Chinese in Nagasaki

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Under the maritime restrictions imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate in the 1630s, which would remain in force until the Bakumatsu Period (1850s), the only foreigners permitted to trade at the port of Nagasaki were the Dutch and the Chinese.[1] The volume of trade handled by the Chinese far exceeded that of the Dutch, however, as did the size of the two communities. While only about 15-20 Dutchmen lived on Dejima at a time, Chinese residents of Nagasaki numbered in the thousands, and by the late Tokugawa period may have comprised as much as one-fifth of the city's total population.[2] Ôba Osamu has written that "Nagasaki trade was China trade," arguing for the importance of recognizing Nagasaki's place as the northernmost and easternmost point within larger, complex networks of Chinese trade, rather than (or in addition to) the Japanese perspective, in which Nagasaki is a lone exception to an archipelago of ports closed to foreign trade.[3]

Scenes in the Chinese settlement, Nagasaki. A handscroll on display at the British Museum.

Chinese had traded and settled in the Nagasaki area since at least 1562, a phenomenon which increased after the formal establishment of Nagasaki as a city in 1572. However, it was not until the early decades of the 1600s that a formal Chinatown coalesced into being.[4]

There were essentially two categories of Chinese resident in Nagasaki in the Edo Period. Those who were seen as being aligned with China, chiefly including merchants who were based in China and came to Nagasaki primarily, or solely, to engage in trade, were restricted to a district known as the Tôjin yashiki, or "Chinese mansions," but were, like the Dutch, who were similarly confined to Dejima, allowed to leave Japan and to come back. Though initially permitted to travel more freely and to live in the regular Japanese sections of the town, these Chinese merchants were restricted to the Tôjin yashiki beginning in 1689 as a response to rises in smuggling.[5] Most of those who lived in the district lived there only temporarily, or seasonally, as they were merchants or crewmen otherwise who came and went with the trading vessels. However, the community also included some number of physicians, veterinarians, scholars and the like. Roughly 130 members of the community were influential in Japan as painters.[6] The community had its own leaders, and liaisons or representatives for interaction with Japanese authorities. A man named Ma Liu (溤六) was the first to serve as official Chinese interpreter, beginning in 1603.[7]

Meanwhile, those seen as "resident Chinese," who were not traveling merchants but were more permanently resident in Japan, were permitted more freedom to inter-mingle with Japanese society, and to travel more freely across Japan; however, like the Japanese themselves, these "resident Chinese" were forbidden from leaving the country.[8]

Early in the period, in 1623, 1628, and 1629 respectively, Chinese temples were established in the city catering to residents originally from the Nanjing, Zhangzhou, and Fuzhou regions. Though nominally Buddhist temples, the sites also featured the worship of Tenpi (aka Māzǔ), a Taoist goddess of the sea and patron protector of sailors. The Nanjing temple became particularly strong, and it was through this temple that later in the 17th century a group of monks were invited from China to establish the Ôbaku Zen temple of Manpuku-ji in Uji. A fourth Chinese temple was established in Nagasaki in 1678 to cater to the growing population coming from Guangdong province. While Japanese throughout the archipelago were required to register with a local Buddhist temple, Chinese in Nagasaki registered at one of these four temples, and were thus able to be counted and accounted for by the authorities.[9]

Like the Dutch, the Chinese were assigned a certain type or class of courtesans who specialized in serving foreigners. However, while these courtesans were permitted to stay overnight on Dejima, they were not permitted to do so in the Tôjin yashiki.[10]

Chinese traders operating in Nagasaki were in no way representatives of the Chinese Court, and engaged in such travel and trade privately, in violation of Chinese bans on trade with Japan. China had severed formal relations with Japan in the 1550s, and this was never restored for the remainder of the Ming Dynasty through most of the Qing Dynasty, until after the Meiji Restoration. The number of ships calling at Nagasaki fluctuated over the course of the period, but typically ranged between the tens and twenties, after peaking at 74 and 97 ships in 1640 and 1641 respectively.[11] In the 1660s to 1670s, however, this number had fallen to below twenty ships a year, nearly all of them from areas under the control of the Zheng Chenggong or other Ming loyalists, the Three Feudatories, or overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.[12]

