Hoi An

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  • Kanji: 会安
  • Other Names: Faifo

Hoi An, located a short distance outside of Da Nang, was a major central Vietnamese port in the early modern period, and home to a major Nihonmachi (Japantown) in the late 16th to early 17th centuries. Many European records refer to the city as Faifo.

The town emerged as a port in the early 16th century, when the area was still controlled by Champa. The area fell to the Nguyen lords of Quang Nam in 1602, as the Nguyen expanded south, and within only a few years, it became the largest port in Vietnam. The modern-day territory of Vietnam was at that time divided into three polities. The Trinh family were lords of Tonkin in the north; the Nguyen were lords of Quang Nam, also known as Quinam or Cochinchina, in central Vietnam; and the Champa polity of the non-Vietnamese Cham people constituted the south. While Japanese were active in both Champa and Tonkin in the 1590s-1630s, it was the Japanese community of Hoi An, the chief port of Nguyen-controlled Quang Nam, and the largest port in all of Vietnam,[1] that was of particular prominence and influence in regional trade.

There was a seven-month-long trading season in Hoi An. During the dry season, local people from the valleys brought their own products, including silk, spices, wood, and rice, to the port for trade. Chinese ships brought porcelains, paper, books, silver, tea, weapons, saltpeter, sulfur, and lead, among other commodities. Makeshift markets were then set up to sell these Chinese goods, and to sell the local goods to the Chinese. Many of the market stalls were run by women, including wives of the Chinese merchants; many of the inns and eateries in the area were also run by women. While the Chinese dominated the purchase and shipping of gold and sugar out of Hoi An, however, it was the much smaller Japanese community that dominated the trade in textiles and many other goods.[2]

The Japanese community in Hoi An, home to only a few tens of Japanese families, got its start in the late 16th century, when Ming Dynasty policies forbade Chinese merchants to trade directly with Japanese; though direct trade continued in great amounts, including in Nagasaki (i.e., in Japan proper), many Chinese and Japanese merchants also came to use Hoi An, among other Southeast Asian sites, as intermediary points, where they could trade safely. Roughly 42 red seal ships licenses were issued by the Tokugawa shogunate for trade with Quang Nam in 1604 to 1616.[3] Over the total period from roughly 1590 to 1635, Hoi An constituted about one-quarter of all Japanese overseas trade activity, more than any other single port, and saw as many as ten Japanese ships each year.[4] Though the Japanese community never exceeded a few tens of families - in contrast to the 1,500 Japanese living in Ayutthaya and in Manila,[5] and to the thousands of Chinese in Hoi An[6] - the Japanese nevertheless managed to be quite influential within the port's markets. Indeed, the comings and goings of Japanese ships from the port each year caused dramatic cyclical swings in local silk prices, as the Japanese bought up a great proportion of the newest and best silk, leaving a considerably smaller (and thus higher-priced) supply for Chinese and Dutch merchants.[7] The Japanese merchants of Hoi An also transshipped much of the goods between Phnom Penh and parts further east.[8]

Though the Dutch only first arrived in the port in 1633, just two years before the Tokugawa shogunate imposed maritime restrictions banning Japanese from overseas activity, for the short period that Japanese and Dutch coexisted in the city, Japanese hesitancy to sell to the Dutch (instead dealing almost exclusively with Chinese, Vietnamese, and fellow Japanese) had profound impacts on Dutch access to Hoi An silks.[9]

A number of Japanese merchants, such as Araki Sotaro, also intermarried with the families of the Nguyen lords, and a number of grave markers in Vietnam, records and objects held by merchant families in Osaka, and the like attest to these connections.[10]

War broke out between the Nguyen and the Trinh in 1627, and the Nguyen petitioned the Tokugawa to cut off relations and trade with the Trinh. For the decade or so which followed, the Japanese community in Hoi An flourished more than ever.

Following the imposition of maritime restrictions, which meant Japanese resident in Southeast Asia couldn't return to Japan, and extremely few Japanese left Japan any longer to infuse new blood into the Nihonmachi, the community gradually shrank over the course of the 17th century, eventually assimilating into the Vietnamese society through intermarriage and disappearing. As the Japanese merchant community shrank, Chinese fleeing the fall of the Ming Dynasty filled in the gap. Hoi An remained the most important Southeast Asian port for Japanese traders, in certain respects, well into the 1700s, even though the Hoi An-Nagasaki trade was now carried on Chinese and Dutch ships, and no longer Japanese ones.

By 1750, there may have been as many as 10,000 Chinese in Hoi An, receiving some 70-80 junks each year. The estuary began to silt up in the 18th century, however, and the city began to fall into decline. Roughly half the city's population, and many of its buildings, were lost in the Tay Son Rebellion of the 1780s. The city recovered somewhat in the 1800s, but by this time it had already been eclipsed by Saigon, Da Nang, and other nearby ports.[11]

Today, the harbor having silted up, Hoi An is a far quieter city than it once was. The precise former location of the Japantown remains unclear; though a prominent bridge in the town, known as the Lai Vien Kieu ("Bridge of Friends from Afar") or simply "the Japanese bridge," is popularly associated with the community, it bears no signs of Japanese architectural styles, and thus many scholars discount the idea that this marks the community's former location.[12]


  1. Alexander Woodside, “Central Vietnam's Trading World in the Eighteenth Century as Seen in Le Quy Don's 'Frontier Chronicles'” in Keith Taylor and John K. Whitmore (eds.), Essays into Vietnamese Pasts. Cornell University (1995), 162.
  2. Craig Lockard, “‘The Sea Common to All’: Maritime Frontiers, Port Cities, and Chinese Traders in the Southeast Asian Age of Commerce, Ca. 1400–1750.” Journal of World History 21, no. 2 (2010): 236-237.
  3. Geoffrey Gunn, History Without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800, Hong Kong University Press (2011), 229.
  4. Chen Chingho A. Historical Notes on Hội An (Faifo). Carbondale, Illinois: Center for Vietnamese Studies, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, (1974), 13.
  5. Gunn, 222-223.; Uezato Takashi. "The Formation of the Port City of Naha in Ryukyu and the World of Maritime Asia: From the Perspective of a Japanese Network." Acta Asiatica 95 (2008), 70.
  6. A 1642 report to the Dutch East India Company by a Japanese inhabitant of the port describes a Chinese population of 4,000-5,000 and a Japanese population of 40-50. Laarhoven, Ruurdje (trans.) "A Japanese Resident's Account: Declaration of the Situation of Quinam Kingdom by Francisco, 1642." in Tana Li and Anthony Reid (eds.) Southern Vietnam under the Nguyễn: Documents on the Economic History of Cochinchina (Đàng Trong), 1602-1777. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (1993), 31.; by 1750, there were perhaps as many as 10,000 Chinese resident in the port, and even fewer Japanese than before. Kang, David C. “Hierarchy in Asian International Relations: 1300-1900.” Asian Security 1, no. 1 (2005): 69.
  7. Tana Li. Nguyễn Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Cornell University (1998), 63.
  8. Gunn, 227-228.
  9. Robert Innes, "The Door Ajar: Japan's Foreign Trade in the Seventeenth Century." PhD diss. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan (1980), 187-188.
  10. Thau Chuong "Bridge of Friendship." in Ancient Town of Hoi An. International Symposium Held in Danang on 22-23 March 1990. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House (1991), 302-304.; Matt Matsuda, Pacific Worlds, University of Cambridge Press (2012), 89.
  11. Lockard, 238-239.
  12. Chuong, 302-304.