II. Exchange in the Early Modern Era

Red Seal Trade

In the late 16th century, Japanese traders sought trading partners in the Southern East Asian countries, due to the Chinese ban on Japanese commercial activities during the Ming Dynasty. Japanese authorities such as the Tokugawa Shogunate or the Lords of Domains gave such associates a “Red Seal” letter, an official trade license that distinguished official traders from smugglers and pirates. These agents headed for the Southern East Asian countries, including Vietnam (An’nan), Philippines, and Thailand, and exchanged silver, copper, sulfur, swords, and other goods with raw silk, silk, cottons, etc. From 1604, when the Red Seal trading system was established, to 1639, when the Tokugawa Shogunate adopted the isolation policy, a total of 350 ships crossed the ocean, and 130 of them traded with Vietnam. Hội An, located in the middle of Vietnam, was the outer port of Hue where the Quảng Nam Nguyễn clan was based, and this city flourished as an international port. In a short time, a Japanese town was established within the city. After the Tokugawa Shogunate placed a ban on Japanese vessels sailing abroad in 1635, the Red-seal ships ceased to ply. However, it is said that Japanese people continued to live in the Japanese town within Hội An for several decades after the ban.

Records on Red Seal trading and the Japanese town in Hội An are presented in this section.

1.  Gaiban Shokan: Copy of a Letter Written by Nguyễn Hoàng, the Ruler of An Nam Quốc, in May, 1606

Gaiban Shokan is an illustrated book used as a reference for Gaiban Tsusho, which was edited and completed in 1818 by Juzo Kondo, who was an official of the Nagasaki Bugyosho (Nagasaki Magistrates). It consists of two volumes and was held as a part of the collection of the Momijiyama Library.

In the early 15th century, North Vietnam was temporarily ruled by the Ming Dynasty (China). The Lê Dynasty was established after the region’s independence from China. However, the coups that occurred in the middle of the 16th century triggered the loss of the Lê Dynasty’s authority. This, in turn, led to the division of the country into North Vietnam, which was ruled by the Trịnh clan, and Central Vietnam, governed by the Quảng Nam Nguyễn clan. The letter shown here is a careful replica of the official letter that Nguyễn Hoàng (1525–1613), the ruler of the Quảng Nam Nguyễn clan, sent in 1604 to Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543–1616), who was then the highest authority in Japan.

An aggregate of 34 letters was exchanged between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the An Nam Quốc (15 from the Tokugawa Shogunate and 19 from the Quảng Nam clan), which made Vietnam one of the partner countries in the Asian region that the Tokugawa Shogunate corresponded with the most.

National Archives of Japan

184-0376 vol.2

2.  Gaiban Shokan: Illustration of a Red Seal Trading Ship

Just like the letter shown above, this is also an illustration from the Gaiban Shokan.

This picture describes a ship owned by Sotaro Araki, a successful trader who had dealings with An Nam and Thailand and was based at Nagasaki port. His insignia, depicted on the bow, was a combination of the letters “V,” “O,” and “C” in an upside-down version of the Dutch East India Company’s crest. It is said that Araki had adopted this emblem in an attempt to avoid being disturbed by other ships, including Dutch trading vessels. The appearance of Red Seal trading ships that went back and forth between Japan and the South East Asian countries is not well-recorded. Their vessels are reported to be an eclectic construct with a Chinese junk-ship-type hull, a western helm and aft, a Japanese front, etc. This illustration is quite valuable because it is a rare example that presents the characteristics of the Japanese Red Seal trading ships.

National Archives of Japan

184-0376 vol.1

3.  Woodblocks of the Nguyễn Dynasty (H28/3)

A woodblock (Mộc bản) is a plate of wood on which words are carved in Chinese or in Chữ nôm (a logographic writing system to transcribe the Vietnamese language) as a popular method of printing books at the time of the Nguyễn Dynasty. The collection of woodblocks from the Nguyễn Dynasty contains information that reflects many aspects of society under feudal dynasties in Vietnam's history. Before 1960, the collection was kept in Hue. It was transferred to Da Lat in 1960. From 1975, National Archives Center No. 4 under the State Records and Archives Department of Vietnam became the custodian of 34,618 woodblocks that are equivalent to 55,318 pages of records. These artifacts were inscribed in the International Register of the UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program in 2009 for their regional and international significance.

