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Chinese name
Long characters 倭寇
Abbreviation 倭寇
Pinyin Woku
Jyutping Where 1 buy 3
Japanese name
Kanji 倭寇
Kana わ こ う
Hepburn Wako
Korean name
Hangeul 왜구
Hanja 倭寇
McCune-Reischauer Waeku
Revised Waegu
Routes of the Wokou with affected area of ​​both periods

Wokou ( Chinese  倭寇 , Pinyin Wōkòu ; kana わ こ う Wakō ; hangeul 왜구 Waegu , literally " brigands from Yamato ", "dwarf bandits ") were "Japanese pirates of the Middle Ages" who attacked the coasts of China and Korea . The word Wō ( ) was used as a name for the Japanese in East Asia until the Japanese Meiji period, around 1905.

Their activity was mainly divided into two phases.

In a first phase from the 13th century to the second half of the 14th century, the coasts of China and Korea were hit. At that time, the wokou consisted largely of Japanese soldiers, ronins , and traders.

The second important phase was in the early to mid-16th century. During this time the composition and leadership of the Wokou changed considerably. In addition to Japanese pirates, mainly Chinese bandits and smugglers were involved.

In their heyday in the 1550s, i.e. the second phase, the Wokou operated in the seas of East Asia and even sailed up large river systems such as that of the Yangtze .

Origin of name

The term “wokou” is a combination of ( ), an old name for Japanese or “Yamato”, the “old (feudal) Japan”, and kòu ( ), which means brigand , bandit, robber or intruder . The earliest written source of the term "Wokou" can be found on a stele erected by King Gwanggaeto of the Goguryeo Empire in 414 in southern Manchuria .

1st phase

Kamakura time

The first recorded wokou foray took place in the summer of 1223 on the south coast of Goryeo, Korea. The Goryeosa reports that "Japanese (pirates) attacked Gumju." Two smaller attacks are documented in 1226, others took place sporadically over the next 4 decades.

Most of the Wokou came from Tsushima Island ( called Wae Island by the Koreans ) and Hizen Province . Under diplomatic pressure from the government of Goryeo, the Kamakura shogunate made efforts to control maritime military groups. In 1227 Mutō Sukeyori , the representative of the Shogunate in Kyūshū , beheaded 90 suspects of piracy in the presence of an envoy from Goryeo. In 1263, after Wokou of Tsushima looted Ungjin , Japanese negotiators upheld the policy of restricting trade and banning piracy.

Around the time of the Mongol invasions in Japan , the activities of the Wokou decreased, also because of the better military preparation for attacks in Goryeo. The Koreans fortified Gumju in 1251 and in 1265 after the beginning of tribute relations with the Mongols, the powerful armies ( 三 別 抄 , Sambyeolcho ) were relocated to the southern provinces.

The Kamakura shogunate, in turn, increased its influence in Kyushu and was better able to mobilize previous Wokou groups against the threat of a Mongol invasion.

When both the Kamakura shogunate and Goryeo state fell into disrepair in the years following the Mongol invasions, the wokou became active again. In 1323, for example, a large-scale raid took place in the province of Jeolla . Individual attacks like this developed into military pirate attacks at the end of the 14th century.

Nanboku-cho period

In 1350 the Wokou resumed their activities on a larger scale. They were able to do so because this period was marked by the lack of strong government power in Japan during the initial Muromachi period , as a result of the two Mongol invasions in Japan . For the next half century, they invaded mainly from the islands of Iki and Tsushima in the southern half of Goryeo . The worst period was from 1376 to 1385, when an average of 19 pirate attacks were recorded in Korea each year. Some involved gangs of up to 3,000 pirates who penetrated deep into the interior. They repeatedly plundered the Korean capital Kaesŏng and occasionally made their way north to the mouth of the Taedong-gang and the area around Pyongyang . They looted grain stores and kidnapped residents as hostages and slaves. The problems caused by the wokou contributed significantly to the fall of the Goryeo dynasty in 1392, even if General Yi Seong-gye had a few victories.

Goryeo's King U asked the Muromachi Shogunate for relief in 1375 and sought cooperation with the Shogun's governor in Kyūshū ( Chinzei Tandai ), Imagawa Ryōshun . In 1377 the great statesman Jeong Mong-ju was warmly received by Ryōshun. Several hundred Wokou prisoners were sent back to Goryeo. However, Kyushu was in the sphere of influence of the southern court and despite all promises neither the shogunate nor the tandai could suppress the pirates as required. For example, in 1381 the Muromachi Shogunate issued an order that forbade the akutō ( outlaws ) of the provinces to cross over to Goryeo and to "commit atrocities". In 1389 and 1419 the Koreans attacked the pirate bases on Tsushima themselves, but were forced to retreat without causing much damage.

The Wokou gangs were also active in China, the first records of raids there date back to 1302. In 1358 and again in 1363 raids continued along the entire east coast, but especially on the coast of today's Shandong . Towards the end of the Yuan Dynasty , the threat from the Wokou began to intensify. The first Wokou raid in the Ming Dynasty occurred in 1369 in Zhejiang Province .

