Licenses for Trade between Japan and Ming China
At the end of the 9th century, Japan was prohibited from sending
any more envoys (trade representatives) to Tang China. The trade
ban was not lifted until many centuries later in Japan's Muromachi
period (1392-1573), when the Japanese Shogun (military ruler) Ashikaga
Yoshimitsu sent a ship to Ming China in 1401 (Oei 8, by the Japanese
calendar). This marked the re-opening of trade relations between
Japan and Ming China.
Today if you want to go to China from Japan, you can take a boat
from Osaka Port and arrive in Shanghai three days later. Or you
can hop on an airplane and arrive in less than two hours. In either
case, it takes relatively little time and effort to cross the seas
between the two countries.
In the old days, however, sailors had to rely on the wind to drive
their ships. No matter how much of a hurry they were in, it always
took at least one month for the crossing. They also had to wait
for the right winds to blow before leaving on or returning from
their journeys. When the waiting time, the crossing time, and the
time needed to travel over land after arrival were added together,
many round trips to China ended up taking several years to complete!
Despite such difficulties, trade between the two countries continued
until the middle of the 16th century, almost 150 years later. During
that time, nineteen trading ships were dispatched to Ming China.
Japan-Ming China Trading Ship
You might wonder what kinds of things were traded. The Chinese sent
such goods as copper coins and silk thread to Japan, while Japan
exported sulfur, swords, fans, and other objects, to China. It might
seem strange to us today that Japan would want to import copper
coins from a foreign country, but at that time there was no standard
currency minted in Japan. All Japanese coins had to be imported
One thing about the trade between Japan and China back then differs
greatly from trade today: that the two countries had an unequal
relationship. The Ming-dynasty rulers thought that China was the
center of the universe--the Middle Kingdom--and that all other countries
In order to trade with someone, you have to recognize that the other
person has something you want and that you have goods that you are
willing to give up in exchange. This means that each side has some
degree of power over the other. Even if other countries actually
did have things that they wanted, the Chinese rulers of the time
refused to recognize that they were worthy trade partners in fear
that it would make China look less powerful. Therefore, they viewed
traders from other countries as bearers of "tribute,"
gifts in recognition of China's superiority. In exchange for this
"tribute," the Chinese would supply the foreign traders
In order to legitimize this trade system, the Chinese created official
licenses (called kango in Japanese) for approved "tribute ships."
Naturally, Japanese trading ships were also given these licenses.
Back in 15th century China, almost everything was handwritten with
a brush and ink. That means that anyone might hand-write a false
license. How do you think the Chinese verified genuine licenses?
Actually, the answer to this is a special system--still used in
Asia today--of writing in a registration book with the edge of the
license covering half of the writing surface. When the license was
removed, only half of each written character remained in the book.
The Chinese officials could check the authenticity of any license
by placing it next to its corresponding half in the registration
book. Only a real license would match exactly. Using this verification
method, the Chinese were able to determine which of the trade ships
were officially approved tribute ships.
Unfortunately, none of these trade licenses exist today. Luckily,
however, we do have a journal written by a Zen priest who was sent
to Ming China in 1468 (Onin 2) by the Japanese Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa.
This priest's name was Tenuyo Seikei. In his journal, called the
1468 Record of Entrance into Ming China, he sketched a diagram showing
what the trade licenses of the day looked like. His sketch is pictured
in the photo below.
Ming Trading License Sketch
(from 1468 Record of Entrance into Ming China)
(Myochi-in Temple, Kyoto)
The sketches are turned sideways, but you can see that the real
licenses would have been written from top-to-bottom on rectangular
paper. You can see only half of four characters, (meaning
"Such-and-such, No. 1") written down the middle. The other
half would have been written in the registration book. These sketches
are small, but the actual licenses were probably written on large
(82 cm x 36 cm), luxurious paper. After all, trade with foreign
countries was very important to China!
There are a few other things we know about these licenses. Most
of the writing on licenses was not done by hand but was printed
with special stamps. Only a few letters would be handwritten with
a brush. Another thing we know is that either some of the letters
or some of the numbers were written in red. The genuine, Ming trading
licenses were undoubtedly quite a sight to see!
Text by Mamoru Shimosaka, Department of Fine Arts
Illustrations by Satoshi Ichida, Department of Public Relations
English translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives