Nanbanboeki (南蛮貿易)

Nanbanboeki indicates trade that was carried on between merchants in Japan and those in Spain or Portugal during the era from around the middle of sixteenth century to the early seventeenth century.


A Portuguese ship arrived at Tanega-shima Island in 1543. Portuguese ships had already arrived at Ryukyu (present day Okinawa) during the previous year. However, having known that Portuguese ships attacked and occupied Malacca, people in Ryukyu refused to trade with the Portuguese. However, merchants in Japan welcomed trade with Portuguese coming aboard their merchant ships. Therefore, Portuguese ships came to visit Japan from Malacca.

In 1557 when Portugal acquired the right of using Macao, goods in Japan, in China and in Portugal were traded with Macao as the trading center.

Nobunaga ODA and Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI basically promoted nanbanboeki. With Spain having developed Pacific Ocean shipping routes via the American continent, Spanish ships came to visit Japan following Portugal with their operation center located at Manila in Luzon.

Ieyasu TOKUGAWA adopted the posture of actively promoting trade with Spain, and sent Shosuke TANAKA, a merchant in Kyoto, to Nueva Espana (present Mexico) that was a territory of Spain at that time. Against the Portuguese merchants who had exclusively gained profits from trade of raw silk, Ieyasu made merchants in Kyoto, in Sakai and in Nagasaki form itowappu nakama (the thread tally union) to diminish their profits. In Ieyasu's era, Christianity was banned but trade with Portugal and Spain was not prohibited.

However, after that, the Edo bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun), being afraid that daimyo (Japanese feudal lord) in western Japan would expand their power, and imposed restrictions on foreign trade in addition to the ban of Christianity. The sites where foreign trade could be carried on became restricted to the Hirado port and Nagasaki port. Then Spanish ships and Portuguese ships were prohibited from visiting Japan in 1624 and in 1939, respectively, prohibiting their trade at Hirado. The national isolation policy was established in this way, consequently ending nanbanboeki.

What was brought to Japan through nanbanboeki
Matchlock guns
Matchlock guns (also called Tanega-shima Island) were imitations of Portuguese guns. In 1543, Fernão Mendes Pinto, a Portuguese, drifted ashore Tanega-shima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture aboard a Chinese ship. At that time, three guns were imported to Japan for the first time. Matchlock guns became called Tanega-shima Island after the place where they were imported for the first time. Strictly speaking, from around 270 years before that, Japan imported gunpowder from China and primitive guns called teppo (literally, an iron barrel) existed in Japan. However, they were not made user-friendly to such an extent that they could not be used as a major weapon in fighting, being used only by farmers for expelling harmful animals.

However, the matchlock guns brought to Japan at that time could be ignited easily, and allowed firing quickly at a speed incomparable with previous guns in Japan. At first, every daimyo doubted the real power of this new weapon, but as the effectiveness was confirmed through battles, they bought them and made every effort to mass-produce them in their respective territories. Use of matchlock guns spread at a high speed that was unusual compared even with world standards, and they became used throughout Japan in quite a short time, completely changing fighting styles during the Sengoku Period (Period of Warring States). According to a theory, it is estimated that the number of guns in Japan at that time was largest in the world together with Ottoman Empire.

Shuinsen (shogunate-licensed trading ships)
Up to that time, all ships in Japan were so-called wasen (literally, Japanese ships) with a flat bottom. With these ships, it was quite dangerous to sail over oceans because they were easily swayed by the waves. When nanbanboeki started, ships with a keeled bottom, called galleon ships, with a now ordinary V-shaped bottom resistant to waves, began to enter ports in Japan.

In the Genna and Kanei eras (1615 - 1644), the shuinsen that inherited features of wasen in addition to those of the junks and galleons, which had been used for sailing over oceans, became used mostly for shuinsen-using trade. However, as a national isolation policy was promoted, the necessity of ships sailing over long distances disappeared. Then so-called benzai-sen ships that inherited features of wasen became mostly used in Japan.