Wako or wokou (倭寇) were Japanese pirates, ronins and smugglers (although they were also known to be engaged in maritime security for payment) who plundered the shores of China and Korea.
Historiography distinguishes two groups of Japanese pirates, depending on the region of their activity.
The first group operated in the 13th-16th centuries off the coast of Korea and southern China. They were called “Japanese bandits” or wokou. Initially this group was formed at the expense of the Japanese, but later it was supplemented mainly by southern Chinese. The second group operated off the coast of the Japanese archipelago. The members of this group formed communities called “flotillas,” or suigun, and their warriors were called “pirates,” “sentinels,” or “rowers. This group consisted mainly of Japanese.
Initially the maritime robbery squads were made up of impoverished Japanese fishermen. Later, other social groups impoverished in the troubled times of the Sengoku joined their ranks. Tsushima Island, halfway between Japan and Korea, served as a pirate”s lair, and the Korean coast was the main target of raids. Over time, the Japanese began to enter Chinese waters as well: 34 wokou attacks on Zhejiang are mentioned in sources between 1369 and 1466.
The response of the Ming government to brigandage was a ban on maritime trade, which forced Chinese merchants to trade with Japan clandestinely. Since its founding, the Korean Choson Dynasty has been fiercely opposed to pirates. The record of the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty of 1395 reports that the pirates had as many as 400 ships at their disposal.
The struggle with the brigands reached a climax in 1419 when famine drove the Tsushima pirates in search of food into the Yellow Sea, where they were defeated by the local Chinese viceroy, who took up to 1,500 prisoners. From then on, the wokou kept away from Liaodong, landing on Korean shores in search of edibles. In response, the Korean van Taejong landed on Tsushima. This venture was perceived in Japan as a new invasion by the Mongols, and the Koreans were forced to abandon the disputed island.
In the 16th century pirates became so bold that they sailed freely in the Yangtze Delta. This was the time of their Chineseization. The infusion of Chinese into pirate bands increased their number to 20,000, spread over a chain of forts along the Chinese coast. The geography of the raids widened: the southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong increasingly became the pirates” targets. The pirates were driven off Puto Island near modern Shanghai and were forced to leave the borders of the Ming Empire through the efforts of Ming military commanders Qi Jiguang and Yu Dai.
The power of the pirates was also weakened by the actions of the unifying Japanese ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who organized a “sword hunt” – a massive expropriation of edged weapons. When Hideyoshi invaded Korea in 1592, the Chinese and Koreans saw this as another page in the centuries-long struggle against “Japanese predators.
According to Koreans, it was Admiral Lee Sunsin”s naval victories that put an end to this invasion and to the history of medieval Japanese piracy. Meanwhile, the real reasons for the cessation of the wokou go deeper, in the lifting of the ban on maritime trade by the Ming government, not least dictated by the establishment of a mutually beneficial trade exchange with Europeans in Aomun Bay in the 1550s.
Wokou was originally the name used by medieval Chinese and Korean historians to refer to Japanese military formations regardless of the type of troops. The earliest reference to wokou dates back to 414 and can be found in the text of a stele erected in memory of the Koguryo whan Kwangeetho. It refers to wokou as the troops of the ancient Japanese Yamato state that fought against Goguryeo on the Korean peninsula by assisting the local Korean state of Baekje.
The wokou were first described as Japanese pirates in the 13th century. The History of Goryeo mentions in 1223 that the wa (Japanese), who had arrived in boats, raided the coastline of the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, Japanese accounts say that in 1232 the residents of northern Kyushu visited Goryeo and forcibly took away precious treasures. However, news in chronicles of large-scale wokou attacks on Korea dates only to the middle of the 14th century, when Japanese pirates began to attack Korean coastal settlements almost annually.
The main purpose of wokou raids was to capture rice, so they primarily attacked Korean rice transporters and rice warehouses. Additional targets of the pirate raids included robbing the Korean population, hunting for slaves, and exporting Koryo people to Japan and Ryukyu. The government of the Korean state of Goryeo tried to stop the wokou raids by delegating ambassadors to the Japanese imperial court, sending punitive fleets, and paying high ransoms for the expelled compatriots, but the problem remained unsolved.
The members of the wokou of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were predominantly Japanese. They came from the very poor provinces of northern Kyushu and Tsushima and were led by local village heads, officials, and land stewards, the jito. Often such pirate groups attracted detachments of Japanese criminals or armed merchants, as well as members of the Korean social strata such as tanners, lozars, entertainers, and acrobats, who were trampled on by traditional Korean society.
In 1392, Korea was replaced by the Goryeo dynasty by the Joseon dynasty, which strengthened the country”s defense capabilities but chose a soft course to deal with the wokou problem. The new Korean government undertook a detailed study of the social structure of pirate gangs and managed to split them by granting various privileges to their leaders. Wokou guides were given Korean military ranks, clothing, and lodging, and merchants who were forced to join the pirate gangs were granted the right to officially trade with Korea. Against the remaining pirates who continued to plunder, the Koreans conducted a massive military operation. In 1419, a seventeen-thousand-strong Korean army invaded Tsushima Island, which was considered a wokou base. In the course of the operation, the Koreans annihilated a significant portion of the islanders, but at the Battle of Nukadaka, they were ambushed by islander pirates led by So Sadamori and suffered heavy losses. The conflict ended that year with the signing of a peace under which the owner of Tsushima, the Seo clan, promised to stop raiding Korea and facilitate the elimination of the Wokou remnants in exchange for supplies of Korean rice.
