Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Japanese Pirates

You may not have realized it, but Japan has a long history of piracy on the open seas. From long before the 10th century to the beginning of the Edo period (early 1600s) the Japanese seas were infested with pirates. The Japanese pirates were called wako. During the chaos of civil wars of the 14th century, piracy grew to unprecedented proportions. The wako not only ravaged Japanese coastal villages, but even ventured across the seas to plunder the Korean and Chinese coasts. They sowed terror throughout eastern Asia.

In the 14th century, several thousand pirate-warriors of Kumano launched raids on southern Kyushu. These pirate-warriors were so powerful that they were socially recognized as warrior groups just like the other powerful clans throughout Japan. Since ancient time however, the authorities, including the Shoguns, had tried to control the destructive wako.

The piracy expanded suddenly in the mid-14th century due to the civil wars. The wako of northern Kyushu and the many sea islands launched expeditions on the coast of Korea. In 1350, 100 Japanese wako ships attacked the southern coast and returned 4 more times that year. After that, the raids became more constant, and massive. Some wako fleets included as many as 350 ships in 1374 and some fleets comprised from 2,000 to 5,000 men.

The pirates mainly looted the granaries and harvests. The ease with which the pirates attacked the Korean coasts drew more warriors who were only too happy to plunder with impunity. On the open seas, pirates attacked Korean ships and also kidnapped local populations and took them back to Japan to sell as slaves or hold as ransom.

The raids became increasingly bold. Like the Vikings in earlier times, the wako sailed farther and farther up the rivers, operating as far inland as the Kaesong region near Seoul. Later, the wako began transporting horses on their ships so they could raid the interior of the country.

Other pirate chiefs turned their eyes to the riches of Ming China. After Korea, it was China's turn, in the 15th century, to suffer the bloody raids of the Vikings of the Far East.


The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society

The Wako: History of the Sea


  1. That's pretty interesting. I never really thought about Japanese Pirates. All you ever hear about Japanese maritime exploits is that the Tokugawa Shogunate regulated it so strictly.

    I wonder how much of those pirates who raided Korea and China were actually paid employees of the State, like the Privateers of Europe.

    Just one more reason why being a farmer in ancient Japan was no fun!

  2. The pirates were pre-Tokugawa. I believe they were not controlled by the state because the the two previous shogunates, the Kamakura and the Ashikaga, were not as powerful as that of the Tokugawa in terms of controlling the entire nation.

  3. This is a part of Japanese history I need to read more about. I've heard of piracy in the Inland Sea, but not beyond. How far south did the pirates get?

  4. The Japanese pirates raided as far south as far southern China past Hainan island near Vietnam. They may have gone further but I am not certain. The pirate raids on Korea were so devastating that they even lead to the collapse of the Korean dynasty.

  5. Anonymous7:25 PM

    Hi, just thought the person who wrote this might want to know that the 1450's actually occurred in the 15th Century, as the first century is excepted as the years 00-99 AD. Please correct this, your timeline is very misleading.

  6. Thanks for letting me know Anonymous. I know how the dating system works. You might have considered that it was a TYPO rather than thinking I was clueless about the century system.

  7. Anonymous, do I know you? You should use your real name.