The Notorious Wako Pirates of Japan
The wako (also called wokou or waegu) were a group of marauders that dominated the seas of East Asia for centuries. They have been seen by Western historians and culture as a kind of Japanese pirate, but as scholars dig deeper into the history of these people, questions arise about their true nature.
What was the reaction to these ‘pirates’? How did governments try to control their actions, and were they successful? These are questions that scholars are now working to answer.
“Wako”: The Difficulties of Translation
The difficulties with understanding the wako begin with their name. In the West, wako, read in Mandarin as wokou, in Korean as waegu and in Japanese as wakō, has been translated to ‘Japanese pirates.’ But is this accurate?
According to Frank L. Chance, who has done extensive research on the wako, the term has controversial connotations. Firstly, the word was used in the ancient period to describe someone who was seen as a non-Chinese ‘ barbarian’ and who was characterized as an outsider. The term was used particularly for foreign people from the East.
There are further implications. The word can also be a pejorative meaning ‘dwarf.’ Despite this, Chance argues that while the residents of the Japanese islands were relatively short and cultural outsiders from the Chinese, they actually took ownership of the term.
In addition to this, the simplistic translation of wako as ‘Japanese’ is also problematic. At this point in history, there was no entity known as Japan. The Japanese archipelago existed as a geographic place, but it was not unified as a united body in the minds of its people or government. Culturally, socially, and economically, Japan did not yet exist.
Japan became a unified entity at the end of the sixteenth century. Until that point, people who lived on the islands, especially those that were remote, were more likely to identify with their local province than a central government in mainland Japan.
The word wako has appeared in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese documents since the third century AD. It also seems to be synonymous with the Japanese kaizoku, which translates to ‘sea brigands.’
Who were the Wako Pirates?
Despite the issues with naming and characterizing them as pirates, there is no doubt that the wako participated in pirate-like activity. They consistently attacked coastlines in Japan, Korea, and China and operated in the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. However, determining exactly who the wako were is difficult.
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Sixteenth-century wako (wokou) raids against China & Korea. (Yeu Ninje / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
It is evident that while the wako are now seen as Japanese pirates, by the 16th century, the majority of wako were in fact Chinese. Prior to this, they had been a mix of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. This is a theory which was developed in the 1980s by Shōsuke Murai.
This shift happened because many legitimate traders in China had become unsatisfied with the Ming government's restrictions and taxes on trade, and so they turned to illegal activities. The Ming Shi, which is an official history of the Ming dynasty in China, stated that most of the wako pirates were Chinese. In fact, less than a third were Japanese. There were also influential groups of Portuguese and Korean traders who operated in the area. These traders often worked with pirates and helped smuggle goods in and out of China.
Furthermore, seeing the wako pirates as people who were inherently bad and disruptive is problematic. There are some cases when the wako pirates engaged in legitimate, peaceful trade. On the other hand, there is also evidence that otherwise peaceful merchants engaged in occasional acts of piracy.
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Depiction of Ming Victory over Japanese Wako Pirates ( Public Domain )
Despite all this, there is documentation that records the wako, whoever they were, as far back as the third century AD. For a long time, wako attacked areas in Japan sporadically and often traded peacefully.
It wasn't until the 13th century that violence began to appear. The wako pirates were supported by many influential figures and warlords because their activity could be so lucrative. The Ouchi family, a powerful and important clan at the time, supported their activities, for example.
During this period, the government also attempted to crack down on the violence and organized crime that was occurring. In one gruesome historical event in 1405, some wako pirates were captured, deported to China, and then thrown into a boiling cauldron as execution.
An 18th century illustration showing a naval battle between Japanese wako pirates and a Chinese naval ship ( Public Domain )
History of the Wako Pirates
Scholars often categorize the history of the wako pirates into two distinct time periods: early and late history. In the early period, the wako pirates were mainly Japanese and of mixed ethnicities; however, in the later period, they were mostly non-Japanese pirates. During both periods, the wako pirates raided Japan, China, and Korea.
The early period of wako pirate history begins with the invasion of the Mongols. Due to the war and the depletion of coastal defenses in China and Korea, as well as the extreme poverty experienced by some of the innocent people in Tsushima, Iki, and the Goto Islands, the looting the wako pirates were partaking in only increased.
The second period of wako pirate history begins in the 16th century. At that point in time, most of the wako were Chinese. The Ming Dynasty instituted strict controls on trade in order to try and clamp down on piracy. However, because of limitations, they were unable to completely control the wako pirate activity.
