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Reproduction kentôsen ship, at the site of the Heijô Imperial Palace.
  • Japanese: 遣唐使 (kentoushi)

The kentôshi, literally "ambassadors dispatched to Tang", were formal missions to China organized by the Imperial Court in the Asuka and Nara periods, for the purposes of trade, and in order to learn about, adapt, and adopt Chinese technologies, legal systems, political systems, and the like. The missions represent a major element of the involvement of the Yamato state[1] in Silk Road trade and exchange, by which countless ideas and objects were obtained, and which contributed to numerous profound developments.

Roughly twenty missions were sent in the 7th-9th centuries. Though their number was few, their impact was huge, and some of the people involved are today among the greatest names in Japanese pre-modern history. Abe no Nakamaro traveled to China on a kentôshi mission, passed the Imperial examinations, and remained there for decades as a Tang official, cavorting with the likes of Li Bai and Wang Wei. The monk Ganjin traveled to Japan with one of the returning envoys, and later founded Tôshôdai-ji. Kibi no Makibi led missions to Tang on several occasions; a fictionalized version of the story of his first journey to China is related in a 12th century handscroll painting today in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Journey

The early kentôshi missions followed the coast of the Korean Peninsula as they made their way to China, but in the Nara period (8th c.), they began to travel from Kyushu, directly across the sea to an area north of the Yangtze. The journey is generally regarded today as having been quite risky, and dangerous. Lacking sea charts or compasses, the missions navigated chiefly by watching the sun and stars, by sighting land and deciding whether that was their destination. When all went well, and there were no delays or disasters as a result of inclement weather, the journey across the East China Sea could take as little as a week. However, many missions did encounter storms, and other considerable obstacles, and become castaway or shipwrecked; there are a number of famous examples of prominent individuals who never returned to Japan. That said, of the 18 ships which left from Kyushu in the Nara period, 14 did return to Japan relatively safely, and even of those ships that did not return, some of their passengers did survive and later return to Japan. As a result, some have argued that perhaps sailing - and the level of navigational techniques & technology - should not be seen as having been quite that dangerous a prospect.[2]

Goods were gathered as taxes from the various parts of Japan, including quicksilver, precious stones such as crystal, pearls, agate and the like, steel for sparking fires, camellia oil, and lacquer, to send as goods to present to the Emperor of Tang.[2]

Goods received in turn from the Tang Emperor included such things as bronze mirrors, silver objects, drinking glasses, lapis lazuli, Tang three-color ceramics, and silks, while students and monks studying abroad often returned with books, Buddhist sculptures, and sutras; ambassadors and others were also sent to China specifically to learn new skills and trades, and brought back valuable knowledge, techniques, and technology. Of those objects brought back at this time, a number are still held today in the Shôsôin Imperial Treasury.[2]

The Ships

The ships used for these journeys are known as kentôsen ("ships dispatched to Tang"). While official records do survive of the embassies to Tang, there are nearly no documents about the ships they sailed round-trip, and no numerical records of the scale of the ship. One Nara period document provides a hint as to the estimated size of the ship, as it indicates that roughly 600 people were dispatched on four ships. Assuming these ships to be roughly the same size, each would have to be big enough for roughly 150 people. At any given time during the voyage a number of people would have to be awake, so considering a space large enough for 100 to sleep at once, it was determined that the ship would have to be about 25-30 meters long, and since the width would be about 1/3 to 1/4 of that, it would be roughly 7-10m wide. If it was this size, there would also be enough space for 150 people's worth of water, food, and other possessions.

Most of the pictures of kentôsen that appear in textbooks and the like come from the "Kibi Daijin Scroll," but this scroll, the oldest surviving image of a kentôsen, was painted 400 years after the last mission to Tang. Since that was a time when Song Dynasty ships were trading at Hakata, there is the possibility that the paintings reflect Song dynasty ships, and not those of Nara period Japan. However, since there are no records of the ships that actually were sent to Tang, lacking anything else to go upon, reproductions and the like have continued to be based upon that scroll. There is no doubt that the early kentôsen, in any case, had two masts, and wickerwork sails. Since the Shoku Nihongi does record the construction of ships in the style of Paekche, we know that Paekche ships were probably excellent for their time, but unfortunately, other records do not survive.[2]

A form of ship known as junkôzôzen (lit. "pure constructed ship"), using dugout canoes as the core, with planks extended out from them, is believed to have been particularly common in Nara period Japan. However, this mode of construction could not have served to produce a suitable ship to carry over a hundred people across the sea to China in a matter of weeks. Further, raising a sail on a ship based around long, narrow dugouts would have created too much danger of the ship tipping over.[2]

