May 05, 2022

Part VI: Southern Barbarians

As Kodo rose to take its place as one of Japan's three primary geido, the ritual appreciation of incense enjoyed by the warring daimyo would lead to their appetite for Aloeswood being as insatiable as their desire for conquest. Yet Aloeswood was not native to Japan, and trade in fragrant woods and aromatic spices was subject to Japanese pirates and embargoes by the Ming. The arrival of the Black Ships of the Portuguese would change this, providing a new source of fragrant woods from not only China, but the wider world. These "southern barbarians" brought with them not only Aloeswood, Sandalwood, and other riches from far off shores, but also European guns and the Jesuit faith, altering the course of Japan's history.

At the heart of Kodo's ritual appreciation of incense is rare and fragrant Aloeswood. Sourced from Vietnam, Southeast Asia, and Southern China, trade in Aloeswood from points south of Japan during the Ashikaga shogunate had existed informally for centuries. However, formal trade in not only fragrant woods and aromatic spices but also highly sought-after Chinese silks, porcelain, and artwork was restricted by a tribute system imposed by the Ming Empire through a series of Haijin (sea bans). Although highly ineffective and poorly enforced, these sea bans restricted the flow of official Japanese trade with China to licensed trade exchanges at the port of Ningbo. Located in the coastal plain of the Yong river on the eastern most coast of China south of the Korean peninsula, Ningbo is one of China’s oldest cities. Even by the time of the Ashikaga shogunate Ningbo was a well-known port for foreign trade for over two thousand years, lying at the furthest end of the Silk Road. Chinese sailors would pray at Ningbo's temples for safe journeys at sea, giving the port its name meaning "peaceful waves." 

Unfortunately, Chinese prayers for peaceful waves did not make for peaceful trade relations, as the bi-product of Ming restrictions on official trade was a boom in dispossessed Japanese traders resorting to piracy. Given the volatile nature of Sengoku period Japan and the inability of the Ashikaga shogunate to affect meaningful control outside Kyoto, Japanese pirates known as wokou were free to raid along the coasts of Japan, Korea and China. The results of their raids served as unofficial trading channels with Japan, further angering the Ming. Turmoil at the start of shogun Ashikaga Yoshiharu’s reign would lead to a dispute over which Japanese clan was awarded the lucrative official Ningbo trade license with disastrous results for Chinese-Japanese trade relations.

In 1523 competing daimyo from the Hosokawa and Ouchi both claimed the disputed license to the official tribute trade, with trading fleets filled with hundreds of armed men from each clan arriving at Ningbo within days of each other. Hostilities would break out between the rival clans, resulting in the head of the Hosokawa contingent being killed and Hosokawa ships being set to the torch by the Ouchi. The fighting and destruction would spill over into the surrounding town and a melee with the port authorities, destroying merchant shops and homes in the process. The resulting naval battle between the fleeing Ouchi and Chinese authorities left Ningo in flames and the Ming commander dead. The Ningbo Incident, as it would be later called, created a significant deterioration of diplomatic relations between China and Japan, ultimately leading to the complete prohibition of trade in 1529.

As the Chinese trade embargo made sought after Chinese silks, celedon porcelain, and fragrant woods more difficult to obtain, the divine wind again intervened in Japanese history. In 1543 a typhoon blew a Chinese junk en route to Ningbo out to sea, eventually making landfall battered and broken on Tanegashima Island off the southern tip of Kyushu. In addition to the Chinese pilot and crew, onboard were Portuguese traders Antonio Mota and Francisco Zeimoto. The Portuguese had arrived in China in 1513, having established a maritime trading route that saw Portuguese ships make a two year round trip journey from Lisbon Portugal, around the Cape of Good Hope off the southern tip of Africa, on to Goa on the western coast of India, then on to Malacca and the Spice Islands in Indonesia, and finally ending in Macau and Canton at the end of the Silk Road in southern China. Trading for Chinese silks, porcelain, and gold, the Portuguese would provide China with silver, pepper, aromatic spices, musk, Sandalwood and Aloeswood from India and Southeast Asia.

Beside the novelty of the strangely dressed foreigners, what caught the attention of their Japanese hosts was their Portuguese weapons. Demonstrating their matchlock arquebuses to the inhabitants of Tanegashima, Mota and Zeimoto fascinated the Japanese with a weapon that could fire lead shot accurately farther than the bow and arrow of the samurai. Gun powder and iron weapons were familiar to the Japanese by the time of Mota and Zeimoto’s demonstrations as Chinese teppo (iron cannon) had been utilized in Japan for two centuries prior. But the Portuguese matchlock was much lighter and easier to aim, peaking the interest of their fascinated Japanese hosts. When their ship was eventually able to set sail for China, Mota and Zeimoto presented two muskets as gifts to extremely happy Tanegashima lords before they departed.

The Japanese on Tanegashima immediately set their local iron-smiths to reproducing the weapons. When they encountered challenges reproducing the firing mechanism, the daughter of the local smith was given in marriage to Zeimoto in exchange for his knowledge of Portuguese manufacturing techniques. Within a year Japanese iron-smiths had learned how to reproduce the Portuguese weapons and had already begun to make improvements to them. These Portuguese teppo would come to be known as Tanegashima for island where they were first demonstrated. Within fifty years, batteries of teppo ashigaru, foot soldiers armed with Tanegashima, were well established in samurai armies in numbers that far exceeded their European contemporaries, serving as devastating additions to the forces of daimyo vying for control of Japan.