The gradual normalization of Korean-Japanese relations contributed to the reorientation of Japanese pirates toward China. Since the end of the 14th century, wokou from northern and western Kyushu began to attack the coastal possessions of the Ming Empire. The Chinese emperor Hongwu therefore strengthened coastal guards and began negotiations with the Japanese imperial prince Kanenaga, whom he recognized as “the van of Japan” and from whom he demanded that the pirate gangs be eliminated. However, the prince had no real power, so the Chinese efforts were fruitless. Hongwu”s son, Emperor Yongle, began a dialogue with the samurai government of Japan, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who, after receiving the Chinese title of “van of Japan,” was able to pacify the Western Japanese wokou
In the sixteenth century, pirate bands, called wokou in the old fashioned way, began to operate again in the areas of southern China and the southern seas. They were most active for 40 years, beginning in 1522. In addition to the Japanese themselves, the pirates included the Chinese as well as the Portuguese, who first appeared in Southeast Asia at that time.
In the Ming dynasty, since the time of the first emperor Hongwu, there was a ban on leaving China and conducting private trade with foreign countries, but it was extremely difficult to adhere to this ban in the sixteenth century, when the Chinese economy was booming. Therefore, smuggling developed in areas far from the central government, mostly in the southern provinces, with the help of local officials and the Xiangchao nobility. Portuguese merchants, who had no official permission to trade with China, as well as Japanese merchants, who sought to buy Chinese goods, mainly silk, in exchange for silver, which was mined in large quantities in Japan, actively cooperated with Chinese smugglers. The Chinese government referred to all of these individuals as “Japanese pirates.
The Wokou were active in smuggling in the ports of Zhiyu and Lijiang in Zhejiang Province. After Chinese government troops destroyed these cells, the smugglers moved their bases to Japan, to Kyushu Island, from where they began to attack the Chinese coast. The wokou wagons were not well organized and had no unified leadership, but some of them were able to form a large fleet under the leadership of the Chinese merchant Wang Zhi, whose stronghold was in Hirado, Japan, and the Goto Islands. In 1543, along with the Portuguese, he arrived on the Japanese island of Tanegashima, where he first introduced firearms to the Japanese. Wang often acted as intermediary between smuggler merchants and protected them from Chinese troops at sea. The Ming dynasty could not cope with his forces and tried to lure the pirate leader with the promise of a pardon if he returned to his homeland. Wang returned to China, but was arrested and executed in 1559.
Among the Japanese who took part in the late wokou campaigns were natives of southern China. Their boats sailed in the spring from the islands of Goto or Satsuma, passed the islands of Ryukyu and Taiwan, and came to the coast of the Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Fujian and the Jiangnan region.
By the middle of the 16th century, the Ming had conducted a number of successful operations against the wokou under the leadership of Hu Zongxian, Qi Jiguang, and Yu Dai. However, pirate attacks did not stop, so in 1567 the Chinese government relaxed a 200-year ban and allowed residents of southern Chinese regions to trade in the southern seas. This step immediately solved the problem of the wokou, whose hordes gradually disbanded themselves. In their search for a solution to the problem of “Japanese pirates,” the Chinese conducted extensive research on Japan, which changed their view of the country in general and the pirate movement in particular.
Although the wokou pirates ceased to exist in the 2nd half of the 16th century, the term wokou continues to be actively used by Chinese and Korean historiography and the media as a negative cliché to refer to Japanese troops, the Japanese government, and the Japanese in particular.
Japanese pirates who operated in the coastal waters of the Japanese archipelago, mainly in the waters of the Inner Sea of Japan, are called “suigun”, literally “flotillas”. Some of the oldest mentions of them are related to the activities of Fujiwara no Sumitomo and the maritime turmoil of 936-941. Pirate squads also played an important role in the Minamoto and Taira wars of 1180-1185. However, the heyday of the suiguns came in the early 15th century, when they were employed by the regional suigo rulers as sea guards in the Inner Sea of Japan. The task of these “sea samurai” organizations was to guard transport ships and merchant ships that sailed to China. The largest Suiguns were the Murakami clan from Innoshima Island, which operated under the patronage of the military governors of the Bingo clan Yamana, and the Kibe, Tomiko and Kushiko clans from the Kunisaki Peninsula, known as the Otomo flotilla, which was dependent on the Bungo governors of the Otomo clan.
In the sixteenth century, during the Sengoku period, along with the old suiguns who served as coast guards, new ones began to form under the auspices of provincial daimyo rulers. The most famous of these were the sea squads of the Mori family from Aki and the Takeda family from Kai, as well as the pirate gangs of the Otomo family from Bungo and the Go-Hojo family from Sagami.
In 1541-1550 the western Japanese Mori clan allocated land in the area of modern Hiroshima and Hatsukaichi for those wishing to join the fleet, and managed to form a naval unit with their direct command. In the course of the clan lands, the clan gave the newly created suiguns the island of Yashira as a base.