Therefore, it is believed that kentôsen probably, used thick planks and reinforcing planks on the inside, with beams connecting left and right. In contrast to being carved out of individual longs, then, in a subtractive fashion, these ships were assembled from planks in their entireties. Since there are records indicating that the Japanese used ships from Paekche (Korea), it is believed they may have constructed ships in the Paekche-style for the Tang envoy journeys.[2]

In paintings of the kentôsen, such as the "Kibi Daijin Scroll," there are three rooms above decks. Near the tail (stern) of the ship is the cabin of the chief ambassador (大使, taishi); there are paintings in which a taiko (a drum) is depicted above this rearmost cabin; the drum would have been used to help keep time when the sail was furled, and the oars were used. It is thought that a smaller room near the center of the ship was where the hearth or furnace was maintained. This would have helped provide heat and light at night, and fire for boiling water, and for cooking rice and other food. There are no definitive records as to what the ambassadors to Tang ate on the ship, but since there are records of provisions of water and dried boiled rice, it is thought that this must have been the core of the diet, supplemented by other dried foods.[2]

While these three individual cabins were reserved for the captain, and others of particularly high station, everyone else, including guests, slept together in one large cabin, or among the cargo below decks. They might have hung boards from below the deck to sleep on. Below decks, in a cabin, the light from small holes meant that it was quite dim most of the time; shutters and blinds might have been opened, however, at least at some times of day, to allow light in. Students and monks traveling abroad had nothing to do on the ship. They might have gathered around on the floor of the cabin, around the holes that let the sunlight in, gnawing on fruits or nuts and having discussions or debates.[2]

A large rudder extended out from the center of the ship's stern; several men were required to control it. Some sort of shaft was used, and placed outside of the decks, to help prevent the rudder apparatus from being an obstacle or a danger on deck. The rudder ran quite deep, below the bottom of the ship's hull, in order to help ensure that the rudder never left the water, even in strong winds, or when the ship tilted dramatically. For those occasions, two additional small rudders were attached to the gunwales. Even today, there are Southeast Asian ships which only use these paired gunwale rudders. The single central rudder design is said to have been invented in China.[2]

The sails are not drawn in the "Kibi Daijin Scroll," but other scroll paintings do show Tang embassy ships with sails. Chinese so-called "wickerwork sails" (ajiroho) were made from bamboo or reeds, shaved down, and woven together to form wickerwork, which was then tied to bamboo to form the sails. Since wickerwork sails are relatively hard (as compared to soft, flowing canvas), they are surprisingly effective, but, if the wind comes out through the stitches, it is heavy, and that is its weak point. In China, they continued to use wickerwork sails for a very long time, up until the 19th century. Cloth sails become like a bag, holding the wind in, and are therefore quite effective; nevertheless, even as the bag-style sails became more widely used, the Chinese stuck to bamboo sails, and avoided the bag-style ones. In Japan, they didn't use wickerwork sails, but rather woven straw mats, connected up together to form a sail; yet, nevertheless, in paintings of the kentôsen, and of the shuinsen ("red seal ships") of the 16th-17th centuries, it is wickerwork sails which are depicted.


Seventh Century

The missions to T’ang were not the first sent by the Yamato state to China. Roughly three to six kenzuishi missions were, in fact, sent to Sui dynasty China between the years 600 and 614. Roughly seven were then sent to Tang China between 630 and 669. These earlier missions consisted usually of two ships which sailed north from Hakata (Fukuoka), following the Korean coast before crossing the Yellow Sea and arriving in Shangdong. At this time, the Yamato state refused to submit to Chinese authority, and to pay tribute.

Tang sent its first embassy to Wa in 632; Imaki no Ayahito Min, a Chinese immigrant who had lived in Japan previously, served in the Yamato government, and led the 608 mission to Sui, journeyed with them.

The introduction of Buddhism to Japan around this time, along with other factors, led to great political struggles, and the knowledge of Chinese legal and political systems brought back by the missions likewise contributed enormously to the shaping of the structure of the Yamato political establishment. In 645, the Taika Reforms were passed, putting in place a number of structures and systems which would remain (at least in some respects) the foundation of the Japanese governmental system for over a millennium, until the late 19th century.

A Japanese mission to Tang dispatched in 659 was told by the Chinese Emperor of an impending Tang attack on the Korean kingdom of Paekche, and was confined at Chang’an so as to prevent them from sending warnings or otherwise aiding in preparing a defense. In the 3rd month of the following year, a combined Tang and Silla force attacked Paekche, defeating and destroying the kingdom in the 8th month.