Many great history books, including the Đại Nam thực lục (Chronicle of Đại Nam), Đại Nam nhất thống chí (Gazetteer of Đại Nam), Khâm định Việt sử thông giám cương mục (The Imperially Ordered Annotated Text Completely Reflecting the History of Viet), can be found in the collection of woodblocks.

The Chronicle of Đại Nam, compiled by the Historiographer’s Office from the second year of Minh Mạng’s reign (1821) to the third year of Duy Tân’s rule (1909), is the most important historical record of the Nguyễn Dynasty. It consists of two parts: the first, Đại Nam thực lục Tiền biên began documentation in 1821 and was completed in 1884. It provides information on the annals of nine Nguyễn Lords.

The fourth page of the second volume of the Tiền biên mentions Lord Nguyễn Phuc Nguyên's order to purchase red copper carried on Japanese trading vessels in 1617: “Since there is no copper deposit found in the Thuận Quảng area, the local government should purchase red copper carried on trading ships from Fujian, Guangdong, and Japan, at a price of 40 to 50 ligatures of sapèques per kilogram.”

National Archives Center No.4

4.  Mikikigusa: The Copy of the Red Seal for Foreign Trade

The Mikikigusa is a miscellany of 1,800 materials compiled into 170 volumes and edited by Seishin Miyazaki, a Tokugawa Shogunate official. He spent over 30 years from around 1830 in its completion. The book shown here is his original manuscript.

The Copy of the Red Seal for Foreign Trade contains the history of a successful Red-seal ship trader, Sotaro Araki, and his descendants and includes a replica of a Red Seal letter that Itaro (the great-grandson of Sotaro) handed back to the authorities. According to the account, Sotaro went on many voyages to An Nam and gained the Nguyễn clan’s trust. He took the Nguyễn clan’s daughter as his wife because he won a bet of “Go” (a board game using black and white stones) and brought her back to Japan, and their only daughter and their son-in-law succeeded the family business.

It was said that the Nguyễn’s daughter was loved by the citizens of Nagasaki who called her “Aniou-san.” Even now, during the Nagasaki Kunchi (a festival of the Nagasaki Suwa Shrine, nationally designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property), a float called “Aniou-san” reproduces the scene of the marriage festivities that occurred when Sotaro brought the Nguyễn’s daughter back to Japan. “Aniou” is said to be a derivation of the Vietnamese word “Anh Ơi,” which is to be used by a wife when she calls her husband.

National Archives of Japan
217-0034, vol.53

5.  Japanese Covered bridge in Hội An

Chùa Cầu is a pagoda attached to one side of a bridge that is about 18 meters long and spans a small creek in the ancient town of Hội An. This viaduct is called the “Japanese bridge” by the local community as it is said to have been built by Japanese traders in the 17th century. At the gate of the bridge’s pagoda, there is a relief that contains three words, Lai Viễn Kiều (the bridge of remote friends), the name that lord Nguyễn Phúc Chu gave to the pagoda at the time of his visit to Hội An in 1719. It is regarded as a uniquely designed Japanese bridge. The structure was classified as an emblem of Hội An and as a national historical and cultural vestige in 1990.

This photo of Chùa Cầu in Hội An was taken in 2003 by photographer Trương Công Ánh, a member of the Vietnam Association of Photographic Artists. It has been collected and preserved since 1997 by the Hội An Center for Monuments Management and Preservation.

Hội An Center for Monuments Management and Preservation

6.  Copper Coins Found in Hội An

These are copper coins considered to have been used by Japanese traders in and around the 17th century. The coins were discovered together with other artifacts such as pieces of Japanese pottery in various places of the ancient town of Hội An. Each coin measures 25 mm in diameter and weighs 3 grams. In its center, the coin has a square hole with a 5.5 mm side length. These are hand-crafted dark-yellow coins. On its front side are carved four Chinese characters, 元 豐 通 寶, 元 祐 通 寶, etc., that imply that the coins were cast in the Northern Song dynasty of China. Such Chinese coins are often discovered from medieval archaeological sites in Japan.

