Museum Dictionary

About 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
    Japan-Ming China Trading Ship (Myochi-in Temple)

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 from China!

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 were inferior.

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 with "gifts."

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
    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
English translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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