What image comes to mind when someone says the word “pirate”? You probably think of Jonnie Depp in a crazy costume swinging from the mast of a ship swinging his cutlass and having great adventures in the beautiful Caribbean waters. Our cultural image of pirates has been mostly made up of the romanticized stories of the Pirates that operated throughout the Caribbean, but that is only one small example of the wider world of piracy. Any culture that does trading of the seas is also spawns pirates. Every group of pirates is different; some focus on hostage taking (like the pirates that operate today), some focus on booty, some practice raiding (like the Vikings), and some have crazy pearls, peg legs, and eye patches.
In this article, we are going to learn about the Wakou, Japanese pirates that terrorized the Sea of Japan for almost 300 years and fought Chinese Armies, Mongol warriors, and even Shaolin Monks! Truly the Wakou were the biggest badasses in the Sea of Japan!
The exact make-up of these pirates, by which I mean nationality, is a matter of hot debate. Some scholars debate that these pirates were mainly Chinese and were actually being directed by enemies of the Chinese state’s enemies secretly. But still many more scholars agree that while many of the pirates were Chinese they seemed to be taking orders from the Japanese Shogunate (due to the fact that the Shogunate never really did anything to stop them). My theory is that these pirates were like pirates in nearly every other place in the world, a rag-tag bunch of tough dudes from many neighboring countries that put aside their cultural, linguistic, and national differences aside in the search of sweet sweet booty (did you catch my play-on-words there?).
It’s important to understand why Japan seems to have allowed piracy for so long. In Europe government-sanctioned pirates were called “Profiters”. These “sailors” had special writs of commission that allows them to attack ships, towns, and individuals that belonged to whatever enemies that their government had at the time. This made it totally legal. Not only was this type of piracy good for the coffers of these governments, but it also gave them a political out if they needed it. It would also let them put pressure on the trade of enemies at will in order to obtain better negotiation positions.
During the Warring States period in Japan, some say that much of the Japanese piracy was based in Iyo Province under the tacit permission of the Murakami clan. They employed ronin (masterless samurai), fishermen, peasants, and perhaps even ninjas and would cross the Sea of Japan to raid Chinese coastal villages. Due to the time of massive civil strife, the central Japanese government was entirely neutered and unable to do anything to stop the piracy, and they probably had no desire to do so.
Chinese sources are replete with stories of the Wakou attacking villages up and down the coast of China and even into Korea. These attacks put tremendous pressure on the already shaky governments at the time. Each time a particularly horrible attack occurred, the Chinese government would look at Japan and say, “What’s up with this, brah?” And Japan would be all like, “I ain’t got no idea what you talkin’ bout, brah?” And China would shake its head and be like, “Not cool, man. Not cool.”
I think the best way to picture this whole situation is like a neighbor, who hates the guy next door, always lets his dog go and pee on the guy next door’s grass, and acts surprised and horrified that his dog would do something like that, but secretly congratulates his dog when the guy next door is not looking.
For the entirety of the Waring States period the Wakou had free run over the high seas due to the inaction of the Japanese and the weakness of the other Asian state governments. And during that time the pirates raided, raided, and raided and a good part of that loot made it back to the local daimyo. Things were going great! Until they weren’t…
Eventually, many of the pirate bands began to move to the southern Ryukyu islands. There are many reasons for doing this. First and foremost, the Ryukyu island chain was more advantageous, closer to Korea, and easier to hide in. Furthermore, now that power in Japan was beginning to solidify in a single individual, the Shogunate, they were less friendly to the pirates and wanted more control over their activities. The Wakou, being pirates, were not so excited about being under the control of the government (most pirates, in general, are not big fans of authoritarianism). Being as the Ryukyu were like the old west of Japan, the Wakou could operate out of there with near impunity.
But if there is anything that authoritarian governments don’t like, it is outliers. While the Wakou were aiding Japan in many ways the Shogunate could not allow such an independent group to operate within their zone of influence. Imagine you are the president of a company, and you have a group of employees who, while they do good work, they bring a lot of pressure on you from other companies, and they never listen to anything you say. When you try to ask them to tap down their antics, they roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, yeah yeah… Whatevs…”. You can not allow such brazen disrespect, it makes you look bad to all of the other employees. It is only a matter of time before everyone begins to act the same way and you lose total control of the company. That is why the shogunate passed new laws making it illegal for daimyos to profit off of piracy. And without their powerful backers in the government at home, the back of the Wakou was broken. While piracy would continue in the Sea of Japan it would never be at the same level, or intensity as it was during Japan’s Golden Era of Piracy….
The Wakou pirates were just another victim of a totalitarian regime that wanted the entirety of power based in itself, and would have no other competitors. The Wakou would share the same fate as the Ninja, the Souhei, and even the Christians. Each would be crushed and nearly extinguished by the powerful governments at the time. Yet, they would not be wiped out of existence. The old saying still rings true, “the pen is mightier than the sword”. Because of the writings of these groups, they will never truly cease to exist.