Ōuchi Family Monopolizes Trade with China Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In the spring of 1523, Hakata merchants, backed by theŌuchi family, reached the Chinese port of Ningbo, followed shortly by rivalŌsaka traders, connected with the Hosokawa family. Conflict ensued, and the Hakata merchants prevailed. China-Japan trade was interrupted, but theŌuchi family eventually gained a monopoly on it.

Summary of Event

During the early years of the Ming Dynasty Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);trade , a great expansion of Chinese maritime exploration took place. From 1405 until his death in 1433, Chinese admiral Zheng He took ships as far as the Persian Gulf and the eastern coast of Africa. After Zheng’s death in the mid-1430’, however, the Ming government ended its maritime activities on the grounds that naval voyages had not yielded any significant material benefits. There followed a decline in Chinese maritime commerce, since merchant ships had no protection on the sea. Trade;Japan with China Ashikaga Yoshitane Hosokawa Takakuni Ōuchi Yoshioki Wang Jin Song Suqing Ōuchi Yoshioki Ashikaga Yoshitane Hosokawa Takakuni Jiajing Zhengde Song Suqing Wang Jin Ōuchi family

The vacuum left was filled by small fleets belonging to lords of Japanese coastal regions in western Honshū and on the western coast of Kyūshū. Under the leadership of the Ashikaga shogunate Ashikaga shogunate , these lords helped control piracy Pirates;Japanese , and in exchange for this the Ming government gave concessions for authorized Japanese vessels to trade in Chinese ports. For public relations purposes in China, these Japanese trading voyages were ostensibly to bring tributary goods from the shogun to the Ming emperor. The Chinese cargo taken back to Japan was portrayed as return gifts to the shogun from the Chinese ruler.

To assure that the only arriving Japanese vessels were those authorized by the shogunate, the Ming government established a system of tallies, with annotated impressions made from imperial seals divided in two parts. One set of parts was sent to Japan to be issued to official Japanese trading vessels, while another was kept in the Chinese port of entry, Ningbo, for verification. When the Ming ruler changed, fresh tallies were made, with the reign name of the new sovereign.

Controlling the western Honshū coastline, the port of Shimonoseki (which commanded the Kanmon Strait), and the southern coast leading into the Inland Sea, the Ōuchi family was able to dominate sea traffic between Japan and the Asian mainland. As a result, the shogunate awarded the China trade concession to theŌuchi family, and the family maintained this priority over the years, interrupted only by occasional breaches with the shogunate. Maritime traders from Hakata, in the Fukuoka area of Kyūshū, were allied with the family and conducted the actual voyages to China.

Under the leadership ofŌuchi Yoshioki, the family greatly strengthened ties with the shogunate, after its troops helped expel hostile forces from Kyōto and restored Ashikaga Yoshitane as shogun in 1508. Yoshitane then officially confirmed the virtualŌuchi monopoly over officially authorized China trade. Yoshioki remained in the capital protecting the shogun until 1518, when he moved back to his own domain.

In 1521, Hosokawa Takakuni, who controlled the capital after Yoshioki’s departure, deposed Shogun Yoshitane, who died in exile in 1523. The next shogun was a pawn of Takakuni, whose Hosokawa family was in total control of the government. TheŌuchi family lost shogunate backing for its control of the China trade, as the Hosokawa family planned to assume control of this trade. The Hosokawas formed an alliance with sea traders from the port of Sakai in theŌsaka region, reinforcing them with Hosokawa guards and giving them a tally authorization from the shogunate files.

In the spring of 1523, three Hakata merchant ships backed by theŌuchi family reached the Chinese port of Ningbo. They had a tally authorization to trade, issued during the reign of the Jiajing emperor (r. 1522-1567). A ship belonging to rival Sakai traders arrived soon afterward but obtained priority clearance from the Chinese port officials. The angry Hakata merchants received no satisfactory explanation for this special treatment, and they later discovered that the latecomers’ tally authorization was from the reign of the previous emperor, Zhengde, who had died in 1521. The Hakata merchants claimed that this Zhengde tally had expired and that they should have been cleared for trade, although it is unclear exactly how they obtained their own more recent tally.

