From Smugglers to Middlemen: The Early Modern Japanese Diaspora in Southeast Asia

Pierre-Emmanuel Bachelet, ENS-Lyon


This paper analyzes the role of the Japanese diaspora in early modern globalization. Japanese migrants settled throughout all Southeast Asia, where they were drawn to work as mercenaries or buy silk and tropical products.

The Japanese gathered to form large communities within the main Southeast Asian port cities, called Nihonmachi (Japanese quarters). The most important were Hôi An in the state of the Nguyên lords (close to present day Da Nang), Ayutthaya (Siam, present day Thailand) and Manila. Even though they gradually assimilated into local population or into Chinese trading communities, Japanese migrants remained influential in regional trade and kept their Japanese identity, long after the 1635 edict banning the Japanese from traveling abroad or returning from abroad.

The traditional historiography considers that the first waves of migrants were made up of mercenaries and smugglers, while subsequent waves were made up of legal traders. I will argue that there is a continuum between these two types. Even the distinction between free and forced migrations is difficult to establish. Some of these migrants were reduced to slavery by the Portuguese, but they could deliberately leave Japan to serve local powers as bondsmen. After the prohibition of Christianity in Japan (1614), Japanese Catholics were also forced to flee their homeland for a safer harbor.

Composed of these multiple ethnic, religious and professional identities, the Japanese migrants built a dense network that participated in the Southeast Asian global trading boom. Within this network, they were also agents of globalization. They played the critical role of middlemen between Southeast Asian authorities and European traders or missionaries. Japanese men and women were employed as interpreters, their leaders handling trading activities and settling disputes. They were close to local powers, regarded as trustworthy partners, and helped the Europeans fit into regional networks.