Torihara Soan

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  • Japanese: 鳥原宗安 (Torihara Souan)

Torihara Sôan was a trader from Bônotsu in Satsuma province, who was sent to China in 1600 in an effort to establish normalized relations between the Tokugawa clan and the Ming Court.

Normally active in traveling to the Ryukyus to trade, Sôan, along with Mao Guoke, a prisoner of war from Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Korean Invasions who he was to repatriate, departed the port of Bônotsu-no-tomari in 1600, bound for Fujian. His journeys appear in the Ming shi-lu, and in the Liangchao pingrang lu, which indicate that he may have reached Zhejiang first, and only then made his way to Fujian in order to set out once more for Japan.

The ship had a flag with the Shimazu kamon, used for safe sailing within Shimazu waters, and in other Japanese waters; however, this was meaningless in Chinese waters, and so another flag was flown, bearing a four-character phrase roughly translating to “We have conquered the Japanese and report our victory," this in emulation of Chinese custom, where flags were flown announcing intentions, such as "tribute ship," or “carrying grains.” The ship carried a total of 43 crew, including Sôan as chief officer, seven attendants, three dignitaries, a translator, a steersman, a compass navigator, a senior sailor, a chief sailor, and 26 other sailors of lower rank; most of these men were from Bonotsu. Two members of the crew were Chinese who had taken Japanese wives and had been living in Japan. One was a steersman, a native of Wenzhou in Zhejiang, who had been in Japan for roughly 40 years, and was known as Yozaemon. The other, Huang Kuiye, was from Fujian, came to Japan eleven years earlier, and wanted to return to China. Another member of the crew was named Hong Sun, while Sôan’s translator, a native of Nanjing, is given in the records by his Japanese name, Jirôsan . Much of this crew had served with Sôan before, possibly quite regularly, and were not hired specifically for this mission. Thus, they possessed both skills, and credibility, as a ship traveling between Satsuma and Fujian.

Sôan’s ship got lost, however, on its way to Fujian, and was discovered in Zhejiang on 4/16 by local authorities headed by Zhejiang Grand Coordinator Liu Yuanlin. Lin and his men were suspicious of the Japanese ship, believing Sôan and his crew to possibly be spies. Mao Guoke attempted to resolve the situation by, in part, justifying to the suspicious Ming officials that the 20 Satsuma warriors on board were there to help protect the ship against pirates (and were not pirates, or invaders, themselves).

Liu sent a missive to the Court requesting that the crew of the captured ship be sent to Fujian to be dealt with by Fujian Grand Coordinator Jin Xuezeng. An entry in the Ming shi-lu indicates that the request reached the court and was formally granted. Sôan and his crew then traveled to Fujian, where they delivered the letter from Tokugawa Ieyasu requesting the restoration of formal trade relations.

The formal letter from Tokugawa Ieyasu, drafted by diplomatic expert Seishô Jôtai , and signed by Shimazu Yoshihiro, Yoshihiro’s son Tadatsune, and one or two other daimyo, was a rather threatening one, demanding that China restore official trade relations, or else the shogun would attack China and Korea. China responded by recording this as “a request for trade with peace as an enticement,” and simply banned local traders from going overseas to conspire with Japanese, and requested from the King of Korea that defenses at Pusan be strengthened. Historian Watanabe Miki suggests that there may have been an intermediate stage of translation in which Ieyasu’s threatening language was toned down before the Chinese Emperor or the relevant advisors/officials received the message. This intermediary may have been Sôan and his crew, or, perhaps an official interpreter/translator/secretary within the Chinese Court.

Little documentation exists for the period from Sôan’s departure from Zhejiang, until after his safe return to Satsuma; in other words, there is little known extant documentation for his time in Fujian, his original destination. However, following his return, in the 7th month, he wrote some notes, recording that he had purchased a new ship in Fujian, bartering for it his old ship, plus 50 monme of silver, a sword, and a gun. Later on, that ship purchased in Fujian would go on to be used for journeys from Satsuma to Luzon and Annan.

Later Edo period histories written in Satsuma misleadingly framed Sôan’s mission as having been a success, writing that he “went to the capital, Beijing, to see the emperor, and the emperor was very glad to see him and give him a feast. Then the Ming court promised trade with Satsuma.” This, though not strictly factual, helped secure, or enhance, Satsuma's impression of its own importance within the narrative of the formation and success of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Shimazu accounts indicate that the Ming, in fact, did agree to send two trading ships to Satsuma every year from then on. However, according to those same accounts, the first two ships sent in 1601 ran afoul of pirates near Iôshima or Iô Torishima, and this marked the end for the short-lived revival of Ming-Japan trade at that time (if there was indeed any agreement to a revival to begin with).[1]


  • Watanabe Miki. "An International Maritime Trader - Torihara Sôan: The Agent for Tokugawa Ieyasu's First Negotiations with Ming China, 1600." in Angela Schottenhammer (ed.) The East Asian Mediterranean: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Commerce and Human Migration. Harrassowitz-Verlag, 2009. pp169-176.
  1. Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 217.