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An 18th-century Chinese painting depicting a naval battle between Japanese pirates and the Chinese.
Wokou (Chinese: 倭寇; pinyin: Wōkòu; Japanese: Wakō; Korean: 왜구 Waegu), which literally translates to "Japanese pirates" or "dwarf pirates", were pirates who raided the coastlines of China and Korea from the 4th century to the 16th century. The wokou came from Japanese, Korean, and Chinese ethnicities which varied over time and raided the mainland from islands in the Sea of Japan and East China Sea. Wokou activity in Korea declined after the Gihae Eastern Expedition of the Joseon in 1419, but continued in Ming China and peaked during the Jiajing wokou raids in the mid-1500s, but Chinese reprisals and strong clamp downs on pirates by Japanese authorities saw the wokou virtually disappear by the 1600s.
There are two distinct eras of wokou piracy. The early wokou mostly set up camp on the outlying islands of the Japanese archipelago in the Sea of Japan, 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.
The first recorded use of the term wokou (倭寇) is on the Gwanggaeto Stele, a stone monument erected in modern Ji'an, Jilin, China, to celebrate the exploits of Gwanggaeto the Great of Goguryeo (r. 391–413). The stele states that "wokou" ("Japanese robbers") crossed the sea and were defeated by him in the year 404. The term wokou is a combination of the Chinese terms Wō (倭), referring to either dwarfs or pejoratively to the Japanese, and kòu (寇) "bandit".
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. In 1405 Ashikaga Yoshimitsu sent twenty captured pirates to China, where they were boiled in a cauldron in Ningbo.
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. The History of Goryeo has a record of sea battles in 1380 whereby one hundred warships were sent to Jinpo to rout 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).: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 and 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. The number of Wokou raids dropped dramatically after the Korean expedition.
Some of the coastal forts built for defense against Wokou can still be found in Zhejiang and Fujian. Among them are the well-restored Pucheng Fortress (in Cangnan County, Zhejiang) and Chongwu Fortress (in Chongwu, Huai'an County, Fujian), as well as the ruins of the Liu'ao Fortress in Liu'ao, Zhangpu County (Fujian).
In attempts to centralize political control, the Ming Dynasty enacted trade bans with the consensus being that "unrestricted trade would lead to chaos". With maritime trade outlawed, China's navy was reduced and, as a result, they were unable to combat increased smuggling which led to wokou control over the southeastern coast. Although wokou means "Japanese pirates", major wokou groups in the 16th century were led by Chinese traders whose livelihoods were halted by the Ming trade bans. 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.
Two well known Chinese military figures involved in the combating of Wokou were Qi Jiguang and Yu Dayou. Yu Dayou was a general of the Ming dynasty who was assigned to defend the coast against the Japanese pirates. 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 that 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.
The wokou even made it into the Philippines before their extermination in the 1600s. Aparri in the Philippines, which is located in Northern Luzon, was established as pirate city-state under the patronage of the Wokou. The area around Aparri was the site of the 1582 Cagayan battles between Japanese pirates and Spanish soldiers.. The wokou were not only limited to Aparri. The pirate-warlord Limahong attempted and failed to invade Manila and afterwards set up a temporary pirate state in Caboloan (Pangasinan) before he was expelled by the Spanish.
Controversy over identity
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, the compiled section for King Sejong relates that a vassal named Yi Sun-mong (Korean: 이순몽; Hanja: 李順蒙, 1386–1449) told his monarch "I hear that in the late Goryeo kingdom period, Wokou roaming (our country) and the peasants could not withstand them. However only 1 or 2 (out of 10) were caused by (real) Japanese. Some of our peasants imitatively wore Japanese clothing, formed a group and caused trouble... in order to stop all evils, there is nothing more urgent than the Hopae (personal identification system)". However, Yi did not live during the Goryeo dynasty, and was likely relating rumor or legend as opposed to solid documented evidence. Moreover, the thrust of Yi's speech 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. Yi's assertion is therefore not highly valued as a source for wokou by other researchers. The chronicle Goryeosa records 529 wokou raids during the 1223–1392 period, but mentions the "fake Japanese" only 3 times.
The current prevailing theory is that of Shōsuke Murai, who demonstrated in 1988 that the early wokou came from multiple ethnic groups rather than one singular nation. Murai wrote that the wokou were "marginal men" living in politically unstable areas without national allegiances, akin to the Zomia thesis. 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"; his name is apparently Korean and Mongolian in origin.
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