Ahoy ye Mateys’! Captain Viet is here to bring you on a journey to the Seven Seas of pirate culture, Arr! Before you meet Davy Jones’ Locker, come gather at the deck with grog in hand and be prepare to listen to my tales of legendary Japanese pirates! Before I share the tales of their plundering, lets get informed a bit on pirate culture in Japan and its history.
Gomu-Gomu no Era of Piracy
One cannot talk about pirates in Japan without mentioning Shounen Jump’s One Piece. Making its debut in 1997, it is currently touted as the best-selling manga series of all time worldwide. As of 2010, over 640 chapters have been released, with a total of over 230 million volumes having been sold. In addition, the anime series has been going strong. At the date of this posting, 518 episodes and 11 theater movies have been aired and released since 1999.
What is One Piece? In a nutshell, it’s about the adventures of a young teen with elastic rubber properties named Monkey D. Luffy and his small, yet skilled crew of pirates, named the Straw Hat Pirates. Luffy’s goal, the underlying plot of the series, is to become the Pirate King, which is made possible by obtaining the ultimate pirate treasure One Piece. Throughout their voyage, they end up saving many villages & kingdoms, crews, and individuals from disasters. Many of the individuals they meet are named after famous pirates that have existed in the past. Essentially, the Straw Hat Pirates are the “good guy” protagonists of the story, where serving moral justice is more of their game, instead of hoarding material goods and gold (unless you are Nami). Not much raiding, plundering, and whoring up with the wenches here, folks.
This trend of heroic pirates portrayal is common throughout many of Japanese anime and media, notably Cowboy Bebop, Tenchi Muyo, Outlaw Star, etc. How does this compare to the history of Japanese pirates?
Enter the Wakou
Wakou 倭寇 is an umbrella term to described East Asian pirates that raided the coastlines of China and Korea as early as the 13th century. However, the etymology of the word stems back to Japanese piracy. In a literal translation, it translates to “Yamato Bandits” where Yamato refers to the Japanese peoples. The first wakou were mainly Japanese merchants, ronin, soldiers, and smugglers. In modern times, the usage of the word wakou can have a derogatory meaning. It is typically used by Chinese and Korean nationalists when describing their displeasures with their “Japanese invading neighbor.”
The Wakou started out in 1223 when they attacked Goryeo, Korea (according to history books from there). Their base of operations was in Tsushima, an island between Japan and Korea. Pretty centralized, wouldn’t you say?
In the mid-1200s, Wakou activities decreased, due to higher fortifications of cities during the Mongol Invasions of the time. They made their comeback in the 1300s after the Mongols stopped doing what they do best, and when governments were in a state of chaos. Korea got the worst of it, and even their capitol was sacked repeatedly.
The Wakou had a lot of good luck for a long time, even getting involved with a Ming Dynasty Tribute system, where Chinese coastal towns would pay off the Wakou to not raid them… sort of a protection racket.
Things were going pretty steady, but Wakou activity really surged in the mid-16th century. This occurred due to the Ming dynasty implementing a policy that forbade any civil trade between China and Japan, in favor of government only trade. This was known as the Haijin policy. Needless to say, the implementation of the policy didn’t deter Chinese merchants from continuing to trade with Japan, albeit illegally. What resulted was increased piracy due to the lucrativeness of being able to steal goods without much penalty. The humor behind all of this is that the purpose of the Haijin policy was to deter piracy by limiting the amount of trade that was occurring. Oops?
By the end of the 15th century / beginning of the 16th century, the Wakou pirates were at a decline. Some folks think it’s because the restrictions on trade were getting lifted, some people think it’s because the Portuguese started coming in to trade, and others think it was because of the Korean / Japanese governments cracking down. It was probably a combination of all of these things, but nobody can deny the Wakou had a pretty nice ride of things.
With hundreds of years worth of Japanese pirate history, there had to be some stories and tales about famous Japanese pirates as well (really, it’s stories about particular pirate crews and captains that make pirates so fascinating). Many notable past figures have partaken in some form of piracy, but there are two Japanese pirates in particular that I thought were worth sharing: Shirahama Kenki and Fuuma Kotarou. Yarrr.
Shirahama Kenki: Goodwill Ambassador?
Kenki led a free-spirited true-to-the-bones pirate life in the late 16th to early 17th century. Raiding and plundering the Asian coast lines was his M.O., just like any other typical wakou. However, by chance, his pirating actions led to two nations making their first formal contact and shortly after, establishing strong economic and friendly social connections.
Shirahama and his crew of five ships arrived on the coasts of Vietnam in 1585, and began to conduct their piracy business, which was to save the locals from unfriendly pirates and making new friends. Sorry, what I meant to say was they raided and plundered like actual piratey-pirates. Not surprisingly, the Vietnamese Imperial government didn’t kindly take to this. A fleet of ten ships led by one of the sons of Lord Nguyen Hoang met Shirahama’s crew in a ship-to-ship battle royale. After having lost two ships, Shirahama fled the area. The nationality of Shirahama was mistakenly identified by the Vietnamese defenders as Western, so no further action was conducted.
This wasn’t his last contact with the Vietnamese government. A short fourteen years later, Shirahama’s ship crashed near the Vietnamese port of Thuan An. The local magistrate of the area attacked Shirahama in defense and was killed in the altercation. This led to Shirahama’s imprisonment by Vietnamese forces. Having identified Shirahama’s nationality, Lord Nguyen Hoang sent an official letter (and the first official contact between the two governments) to the newly appointed shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu , seeking consul on how to deal with law breaking Japanese nationals. This contact cultivated to many decades of friendly relations. Japan began establishing settlements in Vietnam, one of them most notably in Hoi An, which was considered to be THE trading hub for Southeast Asia between the 16th and 18th century. The Japanese believed the heart of all of Asia (the dragon) laid beneath the earth of Hoi An. Japanese influence remains in the UNESCO World Heritage city to this day, such as the famous Japanese bridge that linked the settlement to the Hoi An city.
Fuuma Kotarou: Half Ninja, Half Pirate, (Half Zombie)
Fuuma Kotarou is actually a title given to the leader of the late Fuuma clan (also known as the kick-ass pirate-ninjas of Kanagawa). The most well known of the Fuuma Kotarous was the fifth successor. Kotarou led a large band of ninjas that were categorized in four groups (brigands, pirates, burglars, and thieves), foregoing the traditional ninja ranking system. His clan has also been known to employ very primitive forms of submarines in their escapades. Doesn’t 17th century pirate-ninjas in make-shift submarines paint a scary picture for you too? In popular culture and history, he is often portrayed as an evil individual that lusts for chaos and destruction.
Kotarou was famously known for two events. A 1580 covert evening assault on a Takeda camp was considered one of his crowning achievements. The successful infiltration disoriented the enemy enough that mass fratricide occurred. This is just a testament on his skills as a master ninja sorcerer.
The second event Kotarou is known for is the death of the famous samurai and ninja master Hattori Hanzo, the man who is credited for saving Tokugawa Ieyasu. In 1596, Hanzo, acting on the orders of Ieyasu, was to track down Kotarou. Kotarou led the Hanzo-commanded fleet of gunboats, into a small channel of the Inland Sea, where a firey ambush was waiting for them.
Kotarou’s diabolical shenanigans didn’t last long, though. Eventually, government forces captured Kotarou and was later executed in 1603. With the absence of Fuuma Kotarou, Japan has been safe for 400-some years. It’ll be very dark times when the zombie strain hits and the Pirate-Ninja-Zombie Fuuma Kotarou rises from the dead.