Japanese Pirates Pillage the Chinese Coast Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Political instability in Japan during the mid-sixteenth century allowed pirates known as wakō to raid coastal East Asia and even make incursions inland. These attacks caused major economic instability in Korea and northern China but abated when official trade in the region increased.

Summary of Event

For four hundred years, pirates sailing from bases in Japan and surrounding areas caused havoc all over East Asia. These pirates were referred to as wakō in Japanese, wokou in Chinese, and waeku in Korean. Each is a different pronunciation of the same Chinese characters: The first translates roughly as “dwarf” and was a way of referring to Japan in ancient times; the second character merely means bandit. Some historians believe that the word wakō was derived from an ancient Korean term used to describe the Japanese armies active in the Korean peninsula from the fifth century. Most scholars believe that Japanese pirates were active in East Asia from the thirteenth century, and their social and economic impact in the region cannot be overstated. Pirates;Japanese Ashikaga Yoshimitsu Oda Nobunaga Toyotomi Hideyoshi

It was in Korea that Japanese pirates first began to make their presence known. While China was a major victim of the activities of the wakō, their primary target had always been Korea Korea, Japanese invasion of . The late fourteenth century, because of political instability in Japan and the military weakness of the rulers of China and Korea, saw a dramatic rise in wakō raids, and the economic impact of these raids on Korea was dramatic. The Japanese raiders targeted rice used to pay taxes, and they were so effective at taking official convoys that a halt was called to the transport of rice by sea. The Japanese pirates also took Korean coins—so many that shortages caused a reversion to the barter system. Entire coastal districts were abandoned, and maritime activities such as fishing, whaling, and salt production were given up as well. The economic damage wrought by the wakō on the Korean peninsula was tremendous, a testament to the ruthlessness, and effectiveness, of the Japanese raiders. It was only with the consolidation of central power in Korea under the Yi Dynasty in the 1390’s that Korean forces were able to take decisive steps to drive the wakō from Korean waters.

The wakō were also a serious problem in northern China from the fourteenth century. In the 1350’, Japanese pirates conducted a number of daring raids along the Shandong Peninsula. These incursions continued unabated until a sizable group of wakō were defeated by Chinese forces in 1363. Nevertheless, Japanese raids continued to cause significant economic disruption in a time in which a new Chinese dynasty, the Ming (1368-1644) Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);Japanese raids on , was attempting to consolidate national political and economic authority. As a countermeasure against Japanese raids, the new authorities built forts along the northern Chinese coast, but to little avail.

More effective in hampering the wakō were the efforts of the Japanese leader Ashikaga Yoshimitsu to restore official trading relations with China. Yoshimitsu was so anxious to gain access to the lucrative China trade that he was willing to accept a largely symbolic tributary status in relation to the Chinese court. With China trade in his sights, he convinced his major vassals to take action against the pirates who took shelter in their domains. While these measures proved effective in the short term, Yoshimitsu’s successors grew increasingly weak, as did the power—and indeed, the desire—of Japanese authorities to limit wakō raids on the Chinese and Korean coasts.

All these developments led to something of a renaissance for Japanese piracy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a period of Japanese history known as the Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States period Warring States period (Japan, 1477-1600) , for the total breakdown in central authority and the rise to power of a number of regional daimyo (warlords). Daimyos The lack of central control left the wakō free to increase in their activities. While in earlier times, the pirates referred to as wakō were mostly Japanese sailors, by the sixteenth century, their ethnic makeup had changed considerably. Koreans and Chinese joined the Japanese raiders, along with sailors from Southeast Asia. Some scholars argue that they counted Portuguese adventurers among their numbers. By the mid-sixteenth century, the wakō were mostly Chinese bandits, and their attention had shifted from purely maritime raiding to focused attacks on inland centers such as Nanjing and Suzhou. Other cities were targeted by the wakō as well.

In an effort to stop this revival of piracy, the Chinese authorities placed a ban on trade at ports such as Ningbo in an effort to diminish maritime traffic. This move merely inspired some enterprising wakō to fill the economic void through smuggling and other illicit activities. The situation became so serious that a ban on trade was lifted in 1567, which provided an impetus for legitimate commercial voyages under government protection. During this time, the warlord Oda Nobunaga was beginning to exercise more central political authority in Japan, including a control over the shogunal and imperial political institutions at Kyōto. A string of victories in the 1570’s gave Nobunaga more maritime control, and he used his influence to encourage trade rather than to support piracy.

While efforts to foster legitimate trading between China and Japan sapped the strength and influence of the wakō, it was not until 1587, when Nobunaga’s successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued an edict prohibiting piracy, that the activities of the wakō were curtailed to a great degree. Many crews had sailed from Japan’s Inland Sea and Hideyoshi’s conquest of the island of Kyūshū in 1587 gave him regional influence and allowed the anti-piracy edicts to be effectively enforced. Nevertheless, by this time Japanese piracy had transformed into a truly international phenomenon. Most of the “Japanese” pirates raiding in Korea, China, and Southeast Asia were foreign-born and based abroad.


As the regulatory net tightened and central power increased in Japan, first under the warlord Hideyoshi and then under the shoguns of the Tokugawa family in the seventeenth century, many wakō began to engage in legitimate trade in places such as the Philippines or what is now Indonesia. This caused a final decline in Japanese piracy in East Asia. In addition, measures taken by the Western powers in the Far East caused a decline in the activities of the wakō. So serious was the wakō threat in South Asia in the late sixteenth century that the Portuguese authorities at the port of Macao issued laws banning Japanese from carrying weapons. The Spanish, trying to protect their imperial presence in the region took similar measures.

A final blow to the activities of the wakō came as a result of the Tokugawa shogunate’s decision to restrict foreign trade to a select number of ports and to ban Japanese from sailing abroad. Nevertheless, in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the wakō, both as pirates and as traders, did much to increase the presence of the Japanese in Southeast Asia and had a great economic impact across the region.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Masuda, Wataru. Japan and China: Mutual Representations in the Modern Era. Translated by Joshua Fogel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Includes a chapter on the impact of Japanese pirates in Ming China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sansom, George. A History of Japan, 1334-1615. 3 vols. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1961. Despite its age, Sansom’s history of premodern Japan is still the most authoritative on the subject in English. Includes coverage of the wakō and puts their raids into historical perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai Warfare. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1996. The best English-language history of the Japanese wars of unification. Contains details concerning Japanese naval tactics and piracy.

1457-1480’s: Spread of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism

1467-1477: Ōnin War

1477-1600: Japan’s “Age of the Country at War”

Mar. 5, 1488: Composition of the Renga Masterpiece Minase sangin hyakuin

Beginning 1513: Kanō School Flourishes

1532-1536: Temmon Hokke Rebellion

1549-1552: Father Xavier Introduces Christianity to Japan

1550-1593: Japanese Wars of Unification

Sept., 1553: First Battle of Kawanakajima

June 12, 1560: Battle of Okehazama

1568: Oda Nobunaga Seizes Kyōto

1587: Toyotomi Hideyoshi Hosts a Ten-Day Tea Ceremony

1590: Odawara Campaign

1592-1599: Japan Invades Korea

1594-1595: Taikō Kenchi Survey

Oct., 1596-Feb., 1597: San Felipe Incident

Oct. 21, 1600: Battle of Sekigahara

Categories: History