In response, Emperor Hongwu sent his commanders to build a number of fortifications along the coast and sent two envoys to Prince Kanenaga ( 懐 良 親王 Kanenaga-shinnō , also read Kaneyoshi ), the "Imperial General of the Western Pacification Command" ( 征西 将軍 宮 seisei shōgun no miya ) of the south court in Kyūshū. The first envoy, in 1369, threatened an invasion of Japan by China if the Wokou raids were not stopped. Undeterred, Prince Kanenaga had the Ming envoy killed and refused to comply. When the second envoy arrived in 1370 and Japan threatened severe economic sanctions, Prince Kanenaga submitted to the Ming as a "subject". He sent an embassy to the Ming Imperial Court in Nanjing the following year that returned more than 70 Chinese captured at Mingzhou ( Ningbo ) and Taizhou .

Ming Dynasty tribute system

Attack of the Wokou. Painting from the 14th century.

In 1392 General Yi Seong-gye , who gained importance because of several victories over the pirates, founded the Joseon Dynasty , which replaced Goryeo as the dominant power on the Korean peninsula. In the same year the conflict between the South Courtyard and the North Courtyard in Japan was resolved by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu .

Fang Guozhen and Zhang Shicheng, the rulers of the Jiangsu and Zhejiang areas, built fortifications on the coastal islands and established connections with the Wokou. The Wokou could influence the rebellions of Hu Weiyong and Liu Xian .

For the Ming , the wokou were an important domestic and foreign policy issue. The Ming reinforced policies of forbidding the Chinese from leaving the country and controlled trade in Japan through a tribute system. Both aimed at monopolizing trade and protecting against piracy.

Although the diplomatic initiatives by China and Korea have succeeded in achieving cooperation with the Muromachi shogunate, they did not solve the wokou problem.

The Wokou continued their raids in China until at least 1419. That year a large pirate fleet of more than 30 ships gathered at Tsushima and moved northward along the Korean coast of the Yellow Sea . Her train was watched, ambushed by a provincial military commander outside Wanghaiguo in Liaodong , and she was eventually broken up. Between 700 and 1,500 pirates are said to have been killed. They stayed away from Liaodong in the aftermath, but sporadically visited other regions of China.

In Korea, the wokou problem was resolved through actions by regional rulers in western Japan who had influenced the Koreans with concessions.

2nd phase

The 1550s and 1560s saw the Wokou plague flare up again. The period of their greatest activity was during the Jiajing and Wanli eras, which were also among the weakest governments in Ming history. From 1369 to 1466, the Wokou raided Zhejiang 34 times, an average of once every 3 years. In the period from 1523 to 1588 they carried out 66 raids, i.e. once a year.

In contrast to the Wokou of earlier epochs, the pirate gangs no longer consisted primarily of Japanese in the middle of the 16th century. Although still referred to as "wokou", most of these bandits were now Chinese.

The term bahan (or bafan ) was often used for Japanese pirates . The word is spelled as bafan ( Hachiman ) or pofan ("rag sail"). After the Chouhai Tubian , the provinces of Satsuma , Higo and Nagato were the most important breeding grounds for pirates. They also came from Ōsumi , Chikuzen , Chikugo , Hyuga , Settsu , Harima and Tanegashima Island provinces . Residents of Buzen , Bungo and Izumi provinces also occasionally participated in raids, often when the opportunity arose to join an expedition to China organized in Satsuma.


Primary sources:

  • Zheng, Ruohui: Chukai shoes - 籌 海 図 編
  • 老 松 堂 日本 行 録

Secondary sources:

  • So, Kwan-wai: Japanese Piracy in Ming China During the 16th Century . East Lansing, 1975.
  • Boxer, CR: Piracy in the South China Sea in History Today , XXX, 12 (December), pp. 40-44.
  • Turnbull, Stephen: Samurai - The World of the Warrior , pp. 155-157

Individual evidence

  1. Term wokou - 倭寇: (Chinese, English) [1] In: www.zdic.net, accessed on May 9, 2019 - Online
  2. Term wokou - 倭寇: (Chinese, German) [2] In: dict.leo.org, accessed on May 9, 2019 - Online
  3. term Wokou -倭寇: (English, Japanese) [3] In: tangorin.com, accessed on May 9, 2019 - Online
  4. Term wokou - 倭寇: (German, Japanese) [4] In: www.wadoku.de, accessed on May 9, 2019 - Online
  5. a b Term wo - 倭: (Chinese, English) [5] In: www.zdic.net, accessed on May 9, 2019 - Online
  6. a b Term wo - 倭: (Chinese, German) [6] In: dict.leo.org, accessed on May 9, 2019 - Online
  7. a b Term wo - 倭: (English, Japanese) [7] In: tangorin.com, accessed on May 9, 2019 - Online
  8. a b Term wo - 倭: (German, Japanese) [8] In: www.wadoku.de, accessed on May 9, 2019 - Online
  9. term kou -寇: (Chinese, English) [9] In: www.zdic.net, accessed on May 9, 2019 - Online
  10. term kou -寇: (Chinese, German) [10] In: dict.leo.org, accessed on May 9, 2019 - Online
  11. term kou -寇: (English, Japanese) [11] In: tangorin.com, accessed on May 9, 2019 - Online
  12. term kou -寇: (German, Japanese) [12] In: www.wadoku.de, accessed on May 9, 2019 - Online
  13. The Brockhaus in Text and Image 2003 [SW], electronic edition for the office library, Bibliographisches Institut & FA Brockhaus, 2003; Article: "Korea"