Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Okinawa and the Japanese Pirates - The "Wako"

Acts of piracy along the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and eventually Okinawan coastlines can be traced back to the first century AD.  The incidents and frequency of piracy throughout history in this region basically coincided with periods when Korea and China closed their ports to foreign trade.

Wako Origins

Early pirates were men from Kyushu, Japan and the Inland Sea. They often worked for powerful feudal Japanese leaders. They took shelter from the ruling authorities in defensible inlets in southern Japan.  From there they sailed to Korea, China and Southeast Asia to attack or pillage.  The Chinese called them wako, meaning "Japanese pirates." 

From 1402 to 1523, relations between Ming China and Japan were fairly smooth. However starting in the early 1500’s, tensions began to build.  The Shogun of Japan at the time was too weak to control Japan’s ports and its pirate activities.

Okinawa Threatened

Before 1500, Okinawa was not attacked by pirates, but raids increased after 1500.  The wako began attacking ships as they were leaving and entering Naha harbor. They also made raids on villages along the Okinawan shoreline.

In 1523, Japanese tribute missions clashed in the Chinese port of Ningpo, and ended up burning down the town.  This infuriated the Chinese, who banned foreign trade with Japan.  However, the ban only led to more illicit trade between coastal Chinese towns and the Japanese.
In 1527, Naha was under threat of a serious attack from pirates.  The average pirate ships typically held 200 to 300 men, and sometimes they would band together to make total manpower strength in the thousands – enough to invade and control a port town.

Responding to the threat against Naha, King Sho Sei mobilized all the villages and issued weapons from storage for every man to prepare to put up a defense.  He also posted watchmen on both the north and south of Naha as lookouts.  In this way he successfully held off the wako.

Women’s Hand Tattoos and Pirate Legends

Up until the early 1900’s Okinawan women had a tradition of putting tattoos on the backs of their hands.  This was typically done when girls came of age, or were about to be married.  They were considered very beautiful and highly prized by Okinawans, and many different designs developed.  But the Japanese did not like tattoos and thought they were ugly and uncivilized.

Many theories abound about how the hand tattoo tradition started in Okinawa, but the one I find most fascinating relates to the Japanese and the wako.

According to this legend, pirates in the 1500’s would raid coastal villages and ports to take whatever they could find that was valuable and could be traded.  This included capturing girls and young women to sell into prostitution back in Japan. 
As this legend goes, because the Okinawan ladies knew that Japanese men hated tattoos, they started placing tattoos on the back of their hands so that they would not be desired by the pirates who came to kidnap them and sell them to pleasure houses in Japan.

Okinawan Woman's Hand Tattoos Source: Okinawa


Wako Are Not Just Japanese Anymore

 By 1530, the civil war in Japan was fully underway, and Japan’s control of its ports was extremely weak.  Japan had very poor relations with China.  Piracy went up as result.

From the 1530’s to the 1540’s Chinese merchants, frustrated with the ban on trade and travel, set up bases in Kyushu to sell expensive Chinese silks for silver.  This activity violated China’s bans on trade.  Even though these illegal traders were now a mixture of Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, the Chinese government still referred to them all as wako.

From 1545 to 1563 piracy grew significantly.  There were continuous raids along all coastlines.  Even Nanjing was attacked.   Raiding parties varied in size from small groups of men, to as large as 4,000 to 5,000 men.  Pirate activity peaked in 1555.

Due to food shortages in Japan, attacks on Korean ports and towns focused on granaries.  Pirate raids on China went after silk, copper, and human captives who were either sold into slavery or prostitution, or held for ransom.
Over time, attacks spread to south China and beyond.  More and more people who were thieves and violent criminals joined the wako ranks, not just traders and smugglers.

Wako Pirate Raids    Source: Wikipedia

Naha Installs Permanent Harbor Defenses 

The pirate situation was getting so bad that Sho Sei had two forts built on either side of the entrance to Naha harbor, called Yarazamori and Miei.  Construction began in 1551 and was completed in 1553.  These fortresses had cannons, and an iron chain that linked them and stretched across the entrance to the harbor to prevent entry of hostile ships.

Firearms Enter the Picture

By the early 1550's, the pirates were now routinely using arquebuses in their raiding parties.  An arquebus is a smooth-bore muzzle-loading firearm used in the 15th to 17th centuries.  It is a forerunner of the musket. 

Arquebuses were first introduced to Japan in about 1542 via an Okinawan trading depot on Tanegashima Island near southern Kyushu, brought in by the Portuguese from Europe.    Until modern times, guns in Japan were often referred to as simply "Tanegashima."

Japanese Arquebuses     Source: Wikipedia

In order to deal with the piracy problem, in 1557 the Chinese instituted a ban on overseas trade and travel.  Only countries with tributary relations, such as Okinawa, were allowed to trade, and only at certain designated ports.
Pirate attacks expanded on China, the Inland Sea, the Philippines, and Indonesia. 

Piracy Fades Away

 In 1567 the Ming Court lifted its ban on trade. This allowed many wako to now become "legitimate businessmen" in China’s eyes.  Those who still were involved in illicit trade moved their base camps from Kyushu to either Taiwan or the Philippines.

In 1588, Hideyoshi banned piracy  in Japanese ports, helping to reduce the threat.  Later, Tokugawa put in place stricter controls to stem the problem.