Enraged by the indifference of Chinese officials toward their claims and assuming that these officials had been bribed, the Hakata merchants and theirŌuchi guards attacked the Sakai trading party, killing many of them and burning their ship. They failed, however, to catch Song Suqing, the Chinese interpreter who had accompanied the Hosokawa traders to Ningbo; it was he who, the Hakata merchants believed, had arranged the bribes. The Hakata traders pursued Song for nearly 100 miles (approximately 160 kilometers) before giving up and returning to Ningbo. They captured Wang Jin, the senior Chinese official in Ningbo, and set sail for Japan. Pursued by some Ming coast-guard ships, they fought them off and escaped.

This incident severely strained Sino-Japanese relations, and official trade was interrupted for some time. After protracted negotiations between the Chinese and Japanese governments, using merchants in the Okinawa area as intermediaries, Wang Jin was returned, the Hakata ringleader of the Ningbo incident was remanded to the Ming authorities, and all the Japanese cargo left behind at Ningbo was confiscated by the Chinese.

The Ming authorities never actually banned trade with Japan; rather, it had excluded the Portuguese because of port violence. Hosokawa Takakuni, who had backed the rival Sakai merchants, lost power after 1525 and was killed as the result of a coup in the capital in 1531. The violence at Ningbo, regardless of its immediate consequences, intimidated potential maritime rivals and assured theŌuchi family of a monopoly on official trade with China, which lasted until Yoshioki’s heir, Yoshitaka, died during an uprising in 1551, andŌuchi power was completely destroyed.


TheŌuchi family’s virtual control of maritime trade routes in northeast Asian waters filled the vacuum left after the Ming government scrapped its navy to concentrate on coastal defenses after 1433. The Chinese government created an official and exclusive trade relation with Japan at Ningbo in exchange for maritime security. This arrangement also helped make it possible for Chinese and Korean merchant vessels to conduct peaceful trade in various other ports.

The other forces operating in northeast Asian waters were Portuguese vessels and vessels of the wakō Wakō[Wako] , a loosely allied group of mostly Japanese pirates. While the Portuguese were primarily interested in trade, they also sometimes clashed with the Chinese. After several violent clashes, the Chinese authorities banned all Portuguese ships from Chinese ports after 1521. In 1545, after Portuguese ships began to return, Chinese forces destroyed a Portuguese trading post at Ningbo and killed all the Portuguese there as well.

The wakō also attempted to trade at times, but the Ming authorities regarded them as pirates and viewed their trade as simply another form of criminal activity. The tally arrangement was in fact largely aimed at excluding wakō who might pose as legitimate Japanese merchants. Unlike the Portuguese sailors, who were involved in some violent incidents, these Japanese pirates deliberately raided Chinese ports, looting, killing, and in general menacing the Chinese coast.

After theŌuchi family lost power in the middle of the sixteenth century, neither the Chinese nor the Japanese had enough naval strength to control the Japanese pirates. The Portuguese, regarded as the lesser of two evils, were tacitly allowed to replace theŌuchi family’s maritime forces. The Portuguese did help protect Chinese, Japanese, and Korean merchant ships in some cases, but they became a growing colonial power, establishing a permanent Chinese trading base at Macao in 1556 and developing an official trading relationship with Japan at Nagasaki as of 1570.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arnesen, Peter Judd. The Medieval Japanese Daimyo: TheŌuchi Family’s Rule of Suo and Nagato. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. A history of theŌuchi family in its heyday.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brook, Timothy. The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Describes how a prosperous trading culture developed during the Ming Dynasty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fogel, Joshua A. Sagacious Monks and Bloodthirsty Warriors: Chinese Views of Japan in the Ming-Qing Period. Norwalk, Conn.: East Bridge, 2002. Presents contradictory images of the Japanese in Ming-Qing Chinese public opinion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levathes, Louise. When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A history of the rise and fall of Chinese naval power and maritime trade during the Ming Dynasty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">So, Kwan-wai. Japanese Piracy in Ming China During the Sixteenth Century. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1975. The impact of Japanese piracy on Sino-Japanese relations during the time of the tally trade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Verschuer, Charlotte von. Across the Perilous Sea: Japanese Trade with China and Korea from the Seventh to the Sixteenth Century. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004. Study by an expert on Sino-Japanese maritime trade from earliest times through the sixteenth century.

16th cent.: China’s Population Boom

16th cent.: Single-Whip Reform

1505-1521: Reign of Zhengde and Liu Jin

1514-1598: Portuguese Reach China

1521-1567: Reign of Jiajing

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

1550-1571: Mongols Raid Beijing

Jan. 23, 1556: Earthquake in China Kills Thousands

1573-1620: Reign of Wanli

1592-1599: Japan Invades Korea

Categories: History