Monday, 4 July 2011

Murai Shôsuke on the wakô

Wajin barbarian, Jurchen barbarian
Part of my pleasant stay here in Hokkaidô I've spend reading Murai Shôsuke's 1993 book Chûsei wajinden (A medieval account of the Wa people). A pleasant read, which taught me much about the wakô (in Chinese wōkòu, in Korean waegu). It's a work which is close to Amino Yoshihiko – one could even describe it as a direct attempt to apply the latter’s ideas of asylum and margins to the study of the wakô.
Wakô is a term which is often translated as "Japanese pirates", but as Murai shows, the wa of Korean sources didn't correspond to "Japanese". Neither is it correct to translate wajin, wafuku or wago as "Japanese people", "Japanese dress" or "Japanese language". Instead Murai argues that national categories are not really relevant in understanding the world in which the wakô lived, suggesting that the wakô are better understood as a transnational mix of "border-straddling people" who were able to establish something close to a shared culture of the entire East China Sea region. Wafuku and wago are best understood as the shared dress and the shared language of people participating in this culture. Ethnically, there was much mixture between populations across the Tsushima Straits. Thus Korean-born people too could be referred to as wajin if they had lived for some time on Tshushima and many sources show that wajin were a familiar and economically important presence to the populations along the southern Korean coast.

This means that he is critical of historian Tanaka Takeo’s provocative claim - based on sources that claim that Korean robber bands and outcaste groups had dressed up in wafuku - that the 14th century wakô were a mixture of Japanese and Koreans or even solely Korean. Murai objects that the sources supporting such a claim are scarce, late and motivated by prejudice against outcasts. Personally, I also find it hard to believe that the many pirates on Tsushima would have refrained from venturing westwards to raid Korea. Besides, there doesn't seem to be any point in a wafuku disguise unless there was a general assumption that wakô were generally wajin.

Much along the lines suggested by Amino, Murai argues that the important dividing line was not between nationalities but between the farming and non-farming populations. A cultural continuum conjoined the sea-going populations of the Tsushima Straits and southern Korea, and opposed them to the settled farming population supported by the Korean state. This also seems to be in line with how Korean officials judged the situation, since they repeatedly petitioned the court to deal with piracy by turning the sea- and mountain peoples into farmers by giving them land and taxing them (Murai 1993:54-58). Here I can't help recalling the arguments of Owen Lattimore and James Scott (see the latter's The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia) about how states in East and Southeast Asia have struggled for much of their history to stop their farming population from escaping and returning to a nomadic life. Were the wakô the nomads of the east, just as the Mongols and Jurchen were the nomads in the west?

The parallel between the wajin and the nomadic populations of Inner Asia is in fact a theme that is stressed repeatedly in the book. Thus the Joseon court regarded the wajin as barbarians on the level of the Jurchen yâmin (野人). Adopting the Chinese idea of a civilizational centre surrounded by ”four barbarian peoples” they saw themselves as surrounded by the yâmin in the north, Japan in the east, the ”three islands” (Tsushima, Iki and Matsura) in the south, and Ryûkyû in the west. Furthermore, the three landing ports granted to the wajin (三浦) in the south corresponded to the five fortifications (五鎮) which had a similar function in regulating trade with the Jurchen along the northern frontier (ibid. 59-62).

The account of life in the three ports (Busan, Ulsan and Jinhae) is interesting. The wajin who traded here came mainly from Tsushima, a barren and overpopulated island which was economically dependent on Korea and to which the three ports was a much needed source of economic wealth and a demographic outlet (ibid 108f). Originally only granted as landing ports, they soon developed into permanent wajin settlements or small towns with temples, amusement facilities and prostitution. Houses were in Japanese style with earth walls and thatched roofs. Despite restrictions on travel, trips to nearby hot springs were popular. The settlements were surrounded by walls guarded day and night to prevent the wajin from mixing with the local population (not so much out of fear of smuggling as because of military secrecy), but reports indicate that it was common for the wajin to cross the walls in secret.

The juridical status of the three ports was ambiguous and Murai portrays them in a fashion which recalls Amino's conception of muen or asylums from secular power. Policing and legal jurisdiction seems to have been abandoned by the Korean officials. Although they could punish local Koreans harshly for dealings with the wajin, they usually left the latter alone. This made the ports into a kind of legal limbo or “air pocket” in which only a vague authority was wielded by the distant Tsushima lord, a state which made the ports a haven for piracy and smuggling. They were also largely freed of taxes. An important factor behind this lenience on the part of the Joseon court appears to have been the fear of a renewed outbreak of wakô attacks and another was the fact that Korean officials and merchants too profited from the trade (ibid. 95-103, 126). Tightening of controls, the imposition of less profitable trade rates and harsher measures against piracy led to the outbreak of a Tsushima-supported revolt in 1510. With its suppression, the permanent settlements came to an end and from then on Busan alone was used as a landing port for the wajin

The later wakô in the 16th century had a quite different character compared to the early ones. The background was the resumption and rapid growth of trade in the course of the century. An important role in this trade was played by the huge production of silver in Japan, which took off with the introduction of Korean cupellation techniques in the 1530s. Ming China's demand for silver and Japanese demand for Korean cotton - rooted in military needs of the sengoku (warring states) era in Japan - provided the conditions for the second wave of wakô. Now it was no longer the Tsushima-Korea relation that was central. The main role was instead played by pirates based in Western Kyûshû, such as Wang Zhi, who raided across a far larger area than the earlier wakô. While earlier exchanges within the region had largely taken place within the framework of the Chinese-centred interstate system (the "tribute system"), this second wave of wakô was helped by the decline and gradual collapse of this system. With the waning of Ming power the policy of maritime prohibitions (hai-chin) could no longer be maintained, which led to the freeing up and proliferation of unregulated trade, a trade which was frequently accompanied by violence and went hand in hand with the increase in piracy.

Just as he had previously depicted the "three ports" as a form of asylum, Murai again deployes what seems like Amino-inspired language in depicting the freedom of the predominant pirate nests of this later era, places like Hirado on Kyûshû, the Gotô islet chain: “Places like Gotô or Hirado were bases of wakô activity with the character of asylums”. He also describes them as “utopias for pirates” where a “maritime world hostile to the state” could develop (ibid. 210). With the reestablishment of strong state power in China and Japan in the 17th century, new and stricter maritime bans are adopted in China, Korea and Japan and the world in which the wakô had proliferated ends.

The deployment of the idea of asylums (or muen) on the "border-straddling" peoples of the East China sea seems to me like a logical extension of Amino's original conception. It frees the latter of some of the difficulties arising from Amino's tendency to see muen as based in religious notions such as a lingering "primitive" authority of the sacred. Instead, the wakô asylums portrayed by Murai seems to have had sprung mainly from the weakness of the medieval state and the inability of the latter to prevent a plurality of rivalling power centers to arise which were strong enough to challenge or escape its control. It was this weakness which allowed the "border-straddling" peoples and their trade to flourish and to establish a shared culture covering much of the region.    

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