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16th-century pirate raids
Chinese name
Korean name
Japanese name

Wokou (Chinese: ; pinyin: Wōkòu; Japanese: わこう Wakō; Korean: 왜구 Waegu), which literally translates to "Japanese pirates" or "dwarf pirates",[1][2] were pirates who raided the coastlines of China, Japan and Korea.[3] Wokou came from a mixture of ethnicities.[4]

The term wokou is a combination of (倭) referring to "dwarfs" or Japanese, and kòu (), meaning "bandit".


There are two distinct eras of wokou piracy. The early wokou mostly set up camp on Japanese outlying islands, as opposed to the 16th century wokou who were mostly non-Japanese. The early wokou raided the Japanese themselves as well as China and Korea.[5] Records report that the main camps of the early wokou were the island of Tsushima, Iki Island, and the Gotō Islands. Jeong Mong-ju was dispatched to Japan to deal with the problem, and during his visit Kyushu governor Imagawa Sadayo suppressed the early wokou, later returning their captured property and people to Korea.[6][7] In 1405 Ashikaga Yoshimitsu sent twenty captured pirates to China, where they were boiled in a cauldron in Ningbo.[8]

According to the History of Ming, 30% of the 16th century wokou were Japanese, with the remaining 70% being ethnic Chinese.[9][10] Notable wokou included the Chinese pirate Wang Zhi, and King Myeongjong of Joseon punished a Chinese wokou for pretending to be Japanese.[11]

According to Korean records, wako pirates were particularly rampant roughly from 1350. After almost annual invasions of the southern provinces of Jeolla and Gyeongsang, they migrated northwards to the Chungcheong and Gyeonggi areas.[12] The History of Goryeo has a record of sea battles in 1380 whereby one hundred warships were sent to Jinpo to route Japanese pirates there, releasing 334 captives, Japanese sorties decreasing then after. The wako pirates were effectively expelled through the use of gunpowder technology, which the wako then lacked, after Goryeo founded the Office of Gunpowder Weapons in 1377 (but abolished twelve years later).[12]:pp. 82-86 Korea launched attacks on pirate bases on Tsushima in 1419 with the Gihae Eastern Expedition. General Yi Jongmu's fleet of 227 ships and 17,285 soldiers set off from Geoje Island toward Tsushima on June 19, 1419. The routes of the Korean attack were guided by captured Japanese pirates. After landing, General Yi Jongmu first sent captured Japanese pirates as emissaries to ask for surrender. When he received no reply, he sent out his forces and the soldiers proceeded to raid the pirates and destroy their settlements. The Korean army destroyed 129 boats, 1939 houses and killed or enslaved 135 coastal residents as well as rescuing 131 Chinese and Korean captives of the pirates and 21 slaves on the island.[13][14] The number of Wokou raids dropped dramatically after the Korean expedition.[citation needed]

One of the gates of the Chongwu Fortress on the Fujian coast (originally built ca. 1384)

Two well known Chinese military figures involved in the combating of Wokou are Qi Jiguang and Yu Dayou. Yu Dayou was a general of the Ming dynasty who studied martial arts in a shaolin temple and who was assigned to defend the coast against the Japanese pirates.[citation needed] In 1553, a young man named Qi Jiguang became Assistant Regional Military Commissioner of the Ming dynasty and was assigned to "punish the bandits and guard the people" which meant taking on the Japanese pirates attacking the Ming east coast. At the time he was only twenty-six years old. On the eve of the next year he was promoted to full Commissioner in Zhejiang because of his successes.[15]

Because of the extent of corruption in the Ming court, many Chinese officials actually had relations with the pirates and benefited from the piracy, making it difficult for central authorities to control.[16]

Some of the coastal forts built for defense against Wokou can still be found in Fujian. Among them is the well-restored Chongwu Fortress in Chongwu Town, Huai'an County, and the ruins of the Liu'ao Fortress in Liu'ao, Zhangpu County.[17]

Attacks by the Wokou. Fourteenth-century painting

Controversy over identity[edit]

The identity of the wokou is subject to some debate, with various theories about the ethnic makeup and national origin of the pirates.

Professor Takeo Tanaka of University of Tokyo proposed in 1966 that the early wokou were Koreans living on these outlying islands. In the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, Korean historian Sejong Sillok (Hangul: 세종실록; Hanja: 世宗實錄), Sunmong Lee wrote, "I hear that in the late period of the Goryeo dynasty, Wokou were roaming over this land Joseon and peasants could not stand against them. However, even though only 1 or 2 out of 10 incidents were caused by real Japanese (Hangul: 왜인, Hanja: 倭人), some of our peasants wore the clothes of Japan, formed a group and caused trouble... in order to stop all evils, there is nothing more urgent than Hopae (a Goryeo word meaning 'personal identification')."[18][19] However, Lee did not live during the Goryeo dynasty, and was likely relating rumor or legend as opposed to solid documented evidence. Moreover, the main body of Lee's record concentrates on how national security was deteriorating and how it required special attention; it is possible he made use of unreliable information to support his point.[20] Lee's assertion is therefore not highly valued as a source for wokou by other researchers.[21]

According to a 2004 Korean news article, some Goryeo records also indicate that only 0.57% (3 of 529) of 14th century Wokou incidents were non-Japanese in origin.[20] In China, in contrast, 100% of ships named as pirates were captained by Chinese. One Chinese source states that none of the early wokou were ethnic Japanese, but Southern Chinese and other foreigners with whom the Chinese traded.[22] Mid-20th century Chinese scholarship that refers to wokou as Japanese is now seen as outdated and nationalist.[23]

