John E. WILLS, Jr.

The Wokou, meaning “Japanese pirates,” (although some of them were actually renegade Chinese), plagued the coasts of China and Korea from about 1200 to sometime after 1600. Their activities were brought to an end by wider permission of legal trade on the coast of China and by Japanese prohibitions of foreign voyages by their own people.

Wokou (Chinese) or wakō (Japanese) meaning “Japanese pirates,” plagued the coasts of China and Korea from the 1200s to the end of Japanese seafaring in the 1600s. Their depredations shaped Chinese and Korean negative images of Japan and limited the possibilities for peaceful interaction among the three countries. Many of them were in fact Chinese, sometimes basing themselves in the Japanese islands, allying themselves with Japanese marauders or trade- and predation-oriented daimyo (territorial warlords) even using Japanese names or adopting Japanese dress. One of the earliest uses of the term is on a Korean stela dated 414 CE. An outbreak of piracy around the Japanese Inland Sea is recorded in the 930s. References to the Matsuura family and their associates, who would be prominent in piracy and maritime trade until their end in the early 1600s, marauding off the coast of Korea are found in texts from the 1200s.

Japanese piracy off the coasts of the continent reached its first peak in the 1300s. The struggle between the Northern and Southern Courts in Japan unleashed samurai predation and search for plunder in all directions. Raids reached down to the coasts of Shandong and other parts of northern China, but Korea bore the brunt of the pillage. Korean sources record 174 raids between 1376 and 1385, some of them mini-invasions that reached the outskirts of the capital. Some Japanese pirates reportedly were allied with maritime rivals of Zhu Yuanzhang, the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) founder, who responded with drastic measures, building up forces and fortifications and forbidding all but the smallest maritime voyages from the coasts of China. Japanese and other foreign rulers could trade with China only by sending tribute embassies to the imperial court. Several powerful figures in Japan responded to this disincentive by attempting to prevent the departure of pirates from their bases. These measures, China’s improved maritime defenses, and agrarian and anti-commercial strategies for economic revival from the chaos of the Yuan-Ming wars were sufficient to reduce the numbers of pirate attacks on China in the 1400s. Illegal trade from the Fujian port of Yuegang and the vast legal loophole of the flourishing tribute trade of the kings of the Ryukyu Islands were other safety valves for trade that reduced maritime violence.

Treaty of 1443

The Koreans mounted stiff resistance to Japanese raids along their southern coast and negotiated with the Ashikaga shogunate and, more importantly, with local power-holders like the Ôuchi of western Kyushu and the Sō of Tsushima Island. A treaty in 1443 confirmed a regime of ship-permit quotas for various Japanese maritime powers and a very special position for the Sō; all Japanese ships were required to stop at Tsushima to have their permits checked. In 1461 Sō Shigemoto was appointed governor of Tsushima by the king of Korea. Three ports in Korea became substantial enclaves of Japanese settlement. The Japanese continually pushed the boundaries of what they were permitted under the treaty; violence declined but did not entirely cease.

Both the Chinese and the Korean solutions dissolved after 1500, as officials responded to growing volumes of trade and some increase in piracy by attempting to thoroughly enforce all the bureaucratic quotas and restrictions that had been enacted in the 1400s. Riots by Japanese in the Korean ports in 1510 were suppressed, order was restored with the cooperation of the Sō of Tsushima, and trade soon resumed. Another large-scale Japanese attack on Korea occurred in 1555, but by that time the pirates’ momentum had shifted to the lower Yanzi (Chang) region. The Japanese returned to attack Korea from 1592 until 1598, employing the large and well-organized armies of Hideyoshi and his allies; their defeat owed much to Korean experience in defensive naval warfare against pirates during the preceding centuries.


