Europeans Begin Trade with Japan Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In 1543, Portuguese sailors landed on Tanegashima, south of Kyūshū. In the first recorded trade between Europe and Japan, the local lord purchased their harquebuses and made working copies. Domestic musket-making quickly spread and grew. Firearms made traditional samurai warfare obsolete and radically changed the course of history.

Summary of Event

Portuguese ships began journeys of exploration down the African coast in the fifteenth century, reaching the Cape of Good Hope in 1487. The Portuguese goal of establishing a maritime trade route to India and beyond was furthered in 1497 by the Treaty of Tordesillas Tordesillas, Treaty of (1494) (originally signed in 1494), in which Spain yielded the exploration of India and East Asia to Portugal. The Portuguese founded a settlement at Goa, India, in 1510, and another on the Malay Peninsula in 1511. Trade;Europe with Japan Pinto, Fernão Mendes Myōsan Shimazu Takahisa Tachibanaya Matasaburō Oda Nobunaga Tanegashima Tokitaka Tanegashima Tokitaka Pinto, Fernão Mendes Shimazu Takahisa Xavier, Saint Francis Myōsan Oda Nobunaga;warfare Tachibanaya Matasaburō

Portuguese trading vessels reached Canton in 1517, but incidents provoked by Portuguese sailors caused Portuguese shipping to be officially banned from Chinese ports in 1521, causing Portugal to seek out other trading ports in East Asia. Even so, Portuguese traders continued surreptitious trade along the China coast, anchoring far offshore and transferring cargo to Chinese vessels, which brought them to the docks. Some Portuguese traders used Chinese ships and crews, keeping out of sight themselves while anchored in Chinese ports.

In the early autumn of 1543, a foreign ship appeared off Tanegashima, a sizable Japanese island south of Kyūshū. Early records do not indicate whether the ship was a Chinese or a Portuguese vessel. Two Portuguese came ashore, each armed with an harquebus (also spelled arquebus). They stayed on the island about ten days and were hosted by the local lord, Tokitaka, who purchased their weapons. The Portuguese adventurer Fernão Mendes Pinto later claimed in his memoirs that he was present, but there is no actual proof that he was.

After taking basic lessons in marksmanship from the Portuguese, Tokitaka had local swordsmiths make copies and produce the proper gunpowder blend. The original Portuguese matchlock harquebuses were then among the most advanced and accurate firearms in the world, and the making of domestic versions of them revolutionized military technology in Japan. A Portuguese ship stopped at Tanegashima the following year, with the latest gunsmithing equipment, which Tokitaka also purchased, after the Portuguese demonstrated how it was used to make firearms. Military;Japan

Tokitaka passed this firearms technology along to his overlord, Shimazu Takahisa. Shimazu hosted Portuguese voyagers who subsequently came to Kagoshima, including the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier (1506-1552). Shimazu benefited from trade with the Portuguese and obtained more harquebuses from them. The domestic models made by Japanese swordsmiths, however, were regarded by many samurai as superior in performance, workmanship, and materials. Shimazu was the first to employ some troops using harquebuses, in his victory at the Battle of Kajiki Castle Kajiki Castle, Battle of (1549) , in Kagoshima, in 1549.

The Negoro temple, far to the northeast in Wakayama, had a large network of affiliated Buddhist Buddhism;warrior monks temples and a strong contingent of defensive warrior monks known as sōhei. These monks were famous for their skill in both making and using weapons of all sorts. The senior priest at Negoro, Myōsan, persuaded Tokitaka to send him one of the two Portuguese harquebuses, and his monks were soon making their own versions of the weapon. The Negoro temple subsequently trained and equipped its own force of musketeers, numbering more than one thousand. When the national warlord Oda Nobunaga attacked the Ishiyama Honganji temple inŌsaka in 1570, the Negoro temple sent its regiment of musketeers to assist, forcing Oda’s troops to withdraw. Negoro and Honganji Honganji musketeers were able to keep Oda at bay for another decade after that.

Oda Nobunaga had musketeers of his own, but the 1570 standoff made him more aware of the effectiveness of using them to shoot harquebuses in rotating volleys, maintaining continuous deadly fire to mow down conventionally armed warriors. On June 28, 1575, in the Battle of Nagashino, Nagashino, Battle of (1575) Oda used three thousand musketeers, shooting from behind wooden barricades, to wipe out samurai cavalry that outnumbered them by three to one. After this, musketeers were regarded as essential for military success and made up at least a third of the armies of most warlords.

