Wōkòu or Japanese pirates
(Chinese character: 倭寇;
Chinese pronunciation: wōkòu;
Japanese pronunciation: wakō;
Korean pronunciation: waegu)
were pirates who raided the
coastlines of China and Korea
from the thirteenth century
onwards. Originally, the Wokou
were mainly soldiers, ronin,
merchants and smugglers from
Japan, but became predomi-
nantly from China two centuries

The early phase of Wōkòu
activity began in the 13th century and extended to the second half of the fourteenth century. Japanese pirates from only Japan concentrated on the Korean peninsula and spread across the Yellow Sea to China. Ming China implemented a policy to forbid civil trade with Japan while maintaining governmental trade (Haijin). The Ming court believed that limiting non-government trade would in turn expel the Wōkòu. But haijin wasn't successful as it instead forced many Chinese merchants to protect their own interests by trading with Japan illegally. This led to the second major phase of Wōkòu activity which occurred in the early to mid-sixteenth century, where Japanese pirates colluded with their Chinese counterparts and expanded their forces. During this period the composition and leadership of the Wōkòu changed significantly to become Chinese. At their height in the 1550s, the Wōkòu operated throughout the seas of East Asia, even sailing up large river systems such as the Yangtze.

The term "Wōkòu" is a combination of "Wō" (倭) referring to Japanese, and "kòu" (寇), meaning "bandit; enemy; invasion". The earliest textual reference to the term "Wōkòu" as Japanese invader comes from Gwanggaeto Stele erected in 414. This term is used as a derogatory reference to the Japanese by Chinese and Koreans.


According to the Annals of Joseon Dynasty in 1395, wokou were commanded by a number of small and medium-sized feudal lords of the coastal areas of Japan and consisted of petty farmers and fishermen. Wokou were said to number around 20-400 ships. The lack of political stability in Japan at the time was one of the primary causes of the appearance of wokou.

There were fake wokou as well, who disguised themselves as Japanese. According to the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, Sejong Sillok (Hangul: 세종실록; Hanja: 世宗實錄), "in the late period of the Goryeo Dynasty (12th-13th centuries), some Korean bandits disguise themselves as Wo (Japanese). So real wokou are only one or two out of ten at that time; the rest are [Korean] nationals, who dressed as the Wo and cause trouble in gangs. Similarly, the Stories of Japan in the History of Ming (明史日本傳) states, in relation to one particularly extensive raid, "real Japanese comprise about three in every ten, the rest of seven are the followers".

Kamakura Period

The first raid by Wokou on record occurred in the summer of 1223, on the south coast of Goryeo. The history book Goryeosa states that "Japanese (pirates) attacked Gumju". Two more minor attacks are recorded for 1226, and continued intermittently for the next four decades. Most of the Wokou originated from Tsushima and Hizen. Under diplomatic pressure from the Goryeo government, the Kamakura shogunate made an effort to keep seafaring military groups under control. In 1227 Mutō Sukeyori, the shogunate's commissioner in Kyūshū, had ninety suspected brigands decapitated in front of a Goryeo envoy. In 1263, after Tsushima Wokou raided Ungjin, Japanese negotiators reconfirmed the policies of limiting trade and prohibiting piracy.

The period around the Mongol invasions of Japan was a low point for Wokou activity. This was partly due to the higher degree of military preparedness in Goryeo. They fortified Gumju in 1251 and in 1265. The Kamakura shogunate, for its part, increased its authority in Kyūshū and was better able to mobilise and control former Wokou groups against the threat of Mongol invasion.

As the Kamakura shogunate and Goryeo state both declined following the Mongol invasions, the Wokou again became active. In 1323, for example, a large-scale raid took place in Jeolla province. Raids such as this developed into full-scale pirate attacks by the end of the fourteenth century.