The artifacts are exhibited in the Hội An museum. This photo has been collected and preserved since 1997 by the Hội An Center for Monuments Management and Preservation.

Hội An Center for Monuments Management and Preservation

7.  Woodblocks of Nguyễn Dynasty (H28/6)

Nguyễn Dynasty woodblocks are among the most precious and valuable archival collections belonging to the State Records and Archives Department of Vietnam.

Apart from official literary texts and the history of the Nguyễn Dynasty, the woodblocks also represent classic and historical books that were collected from the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu, the oldest university in Vietnam) in Hanoi and transferred to the Imperial College (Quốc Tử Giám) in Hue under the reigns of Minh Mạng (1820–1840) and Thiệu Trị (1841–1847).

The woodblocks serve as a reliable source of historical material and aid in the study, comparison, and review of relevant documentary sources. They facilitate research in varied fields, including foreign relations.

With reference to Vietnamese–Japanese relations, the 22nd page of the 5th volume of the Chronicle Đại Nam Thực Lục Tiền Biên refers to Japanese trading vessels engaged in commercial operations in Gia Định and Biên Hòa provinces in 1679: “Warships commanded by (Duong) Ngạn Địch and Hoàng Tiến came to the Bàn Lân hamlet (now in Biên Hòa province) via the Lôi Lạp estuary (now in Gia Định province). They reclaimed fallow land and built towns where trading vessels from the Qing Empire, western countries, Japan, and Java flocked.” This excerpt suggests that trading ships which called themselves “Japanese” vessels visited this area even after the Tokugawa Shogunate applied its isolation policy in 1639.

National Archives Center No.4

8.  Census Records (Minh Hương Village in Hội An): Extract from the Land Register of Minh Hương Village in Hội An

The extract from the land register of Minh Hương (明鄉) village in Hội An, established in the first year of Thiệu Trị’s reign (1841), mentions the location and measurements of a piece of land owned by a man named 泉 屋 氏 適 who seems to be a Japanese. Minh Huong is a village established by the Chinese who were engaged in commercial activities in Hội An. Nowadays, it is located within the Minh An ward, Hội An city, Quảng Nam province.

This record has been collected and preserved since 1997 by the Hội An Center for Monuments Management and Preservation.

Hội An Center for Monuments Management and Preservation


There are reports from the late 18th century of three consecutive incidents of Japanese fishermen drifting ashore on An Nam. During a period when overseas information was very limited because of the isolationist policy instituted by the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japanese intellectuals recorded these incidents in books to describe Vietnam of that time. Through these stories, we can see the evidence of social systems such as the Qing Dynasty’s repatriation program for drifters, said to be established in the middle of the 18th century; the actual role of Chinese traders in the arrangement; and the protection of drifters by the “King” of An Nam. Simultaneously, the Japanese government also safely sent Vietnamese drifters back to their homeland. From these testimonies, we can see the institutional mechanisms and networks that prevailed in East and South East Asia during that period.

1.  The Imperial Records of the Nguyễn Dynasty Vol. 3 - Gia Long "Report on Drifting"

Châu bản (archival chronicles of the Nguyễn Dynasty) are official administrative records compiled by the Nguyễn court from 1802 to 1945. They contain the signatures of Nguyễn emperors.

Initially preserved in the storage room of the Nguyễn Cabinet, the Châu bản were subsequently transferred to Hue University before being moved to Da Lat in 1961. From 1978, the Archives Department at the Prime Minister’s Office (now the State Records and Archives Department of Vietnam) was in charge of this collection. The compilation was listed in the Asia-Pacific Register in 2014 and in the International Register in 2017 as part of the UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program.

The report cited here is one of the manuscripts in the collection of the Nguyễn Dynasty’s archives. It was dated the 10th December of the 16th year of Gia Long’s reign (1817) and was assembled by Lê Tông Chất, the Imperial Delegate for the Northern region. This document relates to five soldiers who drifted ashore to Japan while travelling from Gia Định to the Capital (Hue).

According to the report, the group of soldiers left Gia Định around mid-1815 and drifted ashore to Japan shortly thereafter. Although there is no information about the exact place where they arrived in Japan, the report shows that they were rescued by local officials and residents. Owing to the Japanese support, they were able to return to Vietnam via China through the Trấn Nam Quan border gate in 1817.

National Archives Center No.1


2.  An'nan-koku Hyoryu-ki

An'nan-koku Hyoryu-ki is an account on drifters. It was compiled in 1767 by a geologist named Sekisui Nagakubo (1717–1801), who heard the testimonies of those who lost their way at sea. The document cited here is a transcript donated to the Shoheizaka Gakumonjo (a shogunate school) after 1810 in the course of the school’s attempts to collect topographies, travel records, etc. The transcript later became a part of the collections in the Cabinet Library.

The book describes the crew of Himemiya-maru who tried to sail back to their homeport located in the area known in the present as the Ibaraki Prefecture. Instead, the ship drifted ashore to Vietnam in 1765. Likewise, the sailors of the Sumiyoshi-maru who were navigating to what is now Fukushima Prefecture lost their way and reached Vietnam in 1766. Both groups eventually met in Hội An and were finally able to return to Japan. The account states that they tried to communicate with locals using Chinese characters and headed toward Hội An, where the Japanese town had once existed. There, they encountered two Chinese merchants who spoke Japanese. One of the merchants helped the drifters travel back to Japan on a Nanjing trader’s ship.

National Archives of Japan


3.  Nanhyou-ki

Nanhyou-ki is another narrative concerning drifters. It was recorded by Ryushiken Seishi (birth and death year unknown) and published in 1798. It described that the crew of Daijo-maru, whose homeport was in the current Miyagi Prefecture, drifted ashore on An Nam and returned to Japan the next year. Because the book contained foreign information, the author applied a fictional style and gave the sailors imaginary names to avoid difficulties due to the existent policy of isolation. Nevertheless, the book was banned in the year following its publication. According to the ownership stamps, this book was first purchased by Kenkado Kimura (1736–1802), a famous book collector of that time. It was re-purchased by the Library Department of the Ministry of Interior in 1880 and was afterward transferred to the Cabinet Library.

The book narrates that the crew entered South Vietnam in September 1794 after being lost at sea for three months. The sailors were taken to the “King’s Castle,” where they received an audience with the king. The monarch gave them five kan of coins and two bags of rice and offered support if necessary. The king referred to here is Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, a descendant of the Quảng Nam Nguyễn clan, who was based in the “King’s Castle” of Gia Định (later Saigon, the current Hochiminh City). Later, he conquered the entire country of Vietnam and became its first emperor in 1802. Afterward, he was known as Gia Long of the Nguyễn Dynasty. After the meeting with Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, the sailors were sent to Guangdong on a Macau trader’s ship, and from there, they were brought to Nagasaki via Zhapu by Chinese officials. Nanhyou-ki explains not only the sequence of events but also the geography, culture, products, and languages of An Nam and China in detail.

National Archives of Japan


4.  An'nan Kiryaku-kou

An'nan Kiryaku-kou is a miscellany that was assembled by Juzo Kondo (1771~1829), an official of the Nagasaki Magistrate. The two-volume book describes An Nam’s history, customs, language, geography, and so forth. The author also worked as a librarian of the Momijiyama Library (the Tokugawa Shogun’s library) between 1808 and 1819. He was well known as a geographer and bibliographer who had written 1,500 volumes of books in his lifetime. The book shown here is a part of the transcripts published in Gaikoku Kibun. The book was donated to the Shoheizaka Gakumonjo (a shogunate school) when the school was collecting topographies and travel records. It was later added to the collection of the Cabinet Library.

The Daijo-maru drifters’ tale described in Nanhyoki is also recorded in this book. The pages cited here introduce what Genzaburo, one of the drifters, saw in An Nam. Japanese officials, who recognized that Genzaburo had a talent for painting, ordered him to draw pictures. Various phenomena such as the landscape of Tây Sơn where the drifters landed, the ships by which they were taken to the capital, and the castle of “King” Nguyễn Phúc Ánh (Emperor Gia Long), as well as the Annamese people, are recorded in this account.

National Archives of Japan
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