The current prevailing theory[24] is that of Shōsuke Murai, who demonstrated in 1988 that the early wokou came from multiple ethnic groups rather than one singular nation.[21] Murai wrote that the wokou were "marginal men" living in politically unstable areas without national allegiances, akin to the Zomia thesis.[21] Supporters of this theory point out that one of the early wokou leaders, Ajibaldo, was variously claimed by period sources to be Mongolian, Japanese, Korean, and an "islander";[25] his name is apparently Korean and Mongolian in origin.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Prof. Wang Yong, “Realistic and Fantastic Images of 'Dwarf Pirates': The Evolution of Ming Dynasty Perceptions of the Japanese.” In Prof. Joshua A. Fogel, ed., Sagacious Monks and Bloodthirsty Warriors: Chinese Views of Japan in the Ming-Qing Period (EastBridge, 2002), 17–41
  2. ^ Prof. Douglas R. Howland. Borders of Chinese Civilization: Geography and History at Empire’s End (Duke University Press Books, 1996), p. 22
  3. ^ Batten Bruce. "Gateway to Japan" 2006
  4. ^ Kwan-wai So. Japanese piracy in Ming China, during the 16th century. Michigan State University Press, 1975. chapter 2.
  5. ^ Wang Xiangrong, "Periodizing the History of Sino-Japanese Relations" Sino-Japanese Studies v. 2 (1980), 31
  6. ^ 太田弘毅「倭寇: 日本あふれ活動史」文芸社 page 98
  7. ^ 川添昭二「対外関係の史的展開」文献出版 1996 p. 167
  8. ^ Yosaburō Takekoshi. The economic aspects of the history of the civilization of Japan. 1967. p. 344
  9. ^ Anthony Reid, "Violence at Sea". in Robert J Antony, ed., Elusive Pirates, Pervasive Smugglers. Hong Kong University Press. p. 18
  10. ^ (Chinese)History of Ming”大抵真倭十之三,从倭者十之七。”
  11. ^ History of Joseon
  12. ^ a b Park, Seong-rae (2005). Science and Technology in Korean History: Excursions, Innovations, and Issues. Jain Pub Co. p. 85. 
  13. ^ http://sillok.history.go.kr/inspection/insp_king.jsp?id=wda_10106020_004
  14. ^ 朝鮮王朝実録世宗4卷1年(1419年)6月20日:"我師分道搜捕, 奪賊船大小百二十九艘, 擇可用者二十艘, 餘悉焚之, 又焚賊戶千九百三十九。 前後斬首百十四, 擒生口二十一, 芟除田上禾穀, 獲被虜中國男婦百三十一名"
  15. ^ http://www.plumpub.com/info/Bios/bio_qijiguang.htm
  16. ^ Kwan-wai So. Japanese piracy in Ming China, during the 16th century. Michigan State University Press, 1975. ch. 3.
  17. ^ Yang Shuiming (杨水明), 六鳌古城:倾听历史的涛声 (The old Liu'ao Fortress: listening to the waves of history) (Chinese)
  18. ^ 田中健夫「倭寇と勘合貿易」至文堂, 1966
  19. ^ 世宗 114卷 28年 (1446 丙寅) 10月 28日 (壬戌) "臣聞前朝之季, 倭寇興行, 民不聊生, 然其間倭人不過一二, 而本國之民, 假著倭服, 成黨作亂, 是亦鑑也。"
  20. ^ a b About imitation wokou, Chungcheong-maeil 그러나 우리 측 사료인 ‘고려사’에는 단 3건의 가왜(假倭)기록이 있을 뿐이다. 1223년부터 1392년까지 169년간 총 529회의 침입에 겨우 3번의 ‘가왜’ 기록이 있을 뿐인데, 이를 보고 왜구의 주체를 고려인으로 봄은 어불성설이고 침소봉대를 해도 너무 지나치다고 볼 수 있다. ‘조선왕조실록’에도 왜구침구 기사가 무려 312건이 나오는데 이 기사 어디에도 조선인이 왜구라는 말은 없다.
  21. ^ a b c 村井章介『中世倭人伝』岩波新書、1993年
  22. ^ Kwan-wai So. Japanese piracy in Ming China, during the 16th century. Michigan State University Press, 1975. p. 42
  23. ^ Lim, Ivy Maria (2013). "From Haijin to Kaihai: The Jiajing Court’s Search for a Modus Operandi along the South-eastern Coast (1522-1567)". Journal of the British Association for Chinese Studies 2. 
  24. ^ Hiroshi Mitani. "A Protonation-state and its 'Unforgettable Other'." in Helen Hardacre, ed., New directions in the study of Meiji Japan. Brill. p. 295
  25. ^ 東郷 隆, 上田 信 『【絵解き】雑兵足軽たちの戦い』 講談社〈講談社文庫〉、2007年、48-51頁
  26. ^ Barbara Seyock. "Pirates and Traders". In Trade and Transfer Across the East Asian "Mediterranean", Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 2005. p. 95.


Primary sources:

  • Zheng Ruohui, Zhouhai Tubian (籌海図編)
  • Hŭi-gyŏng Song, Shōsuke Murai Rōshōdō Nihon kōroku : Chōsen shisetsu no mita chūsei Nihon (老松堂日本行錄 : 朝鮮使節の見た中世日本) Iwanami Shoten, Tōkyō, 1987. ISBN 978-4-00-334541-2

Secondary sources:

External links[edit]