The Golden Age of Japanese Seafaring
Newly discovered sources also point to a 17th century Marco Polo of Japan, who travelled to as far as India and Siam.
Before the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry’s "black" ships on the shores of Edo in 1853, Japan was a country known for its notorious isolation from the outer world. All overseas trade was restricted, and most Japanese ports were closed to foreign ships. Such isolation, however, was not always the case, as newly discovered sources point to a golden age of Japanese seafaring during the early 17th century. During this period, many Japanese adventurers set off on fabled voyages across the oceans, and became involved in ambitious trading exploits in South-east Asia.
One Japanese adventurer named Tenjiku "Indie" Tokubei was reported to have travelled to Siam as well as India on Red Seal ships during the early 17th century. Upon his return to Japan, Tokubei wrote an essay about his foreign adventures, which became very popular in his native country. He is sometimes referred to as the Marco Polo of Japan.
These expeditions also brought a vast web of trading links — from the Indian Ocean to the New World — under Japanese influence. A samurai named Hasekura Tsunenaga led a diplomatic mission to New Spain (Mexico) and Europe in the 1610s, and was arguably the first Japanese official ambassador to the Americas. Another Japanese explorer named Yamada Nagamasa even gained considerable influence in Thailand, and eventually rose to become the ruler of the Nakhon Si Thammarat province in the south.
Many outposts in Asia and Europe retain an echo of this astonishing episode of Japanese maritime exploration. Some 300 Japanese traders were reputed to have settled in Dilao in 1593, and are the origin of today’s 200,000-strong Japanese population in the Philippines. In the town of Coria del Río in Spain, some 700 inhabitants bear the surname Japón, identifying them descendants of Tsunenaga’s delegation. The fame of these early Japanese adventurers even lingers to this present day; Tokubei is now the name of an extensive chain of conveyor-belt sushi restaurants in Japan.