The following is part 1 of a condensed version (with footnotes omitted) of “African and Japanese Mercenaries in Southern China and Southeast Asia, c. 1550-1650” by Richard Bradshaw, in Kokujin Kenkyu 76 (April 2007), published by the Japan Black Studies Association.
Krieg, Handel und Piraterie, (War, trade and piracy)
Dreieinig sind sie, nicht zu trennen. (Are an inseparable trinity.)
Goethe, Faust, II, 5:3
Studies of early encounters between Africans and Japanese have focused on the presence of Africans in Japan during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The fact that Africans came to Japan on Portuguese and Dutch ships, resided in Japanese ports, accompanied Europeans on visits to Japanese rulers, and served Japanese masters has been well-documented by scholars. Very little attention has been paid to early Afro-Japanese contacts in the lands and on the seas between Africa and Asia during either the millennium before the first appearance of Africans with Europeans in Asia or during the era of European maritime empires in the early modern period.
Such encounters undoubtedly took place from time to time during the millennium before Africans first visited Japan. African merchants and slaves are known to have visited China during the era of the Roman Empire and during the Tang dynasty African slaves were imported into China, whose capital at Chang’an was a huge metropolis which received visitors from Japan as well as Southwest Asia. Arab, Persian and other visitors from Southwest Asia brought Africans to China with them in subsequent centuries as well. Traders from the Ryūkyū Islands (including Okinawa) sent ships to ports in the straits of Malacca, where they undoubtedly encountered African merchants and slaves before the Portuguese conquered Malacca in the early 16th century. However, few if any details about Japanese-African encounters during the millennium before the sixteenth century may ever come to light due to a lack of specific evidence.
Beginning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, both European and Asian sources provide considerable evidence of Japanese and Africans encounters in numerous southern Chinese and Southeast Asian ports where a floating population of freebooters from all over the world found frequent employment as servants, sailors and soldiers for hire. Military labor markets tend to thrive in areas where trade is expanding, particularly in regions where political fragmentation or consolidation is taking place. One reason that so many African and Japanese soldiers were available for hire during this period was the fragmentation of political power in Japan as well as West Africa in the sixteenth century. In Japan, civil wars left many soldiers without patrons and so many refugees and exiles had little choice but to sell their labor to new patrons. Many rōnin and refugees thus left Japan and served as soldiers, sailors, or pirates in other parts of Asia during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In Africa, the decline and fragmentation of the empires of Mali and its successor states left many Mande soldiers without patrons. Some sold their military labor to Portuguese paymasters who employed them in Asia as well as Africa.
In the early 1600s alone an estimated 100,000 Japanese left Japan to engage in trade and about 5,000 Japanese emigrated to places such as Faifo, Turane, Ayudhya, Phnom Penh, and Luzon. Many of these appear to have served as sailors and soldiers for hire or mercenaries. Masterless samurai (rōnin) (or soldiers who had fought for foreigners in Southeast Asia) often served as the leaders of overseas Japanese communities and many Japanese mercenaries fought with, or against, African soldiers. Thus encounters between Japanese and Africans in the early modern era in Asia, particularly from about 1550 to 1650 CE, were often between African and Japanese sailors and soldiers working for a wide variety of patrons in the lands and on the seas between Japan and Africa.