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  • Ashikaga Yoshimitsu's Foreign Policy 1398 to 1408 A.D.A Translation from Zenrin Kokuhōki, the Cambridge Manuscript
  • Charlotte von Verschuer (bio)

Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), third shogun of the Muromachi bakufu, initiated an era of official trade relations with the Chinese Ming court and the Korean Chosŏn court that would last for more than one hundred fifty years. Yoshimitsu held the position of shogun from 1368 to 1394, and after retiring from formal office, continued to exercise power until his death in 1408. Yet for the first three decades of his rule he confronted challenges in gaining control of the western provinces in southern Honshu and Kyushu that were situated at the doorway to the continent. In particular he had to free the sea routes across the East China Sea from the piracy that ravaged the southern parts of the Korean kingdom and the coasts of the Jiangsu and Zhejiang regions of China. Piracy featured as the main issue in the shogun's early correspondence with the sovereigns of China and Korea. The second book (maki) of An Account of Good Neighborly Relations as a Treasure of Our Country (Zenrin kokuhōki), completed in 1470 by the Zen monk Zuikei Shūhō (1391-1473), begins with transcriptions of eight official letters concerning relations between Yoshimitsu and the rulers of China and Korea from 1398 to 1408.1 These eight letters are translated below, but first let us recall the situation in the three countries at the time. [End Page 261]

The Foreign Policies of New Regimes in China and Korea

All three East Asian countries experienced dynastic change in the fourteenth century. In China, a military leader occupied Beijing, the capital of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, in 1368 and established his capital in Nanjing. He became known by the name of Hongwu (r. 1368-1399), the first emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). In Korea, after the fall of the previous Koryŏ dynasty in 1392, King T'aejo of the Yi dynasty (r. 1392-1398) founded the Chosŏon court (1392-1910) with its capital in Seoul. In Japan, Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358) founded the Muromachi bakufu in Kyoto in 1336; it would last until 1573.2 Takauji had broken with Emperor Go-Daigo (r. 1318-1339), who fled from Kyoto and established a rival court in Yoshino , south of Nara. For the first several decades of the Ashikaga regime there were thus two courts, the Northern Court in Kyoto, which provided the Ashikaga with their appointment as shogun, and the Southern Court in Yoshino headed by Go-Daigo and his successors. The third shogun, Yoshimitsu, succeeded only in 1392 in putting an end to the rivalry and consolidating imperial authority in the hands of the northern line of emperors. Even then, however, Yoshimitsu did not have firm control of the Kyushu provinces and foreign intercourse, which in the preceding decades had remained largely in the hands of Go-Daigo's son Prince Kaneyoshi (?-1383).

Yoshimitsu succeeded in gaining greater authority over Kyushu from 1396, the year he appointed as Kyushu deputy (tandai) his ally Shibukawa Mitsuyori (1372-1446), the military governor (shugo) of Hizen (Saga and Nagasaki prefectures) and several other provinces. Shibukawa Mitsuyori and Ōuchi Yoshihiro (1356-1399), a warrior leader who controlled three provinces in Kyushu and southern Honshu from his seat in Hōfu in Nagato province (Yamaguchi prefecture), were Yoshimitsu's closest allies and intermediaries in his negotiations with the two rulers on the continent. After Ōuchi Yoshihiro's death in 1399, Yoshimitsu managed bakufu foreign relations on his own, conducting correspondence directly with his counterparts on the continent: King T'aejong (r. 1400-1418) of Korea and Emperors Jianwen (or Huidi , r. 1398-1402) and Yongle (or Zhengzu , r. 1402-1424) of China.

Piracy had been an issue for more than a century. From the 1220s pirates from Tsushima, Iki, and the Matsura region of Hizen had preyed upon coastal residents in Korea, and violence had escalated from the 1350s onward. Some attacks on Korea involved more than three hundred ships and penetrated far inland. Raiders stole grain, pillaged and burned houses, and made slaves of the local people they...


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