|Section of the scroll painting 'Wakō-zukan (《倭寇図巻》)' currently kept at the University of Tokyo, depicting a Wokou raid.|
"About three-tenths are real Japanese, seven-tenths are followers."
— Ming Shi (《明史》, History of Ming)
Despite being called "Japanese pirates", Jia Jing Da Wo Kou were multinational. They were predominantly Chinese and were funded and directed by wealthy Chinese merchant-smugglers, but still contained significant numbers of Japanese and some Westerners.
However, nationality and ethnicity are only one piece of a much bigger picture, and it will be very ignorant to dismiss heavy Japanese involvement based on their numbers alone.
The fact that most Chinese merchant-smugglers lacked any sort of military experience had made battle-hardened Japanese warriors a welcome addition to Wokou ranks — and there was certainly no lack of experienced Japanese warriors due to the still ongoing Sengoku Jidai (戦国時代). Japanese members served as the military wing of the Wokou bands and did most of the fighting/pillaging, while their Chinese collaborators provided them with intelligence and non-combat workforce. Wokou "armies", whenever encountered by Ming forces, often displayed extremely strong Japanese military characteristics. The presence of equipment and items meant for high ranking samurai, such as good quality Japanese armours, ornate helmets with weird (from a Chinese point of view) decorations, war fans, conch horns, and Kage-ryū (影流 or 陰流) swordsmanship manual, all indicated that Wokou included significant number of Japanese warriors of high social standing (instead of just vagabonds and rōnin) among their ranks.
In fact, after most prominent Chinese Wokou leaders such as Wang Zhi (王直) and Xu Hai (徐海) were killed, Wokou raids actually took a turn for the worse. During the last years of Jiajing Emperor's reign (when Wokou activities reached its peak), Japanese Wokou increased in number and became the majority once again.
"Wokou are advantageous in sharp swords, sharp arrows and arquebuses. Now what can we use to counter them?"
— Ling Xi Yuan (林希元)
Japanese weapons had the reputations of being well-crafted and deadly, and were rightly feared by the Chinese. Chinese especially feared Japanese swords, particularly the ōdachi (大太刀). Many Wokou were notorious dual-wielders, using either two ōdachi or ōdachi paired with a short Japanese sword, possibly kodachi (小太刀) or wakizashi (脇差). Normal-sized Japanese swords were rarely seen or mentioned.
Although overshadowed by Japanese swords, the spears used by Wokou were no less deadly. Chinese sources do not distinguish between Chinese spears and Japanese yari (槍), but note the spears used by Wokou as extremely long and well made. Long spears allowed Wokou to outreach many Ming troops, such as Lang Bing (狼兵) and Tu Bing (土兵) that used short weapons, and defeat them with relative ease. Nevertheless, they were disadvantaged when facing Chinese troops armed with weapons of equal length, as Japanese method of spear handling (i.e. holding spear in the middle) put a limit on their reach.
Yumi (弓) and arquebus were the primary ranged weapons of Wokou. A Yumi was larger and launched heavier war arrows than the bows of South China. Karimata (カリマタ or 雁股, lit. 'Wild goose tail') arrowhead was frequently mentioned in Chinese texts, as well as arrowhead made from bone or bamboo. Wokou archers usually shot at close range to increase the accuracy and lethality of their arrows.
Wokou arquebusiers used both Japanese teppō (鉄砲) and Portuguese matchlocks. Some Wokou were even able to manufacture their own matchlock guns with helps from Portuguese gunsmiths among them. Despite this, Wokou still deployed more archers than arquebusiers, some Wokou bands were even devoid of firearms.
Other equipment of Wokou included shields improvised from wooden doors, siege equipment such as axes, pickaxes, battering rams, scaling ladders, siege towers, Yun Che (雲車, lit. 'Cloud cart', a movable cart used to spy on enemy city), as well as Chinese and Portuguese cannons. Wokou also adopted some Southern Chinese weapons, namely crossbows and Tang Pa (钂鈀). A throwing weapon known to the Chinese as Pa Qiang (鈀槍, possible translations include 'Rake spear' and 'dart'), possibly referring to kunai (苦無) was also mentioned in some Chinese texts.