Nanboku-cho Period

The Wokou resumed their activities in earnest in 1350, driven by chaotic conditions and the lack of a strong authority in Japan. For the next half-century, sailing principally from Iki and Tsushima, they engulfed the southern half of Goryeo. The worst period was the decade between 1376 and 1385, when no fewer than 174 instances of pirate raids were recorded in Korea. Some involved bands of as many as three thousand penetrating deep into the Korean interior. The raiders repeatedly looted the Korean capital Gaeseong, and on occasion reached as far north as the mouth of the Taedong River and the general area of Pyongyang. They looted grain stores and took people away for slavery and ransom. The conditions caused by the Wokou greatly contributed to the downfall of the Goryeo Dynasty in 1392. General Yi Seonggye, founder of the Joseon Dynasty, rose to prominence due to his successes against the Wokou.

Goryeo's King U sought redress in 1375 from the Muromachi shogunate and the cooperation of the shogunal deputy (tandai 探題) in Kyūshū, Imagawa Ryōshun. In 1377 the great statesman Jeong Mong-ju was received warmly by Ryōshun. Several hundred prisoners captured by Wokou were returned to Goryeo. Nevertheless Kyūshū was under the sway of the Southern Court, and neither the shogunate nor its deputy could suppress the pirates as requested despite promises to the contrary. In 1381, for instance, the Muromachi shogunate issued an order prohibiting the akutō (悪党, loosely translated as "outlaws," literally "bad gangs" or "evil political-parties/factions") of the provinces from crossing over to Goryeo and "committing outrages". In 1389 and in 1419, the Koreans attacked the pirate bases on Tsushima themselves and received ineffective assurances from the governor of Tsushima that the pirate raids would be stopped.

The Wokou bands were also active in China, where the earliest record of Japanese pirates is from 1302. In addition, the economic embargo forced upon Japan by Qing and later Ming made pirate trade the only and a lucrative way to secure Chinese goods, as trade through the Ryūkyū Kingdom was halted by China, and eventually in 1609 Satsuma seized the kingdom. In 1358, and again in 1363, the raids continued along the entire eastern seaboard, but particularly on the coast of what is now Shandong. Toward the end of the Yuan Dynasty, the Wokou threat began to intensify. The first Wokou raid in the Ming Dynasty occurred in 1369, in Zhejiang province.

In response, the Hongwu Emperor sent his commanders to construct a number of forts along the coast and dispatched two envoys to Prince Kanenaga, the Southern Court's "General of the Western Pacification Command" in Kyūshū. The first, in 1369, threatened an invasion of Japan unless the Wokou raids were stopped. Unimpressed, Prince Kaneyoshi had the Ming envoy killed and refused the demands. However, when the second envoy arrived in 1370, he submitted to the Ming as a "subject". He sent an embassy the next year, returning more than seventy men and women who had been captured at Mingzhou (Ningbo) and Taizhou.

Ming Dynasty Tribute System

In 1392, Yi Seonggye (who had become famous for defeating these pirates) founded the Joseon Dynasty, supplanting the Goryeo regime on the Korean peninsula. In the same year, the conflict between the Southern and Northern courts in Japan was finally resolved under the auspices of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.

Fang Guozhen and Zhang Shicheng, who held sway in Jiangsu and Zhejiang areas, established bases on the coastal islands. They linked up with the Wokou. There may also have been some Wokou involvement in the rebellion of Hu Weiyong and Liu Xian.

For the Ming, the Wokou were not simply a foreign concern. The Ming reinforced the policy of forbidding Chinese to go overseas and controlled trade with Japan through the tribute system, both policies aimed at monopolising trade and protecting against piracy.

Though diplomatic initiatives brought by China and Korea were successful in gaining the cooperation of the Ashikaga Shogunate at its height, it did not put down the Wokou.

They went on raiding China in force until at least 1419. In that year, a large pirate fleet of more than thirty sail assembled in Tsushima and headed north along Korea's Yellow Sea coast. Kept under observation, it was finally ambushed and smashed off Wanghaiguo in Liaodong by a provincial military commander, who was said to have taken between 700 and 1500 heads. After that, the Wokou steered clear of Liaodong, though they hit other areas of China sporadically.

