We all know the pirates of the Caribbean, but what we know less is that those of the China Sea of the Middle Ages had nothing to envy them! From the XIVe in the XVIe century, the seas of the Far East were infested with pirates of Japanese origin: the Wakô. These formidable sailor-bandits, veritable Vikings from the Far East, were reigning terror not only on the Japanese coasts, but also Korean and Chinese, causing havoc far inland …
Like the Mediterranean Sea of Roman times, Japanese seas have been infested with pirates since ancient times. Initially, they are simple fishermen or maritime transporters who also engage in less recommendable but more profitable activities to make ends meet. Thus, in the places where they are rife (in the Inland Sea, along the coasts of Ise Bay and along the Tôkaidô, but also towards Wakasa Bay or in the seas bordering Kyûshû), of ships suffer a real racket, being levied “taxes” and rights of way under penalty of being attacked.
It is however from the XIVe century that piracy really takes off, thanks to a favorable political context. Japan went through a great period of political instability from 1336, power being divided between the Southern Court of Emperor Go Daigo, and the Northern Court under the thumb of Shogun Ashikaga. The local lords were loyal to one or the other without geographical logic but vassal, and could easily switch sides. We count during this period an alternation of peace and war which weakens the central power and therefore leaves the field open to pirates and other independent brigands.
Piracy is in fact intrinsically linked to the world of the sea, and is the norm at that time, making it impossible to ban it by the authorities. Like the crimes regulated by the Yakuza clans, piracy is sometimes even well organized. The pirates thus use “sea castles” as points of support all over the coast. Originally they were guard posts to curb piracy that local lords later used as bases to control maritime traffic with their pirate bands. As in Western piracy, the vessels and maritime furniture of the local authorities were taken over by pirates to serve their interests.
The shrines themselves are not to be outdone: the Kumano shrine in southern Kansai had its own pirate gangs, whose area of activity extended from the coasts of Kyûshû to the seas that bathe the Kantô, to the chagrin of the authorities. This may surprise: why would a religious institution engage in this kind of misdeeds? In reality, these “taxes” were originally conceived as offerings made to sea deities, of which the pirates of the sanctuary were also the servants … Necessarily, they thus defended the territory of the kami sailors from foreign intrusions. There was something for everyone.
The Japanese pirates are not content to plague the Japanese coast, but also attack Korea where they carry out incessant raids, small isolated expeditions to coastal villages or with sometimes gigantic means: some expeditions brought together several hundred ships for a total of 2,000 to 5,000 men! Their main goal is in fact to obtain foodstuffs to survive, by looting the granaries of the villages’ harvests, leaving famines and desolation behind.
But serious crime also exists with organized robberies of Korean tax carriers, slave raids and kidnappings with demand for ransom. The island of Tsushima, ideally located halfway between Japan and Korea, was for a long time an important base for these pirates. They wreak such havoc that Koreans abandon the coast to retreat inland. Never mind: like the Vikings in Europe, the Wakô go up rivers with their ships, and carry out attacks as far as the gates of Seoul!
Pirate attacks are so intense thatthey shake the dynasty in place in Korea, which collapsed at the end of the 14the century. The Li dynasty which replaced her then decided to negotiate with the pirates: in exchange for stopping the raids, it offers official functions and trade authorizations. This partially works, because not all pirates give up their privileges so easily … Those who continue their career as bandits then turn to the China of the Ming. The latter reacted by prohibiting foreign trade and strengthening the coasts, ineffective measures with a counterproductive effect which allows the development of Japanese trade and especially sailors from the Ryûkyû Islands.
If the term Wakô comes from Chinese and means “Japanese pirates”, the world of piracy was above all international : Koreans impoverished by attacks on the coasts themselves swell the ranks of pirates, followed by Chinese; “foreigners” thus constituted 10 to 20% of the workforce.
Faced with a situation increasingly out of control, the Japanese central authorities then try to suppress piracy which seriously hinders diplomatic relations with China, preventing the opening of official trade lines that would bring taxes to the shogunate (which got rid of the Southern Court in 1392). But negotiations with the Chinese are difficult, and piracy does not stop. It must be said that political instability reigns again from 1441 and during the Sengoku period when total disorder reigns. It was not until the reunification of Japan by Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the end of the XVIe century so that peace finally reigns on the seas.
The memory of the ravages of Wakô is remained engraved for a long time in the collective memory of the Chinese and was a milestone in the tumultuous history of relations between the two empires: indeed, in the 19th century, it was still mentioned by a Chinese official during modern trade negotiations to justify his mistrust of the Japanese! However, this Japanese “tradition” of piracy seems a little forgotten in favor of more Western references (One piece…), but we still find for example the spirit in a double episode of the anime Samurai Champloo.
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