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  • Lords of the Sea: Pirates, Violence, and Commerce in Late Medieval Japan by Peter D. Shapinsky
  • Richard von Glahn
Lords of the Sea: Pirates, Violence, and Commerce in Late Medieval Japan by Peter D. Shapinsky. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2014. Pp. xiii + 327. $65.00 cloth, $25.00 paper.

In this deeply researched study, Peter Shapinsky investigates the pirate bands that inhabited the islands of Japan’s Inland Sea (Seto naikai 瀬戸内海) and their symbiotic relationship with land-based rulers before the absorption of these bands into the Tokugawa ecumene during the seventeenth century. Amid the political disunity and endemic conflict of the Muromachi era during the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, the leaders of these bands established themselves as “sea lords,” combining shipping, fishing, and salt manufacture with mercenary violence. The sea lords negotiated patron-client relationships with land-based rulers whose effective authority stopped—to use one of Shapinsky’s favorite metaphors—“at the waterline.” This clientage entailed rights to control sea lanes and extract protection rents from commercial vessels, but it also enfolded the sea lords in the complex struggles among land-based elites competing for suzerainty over the Japanese archipelago. Despite the rhetoric of loyal service that the sea lords appropriated from samurai warriors, they readily shifted their allegiances among rival patrons. Political opportunism reached a fever pitch during the civil wars leading to the late sixteenth-century unification of Japan under the aegis of the warlords Oda Nobunaga 織田信長 [End Page 513] and Toyotomi Hideyoshi 豊臣秀吉. But the creation of a unified realm under Hideyoshi and subsequently the Tokugawa shoguns tamed the sea lords and rendered them obsolete.

Shapinsky intends his study to correct the tendency among historians to view medieval and early modern Japan as isolated and detached from the broader currents of historical developments beyond the littoral boundaries of the archipelago. He deems the insularity that characterizes much historical scholarship on Japan as a reflection of the terracentric ideology of land-based rulers, but he also alludes to the long shadows that Marxist historiography continues to cast over the conceptualization of relations of power in premodern Japan. Shapinsky situates his own approach in the vein of scholarship pioneered by Amino Yoshihiko 網野善彦, who diverted attention away from social, economic, and political institutions rooted in agricultural production and toward the more fluid social dynamics and cultural energies of the inhabitants of the seas, mountains, forests, and towns. Amino’s influence—along with the growing engagement of Japanese scholars with the nascent field of world history over the past quarter-century—has propelled many Japanese historians to transcend the parochialism of nationalist history and embrace a wider historical vision. This trend was seen already during the early 1990s with the publication of the two seminal, multivolume series Thinking from Asia (Ajia kara kangaeru アジアから考える) and Japanese History in Asian Perspective (Ajia no naka no Nihon shiアジアのなかの日本史), edited by groups of leading Tokyo University historians of East Asia and Japan respectively.1 In the past two decades, Japanese historians have also taken the leading role in developing the field of East Asian maritime history.2 Regrettably, this reorientation toward a wider historical vision emphasizing maritime perspectives thus far has had—with a few exceptions—little impact on Western scholarship on Japanese history.

“Sea lord” is a modern neologism coined by Amino—umi no [End Page 514] ryōshu 海の領主 is his rendering—for the leaders of armed seafarers whom contemporaries typically labeled “pirates” (kaizoku 海賊). The term “sea lord” does aptly capture their aspirations to political legitimacy and elite status, which are key themes of Shapinsky’s study. He traces the emergence of the sea lords of the Inland Sea to changes in the structure of local lordship and to commercial growth during the Muromachi period, although the evidence he presents is mostly concerned with the former development. The sea lords sprang from the cadre of shōen (荘園 or 庄園) estate managers responsible for delivering estate produce to proprietors residing in the capital. These managers interposed themselves among those with hierarchical rights to shōen revenues, especially in estates specializing in salt manufacture and maritime products. Control of maritime resources and transport routes often proved...


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