The 16th-century Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga was so good at murder that history —and with it, pop culture — tends to remember him mostly as a bloodthirsty killer. Whether that’s justified or not is up for debate. One unfortunate side effect it’s had is that nearly everyone has ignored all the other amazing things about this fascinating historical figure. Chief among them is his connection to Japanese pirates.

The Warring States and Pirates

In 1576, Nobunaga organized a sea blockade to cut off his enemies from vital supplies but was defeated during the first Battle of Kizugawaguchi in Osaka. It was here where his navy was burned down by the combined forces of the Mori clan and the Murakami pirates. The latter was the most powerful group of pirates operating on the Seto Inland Sea. They were more like sovereign rulers of their own naval domain than bandits. They were so powerful, historical sources often refer to them, not as kaizoku (“pirates”), but rather as suigun (literally “water army.”)

As an army they followed a strict set of rules, allowing ships to pass through their territory as long as everyone paid up and adhered to their laws. The group was made up of three clans including the Kurushima which sided with Oda Nobunaga. This caused the other two – Innoshima and Noshima – to denounce them. The animosity remained until 2013 when the historical-fiction book Murakami Kaizoku no Musume (“The Daughter of the Murakami Pirates”) was published. As part of the promotional tour, the author, Ryo Wada, helped to organize a meeting between the descendants of the three pirate clans. It gave them an opportunity to shake hands and reconcile 450 years after their fallout.

For years there has been talk of a Murakami Kaizoku no Musume movie yet nothing has materialized. Come to think of it, there are very few films about Japanese pirates. Often when pirates are included in a storyline, they tend to be relegated to supporting roles or kept in the background. Even Eiichiro Oda’s massively successful manga and anime series, One Piece, steers clear of Japanese history. It’s more of a fantasy story drawing on common pirate tropes than anything based on fact.  The most recent film on Japanese pirates was probably Kenichi Omori’s 2014 adventure flick “Setouchi Kaizoku Monogatari (also known as “Samurai Pirates”). While there are references to the Murakami naval force, it mostly takes place in modern times and is essentially just a Japanese version of The Goonies.

Why are there so few films covering one of the most exciting parts of Japanese history? Sadly, the answer might be because  “Japanese pirate” is still a sensitive, politically loaded term.


The Other Japanese Pirates

When you talk about “Japanese pirates” you must, of course, include the naval forces of the Seto Inland Sea, most notably the Wako (known as Wokou in Mandarin and Waegu in Korean). Like the Murakami clans, they were a powerful pirate force ruling over vast stretches of the sea and ocean. Yet, while the Murakami army was almost exclusively Japanese, the Wako were a confederacy of various nationalities and ethnicities. Along with Japanese pirates, there were many different groups from mainland China and Korea, indigenous Ainu of Hokkaido, Taiwanese Hakka and even some Portuguese. In fact, according to the Mingshi, an official chronicle of the Ming dynasty, only about a third of the Wako were Japanese. However, that’s not how the group is depicted in certain political circles. 

The Wako were active between the 4th and 16th century mainly in the Sea of Japan and often traded with China and Korea, yet some nationalist groups have been using them as a symbol to promote anti-Japanese rhetoric. They are portrayed as samurai who massacred villages but were ultimately defeated by the combined forces of China and Korea. In fact, if you look for art depicting the Wako, a surprisingly large amount portrays them as a purely Japanese force that is either engaging in battle with Chinese or Korean navies or laying down their weapons in front of them.

On the Japanese side, there have also been a number of right-wing nationalists who use the image of the Wako to stoke up either anti-Korean or anti-Chinese sentiment. Even the story of the Murakami pirates has been thrown on this pile once or twice, since their victory over Nobunaga resulted in the development of the first Japanese ironclads and this became the basis for the atakebune warships used during the invasion of Korea in the late 16th century.

It’s such a shame that the Wako have been misrepresented like this because their real history is fascinating. They were the ones who helped introduce guns to Japan. They were the ones who brought Francis Xavier here and he in turn introduced the country to Christianity. The Japanese Wako also most likely worshipped a female version of Hachiman, the God of War. Some theories even suggest that the old tradition of Okinawan hand-tattoos, which disappeared 120 years ago, was partially inspired by the Wako since they apparently had a habit of kidnapping Okinawan women and selling them to pleasure houses. Knowing that the pirates disliked women who sported ink, they would tattoo the back of their hands to evade capture. 

All of that would be more than enough material for hundreds of movies. Unfortunately, films featuring the Wako such as China’s God of War (2017) usually portray them as ruthless Japanese invaders. That could explain why Japan stays far away from pirate stories altogether, or why, when they do tackle them, they go with something that is completely fictional or has a fantastical plot like One Piece. Well, it is the best-selling comic of all time, so they must know what they’re doing. 


hakone pirate sjip Japanese pirate movie

The pirate ship themed cruise on Lake Ashi in Hakone

*Featured photo courtesy of (C) Eiichiro Oda / 2019 “One Piece” Production Committee