After their accidental landing at Tanegashima, the Portuguese quickly returned to Japan to set up trade operations and Jesuit missionaries at the port of Hirado on Hirado Island in the northwest of Kyushu. Hirado had become the port of call for wokou pirates, and was a center for goods smuggled from Chinese ports. The Jesuits served as intermediaries between the Portuguese traders and their eager Japanese hosts, using the allure of lucrative Portuguese trade as a conduit to introduce Christianity in ports throughout Japan.

By 1548 the venerated Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier traveled to Japan, noting in a letter to Rome that "All the Portuguese merchants coming from Japan tell me that if I go there I shall do great service for God our Lord, more than with the pagans of India, for they are a very reasonable people." Of his early experience with the Japanese, Xavier described them as "...led by reason in everything more than any other people." Sharing European understanding of science and religion, Xavier noted "They listened to us most eagerly, and appeared delighted to hear us, regarding us with profound respect as extremely learned persons. This idea of our great knowledge opened the way to us for sowing the seed of religion in their mind." At first, due to translation issues and Christianity being explained through the lens of Shingon Buddhism, many early Japanese converts viewed Christianity as another sect of Buddhism. In time,"with great labor" the central teachings of Christianity were translated into Japanese and read aloud in the streets as well as in audiences with their daimyo hosts.

The first daimyo to convert to Christianity was Omura Sumitada, who after his baptism would take the Christian name Dom Bartolomeu. Sumitada was a minor  daimyo from Yokoseura located in northwestern Kyushu just south of Hirado Island. Yokoseura was increasingly under threat from the much more powerful neighboring Ryuzoji clan intent upon expanding their land holdings as was typical of larger more powerful clans swallowing their smaller neighbors during the Sengoku period.

In 1561, as sharing Hirado with wokou pirates became increasingly dangerous for the Portuguese, they began to look for a safer harbor from which to base their trading operations Japan. Seeing a chance to make powerful allies and lure a lucrative trading partner to his domain, Sumitada assured the Portuguese safety in Yokoseura, opened the port of Nagasaki to their trade vessels, and agreed to not only convert to Christianity, but to require all his retainers and subjects to do so as well. Favorably impressed, the Portuguese moved their trading operations to Nagasaki. Here the Jesuits would work with Sumitada to develop the quiet fishing village into a thriving hub of trade with the Europeans and base for their Jesuit mission in Japan. The Ryuzoji would attack Nagasaki in 1578, and the Portuguese with their superior weapons would aid Sumatada in driving them back, cementing the relationship. As a reward, Sumatada declared Nagasaki sovereign soil under the control of the Jesuits.

The Portuguese saw a lucrative opportunity in the Chinese trade embargo of Japan, and actively sought to capitalize upon it with Nagasaki quickly became the exclusive port for the Portuguese at the end of their sea route between Lisbon and the far east. From Nagasaki, the Portuguese served as go between for trade with China, resuming the flow of much desired Chinese goods. But the Portuguese also brought riches in fragrant aromatics used in incense such as nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, rhubarb, and musk, along with Aloeswood and Sandalwood from southern China, the Spice Islands in Southeast Asia, and far off India. Manifests at the time detail cargoes that included hundreds of pounds of fragrant woods in the holds of Portuguese ships. In exchange for these goods, the Japanese offered painted screens, kimono, silk, lacquer-ware, swords, copper and especially silver. On their return trip, the Portuguese would trade the silver in China for tea, pearls, Ming porcelain, musk, and gold.

Not all cargo carried by the Portuguese was so welcome however. The Portuguese would take enslaved men, women, and children - including Japanese -  as captive human cargo on their return journey to Goa. Although the Jesuits in charge of Nagasaki would turn a blind eye to the practice, it would not go unnoticed by Japanese or the Ming. Originally, the Japanese had referred to traders arriving by sea from southern China as nanban (southern barbarian). Soon the Portuguese would assume the label and trade with all westerners would come to be known as nanban trade. The Portuguese practice of transporting slaves would earn them the name gaijin, generically meaning "foreigner" not of Asian decent, but with the overtone of an outsider not to be trusted.

Seeking to monopolize the lucrative trading opportunity Japan represented, Portugal’s King John III awarded only a single fidalgo - a royal license - once a year to travel and trade with Japan. The fidalgo gave all rights to a full year’s lucrative trading venture to the highest bidder, including giving the captain the authority over any Portuguese subjects in China or Japan, the right to charter a royal vessel for the journey, and the right to sell this right to others in his stead, all under Royal auspices.

The trading ships employed by the Portuguese were a combination of cargo ship and war vessel. Known as a Carrack, these ships featured much heavier armaments and greater ocean going capabilities than those of Chinese or Japanese vessels that were a fraction of the carrack's size. The Japanese referred to the Portuguese carracks as “black ships” because of their blackened pitch treated exterior employed to deter the growth of marine worms that would feast upon the wooden hull. Capable of carrying hundreds of tons of cargo over vast distances, Portugese carracks were able to deliver an immense amount of treasure and defend it from any pirate who might threaten the ship.

With Japan connected to the maritime silk trade between Europe and Asia, the aromatic spices and fragrant woods from the holds of Portuguese carracks would increasingly find their way into the tea rooms and Kodo ceremonies of the Imperial court and daimyo fighting for control of Japan. The nanban trade would provide fragrant woods and aromatic spices for over sixty years to Japan, enriching the merchant class and satiating the samurai's increasing desire for incense woods and fragrant materials.

In Part VII: As the civil war of the Sengoku period reached its climax, tea and incense would be elevated to the highest expressions of art, politics, and power, while three hegemons imposed their will in their quest to unify Japan under one sword.


This page is part of Kikoh's Japanese Incense 101 series. This series of posts is intended to help provide greater information and understanding as you progress along this fragrant path. Learn more...