Shuinsen (shogunate-licensed trading ship) (朱印船)

The Shuinsen was a ship that carried out foreign trade by receiving the Shuinjo (the permit to travel to foreign countries) of the Japanese ruler between the end of the sixteenth century to the early seventeenth century. Japanese ships that carried Shuinjo (shogunate trade license) were protected by Portugal and Dutch ships and the rulers of Southeast Asian countries that had diplomatic relations with Japan at the time.


During the period of the Northern and Southern Courts and the period of Warring States in Japan, samurai warriors and pirates from the Kyushu and Inland Sea regions attacked ships along the coasts of China and Korea and were feared as Japanese pirates (called "wako" in Japanese). Interests toward foreign nations grew at the end of sixteenth century when the Portuguese ships began to arrive in Japan, and there were some Japanese who advanced into the Southeast Asia. Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI, who achieved the unification of the whole country, regulated Japanese foreign trading by printing Shuinjo in 1592 in order to suppress wako and dispatched people to Manila, Ayutthaya, and Pattani but few documents exist concerning this period.

The Establishment of the Shuinsen Act

Ieyasu TOKUGAWA, who won the Battle of Sekigahara and established hegemony, had great passion for foreign trade and even employed William Adams, who was the navigator of the Dutch ship that drifted ashore to Bungo in 1600, as his foreign advisor. He sent messengers to Annam, Manila in the Spanish Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand and Pattani to establish diplomatic relations and implemented the Shuinsen system in 1604. Since then and until 1635, over three hundred and fifty Japanese ships obtained the Shuinjo and travelled abroad. Shuinsen always departed from Nagasaki City and returned to the same city. Since the Ming Empire forbade Japanese ships from visiting China, Chinese ports (except for Macao inhabited by Portuguese) were not included among the destinations of Shuinsen ships, and shuinsen licenses were not issued to ships that traded with Korea, either, since trading with Korea was entrusted entirely to Tsushima Domain.

The destination of the Shuinsen voyage

Annan was governed by the Trinh clan in Hanoi, which supported the Lee clan that ruled Northern Vietnam at the time. It was also called Tonkin.

Giao Chi was governed by the Guen clan in Hue, which actually ruled Central Vietnam at the time. It was also called Quảng Nam. Its trading ports were Hoi An and Da Nang.

Chiam Pa was the kingdom of Champa crammed in the corner of Southern Vietnam.

Siam was the Ayutthaya Kingdom of Thailand kingdom. A large Japanese community was formed in Ayutthaya, where Nagamasa YAMADA was active. Trading ships from Ayutthaya also came to Nagasaki.

Cambodia of the Cambodia Kingdom had its capital, Phnom Penh, in an area along the Mekong River.

Patani was the Pattani Kingdom of Malay at the central eastern coast of Malay peninsula. Ruled by a queen at that time, the Patani Kingdom was the location of an important trading port in the South China Sea.

Luzon was an island colonized by Spain. Its capital, Manila, was the strategic port of the galleon trade with the New World, and many Chinese ships arrived there.

Taiwan was ruled by the Dutch, who had their base at Fort Zeelandia, and was called Paiwan at the time,
Taiwan was also one of the places visited by Chinese trading ships.

The destination of Shuinsen was restricted to regions north of the equator. According to voyage destination records, Giao Chi was most often visited by Shuinsen ships (73 times), followed by Siam (55 times), Luzon (55 times) and Annan (47 times).

Shuinsen trading family

It had the greatest numbers of merchants, consisting of sixty five members, two ladies, and one who originated from Ryukyu region (current Okinawa area). The representatives were the very affluent Ryoi SUMINOKURA, Shirojiro CHAYA, Magozaemon SUEYOSHI of Osaka, and Heizo SUETSUGU of Nagasaki City.

There were ten daimyo (Japanese territorial lord) who belonged to Daimyo Kyushu (Only Kamei was from Sannin). They were Tadatsune SHIMAZU, Shigenobu MATSUURA (also known as Hoin), Harunobu ARIMA, Tadaoki HOSOKAWA, Katsushige NABESHIMA, Kiyomasa KATO, Korenori KAMEI, Harumasa GOTO, Shigetoshi TAKENAKA, and Shigemasa MATSUKURA.

The Shuinjo was given to Toan MURAYAMA of Bushi Nagasaki (bushi (samurai) in Nagasaki), Sokun IMAI of Sakai, and four bushi from Osaka and Hirato Cities.

Shuinjo was also granted to eleven Ming merchants living in Japan. Ming forbid voyage to Japan, and these Chinese people arrived while trading in secret and lived in Japan. Among these was Dan LI, who was a pirate of Fujian Province and became famous.

Shuinjo licenses were also issued to Europeans such as William Adams, Dutch living in Japan, such as Jan Joosten, British traders and 12 Portuguese.

The crew of Shuinsen

Those that boarded Shuinsen other than the Captain were pilot (navigator), merchants, and common crew, but the navigators were mostly Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and British, and the common crew contained foreigners as well. Naturally, there were Japanese among the crew.


Many Shuinsen that travelled to Southeast sea ports unexpectedly had the purpose of importing Chinese raw silk and silk products. Silk was produced in Japan from ancient times but was poor in quality compared to Chinese, and the peaceful era saw an increase in the desire for Chinese silk which was needed to produce expensive clothing. Ming, which suffered the attack of Japanese pirates, forbade Japanese ships to visit Chinese ports and restrictions became partiulcarly severe after Ming and Japan fought a war during the Bunroku and Keicho eras. Ming also forbid the travelling of Chinese trading ships to Japan. However, this was not fully implemented and some Chinese ships visited Japan in secret, though not in large numbers. As a result, Chinese trading ships met and traded with Japanese ships in ports at Southeast Asia where they could travel legally and outside the watchful eyes of the government authorities of the Ming Dynasty. They imported not only Chinese products but shark and deer skins used in weapons and products of Southeast Asia such as sugar.

In exchange, crafts such as silver, copper, copper coins, sulfur, and swords were exported from Japan. There was a shortage of silver in China during that period, and Chinese merchants, who were the main trading partners of Shuinsen desired silver. In addition, silver was mined in large quantities in the Iwami Ginzan silver mine and other places in Japan and used as a means of payment. Japanese copper coins were also exported to Vietnam.

Ships used as Shuinsen.

In the early period, there were many Chinese style Junk (ship) utilized as the Shuinsen. Unique sailing ships were subsequently constructed in various places for navigation by applying the technology and design for Galleons to junks, as represented by Suetsugu ships developed by Heizo SUETSUGU and Araki ships developed by Sotaro ARAKI.

The ships weighed around five hundred to seven hundred and fifty tons, and there were about two hundred personnel per ship (the confirmed average number of crew for fifteen ships was two hundred and thirty six). During the time when the trade with Southeast Asia countries flourished, numerous ships were ordered and purchased in Ayutthaya in Siam, due to the excellence of the construction and the quality of Thai wood.

The end of Shuinsen trading

It became increasingly more difficult even for government-certified Shuinsen ships to travel to other countries due to the isolationist policy of the shogunate government; in 1633, the First Seclusion Order, which forbade all ships other that those carrying official letters of the shogunate government to visit or return from other countries, was issued; and in 1935, the Third Seclusion Order, which forbade all Japanese to travel to or return from other countries, was issued, bringing an end to Shuinsen trade. Due to this measurement, the Dutch East India Company that often competed with Shuinsen gained a huge profit, and it monopolized the Dejima trading post among European nations.