Kango boeki

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  • Japanese/Chinese: 勘合貿易 (kangou boueki / kanhe maoyi)

The kangô bôeki system, or tally trade, was a system under which Muromachi Japan and Ming Dynasty China engaged in official trade. Tallies (J: kangô) held by Japanese merchants certified them to Chinese port officials as licensed merchants or as official Japanese tribute missions, distinguishing them, therefore, from smugglers or pirates.

The system came into use in 1383, in an effort to control foreign tribute trade. Each tally, or certificate, had the characters "Nihon" (C: Riben, 日本) written on it, and was then divided in half, with the Chinese port office (shibosi) keeping one half, and a licensed foreign ship the other half. In theory, a merchant's half of the form would have to line up properly with the port officials' half in order to be regarded as genuine. These were often faked, however.

New sets of tallies were issued by some Ming Emperors, but not all, in conjunction with their ascension to the throne; over the course of the period of Ming-Ashikaga relations, this occurred six times, at the ascensions of the Yongle, Xuande, Jingtai, Chenghua, Hongzhi and Zhengde Emperors. Each time, one hundred tallies were prepared, and numbered sequentially. Japanese ships arriving in China were expected to carry a number of the forms, arranged sequentially beginning with one; each of these borne by the Japanese side would bear the character hon 本, of Nihon 日本. Upon arriving at Zhejiang and Beijing, the tallies would be checked against the port officials' registers, and the cargoes and inventory lists checked as well, along with various other figures such as the number of ships and number of crew members, to make sure these were in line with proper tributary protocol.

Tally trade relations between the Ming Dynasty and Ashikaga shogunate began in the wake of the end of the Nanboku-chô period, when the shogunate (with the backing of just one, recognized, Imperial Court) became more able to claim authority as the sole legitimate power in Japan. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu had previously tried to establish relations with the Ming, sending envoys in 1374 and 1380, but was rebuffed both times. Following the fall of the Southern Court in 1392, however, Yoshimitsu sent a new mission in 1401, and was able to secure a positive response. For the next several years, Japanese and Ming envoys traveled together back and forth between the two countries roughly once a year. Yoshimitsu received formal investiture as "King of Japan" in 1403.

The first tally ship was sent from Japan in 1404, and the last in 1547. Over the course of that period, a total of 84 Japanese trading vessels visited China on formal tally trade journeys, spread out across seventeen individual trips.[1]

Things only went smoothly for a very few years, however, before, following Yoshimitsu's death in 1408, his son and successor Ashikaga Yoshimochi discontinued formal relations with the Ming. The Yongle Emperor sent envoys to Yoshimochi on two occasions - in 1417 and 1419 - seeking the restoration of relations, but was rebuffed both times. It was not until after Yoshimochi's death in 1428, under his younger brother Ashikaga Yoshinori, that the tally trade resumed, with the first mission since 1410 being dispatched in 1432. Missions had previously been sponsored entirely by the shogunate, but missions now began to be co-sponsored by considerable numbers of prominent temples, shrines, and daimyo. After this 1432 mission, and another dispatched in 1434, no missions traveled to China for over 15 years; when the next one appeared, in 1451, it was so large - nine ships - that it sparked the Ming Court to impose restrictions on the size and frequency of missions. Japanese vessels were now officially limited to coming to China only once every ten years, with no more than three ships, and no more than 300 men per ship. In practice, 150-200 of the men on each ship were merchants, with the crew comprising the remainder.

