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  • Other Names: 西廻り航路 (nishi mawari kouro)
  • Japanese: 北前船 (kitamaebune)

The kitamaebune were cargo ships which ran from the mid-Edo period into the Meiji period, connecting Osaka and Ezo (Hokkaidô) via various ports in the Inland Sea and the Sea of Japan coast. The route they sailed, the Western Sea Circuit, or nishi-mawari kôro, was the longest, and busiest (in terms of volume of goods) of the three major domestic maritime shipping routes, in contrast to the Kamigata Shipping Route, or Kamigata kôro, connecting Osaka and Edo, and the Eastern Sea Circuit, or higashi-mawari kôro, which carried a lesser but still major volume of goods, connecting Osaka and Ezo along the eastern (Pacific) coast of Honshû.[1][2]

The route got its start in the 1630s, when a samurai from Kaga han found that it could be as much as three times cheaper to ship rice (or other goods) from the Hokuriku region (on the Sea of Japan coast) by sea, around Shimonoseki and through the Inland Sea, rather than as had typically been done up until then, shipping goods to Obama or Tsuruga, and then transporting them overland, roughly one hundred kilometers, to Osaka. By 1672, lighthouses had been constructed along the new "western circuit" route, corvée obligations for seaside villages to provide aid to troubled vessels or sailors had been put into place, charts of the route were available in greater numbers, and navigators/sailors had begun to more regularly ply the route. The amount of rice transported through the Inland Sea increased dramatically, with rice from Kaga alone more than doubling between 1682 and 1691, from 80,000 koku to 200,000. Similarly, the Osaka-based warehousing guilds (ton'ya) handling rice and other goods from these regions grew in number from fewer than 400 merchant operations in the 1670s to as many as 5500 in the 1710s.[3]

While the Western Circuit was employed both by ships on official domain business, and those engaging in private enterprise, the term kitamaebune, strictly speaking, refers only to the latter. Whereas previously merchant shippers would hire out their shipping services to daimyô, to carry the daimyô's official cargoes to Osaka, kitamaebune operators bought the cargoes themselves, and sold them at Sakai for a profit. Merchants first began engaging in such operations in 1778, making considerable profits off differentials between the prices in the major ports and in the provinces for a given good.[4] In other words, they would buy cargoes cheaply in the provinces, and then sell them at the higher prices that were standard in Osaka or other ports. They also bought and sold goods all along the shipping route, rather than the ship-owner shipping only his own goods between his home port and the big cities.

Goods from Hokkaidô which were brought to the Sea of Japan coast ports, Inland Sea, and Osaka were chiefly marine goods, including herring, konbu (seaweed), and the like. These goods then circulated further throughout the archipelago, making it even as far as Ryûkyû, and via Ryûkyû, to China, as tribute goods. Meanwhile, goods traveling in the other direction, from Osaka and elsewhere to the Inland Sea, the Sea of Japan coastal ports, and Hokkaidô, were myriad, and included rice, salt, textiles, saké, candles, dried fish, soba noodles, sugar, indigo, oil, charcoal, and tea,[5] as well as Chinese medicine ingredients obtained from China via Ryûkyû.

These operations took a serious hit in the early Meiji period as telegraph technology allowed much swifter communications between the cities and the provinces, leading to a collapse of price differentials.[6]

The ships themselves which sailed these routes ranged in size and style, and included sengokubune (ships capable of carrying 1,000 koku of rice), as well as benzaisen and donguri-bune. By the 18th century, benzaisen, also known as bezaisen, were the chief type sailing this route. Originally, most kitamaebune carried roughly 200-500 koku worth of goods, but by the Meiji period, a class of ships carrying up to 2000 koku worth of goods came onto the scene. Some kitamaebune operators were able to invest in these larger steamships, but most were unable to afford such a massive capital investment, and quickly began to lose out to corporations such as Mitsubishi, which came to dominate the shipping industry.[7]

Many of the ships were owned and operated by merchants based in Osaka or Sakai, but many were also owned and operated by individuals based in ports elsewhere along the route, including some from rather small ports. Several domains, including Toyama and Kaga han, made concerted efforts in the early decades of the 19th century to become prominent regions for the construction of ships which could carry goods along this route.


  • "Kitamaebune," Sekai daihyakka jiten 世界大百科事典, Hitachi Solutions, 2012.
  • Gallery labels, Gallery 3: Early Modern Japan, National Museum of Japanese History, Sakura, Chiba, July 2013.
  1. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 129.
  2. Moriya, Katsuhisa. Ronald Toby (trans.) "Urban Networks and Information Networks." in Chie Nakane and Shinzaburô Ôishi (eds.) Tokugawa Japan: The Social and Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan. University of Tokyo Press, 1990. pp97-123.
  3. Martin Dusinberre, Hard Times in the Hometown: A History of Community Survival in Modern Japan, University of Hawaii Press (2012), 25.
  4. Dusinberre, 26.
  5. Mitarai tsûshin 御手洗通信 no. 3, August 1998, p2.
  6. Dusinberre, 34.
  7. Dusinberre, 34-35.