By 1700, most wako activity was gone.  This was due not only to better control of Japan’s ports, but also due to an increased presence of European traders.

References for this article:
George Kerr  "Okinawa: The History of an Island People" revised edition

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Sho Shin and Okinawan Trade

Sho Shin became king in 1477 at the young age of 13. The son of Sho En, he was appointed king after a brief period where another held the throne for six months before abdicating, thereby making Sho Shin the third king of the second Sho dynasty.  He began a 100 year period of creative activity for Okinawa. Over his long tenure of 50 years as King he brought many positive changes to Okinawa.  See my previous posts on his administrative changes and royal court ranking system.

Not only did he support and nourish culture and the arts, he also used his military powers to keep the entire island chain under firm control, especially the outer islands to the south and north of Okinawa Island.

Taking control of the North and South Islands

In 1486, the Shuri government established an outpost on Kikai Island to the north to oversee and protect their trade routes to the north – to Japan and Korea.  In the same year, Yaeyama and the southern islands, which had been paying tribute to Okinawa since as far back as 1390 began a rebellion against Shuri control.  The southern islands were an important part of Shuri’s trade route to the south – China, the Indies, and Southeast Asia.

The Yaeyama resistance was led by their aji Oyake Akahachi.  Yonaguni Island also resisted, led by a ruler named Unten.  The island of Miyako was led by the Nakasone family.

Source:  Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

Although the Yaeyama islands are larger in physical size than Miyako, and with greater resources, the dominant power in the south was Miyako Island.  Why this is so is not clear, although Georg Kerr speculated that mountainous terrain and frequent outbreaks of Malaria as well as snake infestations may have been factors, while Miyako is flat and dry, thus a more stable environment for survival. Still, the reasons are not totally clear.

Miyako and Yaeyama were strong rivals and competed fiercely for trade with Okinawa Island.

In 1500, Nakasone learned that Akahachi on Yaeyama was planning to invade Miyako and take over.  Nakasone counterattacked in a surprise move and overwhelmed Akahachi’s forces.  He also conquered Yonaguni Island and took Unten’s daughter as hostage.

After he returned home to Miyako, he was surprised to find himself facing a force of 3,000 men sent by Sho Shin from Okinawa Island to take control of the southern islands.  He was vastly outnumbered.  Nakasone quickly negotiated a surrender which saved the residents of Miyako from ruin.  He surrendered to the Shuri forces, and surrendered his newly conquered territories as well.  Thus Sho Shin regained control of the southern islands.

For his “cooperation” Nakasone was recognized as Chieftain of Miyako. 

Trade Route Troubles – Europeans and Pirates

Because of the Shuri and Naha system that catered to relocating and supporting all royal families in those towns,  the local Okinawan economy was not able to keep up with the large demands for resources that this created.  Okinawa was therefore heavily dependent on foreign trade to keep up the wealth and standards of the aji in order to maintain the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed.

At the time of Sho Shin’s reign, the Okinawan trade routes extended south all the way to the Indies and Southeast Asia.  They traded with Muslims from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Persians (Iranians), Indians, Turks, Philippinos, Cambodians, and Malaysians, among other countries.

At the time, Okinawans traded gold, copper, weapons of all kinds, fans, paper, silks, porcelains, grains and vegetables.  Their wares had a reputation for being high quality goods from China, japan and Korea.  Some called Okinawa the Milan of China.  The Okinawans in return would sell to the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans goods from the south, such as clothes, fishing nets, and wines.

Okinawa’s first contact with Europeans occurred in 1511 in Southeast Asia.  Primarily Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and English, these sailors competed strongly with Okinawa. This competition slowly but surely cut into Okinawa’s trade routes to the south over time.

One account described in George Kerr’s book "Okinawa: the History of an Island People", gives a description of Okinawans from the eyes of Portuguese adventurers at the time. 
"... the Malacca people say that they are better men, and richer and more eminent merchants than the Chins [Chinese].  Of these folk we as yet know but little...."
"... they are men of very reserved speech, and do not give anyone an account of their native affairs...."
"...the men are fair; their dress is like a cloak without a hood; they carry long swords after the fashion of Turkish cimetars, but somewhat more narrow; they also carry daggers  of two palms' length; they are daring men and feared in this land [of Malacca (Malaysia)].  When they arrive at port, the do not bring out their merchandise all at once, but little by little; they speak truthfully, and will have the truth spoken to them. If any merchant in Malacca broke his word, they  would immediately take him prisoner.  they strive to dispatch their business and get away quickly, for they are not the men to like going away from their own land. They set out for Malacca in the month of January, and begin their return journey in August or September...."

The Portuguese were extremely curious about all the Okinawan goods, especially all the gold that the Okinawans traded.  In 1517 the Portuguese launched an expedition to find this mysterious Ryukyu and look for all the gold they seem to have.  The mission got as far as Fukien, China, before it was abandoned.

Japanese Pirates - wako

In addition to losing trade due to European competition to the south, Japanese pirates, or wako, were also becoming a big problem, raiding coastal villages and attacking seaports, where they looted and pillaged, as well as taking human captives to sell into slavery or prostitution.

The loss of trade due to Europeans and pirates would come to be an even bigger problem under the next king, Sho Sei.

Sho Shin ruled over what would be the most prosperous times for Okinawa.  Despite this prosperity, things would continue to become more difficult for the next several generations of kings to follow.