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Lords of the sea

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Since the bursting of the economic bubble in Japan over fifteen years ago, outside of Japan, the field of Japanese history  has shrunk considerably.  What is true in general is even truer for academic efforts into premodern history.  Thus, the number of books published in English on medieval Japan in the past five years can probably be counted on the fingers. Therefore, almost any book would have been a welcome contribution to the field, but because there has been no monograph in English about pirates at all (although there are certainly articles and book chapters by scholars like, for example, Adam Clulow), Shapinsky’s book is a long-awaited, in-depth exploration of “Japan from the waterline.” (30).

A broad array of Japanese materials including correspondence and contracts and a few Chinese and Korean sources are referenced.  In the introduction, piracy is defined and a central argument is outlined about the place of sea peoples in what has been a land-based agrarian bias in interpreting Japanese history by both Japanese and foreign scholars.  Shapinsky explains that he uses “sea lord”, which is a quasi-created term with some historical ties, because it “offers a way to give a sea-centered focus to narratives about local autonomy, commerce, lordship, warfare, and international relations in late medieval Japan (13).”  This term is clearly meant to avoid the loaded term pirate (kaizoku) although Shapinsky also notes that in earlier usage kaizoku had the more neutral meaning of naval vassal. 

The book is organized chronologically, and actually covers the broad span from the rise of warrior culture in the twelfth century to unification in the early seventeenth century that formed around agrarian production and robbed the sea lords of their autonomy. Chapter 1 defines pirate in the Japanese context and discusses “terracentrism” and its effect on Japanese history.  Shapinsky defines the collective consciousness of the sea in Japanese culture through song, poetry and Buddhist ideas.   Chapter 2 provides background by examining littoral peoples of the Inland Sea roughly from the Heian period to around the Onin War in 1467.  It makes the case that the emergence of sea lords should be incorporated into our understanding of the power structures of medieval Japan. Tolls, protection rackets and other forms of violence are noted as the underpinnings of this power. Chapter 3 demonstrates a continuation of this process in the sixteenth century, using the Murakami family of Noshima as a case study.  Chapter 4 utilizes a military historical perspective, examining the application of violence to the pursuit of power through technology and tactics.  Some reference is made to the global military revolution but this connection is not deeply explored.  Shapinsky demonstrates how vital naval actions and the coalitions between land and maritime powers were to the process of unification.  Chapter 5 examines sea-faring peoples and their interactions with Ming China and Choson Korea. It argues that the Inland Sea lords, in their role as proxy powers, were labeled pirates by these foreign powers and have thus clouded our understanding of their true role.  The final chapter examines the oft-told transition from civil war to unification, from the neglected perspective of the Inland Sea lord, showing how these events signified the end of their autonomy and incorporation into the centralized state. The book brings events to a chronological conclusion with the maritime act of 1635 and the incorporation of sea lords in to the land-based power structure.   The clearly written text is highlighted with useful maps and relevant contemporary artworks. A through character glossary is also provided.

The central argument that pirates, that the so-called sea lords, were autonomous players in the power structure of medieval Japan, which had to be reigned in, tamed or leashed to form a unified central state is convincing.  It supports the claim that the sea lords should be looked upon as maritime daimyo and played a significant role in political events. Incorporation of this analysis will add nuance to interpretations of late sixteenth century Japan. However, one book cannot be all things to all people, and Shapinsky’s book certainly has some limitations. Geographically, it is limited to the people who plied the Inland Sea, although there were other significant seafaring groups in Japan, and the focus is domestic. Foreign interaction, discussed in Chapter Five, is exclusively that with Northeast Asia, and largely in the context of domestic events.  Methodologically, the book is limited to history.  This may seem counterintuitive criticism for a history book, but the rather narrow focus was a lost opportunity for expanding the potential audience for this work.  For example, the bibliography shows that Shapinsky read many works on pirates in non-Japanese contexts, but virtually no comparative discussion can be found in the text.    Similarly, Chapter 1 cries for an insertion of anthropological methodology that would have provided tools for other scholars to discuss the relationships between littoral and agrarian communities. A more theoretical examination of violence might have had wide implications. Thus, it will be difficult for a reader without some sense of the political landscape of medieval to follow the text. The result is therefore a solid tome that will certainly be appreciated and utilized by historians of Japan, but will not likely draw academics across geographic or disciplinary boundaries. 


Martha Chaiklin, Indian Ocean World Center, McGill University (



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