Oei Invasion Of Tsushima By Korean Joseon Dynasty

In Korea, the Wokou were stemmed by action from regional notables of western Japan, whom the Koreans influenced with concessions. From the end of the Goryeo Dynasty to the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty, the coastal regions of Korea were often the subject of Wokou raids. The founder of the Joseon Dynasty, Yi Seonggye, or King Taejo, made his fame by repelling Wokou. The Joseon Dynasty ordered a strengthening of Korean naval defenses, a strategic response to the constant threat posed by the pirates.

Joseon also asked the Ashikaga Shogunate and its deputy on Kyūshū to suppress the activity of the pirates, favoring legitimate traders. In exchange for certain privileges, it gave authority to So Sadashige over ships sailing from Japan to Korea (So clan was the de facto ruler of Tsushima Province). After his death, the power was seized from Sadashige's infant son Sadamori (Tsutsukumaru) by Soda Saemontaro, a powerful pirate leader. Suffering from famine, pirates on Tsushima invaded Ming China in 1419. On the way to China, they raided Korea's Chungcheong and Hwanghae provinces after their requests for food were dismissed.

After receiving reports of these incidents, the Korean court proposed an invasion of Tsushima. On June 9, 1419, King Taejong declared a war against Tsushima, citing that it belong to Joseon (Oei Invasion), though it resulted in failure to capture the Tsushima Island. However, the So clan controlled and stopped any coastal pirate raid in exchange with limited trading privileges and access to three coastal Korean ports after the negotiation between Joseon.

Later Wokou Raids

The 1550s and 1560s saw a resurgence of the Wokou tide. The period of greatest Wokou activity was during the Jiajing and Wanli eras, also some of the weakest in Ming history. To illustrate, in the period 1369 to 1466, the wokou raided Zhejiang 34 times, on average once every three years. By comparison, in the period 1523 to 1588, they made 66 raids, on average once a year.

In contrast with previous Wokou, however, the pirate bands of the middle sixteenth century no longer consisted preponderantly of Japanese. Although Wokou remained the common label by which they were identified, most of these bandits were in fact, if not in name, Chinese.

The term often used for Japanese pirates was bahan (Portuguese transcription: bafan). The term is written as bafan (Hachiman) or pofan ("tattered sails"). According to the Zhouhai Tubian, Satsuma, Higo, and Nagato were the Japanese provinces that were the most prolific breeding grounds of the pirates; next came Ōsumi, Chikuzen, Chikugo, Hakata, Hyuga, Settsu, Harima, and the island of Tanegashima. Natives of Buzen, Bungo and Izumi also took part in raids on occasion, often when the opportunity of joining a Satsuma expedition to China presented itself.

An inequitable taxation and property system, combined with endemic corruption, forced many Chinese farmers in Fujian, Guangdong and Zhejiang to seek livelihoods in the sea. The Ming ban on ocean-going, selectively enforced by local authorities, made these people dissidents. Sometimes pirates and sometimes merchants, they used their local knowledge to make successful raiding expeditions. In 1533 the Ming government Ministry of War complained that armed fleets were pillaging at will along the coast. They often also engaged in illegal smuggling operations and raided rival merchant marine. During the 1540s the disparate groups of Chinese pirates and traders became more organised. They gathered on islands off the eastern coastline and colluded with the Japanese.

In this way, the acts of piracy and overseas trade were interconnected. In 1523, for example, the Hosokawa trading party in Ningbo attacked its rival mission from the Ōuchi family and then proceeded to loot the city. It seized a number of ships, and set sail. The Ming commander sent in pursuit was killed in a sea battle.

Proposals to appoint a governor with jurisdiction over coastal defense first appeared in 1524 after the Ningbo affray. Supporters argued that the Japanese were as much a threat as the Mongols and that administrative arrangements in effect on the northern borders should therefore be applied to the coast as well. In 1529, after a garrison on the coast had rioted and fled to join pirate bands, a censor was sent to inspect coastal defenses, to coordinate the suppression of piracy, and to punish the leaders of the riot. In 1531 this official was transferred and not replaced.