Originally, tally trade ships typically departed Japan from Hyôgo-no-tsu (modern-day Kobe). Rather than building new ships specifically for the tally trade, the shogunate commissioned ships from Inland Sea merchants or sea-lords (a group which often overlapped considerably with "pirates"), and hired captains, helmsmen, sailors, and muscle (protection) from among that same group.[2] A typical pattern was for the ships to depart from Hyôgo, pick up various goods at various Inland Sea ports, make their way to Hakata where they would formally assemble as a fleet, and then reassemble at Hirado or the Gotô Islands to wait for favorable winds to make the sea crossing. The crossing was typically made in spring, though sometimes autumn winds were employed; the ships made landfall near Ningbo. While the crews were set up with lodging at the Zhejiang shibosi (port office), their ships, cargoes, and documents were inspected. In the early portion of this period of tally trade, the chief envoy would then journey to Beijing, along with much of the gifts/goods, and samples of some of the larger bulk goods, such as sappanwood, copper, and pepper, which would then be sent along in their full amounts shortly afterwards. In the 15th century, those who traveled onward to Beijing were generally limited to around 300-350 people, but in the early 16th century, this was further reduced, and only about 50 people were permitted to enter the capital. In later times, these goods would not be sent to Beijing, but instead the more nearby Nanjing. The formal tribute goods presented to the Ming Court from the Japanese included horses, Ryukyuan sulfur,[3] swords and other arms, and various craft products such as screens, fans, inkstones, and lacquerware; official and private trade goods sent from Japan, meanwhile, included the above-mentioned sappanwood, copper, and pepper, as well as swords, sulfur, and craft products such as inkstones, fans, screens, and lacquerwares. The volume of these goods could be quite extensive; in 1453, for example, the mission brought 150,000 catties (kin) of copper, and 364,000 of sulfur, as trade goods (not counting tribute goods).

In return for these tribute offerings, Japan received from the Ming Court silver, silks, large amounts of copper coins, and various luxury goods such as porcelains, brocades, and bronzes. Meanwhile, Japanese members of the missions, in their private trade activities, obtained goods such as lacquerware, copper goods, sugar, ceramic wares, books, scrolls of calligraphy, silks, hemp, cotton, and medicines.

In the capital, following a series of official and ceremonial exchanges, the envoys would sell their official tribute/trade goods at prices set by the Chinese Court, often double or triple the market value of the goods;[4] the various members of the mission could then engage in private trade, both in Beijing, and on the way back south. Private trade was also performed in Ningbo, but only with certain authorized traders. When the mission was complete, the Japanese would depart from Ningbo, and make their way back to Hyôgo-no-tsu. When conflict between the Ôuchi and Hosokawa clans made the normal route via Hakata and Shimonoseki too dangerous, ships would instead make their way around the west coast of Kyushu, and then into the Island Sea by coming up the west coast of Shikoku, eventually making port not at Hyôgo, but at Sakai.

The system finally came to an end in 1551. The Ming Court had been demanding for some years that "Japan" (Ôuchi imposter envoys dominated contact with China, so it was the Ôuchi and not the shogunate the Ming Court was actually in communication with) turn over the offenders in the 1523 Ningpo Incident (an incident in which Ôuchi and Hosokawa clan ships clashed in Ningpo harbor), and turn in all the tallies, but to no avail. Diplomatic discussion between the Ming Court and the Ôuchi (pretending to represent the shogunate) then came to loggerheads for a time, until in 1551, Sue Harukata rose up against his lord and took control of the Ôuchi clan, marking the end of official relations between Ming China and Muromachi Japan.


  • Hashimoto Yû. "The Information Strategy of Imposter Envoys from Northern Kyushu to Choson Korea in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries." in Angela Schottenhammer (ed.) The East Asian Mediterranean: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Commerce and Human Migration. Harrassowitz Verlag, 2008. pp289-315.
  • Tanaka Takeo, "Japan's Relations with Overseas Countries," in John Whitney Hall and Toyoda Takeshi (eds.) Japan in the Muromachi Age, Cornell University East Asia Program (2001), 159-178.
  1. These took place in 1404, 1405, 1406-1407, 1408 (two missions that year), 1410, 1432-1433, 1434-1435, 1451-1453, 1465-1468, 1476-1477, 1483-1484, 1493-1495, 1506-1511, 1523, 1520-1523, 1538-1540, and 1547-1549. Where a span of years are given, the mission departs in the former year, and arrives in China in the latter year.
  2. Peter Shapinsky, “Envoys and Escorts: Representation and Performance among Koxinga’s Japanese Pirate Ancestors,” in Sea Rovers, Silver, and Samurai, ed. by Tonio Andrade and Xing Hang. UH Press (2016), 52.
  3. Asato Susumu 安里進, Dana Masayuki 田名真之, et al. (eds.), Okinawa ken no rekishi 沖縄県の歴史, Tokyo: Yamakawa shuppan (2010), 117.
  4. Lloyd Eastman, Family, Fields, and Ancestors: Constancy and Change in China's Social and Economic History, 1550-1949, Oxford University Press (1988), 123.