A 1634 Japanese Red Seal ship, incorporating both European-style lateen sails and Chinese-style junk rig sails, rudder and aft designs. The ships were typically armed with 6 to 8 cannons. When the wako pirates went legitimate, they sailed under imperial seal. ( Public Domain )
Responses to the Wako
There were many official responses to the wako pirates from governments in Korea, China, and Japan. Most of these attempts, however, were futile. Much of the responsibility to control the wako’s actions lay on the shoulders of the Japanese government, who for a long time were unequipped to deal with the issue.
In China, officials were sent to Japan on diplomatic missions to solve the issues created by the pirates. However, because the Japanese had little control over the pirates, there was little that could be done.
Furthermore, China had its own issues with pirates as well, which made controlling the Japanese pirates even harder. In battles against the Chinese government, the wako won several times. The Chinese government realized that it was simply impossible to control the entire sea at all times and so they imposed extremely strict defense policies.
These policies included the building of forts along the exposed coastline. In addition, maritime trade was banned. The policies essentially made it so that no official vessel could pass through Chinese waters; if they did, they were labeled a pirate.
In addition to these policies, the Chinese government also reformed their tax system, which brought them more revenue. This was used to revolutionize and build up the naval force. The navy then patrolled the coast and attacked any pirate ships. These measures led to defeats of wako pirates, including the capture of the wako pirate leader Wan Chih in 1557.
In the 14th century, the Koreans attempted to control the actions of the wako pirates. They assembled a collection of ships which they armed with cannons. The fleet won a victory in 1380 at the mouth of the Kum River under the command of an individual named Choe Muson.
During the battle, the cannons proved influential in the victory, which was only possible because of recent developments in gunpowder technology. While there were more victories for the Koreans, including those on Tsushima Island in 1389 and 1419, the wako pirates could not be stopped entirely.
Some of the wako pirates were executed by the Korean government, and harsher penalties were put in place; however, in order to completely eradicate the pirates, they needed the help of the Japanese government. Many embassies were sent to Japan to solve this issue.
So, what did the Japanese government do? Despite requests by Korea and China for the government to control the piracy issue, the central Japanese government was weak. They did not control many of the islands around the mainland, and because of this, they could not control piracy.
However, this was not the case forever, and in 1443, the Japanese and Korean governments finally reached an agreement. The Treaty of Gyehae aimed to promote legitimate trade between the countries in order to limit the pirates’ plunder.
Unfortunately, this agreement did not last long. In 1510, there were issues in Korean ports caused by Japanese traders. A new agreement was put in place, but it was much more limited than the earlier treaty. The wako pirates continued to raid in Korea and came back for an intense and sustained attack in 1544.
The wako were finally beaten by the Japanese government in the 16th century, thanks to a military leader named Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1582-98). Hideyoshi had managed to unify central Japan, which meant the navy was then strong enough to wipe out the pirates for good.
As well as attacking the pirates, Hideyoshi was also clever with his tactics. He pragmatically utilized the pirates for his own advantage in the 1590s, by allowing them to trade legitimately, as long as they had a red seal issued by him.
Portrait of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, circa 1598 ( Public Domain )
The Disappearance of the Wako Pirates
It appears that there is no clear end to the wako pirates and their activities; instead, they seem to have died out slowly. By the end of the 16th century, attacks were less frequent. Eventually, records of the pirates disappear completely.
There were many contributing factors to the decline of the wako pirates. One contributing factor was the increased fortification of vulnerable areas of China. There was also an improvement in naval strategies, which meant captains were more equipped to fight off the pirates and capture their leaders.
One of the most influential advancements in the fight against the wako pirates was certainly the unification of Japan , which meant more money and greater control for the Japanese government. Both of these developments made the wako pirates easier to tackle.
In conclusion, while it is hard to pin down precisely who the wako pirates were, it is evident that they engaged in activities which today we would characterize as piracy. Although they were known for looting and violence, there is also evidence that they were involved in some peaceful trade, and it is therefore hard to judge the nature of their activity as a whole.
Nevertheless, they remained a scourge for the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese governments who spent centuries trying to dispel the wako pirates from their waters.
Top Image: The wako pirates are typically portrayed as Japanese pirates, but the reality was more complex. Depiction of a pirate ship sailing on the ocean against a golden sky. Source: Gasi / Adobe Stock
By Molly Dowdeswell
Cartwright, M. June 12, 2019. Wako. World History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/Wako/
Chance, F. Fall 2014. Some Notes on ‘Japanese Pirates.’ Association for Asian Studies. Available at: https://www.asianstudies.org/publications/eaa/archives/some-notes-on-japanese-pirates/
Powell, M. June 19, 2022. Piracy in the China Seas and the Wako Pirates . Wondrium Daily. Available at: https://www.wondriumdaily.com/piracy-in-the-china-seas-and-the-wako-pirates/