Zhu Wan

From 1539, the tribute trade system broke down altogether. The size of Japanese fleets sailing from Japan to trade with private Chinese merchants grew each year and so did the violence associated with it. The typical wokou attack at this time was for the sea-based raiders to make swift attacks from their island strongholds and then retreat to their ships. In many cases violent altercations were the result of conflict over payment of debts by wealthy families to their trading creditors. One of the Xie family's estates in Shaoxing was looted and burned in the summer of 1547 for this reason.

In November 1547 Zhu Wan, was put in charge of Zhejiang and Fujian coastal defense, to eradicate the cause of piracy - overseas trade. In February 1548 a large body of pirates raided the coastal counties of Ningbo and Taizhou, killing, burning, and looting without encountering any effective resistance. Zhu arrived in Ningbo in April and shortly thereafter, he led an attack on wokou harbour at Shuangyu Island. In March 1549 he attacked a large merchant fleet anchored off the coast of southern Fujian. Despite Zhu's successes, he was dismissed from office and during impeachment proceedings, he committed suicide in January 1550. His coastal defense fleet was dispersed.

Wang Zhi

By the 1550s the Chinese merchant Wang Zhi had organized a large trading consortium and commanded a well-armed fleet with sailors and soldiers to protect it. Between 1539 and 1552 he cooperated with local military intendants on several occasions, expecting relaxation of the ban on overseas trade. When the ban was instead tightened in 1551, Wang began organizing large attacks on official establishments, granaries, county and district treasuries, and incidentally on the surrounding countryside, which was thoroughly pillaged. Brigandage along the coast of Zhejiang became so widespread and common that towns and villages had to erect palisades for security.

In the spring of 1552 raiding parties of several hundred people attacked all along the coast of Zhejiang. In the summer of 1553 Wang Zhi assembled a large fleet of hundreds of ships to raid the coast of Zhejiang from Taizhou north. Several garrisons were briefly taken, and several district seats were besieged. Early in 1554 fortified bases were established along the coast of Zhejiang from which larger raiding parties set out on long inland campaigns. By 1555 they were approaching the great cities of the Yangzi Delta, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Nanjing. Wokou raiders had established fortified bases in various towns and forts on the coast of Zhejiang and garrisoned them with a combined force of 20,000 men.

The two Chinese commanders most famous in resisting the Wokou were Qi Jiguang and Yu Dayou. Both men were from coastal provinces and had good knowledge of naval warfare. Qi organised a force of some 4000, known as the "Qi Family Army", made up mostly of farmers and miners. He won a succession of victories in 1555 in defending Taizhou. Yu Dayou's first significant victory was in 1553, when his marines stormed the island of Putuoshan and expelled the Wokou camp there. Two years later, he killed some two thousand Wokou north of Jiaxing, winning the greatest victory in the Wokou wars.


When Toyotomi Hideyoshi's assumed Regency of Japan in the 1580s, the Ming and the Regent worked together to stop the raids, and were very successful. However, once Hideyoshi ended the bloodline of his last enemy, the Hōjō clan in Japan, he demanded from Joseon Dynasty in Korea the right of passage to invade China. Korea refused, and Hideyoshi invaded Korea and Manchuria, the subsequent series of battles being known as the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598). The term "wokou" was used by both Chinese and Korean troops in reference to the invasion force of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Although initially successful in the land invasion, Japan was to suffer great losses at the hand of Admiral Yi Sun-sin of Jeolla (Korean province) forcing Hideyoshi's invading army to retreat.

Decline Of The Wokou

The presence of the Wokou eventually declined before disappearing completely. There are several theories about the cause of the decline.

