The Murakami Pirates were a bunch of ordinary people that turned into a remarkable pirate group, during the late sixteenth century in Japan. These pirates did not do what ordinary pirates did. Instead of assailing other pirates, they were protecting their customers for a living. Eventually they became the greatest pirates in Japan.
The Murakami Pirates had travelled to and settled on some of the islands of the Seto Inland Sea. The Seto Inland Sea is a waterway dotted with some 3,000 islands and islets. The pirates chose that area, so they could have their headquarters. There were three key islands chosen for their base: Noshima, Kurushima, and Innoshima. Seto Inland Sea is right between western Honshu, and northern Shikoku regions.
It is evident, from viewing the map, that the chosen pirate bases on Seto Inland Sea’s islands constitute a chokepoint strategically located between Onomichi and Imabari cities, across the waterway on the northwest coast of Shikoku.
During the sixteenth century there were some political changes, then the inevitable war came along. The pirates knew about the war, so they could take advantage of that by protecting several warlords (daimyo). During that era, provincial governors (shugo) would compete with their rivals. Once a particular person had triumphed in battle, that person would become a daimyo lord. In order to achieve the victory, the pirates could sell services and necessities to the warlords such as — protection business, resource, shipping, and managing maritime production, and protect several harbors. When the warlords met their needs, they often gave out an immense reward, such as marriage, and supplies of food.
One of the patrons called Hosokawa Takakuni (1484-1531) was a customer for the Noshima Murakami for a long time. However the Noshima had been claiming that they had been protecting other islands: Yugeshima and Shiwaku. After Hosokawa saw his work, he was influenced significantly, so he alternatively, use his influence through his own patronage to improve his claims and interests. In the late fifteenth century, Murakami Yoshikata, one of the members from the Noshima clan married Kodama yajiro, the daughter of Hosokawa. In this case, the marriage of a pirate member to a customer’s daughter, indicated that an alliance has been formed. Because of the marriage, the Noshima gained the right to control over the island-based estate and port of Shiwaku.
They (the Noshima) now had full control over at Shiwaku island. They had constructed a station or a port, when travelers would visit the island and stay overnight. There was another powerful war lord named Mori Motonari who came from from western Honshu, requesting a naval escort to the Noshima. Of course the Noshima provided full protection.
The Noshima protection enterprise was tremendous. It flourished and kept on developing over time. Eventually Itsukushima became a commercial center. In addition to intercepting the sailors, they made those ships drop anchorage at Itsukushima. Later, the island became a marketplace where people sold many items at the island: medicine, silks and other goods.
The Noshima came up with a unique solution to a problem. In order to protect from other ships, Takeyoshi and Motoyoshi, his son and heir, sold their crest pennants to people. These flags were woven of silk or hemp with the Noshima sigil emblazoned vividly in the middle and were flown from the masthead. (A sigil was a painted symbol considered to have sacred or magical power.) This system was invented as a passport to permit other sea lords to access their domain. People from the island could identify suspicious ships when the crest was not present on the ship.
Ultimately, this pirate group successfully protected several patrons. Not only did they protect people, they turned an island into a commerce network. They had also invented a system for entry to a domain, called the “crest pannet”, something similar to a passport.
Following the edicts against piracy by Hideyoshi, the heyday of the Murakami pirates passed, and their maritime power gradually declined, some turned to land entreprises, many were coopted through political alliances with land daimyo to turn their piratical activities into a navy. The Shiwaku island pirates were, for example, pardoned and their great armada sent to Korea to fight. To know more about what happened to the great Murakami pirates, read about them at Samurai Archives’ Murakami clan.
SOURCES & REFERENCES
Shapinsky, P. D. (2014). Lords of the sea: pirates violence and commerce in late medieval Japan. Place of publication not identified: Ctr For Japanese Studies. Chapter 3
Map of Seto Island, courtesy of Japan Guide website
What are protective pirates? Murakami-kaizoku.com
Image of Noshima, courtesy of University of Vienna
Shapinsky, P. D. (2003). Japanese Pirates and Sea Tenure in the Sixteenth Century Seto Inland Sea: 3/4 3/4 A Case Study of the Murakami Kaizoku. Retrieved October 17, 2017
A figure travels through the island.
Noshima Murakami Atakebune Ship
Itsukushima – Retrieved online on 16 Nov 2017 from https://www.viator.com/Hiroshima-attractions/Itsukushima-Shrine/d4661-a179873
Murakami Pirate’s Crest pennants.
Shiwaku Shoto (Secret Japan)