Yamada Nagamasa (山田長政, 1590–1630) was a Japanese adventurer who engaged in trade between Japan and the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya. He rose to a prominent position in Ayutthaya and eventually became the governor of the Nakhon Si Thammarat in southern Thailand.

Yamada Nagamasa was born in Sumpu in Suruga province (modern-day Shizuoka City, Shizuoka Prefecture) in 1590. He is said to have been a palanquin bearer of the lord of Numazu. During the period of the Red Seal ships, he became involved in Japanese trade activities with Southeast Asia and settled in the kingdom of Ayutthaya around 1612.

Red-seal trade

Red seal ships (朱印船 shuinsen) were armed Japanese merchant vessels bound for Southeast Asian ports with a red-sealed patent issued by the early Tokugawa shogunate in the first half of the 17th century. Between 1600 and 1635, more than 350 Japanese ships went overseas under this permit system. The Red Seal system appears from at least 1592, under Hideyoshi, the date of the first known mention of the system in a document. The first preserved Shuinjō (Red Seal Permit) is dated to 1604, under Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first ruler of Tokugawa Japan. Tokugawa issued red-sealed permits to his favourite feudal lords and principal merchants interested in foreign trade. By doing so, he could control Japanese traders and reduce Japanese piracy in the South Sea. His seal also guaranteed the protection of the ships since he vowed to pursue any pirate or nation who would violate it.

Red-seal permits were also issued to European and Chinese traders. Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English ships and Asian rulers primarily protected Japanese red seal ships since they had diplomatic relations with the Japanese shōgun. Only Ming China had nothing to do with this practice because the Empire officially prohibited Japanese ships from entering Chinese ports.

The Japanese quarter in Ayutthaya

In the early seventeenth century, there was a settlement called Nihonmachi (日本町, Japan Town) in Japanese or "Baan Yipun" in Thai of at least 1,500 Japanese in the kingdom of Ayutthaya that was administrated by a Japanese chief nominated by Thai authorities. The inhabitants of the settlement originated from all walks of life: traders, Christian converts who had escaped from the Shogunate's persecution as well as the unemployed samurai (浪人 rōnin) who had been fighting on the side of the Toyotomi clan and lost in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600.

According to Portuguese padres, the Japanese colony consisted of hundreds of Christians who traded mainly in deer hides in exchange for Japanese silver and handicrafts (such as swords, lacquered boxes, and high-quality papers). The Japanese trade activities directly challenged the trade monopoly of the Dutch East India Company. It is said that Yamada Nagamasa engaged in piracy against Dutch merchant ships in Batavia. There is no doubt that the Japanese settlement served military purposes as well. Many Japanese warriors had married Thai women and served as elite troops in King Song Tham's bodyguard corps and as auxiliaries in the Siamese army.

The Rise and fall of Yamada

Yamada had been able to establish himself as a leader of the Japanese settlement and attained a senior Thai rank of nobility by actively supporting the military campaigns of the Thai king Song Tham. His military success secured him the position of "Lord of Ligor" in southern Thailand, where he established himself with 300 samurai. In 1624, he sailed back to Nagasaki, where he, in vain, tried to obtain a red-seal ("Vermillion") permit that would have allowed him to trade between Japan and Thailand under the shogun 's protection.

He returned to Ayutthaya in 1628. In the same year, his protector, King Song Tham, died, and he got involved in the war of succession. In 1630, he was wounded in combat and remained in Ligor to nurse his injuries. He died of poisoning through his wounds.

After his death, the new king and former opponent of Yamada's Prasat Thong (Phya Sriworawong) attacked and destroyed the Japanese settlement. Many Japanese managed to escape into Cambodia, and a few hundred of them returned in 1633.

Due to this incident, the shogun refused to issue any further red-seal permits and even rejected to meet a delegation of the King of Siam in 1636 that intended to renew the trade contacts between Thailand and Japan and the period of sagoku (鎖国, lit. "locked country) had begun.




Yamada Nagamasa in Western attire


SIZE=3]Portrait of Yamada Nagamasa around 1630 (Photo credit)[/SIZE]


A 1634 Japanese Red sealship incorporating Western-style sails, rudder and aft designs. The ships were typically armed with 6 to 8 cannons. Tokyo Naval Science Museum (Photo credit).


Statue of Yamada Nagamasa in Shizuoka City (formerly known as Sumpu), where he was born in 1590 (Photo: Japan Reference/JREF)]​

Recommended reading:

A fascinating account of the life and the times of a unique historical character: a mysterious Japanese merchant-warrior who made his fame and fortune in the bustling city of Ayutthaya in the early seventeenth century. His historical and fictional deeds have been narrated in Japan for over three hundred years. This study is the first published in English, combining all extant material about Yamada Nagamasa. The book casts light on this intriguing character and the historical landscape surrounding him during a unique period of Siamese and Japanese history.


Japanese Village in Ayutthaya, Thailand

Movie: Yamada - The Samurai of Ayothaya (2010)

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