As a general rule, most of the Wokou began returning to more traditional seafaring activities as enforcement of the bans on maritime trade subsided. There is anecdotal evidence that the Portuguese were given permission to settle Macao in the 1550s in exchange for cooperation with the Ming authorities against the Wokou. There are two accounts of anti-piracy activity by the Portuguese. The first dates from the 1520s and is recounted in a letter to Zhu Wan, one of the leaders of the anti-piracy campaigns. The second account is better documented and discusses a 1564 joint Chinese-Portuguese action in the Pearl River Delta.

Additionally, the acceptance of the Portuguese resulted in the relaxing of anti-trade restrictions, particularly in the region surrounding Canton. The mere presence of the better armed Portuguese ships may have served to decrease pirate activity. Additionally, the accommodation with the Portuguese also contributed to the demise of the tribute-trade system, which would have increased opportunities for legitimate Chinese traders as well. More likely, however, is that the Portuguese were able to sell tropical goods from Indonesia and India at a better price than the Wokou, many of whom were smugglers before pirates. The cost of illegal activity made the Wokou unable to compete with the Portuguese and drove the Wokou back into legitimate seafaring activities.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi also served as a great detriment to Wokou activities. Two regulations in particular damaged the Wokou raids, the first of which is the sword hunt put in motion in 1588. The Sword Hunt was a major confiscation of all weaponry in the storage of peasants and turned over to the daimyo. This took away the possibility of making war by people suspect of Hideyoshi. Obscure daimyo whose loyalty was in question or religious establishments that possessed the capabilities to arm a rebellion were all purged in an operation that have parallels with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In effect, this took away the means by which Wakou could arm and supply themselves. The other, lesser known, ordinance was a move aimed directly at the Wokou. Representatives of the daimyo sought to obtain written oaths that no seafarer partake in piracy. If any daimyo should fail to obey with this order and allow Wokou to continue their craft, his fief would be confiscated.

Korea's peace and official trade policy made Wokou under control in late 15C-16C. After Oei invasion by Korea to Tsushima in 1491, Wokou activity in Korea was declined. King Sejong changed offensive policy to peaceful policy so opened 3 ports for official trade with Japan(1426). In 1443, Korea and Japan signed on Treaty of Gyehae as a means of controlling Japanese piracy and legitimizing trade between Tsushima island and a Korean port and decide to set up Japanese trading special region called Waegwan (倭館) but it was not for permanent residents. By the Joseon's policy of good neighbor, Wokou activity is under control and makes peaceful relationship between Korea and Japan. But Japanese try to expand trading scale and to live permanently in Waegwan more so it became a dispute. In 1510, Japanese revel in 3 open ports and suppressed soon by Korean army in 1510. The 3 ports were closed until 1512. Before Japanese invasion at 1592, only one port at Jaepo was opend for official trading.

Chinese Pirate Confederacy

The most powerful pirate fleets of East Asia were those of Chinese pirates during the mid-Qing dynasty. Pirate fleets grew increasingly powerful throughout the early 19th century. The effects large-scale piracy had on the Chinese economy were immense. They preyed voraciously on China’s junk trade, which flourished in Fujian and Guangdong and was a vital artery of Chinese commerce. Pirate fleets exercised hegemony over villages on the coast, collecting revenue by exacting tribute and running extortion rackets. In 1802, the menacing Zheng Yi inherited the fleet of his cousin, captain Zheng Qi, whose death provided Zheng Yi with considerably more influence in the world of piracy. Zheng Yi and his wife, Zheng Yi Sao (who would eventually inherit the leadership of his pirate confederacy) then formed a pirate coalition that, by 1804, consisted of over ten thousand men. Their military might alone was sufficient to combat the Qing navy. However, a combination of famine, Qing naval opposition, and internal rifts crippled piracy in China around the 1820s, and it has never again reached the same status.

Sixteenth-century Japanese pirate raids. Based on Map 23, from The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 7: The Ming Dynasty 1368-1644, Part I (Cambridge University Press: 1988)Modern provinces of China are shown - Click To Enlarge