Between 1440 and 1550 Chinese sources list only twenty-five wokou raids; between 1550 and 1570 they record 542. Trouble began with the strict enforcement of restrictions on foreign trade after the succession of the Jiajing emperor in 1524. A base of smugglers and pirates at the Shuangyu anchorage in the Zhoushan Archipelago off the Zhejiang coast is reported as early as 1526. Enforcement measures simply pushed well-armed Chinese maritime traders into collusion with Japanese traders, less and less under control as the chaos of Japan’s Warring States period (1467–1600, Sengoku jidai) reached its peak. Historians differ with regard to the numbers of Chinese and Japanese involved in these wokou raids, and the total has remained inestimable in view of (1) the numbers of Chinese gangsters who took Japanese names or donned Japanese breechclouts to scare their countrymen, (2) the multiple aliases used by many, and (3) the prevalence of adoption, sworn brotherhood, and other pseudo-kinship ties from Japan to Vietnam and beyond. In 1547 Zhu Wan was appointed as a special Grand Coordinator with wide authority to stamp out smuggling and piracy on the Zhejiang and Fujian coasts. In the spring of 1548 his forces occupied and devastated the Shuangyu anchorage. The number of captives taken was not large; the attack came in the season when winds favored voyages to Japan, and any sensible smuggler/pirate would have seen it coming and would have assembled his cargoes and gotten away to Japan. The maritime interests counterattacked; their gentry allies secured the execution of Zhu Wan for judicial irregularities, and their armed bands pillaged coastal areas and even made amazing thrusts inland, camping outside the gates of Wuxi and of Nanjing. The wokou had excellent bases in western Japan, especially in the Goto Islands, and much support from the Matsuura, the Shimazu, and other warrior factions. Ming forces sent in pursuit of them were no less predatory than the wokou toward merchants and common people. In the 1550s some astute negotiation by Ming high officials turned some of the pirates against each other and secured the surrender and execution of such important leaders as Wang Zhi. Well-trained government militias emerged under leaders like the famous Qi Jiguang. When the Portuguese were permitted to settle at Macao in 1557, they provided a growing channel for trade with Japan without legalizing either the presence of Japanese in Chinese ports or Chinese voyages to Japan. In 1567 the Ming court approved a system of legal foreign trade in Chinese shipping to all destinations except Japan; harbors on Taiwan emerged as entrepots (intermediate centers) for Sino-Japanese trade. This legalization in 1567 did more than all the military efforts had done to end the menace of the wokou, who went legal or far offshore into Southeast Asian waters.

Twilight of the Wokou

The wokou phenomenon had a long and eventful decline from 1567 until the drastic prohibitions of Japanese sea voyaging by the Tokugawa shogunate in the 1630s. Hideyoshi channeled samurai valor and pirate predation into his hugely ill-conceived invasion of Korea from 1592 until 1598. The Shimazu of Satsuma conquered the Ryukyus in 1609. From 1606 to 1608 Japanese ships heading for Southeast Asia caused rumor and panic among the Chinese people when they stopped at Macao. In the 1620s the Dutch began to settle on southern Taiwan and got into a very dangerous conflict with Japanese traders who had been there before them. The Tokugawa shogunate prohibited foreign voyages by their own people, largely in response to the dangers of Christian subversion. The Japanese were gone, but southern coast grandmothers continued to threaten Chinese toddlers with the folklore that “the wokou would come get them” well into the nineteenth century. Some of the wokou would have been peaceful traders if they had had the chance; others wanted nothing but loot and killing. They were a central aggravation, an unsolved problem in relations among Japan, Korea, and China for over four hundred years.

Further Reading

Elisonas, J. (1991). The inseparable trinity: Japan’s relations with China and Korea. In J. W. Hall (Ed.), The Cambridge history of Japan. Vol. 4: Early modern Japan (pp. 235–300). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Kwan Wai So. (1975). Japanese piracy in Ming China during the 16th Century. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Wills, J. E., Jr. (1979, 1981). Maritime China from Wang Chih to Shih Lang: Themes in peripheral history. In J. D. Spence & J. E. Wills Jr. (Eds.), From Ming to Ch’ing: Conquest, region, and continuity in seventeenth-century China (pp. 204–238). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Source: Wills, John E. Jr. (2009). Wokou. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2450–2453. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Fierce Japanese pirate raids ceased sometime around 1630, but southern coast grandmothers continued to threaten Chinese toddlers with the folklore that “the wokou would come get them” well into the nineteenth century.

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