The Golden Age of Japanese Seafaring

Jan 06, 2009
*Special to asia!
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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.

In 1587, two Japanese known today only by their Christian names, Christopher and Cosmas, were reputed to have sailed as far as the Strait of Magellan on a Spanish galleon, thus coming close to completing the first Japanese circumnavigation of the globe. Their voyage was the first in a mighty armada of Japanese "Red Seal" merchant sailing ships, which began crossing the South China Sea during the early half of the 17th century. Loaded with silver, diamonds, copper, swords and artefacts, these galleons visited numerous outposts in South-east Asia and the Indian Ocean. At these ports, Japanese merchants exchanged their goods for Chinese silk and other South-east Asian products, such as sugar, deer hide and sappan wood.

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.


felicia yap

Felicia Yap is a Junior Research Fellow in History at the University of Cambridge, and has written widely for publications like The Economist. She has a half blue in competitive ballroom dancing, and hopes to get another half blue in competitive blind wine-tasting, so that she can qualify for a full blue in debauchery.