards piracy seem to have widely varied according to one’s own economic, military or diplomatic interests. Some sought to ban it, others were more complacent, whether because they were unable to suppress it or because it benefitted them economically and politically. It would however be erroneous to think that pirates formed independent polities in a similar manner as the early 18th century Caribbean Sea. Although at times the feudal lords’ authority weakened as a result of military misfortunes, thus giving freer reign to the pirates (it seems to be what happened in the 1370s and 1380s, when piracy reached its high peak), most of the time, pirates had to deal with feudal hierarchy, as lords had the authority to either ban their activities, or at least restrict them (for example by forbidding them to raid a certain country), if such was in their interest.

This issue of the relation between pirates and political powers is complex and has until now largely been left without any definitive answer, but we hope that a more thorough study of the economic circuits linked to piracy will help to fill the gaps in our understanding.

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figure 6: Mado 4 shipwreck, excavated in 2014-2015. The wooden tags found on the wreck (bottom center) indicate that this ship was part of a fiscal convoy transporting taxes from Naju (South Chŏlla prov.) to the capital Seoul but sank en route in the waters of Mado (Anhŭng) sometime between 1417 and 1425. Its cargo mainly consisted of cereals (bottom right), as well as 155 punch’ŏng type ceramics (bottom left) (© National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage 국립해양문화재연구소). Given that in 1419, Japanese pirates sailing back from China (see fig. 7) seized nine tax ships from Chŏlla province in the port Anhŭng, precisely where the Mado 4 sank, this wreck is a prefect illustration of the loot the pirates might have taken away on this instance.

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figure 7: Route of the pirate fleet in 1419 (map by author). After having been badly defeated at the hands of Chinese troops at the battle of Wanghaiguo in Liaodong, the surviving pirates limped back to Tsushima and seized nine Korean tax ships in Anhŭng on the way.

figure 8: General map of place names

figure 8: General map of place names

Damien Peladan is a historian and currently Temporary Lecturer and Research Assistant (ATER) at the université Jean Moulin Lyon 3. His thesis, defended in January 2021 and intitled “The Age of Japanese Piracy : Transformation of Maritime Circulations in the East China Sea, 1350-1419”, focuses on the surge of Japanese piracy in East Asia in the 14th and early 15th centuries. His current projects include a translation of the work of the Korean literati Song Hŭigyŏng (1376-1446), Nosongdang Ilbon haengnok (“Chronicles of Nosongdang’s travels in Japan”), the first account of a Korean’s journey through medieval Japan, in 1420.

Bibliographical references

Calanca, Paola, «Wokou, un terme au long cours?», in Battesti Michelle (dir.), La piraterie au fil de l’histoire: un défi pour l’État, Presses Universitaires de Paris-Sorbonne, Paris, 2014, p. 63-79.

Carré, Guillaume, «Féodalités maritimes: le Japon médiéval et la mer (xie-xviesiècles)», in La Mer dans l’Histoire – Le Moyen Âge, enquête internationale de l’Association Océanides, the Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2017, p. 867-890.

Hazard, Benjamin H., “The formative years of the Wakō, 1223-63”,in Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 22-3, Sophia university, Tōkyō, 1967, p. 260-277.

Nagatome Hisae, Nusumareta butsuzō - Tsushima to toraibutsu no rekishi haikei [Stolen Buddhist Statues – Historical context of the foreign Buddhist statues in Tsushima], Kōrinsha shuppan kikaku, Tsushima, 2013.

Peladan, Damien, «La comédie des erreurs - Réactions à l'expédition coréenne contre Tsushima, 1419», in Japon pluriel 12 - actes du douzième colloque de la Société des études japonaises, Paris, 2018, p. 685-694.

Yi Young , «Ssŭsima tchŭtchŭ Tagussŭdama sinsa sojae Koryŏ ch’ŏngdongje panja-wa waegu» [The Koryŏ bronze gong of the Takuzutama shrine of Tsutsu in Tsushima and Japanese raiders], in Hanguk chungsesa yŏn’gu, n°25, 10/2008, p. 409-440.

Pirates japonais pillant une demeure aristocratique du Koryŏ. Extrait du Samgang haengsildo (三綱行實圖 ; « Illustrations des conduites fidèles aux trois liens » ; 1434, rééd. 1579). © Bibliothèque de l’Université de Waseda
May 2021
Damien Peladan
Historien, ATER à l’université Jean Moulin Lyon 3