In 1684, 24 Chinese ships called at Nagasaki; that same year, following the 1683 defeat by the Qing of the last of the Ming loyalists on Taiwan, the Qing lifted bans on maritime activity on the south coast of China. The following year, 85 Chinese ships attempted to trade at Nagasaki, spurring the shogunate in 1685 to restrict Chinese and Dutch trade to 6000 and 3000 kan (a measure of silver), respectively, worth of trade. Once the requisite amount of trade had been completed, additional ships were turned away. As the number of Chinese ships soared, to as many as 193 in 1688, these restrictions led to a considerable number of cases of ships unloading offshore, or pulling into other ports, all of which was declared "smuggling" and decried as illegal by the shogunal authorities.[13]

In 1715, shogunal advisor Arai Hakuseki oversaw the implementation of a new set of policies which limited Chinese ships to thirty, and Dutch to two, each year; his regulations also drew upon the Chinese tally trade system, giving each Chinese ship that left Nagasaki half of a seal which, when matched with the half retained by Nagasaki officials, would constitute a license to trade. These licenses were known as shinpai. This, combined with the efforts of the Nagasaki kaisho, or customs-house, established in 1698, it was hoped, would severely cut down on smuggling.[14]

In the 18th century, the shogunate encouraged the expansion of the domestic production of sugar, ginseng, and silk, in an effort to use import substitution measures to stem the dangerous flow of silver out of the country. As a result, fewer (though sometimes larger) Chinese ships came to trade. In the latter portion of this century, from 1764 onwards, on average eleven Chinese ships called at Nagasaki each year. While they continued to bring in sugar, ginseng, and silk for sale, they also continued to bring in other luxury goods, such as tortoiseshell, sandalwood, ivory, and a wide variety of medicinal products such as herbs and roots. Japan regularly imported as many as one thousand Chinese books a year.[15] Matsudaira Sadanobu expressed desires to more severely limit, or even eliminate entirely, Chinese trade at the port, emphasizing the value instead of encouraging the people of Nagasaki to pursue agriculture or industry, but knew it was not possible, as demand for medicinal goods was just too powerful. In 1790, he imposed restrictions, limiting the Chinese to only ten ships a year. Profits continued, however, unabated, and indeed soared, with the Nagasaki kaisho earning an unprecedented 2,742 kan in bullion imports via the supplemental trade in 1801.[16]

Chinese trade at Nagasaki, at least within the "traditional" Edo period patterns, fell dramatically into decline in the late 1850s, in large part due to competition against Western traders and turmoil at home (especially related to the Taiping Rebellion). A set of three ships which sold goods at Nagasaki in 1859 but were then unable to return to China for a time were likely the last ones to deal directly with the shogunate's clearinghouse. After a few months of sitting in harbor, they resold at a loss the cargoes they had acquired in their initial exchanges. A group of Chinese merchants resident in the city formed a guild in 1861 in the hopes of working their way to dominance in the China-Japan trade in the port, but before long, most Chinese merchants simply took up working for, or working with, Western firms.[17]


  1. These were not particularly strict definitions; other Europeans did come to Dejima with the Dutch, and a small number of people from other parts of Asia were included alongside the Chinese in the umbrella category of Tôjin.
  2. Gary Leupp, Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900, A&C Black (2003), 259n63.
  3. Marius Jansen, China in the Tokugawa World, Harvard University Press (1992), 23.
  4. Arano Yasunori. "The Formation of a Japanocentric World Order." International Journal of Asian Studies 2:2 (2005), 194.
  5. Mizuno Norihito, “China in Tokugawa Foreign Relations: The Tokugawa Bakufu’s Perception of and Attitudes toward Ming-Qing China,” Sino-Japanese Studies 15 (2003), 140n181.
  6. Jansen, 60.
  7. Arano, 195.
  8. Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation. M.E. Sharpe, 1998. p83.
  9. Jansen, 10.
  10. Yonemoto, Marcia. Mapping Early Modern Japan. University of California Press, 2003. p85.
  11. Jansen, 26.
  12. Jansen, 27.
  13. Jansen, 28-29.
  14. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 52-53.
  15. Kang, David C. “Hierarchy and Legitimacy in International Systems: The Tribute System in Early Modern East Asia.” Security Studies 19, no. 4 (2010): 607.
  16. Hellyer, 109.
  17. Hellyer, 184.