- Lords of the Sea: Pirates, Violence, and Commerce in Late Medieval Japan by Peter D. Shapinsky
Peter Shapinsky’s Lords of the Sea: Pirates, Violence, and Commerce in Late Medieval Japan is an impressive study of sea power and state formation that resituates medieval Japanese history within a dynamic East Asian maritime world. The core interpretive goal of this book is to rehabilitate the conventional image of the premodern Japanese pirate from a violent and nefarious wakō, vilified by Ming China and Chosŏn Korea alike, to a savvy littoral authority who in fact substantially shaped premodern Japanese political and economic development by imposing order in maritime spaces. Shapinsky accomplishes this recasting through an innovative exploration of how littoral magnates (his “sea lords”) cultivated not only recognition by land-based authorities, but also the organizational tools that were most characteristic of ruling provincial lords (daimyo) within premodern Japan’s terracentric power structure.
The book contains six numbered chapters covering, roughly, the period 1300–1600 (his “late medieval”), beginning with a historical overview of elite Japanese representations of the sea and how shifts in these worldviews shaped the significance of kaizoku (sea bandits) in Japan before 1300. Shapinsky bases this analysis on ancient texts, such as Kojiki, to explore a continuum of terracentrism that “stretched between the desire of the land-based court to incorporate the sea into state institutions and perceptions of the sea as terrifying, unknowable, uncontrollable space” (p. 36). This narrative draws on a rich synthesis of sources, ranging from familiar works of literature such as Konjaku monogatari to less-often-mined texts such as the seventh-century Chinese Nan shi (History of the Southern Dynasties); documents from Kongōbiji, a Mt. Kōya temple complex; and fourteenth-century Gyōki maps of Buddhist cosmology, which reveal the sea as both integrated into, yet partially distinct from, landforms. [End Page 293] Some of Shapinsky’s most compelling evidence emerges from tracing the etymology and use of terms such as ama and kaijin (distinct character combinations both translated as “sea people”) and how literary sources, such as Kojiki and Wamyōruijushō (an early tenth-century dictionary), situated these littoral populations, initially designated as seafaring “Others,” along a “continuum of incorporation and fear” (p. 38). By the Muromachi period, the shogunate had acknowledged the utility of kaizoku in protecting sanctioned trade with Ming China, while local daimyo continued to outlaw piracy to maintain their tenuous monopoly on violence. This is an ambitious chapter that primarily surveys the emergence of piracy in Japan before the fourteenth century and within the larger context of the sea as an evolving historical imaginary. Yet with eight separately titled subsections in just thirty-four pages, the chapter does not always flow with a clear interpretive coherence, and the final section, “Effects of Increased Maritime Exchange,” while critical background for later arguments about the role of kaizoku in medieval economic development, seems tacked on to the chapter as an afterthought.
Chapter 2 explores how the growth of local authority and commerce in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries catalyzed the transformation of kaizoku into sea lords. The chapter’s core argument is that sea lords emerged as the scope of commercialization increased with the expansion of maritime authority, although it stops short of identifying this relationship as either causal or parallel. It explores three limitations on early sea lord power: geographic scale, generational continuity, and number of patrons. Yet even with these challenges to the consolidation of authority, his sea lords leveraged the confluence of political decentralization, military strife, and economic growth to gradually increase the stability and scope of their influence. Shapinsky excavates this trajectory by exploring the relationship between “local maritime magnates” and a few littoral estates, particularly the island estate of Yugeshima (p. 82). Here, a fascinating case study is the rise of sea lord Ben no Bō Shōyo, who exploited the waning power of Kyoto and Kamakura in the early 1300s to aggrandize his influence, using...