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In the Western Hemisphere we rarely hear, or learn about, the history of slavery that occurred in Asia, specifically Japan. In 1595 a law was passed by Portugal banning the selling and buying of Chinese and Japanese slaves. Let us take a deeper look at how this began.
Japan first came into contact with the Europe in the mid-1500’s when Portuguese explorers landed in the southern archipelago of Japan. Following contact with the Portuguese on Tanegashima in 1543, the Japanese were at first rather wary of the newly arrived foreigners. The culture shock was quite strong, especially due to the fact that Europeans were not able to understand the Japanese writing system nor accustomed to using chopsticks. Wikipedia reports the following under the topic concerning the Nanban trade, we read:
“Renaissance Europeans were quite fond of Japan’s immense richness in precious metals, mainly owing to Marco Polo‘s accounts of gilded temples and palaces, but also due to the relative abundance of surface ores characteristic of a volcanic country, before large-scale deep-mining became possible in Industrial times. Japan was to become a major exporter of copper and silver during the period.
Japan was also noted for being much more populated and urbanized than any Western country (in the 16th century, Japan had 26 million inhabitants against 16 million for France and 4.5 million for England). Buddhist schools in Japan were also larger than universities in the West such as Salamanca or Coimbra. At the time, some Europeans became quite fascinated with Japan, some even writing that the Japanese “excel not only all the other Oriental peoples, they surpass the Europeans as well” (Alessandro Valignano, 1584, “Historia del Principio y Progreso de la Compañía de Jesús en las Indias Orientales).
Early European visitors noted the quality of Japanese craftsmanship and metalsmithing. This stems from the fact that Japan itself is rather poor in natural resources found commonly in Europe, especially iron. Thus, the Japanese were famously frugal with their consumable resources; what little they had they used with expert skill though because of this, they had not reached European levels.
Japanese military prowess was also well noted. “A Spanish royal decree of 1609 specifically directed Spanish commanders in the Pacific ‘not to risk the reputation of our arms and state against Japanese soldier.'” (Giving Up the Gun, Noel Perrin). Troops of Japanese samurai were later employed in the Maluku Islands in Southeast Asia by the Dutch to fight off the English.”
Shortly after coming into contact with the Portuguese, slavery followed. Michael Hoffman, in his review of the book, Portuguese Colonialism and Japanese Slaves by Michio Kitahara, which was published by The Japan Times, made the following observation:
“Japan first met Europe in 1543, when a storm blew a Chinese ship with Portuguese traders on board to the outlying island of Tanegashima, in Kagoshima Prefecture. Two revolutionary novelties accruing to Japan from that chance encounter are well known — firearms and Christianity. A third, says Kitahara, was the slave trade. Before long Japanese slaves were being bought and sold not only throughout Asia but as far afield as Portugal and Argentina.
Some slaves were captives in Japan’s eternal civil wars, sold by their Japanese captors to Portuguese traders. Others sold themselves or their children into slavery to escape crushing poverty. Still others were sold by feudal lords to finance a new craving — for gunpowder.
Portuguese authorities — royal, bureaucratic and religious — were uncomfortable with this traffic. It brought Portugal and Christianity into low repute, damping the potential for trade and religious conversion. There were fitful efforts to stop it. But Portuguese merchants carried the day with a protest: “We have spent one million cruzeiros or more over the years to purchase slaves … Therefore, we cannot accept that the King revokes this right and deprives us of the slaves we have already purchased.” The king yielded.
Not so Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He was Japan’s supreme warlord at the end of the 16th century. “This is unbearable to me,” he said in 1587 upon learning from one of his officials that the Portuguese “buy hundreds of Japanese men and women. Their hands and feet are chained, and they are driven into the bottom of the ships. This is far beyond the punishment in Hell …”
Asia One published an article in 2013, which discusses other “newly-found” details of the Japanese slave trade, in that there are records of slaves being sent to Mexico. In the article, Japanese Slaves to Mexico in the 16th Century, we read:
“A rare document has been found that records the transport of Japanese people to Mexico as slaves in the late 16th century, the first documentation of Japanese people crossing the Pacific Ocean.
Lucio de Sousa, a special researcher at University of Evora in Portugal, and Mihoko Oka, an assistant professor at the Historiographical Institute, University of Tokyo, discovered the information among Inquisition records stored at the General Archives of the Nation in Mexico…The Tensho boy mission, which was sent by the Japanese Christian lord Otomo Sorin to the pope and kings of Europe in 1582 and travelled to Rome via the Indian Ocean, saw Japanese slaves around the world. In 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi banned the trade of Japanese nationals.
At that time, Spain and Portugal had promoted the slave trade in Asia, including Japan, as part of their colonial policies.
The Pacific route from Manila to Acapulco was established in 1565, and there is information about Japanese who crossed the Pacific Ocean. For example, Japanese slaves were sold in South America in 1596, but the details are unknown.
“The record is a rare document that clearly establishes that Japanese people crossed the Pacific Ocean before Japan closed itself to the world [in 1639]. At that time, many Japanese likely travelled to the American continent,” Oka said.”
Not only were Japanese slaves sent into the Americas, but also Africa. Africana:The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., states:
“In 1613 a Chinese official reportedly questioned a Portuguese counterpart about why he kept Japanese slaves while Portuguese were using black slaves on a large scale.”
There are, however, other accounts, which illustrate African and Indian ownership of Japanese slaves. Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity, edited by Michael Weiner, reports:
“Fujita places the number of Africans temporarily residing in Japan during the sixteenth century at several hundred….Prior to the ban placed on Japanese slavery in the late sixteenth century by Toyoyomi Hideyoshi (1536-98), privileged African and East Indian slaves in Japan kept Japanese slaves and mistresses, as did their European masters.”
The end result of the Japanese slave trade held by the Portuguese led to a complete distrust of the European powers. Hideyoshi was so disgusted that his own Japanese people were being sold en masse into slavery on Kyushu, that he wrote a letter to Jesuit Vice-Provincial Gaspar Coelho on 24 July 1587 to demand the Portuguese, Siamese (Thai), and Cambodians stop purchasing and enslaving Japanese and return Japanese slaves who ended up as far as India. Hideyoshi blamed the Portuguese and Jesuits for this slave trade and banned Christian proselytizing as a result.