Japanese Pirates and Sea Tenure in the Sixteenth Century Seto Inland Sea: A Case Study of the Murakami kaizoku

Japanese Pirates and Sea Tenure in the Sixteenth Century Seto Inland Sea: A Case Study of the Murakami kaizoku

By Peter D. Shapinsky

Seascapes, Littoral Cultures, and Trans-Oceanic Exchanges (Conference: February 12 through 15, 2003, held at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.)

Introduction:  The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries witnessed an expansion of the maritime networks transmitting goods and culture within the Japanese archipelago and between Japan and East and Southeast Asia. To reach the ports of Hygo and Sakai, two of the main termini in the Japanese archipelago that fed the capital region, ships usually passed through the Seto Inland Sea, the narrow body of water connecting the three main islands of Honshò, Shikoku and Kyòshò. This sea-based commercial growth developed as centralized authority over the archipelago gradually disintegrated.

Pirates of the Seto Inland Sea such as the powerful three branches of the Murakami family—Noshima, Kurushima, and Innoshima—took advantage of the chaotic decentralization to carve out maritime domains for themselves. Through manipulation of competing landed patrons3 as well as independent marauding and extortion, pirates expanded their territories on the sea from small fishing villages to formal and informal domains that stretched across the Seto Inland Sea. The formal domain represented the maritime territories to which pirate lords held formal title such as fishing villages, toll barriers, and ports. The informal domain reflected the reach of a pirate band’s reputation and influence beyond the formal domain. The extent of the informal domain fluctuated depending on the possible range of ships and the level of terror instilled by the possibility of violent reprisal.

I will explore the formal and informal nature of piratical sea-tenure through a two-part case study of the well-documented Murakami family. The first part examines epistemologies of maritime violence in medieval Japan and analyzes pirates with a sea-centered, social-ecological perspective. The second part investigates the nature of piratical sea-tenure through an exploration of how the Murakami pirates administered their formal and informal domains.

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