The confined Japanese envoys were brought to Luoyang to attend and witness the pardon and release of the king of Paekche. Empress Saimei traveled to Kyushu in person in the first month of 661 to oversee the strengthening of defenses against a possible Tang/Silla invasion; the imprisoned envoys returned from China in the 5th month.

In 663, this conflict between the Korean kingdoms of Paekche (supported by Yamato, though already overthrown in 660) and Silla (allied with Tang) came to a head. The Japanese were sorely defeated in the battle of Hakusukinoe after only two days of fighting. Silla, with the aid of Tang, then went on to capture Pyongyang in the 9th month of 668, marking the end of the kingdom of Goguryeo, and uniting the Korean peninsula. The last Yamato mission to Tang of the 7th century was sent in 669; devoting great efforts to shoring up defenses against possible Tang/Silla invasions of the archipelago, Wa sent no missions to China for over thirty years.

Eighth Century

The year 702 saw the dispatch of the first mission to Tang since the unification of the Korean peninsula. It is possible that year also saw the first use of the term 「日本」 (J: Nihon; Nippon). Nine more missions would be sent over the course of the 8th century. Unlike previous missions, these now consisted generally of four ships (not two), carrying a total of roughly 500 people. Due to unfriendly relations with Silla (which now dominated the Korean peninsula), Yamato ships now took a southern route, departing from the Gotô Islands and making port in China near or at the mouth of the Yangtze. Also in sharp contrast to previously, the Yamato government, fearing the fate of Paekche and Goguryeo, now acknowledged Chinese suzerainty and began sending tribute with some of the missions (roughly once every twenty years).

Kibi Makibi led the 9th mission to Tang in 717, along with Abe no Nakamaro. The envoys journeyed across the sea in four ships, the mission consisting of a total of 557 people, including the monk Genbô. They arrived in Chang’an in the 10th month, but for reasons which are not entirely clear, Kibi was (according to the fictionalized account related by the scroll painting) captured by the Chinese authorities and imprisoned in a tower. The scroll, dated to the 12th century and executed in astonishingly skillful and fine ink brushwork and bright mineral pigments, relates how he was then visited in the tower by an oni (a demon) disguised as a man. The demon informs the minister of a go competition being held. Kibi attends, and ultimately ends up defeating the greatest master in China. All three figures remained in China for a considerable period of time.

The 10th mission numbered 594 people in total, and arrived in Luoyang in the 4th month of 734, three months after a member of a previous mission, Sei Shinsei (aka I no Manari) died in Chang’an. The envoys met with Emperor Xuanzong. This tenth mission departed from China several months after it arrived, leaving from Suzhou in the 10th month of 734. Storms or currents split up the ships; one was lost, while another, carrying Kibi Makibi and Genbô, landed at Tanegashima, its passengers eventually making their way to Heijô-kyô (Nara) in the 3rd month of 735. The third envoy ship returned to China and waited for a better time to make the journey, eventually departing in 736 and arriving in Japan in the 5th month of that year. The fourth and final ship was thrown off-course, and landed on the coast of what is today Vietnam, where most of the crew was killed by either bandits or disease.

Kibi Makibi departed for China yet again in 752, along with Fujiwara no Kiyokawa and Ôtomo no Komaro. They arrived safely in China and celebrated New Year’s at the Imperial Court when that year came to a close. Nearly a full year later, in the 11th month of 753, they departed China, accompanied by Abe no Nakamaro who, after 36 years in China, was ready to return home. Three of the ships were blown off course and made landfall on Okinawa Island. Ôtomo no Komaro, along with the Chinese monk Ganjin, who had been trying for many many years to get to Japan, and who had already made five failed attempts to get there, arrived in Satsuma in the 12th month. Kibi arrived in Kii province the following month (754/1). Another ship caught fire, and was thus delayed, but its passengers and crew safely arrived in Satsuma in the end, in the 4th month of 754. Kiyokawa and Nakamaro were not so lucky, however, and ended up in what is today Vietnam, where they were attacked. Most of the crew and other passengers accompanying them were killed, but the two survived, and made their way to Chang’an by 755, where they remained for the rest of their years, never again seeing their homeland.

Ninth Century

The ninth century saw only two missions. Tang had been seriously weakened by the An Lushan Rebellion in 755, and eventually merchant shipping came to replace any commercial need (on the part of Wa) for the trade that accompanied formal tributary/diplomatic relations. Missions were sent in 803 and 836; another was planned in 894, but never ended up departing Japan, marking the end of the kentôshi.


  1. Used here interchangeably with Wa. Both terms refer to the Japanese state; the term "Japan" itself is avoided as the extent to which the term should be applied to any period prior to 1868, let alone to this early period, is controversial.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Plaques on-site at reproduction kentôsen (Tang mission ship) at Heijô Imperial Palace.