Most Wokou fought unarmoured and bare footed. They seldom wore pants, and many went around in their undergarments or even completely naked. However, Wokou leaders were often armoured and mounted. Suo Zi Jia (鎖子甲) armour, possibly referring to heavy lamellar suit, was frequently mentioned in Chinese texts.
Organisation and Tactics
Ming Chinese understanding on the organisational structure of Wokou was understandably scarce. They were barely able to tell apart Japanese Wokou, which they called Zhen Wo (真倭, lit. 'Real Japanese') from their Chinese followers, which they called Cong Wo (從倭, lit. 'Wokou follower') or Cong Zei (從賊, lit. 'Enemy follower'). Wokou leaders were called Wo Shou (倭首, lit. 'Wokou head') or Wo Qiu (倭酋, lit. 'Wokou chieftain').
Wokou was not a single, unified entity, but rather a collective term describing numerous loosely connected (sometimes even hostile to each other) pirate groups. It was likely that their organisational structures varied from one group to another. Relationship between Chinese and Japanese Wokou was not of the superior-subordinate nature, but rather as collaborators.
As pirates, Wokou most often operated in small bands numbering from less than ten men to several hundred. In smaller bands, they were able to strike at undefended towns, then disperse before proper military response could be initiated. Masters of ambush and guerrilla warfare, Wokou were known to disguise as civilians, refugees or even Ming troops. They were able to set up ambush even without prior planning.
Even in small bands, Wokou were not afraid of taking numerical superior Ming armies head on. They often sent out several men to taunt at Ming troops, provoking them to waste away their ammunition or attack prematurely. Much like the Mongols, they would force captured civilians to run ahead of them, either to disrupt or demoralise Ming troops. Chinese sources mention them fought in an organised manner, deploying formations known as Hu Die Zhen (蝴蝶陣, lit. 'Butterfly formation') and Chang She Zhen (長蛇陣, lit. 'Long snake formation'). However these formations do not conform to any known Chinese or Japanese battle formations. Sometimes, but very rarely, Wokou would deploy cavalry and armoured troops.
Smaller bands of Wokou would often congregate into a large horde numbering several thousand to tens of thousand. They became a much more dangerous force, able to lay siege or even occupy large cities.
Although Wokou were much less numerous than the Mongols, Ming Chinese percieved them as no less a threat. Bei Lu Nan Wo (北虜南倭, lit. 'Japanese in the South, Mongol in the North') became a common saying during Ming period to denote the threats faced by Ming Dynasty. Unlike Mongol raids, which were seasonal and predictable to certain extent, Wokou raids could happen anytime and were almost completely unpredictable (although they too were influenced by the monsoon). Also, unlike Mongol raiders that would simply retreat once they gathered enough plunder, Wokou raiders infested China's coasts, raiding one place after another and gradually moving inland.
Wokou warriors were noted to be quick on their feet and unafraid of death, and would often fight to the last man, although they were not above retreating if the situation warranted. They were expert swordsmen and archers, and their martial capabilities became greatly feared and exaggerated by Chinese. Martial feats such as catching arrow with bare hands, breaking several spears with one sword slash or continue fighting after suffering numerous fatal wounds (even while on fire!) were abundance in Ming records.
Despite being pirates, Wokou were actually quite terrible at naval warfare, in part due to their smaller numbers and inferiority of Japanese ships. Naval engagement between Ming and Wokou almost always resulted in defeat for the Wokou. Most Wokou would simply burn down their own ships once they landed. They also preferred to use Chinese ships whenever possible, whether captured or provided by Chinese pirates.
Other blog posts about my Wokou series:
Enemy of the Ming — Jia Jing Da Wo Kou — Part 1
Enemy of the Ming — Jia Jing Da Wo Kou — Part 2
Enemy of the Ming — Jia Jing Da Wo Kou — Part 3