Tachibanaya Matasaburō, an enterprising merchant from theŌsaka area, went to the Negoro temple and learned how to make harquebuses under Myōsan’s guidance. He went on to study gunsmithing for more than a year at Tanegashima, before returning home to establish his own firearms business. The success of this private commercial undertaking led to the establishment of similar harquebus-making enterprises all over Japan, and as a result the use of these firearms became relatively commonplace throughout the country.


The purchase of Portuguese harquebuses in 1543 was the first recorded instance of trade between Japan and Europe. It created a Japanese demand for Portuguese firearms technology, leading in turn to broader Portuguese-Japanese trade and to growing Portuguese influence in Japan. The harquebuses revolutionized Japanese warfare. Peasants could learn to use them in a relatively short time, as opposed to the years samurai needed to master traditional sword and archery skills.

Ashigaru, light infantry armed with spears, previously easy prey for samurai cavalry, became musketeers who were a threat to traditional mounted samurai. Religious warriors and peasant insurgents supported by firearms could maintain defensive control of their territory for longer periods of time, until they were overcome by superior numbers of samurai aided by ashigaru musketeers. These changes in warfare reduced the effectiveness of traditional mounted samurai led by regional warlords, hastening the development of a unified national army with sufficient firepower to keep potential commoner insurgents in check.

Finally, while the purchase of the harquebuses in 1543 led to trade with Portugal for nearly a century, the ability of the Japanese to make their own firearms set a model for self-sufficiency in other areas. Many regarded the Japanese weapons as superior to the Portuguese originals and had the same view of other imported items, such as eyeglasses, clocks, tobacco, and glassware. Japanese entrepreneurs learned to produce these things themselves, and when Japanese voyages overseas were prohibited in 1635 and Portuguese ships were banned in 1639, imported goods were readily replaced by domestic substitutions. On the other hand, Japanese firearms remained largely frozen in time technologically, until new rifles and handguns arrived in quantity from the West after the arrival of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry in 1853.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chase, Kenneth W. Firearms: A Global History to 1700. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003. A study of the worldwide impact of the use of firearms on world civilization, including the way the Japanese developed firearms on their own after European firearms first appeared on Tanegashima.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collis, Maurice. The Grand Peregrination: Being the Life and Adventures of Fernão Mendes Pinto. Manchester, England: Carcanet, 1990. Incorporates all major events, including Pinto’s reported Tanegashima experiences, creating a highly readable narrative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooper, Michael. They Came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640. Michigan Classics in Japanese Studies 15. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1995. The experiences of Europeans in Japan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in their own words, including the real or imagined Tanegashima experience of Fernão Mendes Pinto.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lidin, Olof G. Tanegashima: The Arrival of Europe in Japan. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2002. A scholarly study of this early encounter between Japanese and Europeans which draws from original sources to analyze subsequent Portuguese arrivals and their effects on sixteenth century Japanese society and culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mendes Pinto, Fernão. The Travels of Mendes Pinto. Translated and edited by Rebecca D. Catz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Complete modern English translation with notes that distinguish factual and fictional elements in this sixteenth century Portuguese narrative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Milward, Peter. Portuguese Voyages to Asia and Japan in the Renaissance Period: Proceedings of the International Conference Held at Sophia University, Tokyo, from September 24-26, 1993, Commemorating the First Arrival of Westerners in Japan (Portuguese Traders on the Island of Tanegashima) on September 23, 1543, Exactly 450 Years Ago. Edited by Peter Milward. Tokyo: Renaissance Institute, Sophia University, 1994. Intended for an academic audience but helpful for general readers who want to gain knowledge from multiple perspectives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turnbull, Stephen. Nagashino 1575. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2000. Concise account of the Battle of Nagashino, the first in Japanese history in which firearms played the decisive role.

June 7, 1494: Treaty of Tordesillas

16th cent.: Proliferation of Firearms

1505-1515: Portuguese Viceroys Establish Overseas Trade Empire

1505-1521: Reign of Zhengde and Liu Jin

1549-1552: Father Xavier Introduces Christianity to Japan

1550’s-1567: Japanese Pirates Pillage the Chinese Coast

1550-1593: Japanese Wars of Unification

1568: Oda Nobunaga Seizes Kyōto

Categories: History