Bad and Wrong History Lessons: Pirates vs. Samurai

pirate intro
There’s nothing complicated about the system I have here: I write articles based on what I feel like talking about. If I’ve been thinking about writing, you get an article on that; if I’ve been watching anime that’s what I write about; if I come across something that inspires a laborious tirade then I produce a wandering 5,000 word essay on whatever it is that got my attention.

The problem is that I’m interested in history, but I’m not a trained historian. Sure, I know a bit, but that’s mainly because I’m a curious and resourceful amateur who reads a lot and has a good memory for semi-useless “facts”, not because I have any particular education about the subject. So, since I can’t share any knowledge with you, I’m going to share my ignorance. I’m going to tell you all the things that I think I know, but are most likely profoundly and dangerously wrong.

Today’s subject: the pirates of the Seto Inland Sea!

pirate leader


My introduction to Japanese pirates came with the terrifyingly realistic guy in the photo above, who jumped into life as I was walking through the Museum of Ehime History and Culture and started talking about the defeat of the pirates in what was then called Iyo. Not speaking Japanese, I couldn’t understand a word of it, but the pictures on the screen told the story: huge fleets clashing, soldiers fighting villainous-looking sailors, burning villages… I know a pirate story when I see one. But pirates? In Japan? This was all new to me.


Further evidence came a bit further through the museum, with a display of historical ships. Take a look at the model cargo ship in the picture below: you’ll notice it resembles nothing so much as a seagoing apartment building. It clearly isn’t designed for high seas, but then again it doesn’t need to be: the waterways around Shikoku are so sheltered they make a bathtub look rough and dangerous.  However, it has another design feature which made me raise my eyebrows. See all those triangular holes around the upper edge of the sides? Those look awfully similar to the gun-holes that you can still see in the walls of Japanese castles. It looked like there was more to Japanese pirates than just a one-piece anime trope…


merchant boat


It turns out that pirates (suigun in Japanese) had been a problem around the Inland Sea for centuries. It’s impossible to know exactly when they got started, but all the islands and the smooth waters of the Seto Inland Sea made it an obvious and easy way to make a living. See, Japan’s rugged terrain and lack of unified authority made sending large cargoes by land impractical. Merchants quickly turned to ships like the one above, especially as the rice trade increased.


Unfortunately, despite its smooth and placid appearance, the Inland Sea hides its own dangers. Strong currents and narrow channels between islands combine to create vicious tidal rips and whirlpools, which I’ve seen for myself. There were also a wide variety of small fiefdoms and partially (or completely) independent domains, all of whom had military forces and none of whom particularly wanted anyone else to benefit from trade.


The suigun were quick to take advantage of this. They were either pirates, small navies from the coastal domains, or coastguards – what they were depended on who you asked (and probably on what they felt like doing on any particular day). If you asked nicely, the suigun would guide ships through the dangerous waters and give them a flag to ensure they were not attacked. The 10% of the cargo that they charged gave them a handsome return on their efforts, and the fate of any ships that ran into a whirlpool, feisty narwhal, or pirate vessel (while not flying the correct flag) served as a valuable lesson to anyone thinking of doing without their services.



The ship with a castle in the middle is purpose-built warship, and a terror of the Inland Sea for all that it looks like an overly-aggressive shoebox. Note the wooden protective boxes for the oars, and what look like catapults on the deck.


This whole situation annoyed lots of people, especially on the largest island of Honshu. While the Imperial court was gradually pulling together a unified state, the suigun kingdoms on Kyushu and Shikoku were acting like – well, pirates; attacking merchants and generally getting in the way of the smoothly-functioning apparatus of state. The first serious attempt to deal with the suigun came sometime around 930 A.D., when the Heian emperor despatched Fujiwara Sumitomo to the area with orders to take care of the problem.


Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan. After arriving in Iyo province (modern-day Ehime prefecture), Sumitomo looked at his options and decided that, all things considered, he would rather be a pirate too! Sumitomo formed his own pirate fleet from among the fishers and seamen of the region, and busily started plundering ships himself. By the year 936 his band was active in the waters around Kyushu and Shikoku.


The authorities in Kyoto tried to appease him by granting him increased rank, but this only worked for a while. By 939 he was at it again, spreading havoc along the coast of Honshu and directly challenging the government for control of the area. Eventually government-backed forces with local leaders forced him to abandon Iyo and retreat to Kyushu, from where he kept on plundering and pillaging the seas until his death in 941.



A pedal-powered tugboat: a few muscular suigun would hold onto the framework in the middle and run like hell on the rotating bars, thus turning the paddles on the side. Don’t laugh; it was a very practical idea in confined waterways and it could accelerate quickly and smoothly. For longer voyages you can just see the sail in the top right corner.


This put an end to the worst of the pirate attacks for a couple of hundred years. However, some of his followers had made it back to Iyo. This included members of the Murakami family. And by the 1150s the pirates of Iyo were roving the seas once again, this time under the banner of the Murakami family and based on islands near where Imabari city is today. The Murakami family were more careful with their allegiances than Sumitomo had been, and they were granted a degree of legitimacy by the local lords and even the Imperial court. As time went by they took on the character of a combination navy and coastguard, playing a major role in most maritime activities in the Inland Sea. They organised shipping for goods and officials, aided those shipwrecked, and even provided pedal-powered tugboats where needed. By the time of the Sengoku (warring states) period they were a major power in the region.


The Murakami family was split into three branches, and the different branches somehow managed to fight on both sides of the Sengoku conflict. Two of the them picked the losing side and lost most of their power, but one branch continued charging tolls and securing the sea lanes until around the year 1600. Throughout the Edo period the surviving members of the Murakami family served the Shogunate in a prominent naval role. The last vestiges of the suigun vanished with the Meiji restoration in 1868, but even today the Imabari region has lots of families with the Murakami name.


I don’t suggest letting them anywhere near your boat.

Question of the post: Are there are disreputable figures lurking in your local history?

About Dr. J.H. Watson

I’m a New Zealander, in my 30s, and until recently I lived in rural Japan. I have interests in history, pop culture, video games, and the clever use of language.
This entry was posted in History, Japan and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Bad and Wrong History Lessons: Pirates vs. Samurai

  1. Artemis says:

    I got all my Sengoku-era history lessons from Sengoku Basara. Therefore, old-school Japanese pirates clearly all looked like this:

    Liked by 2 people

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