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The History and Culture of Hirado

Hirado, a port city that developed on international shipping routes

In the Hirado region, many remains from the Old Stone Age can be found. Based on the characteristics of the excavated stone tools it is believed that some groups of people migrated here from the Korean Peninsula. During the Jomon Period (14.000 BC - 300 BC) the area was gradually settled and fishing activities for marine products such as fish, shellfish, and seaweed developed. The characteristics of the earthenware and stoneware pieces confirm that there was interaction with the Korean Peninsula during this period as well.

In the Yayoi Period (300 BC - 250 AD), rice cultivation in paddy fields was introduced from the Asian continent. At the Satotabaru excavation site, many wooden tools related to farming have been excavated along with the remains of actual paddy fields. In Neshiko village on the west coast of Hirado Island, shell rings made from southern sea snails were excavated, suggesting that there was interaction with the Okinawa and Amami Islands in southern Japan.

Two keyhole shaped mounds which are representative of the burial mound culture of this period can be found in the Tabira area as well as many smaller circular mounds on Ikitsuki Island, Azuchi-Oshima Island, Takushima Island, and the northern part of Hirado Island. The raised keyhole shaped burial mounds suggest a relationship with the central Japanese Yamato regime, and the small circular mounds on Ikitsuki Island are thought to be the tombs of leaders from groups involved in maritime trading and/or fishing.

From the 7th century onward, the Yamato Imperial Court initiated active contact with China, dispatching envoys to the Chinese Sui and Tang Dynasties. Initially, they used the northern route along the western coast of the Korean Peninsula. However, after the 7th envoy in 702 AD, they began to use the southern route from Hakata Bay to Hirado and the Goto Islands, after which they crossed the East China Sea directly to mainland China.

In 894 AD the Japanese envoys to the Tang Dynasty were discontinued by Sugawara no Michizane. However, by this time exchange between Japan and China had shifted from state envoys to private maritime traders from Korea and China. The merchant ships of these countries were influenced by the Islamic trading vessels that sailed on China. With high navigational capabilities they were able to navigate more safely along the routes opened by the Japanese state envoys to the Tang Dynasty. For the next 800 years, the southern route served as the main passageway between Japan and China, carrying people, goods, and culture between the two countries.

The northern and southern routes to China

The southern route starts in Hakata, passing through Hirado and the Goto Islands, before terminating in Ningbo in China. Chinese merchant ships went back and forth on this route every year, carrying monks and scholars as well as a variety of cultural influences between the two countries. Many Chinese settled in Hakata and Hirado, engaging in trade related businesses.

Many Chinese anchor stones have been found along this route in trading ports such as Hirado. In the center of Hirado, a temple was also set up dedicated to Shoho Shichiro, a Chinese god of navigation revered during the Song and Yuan dynasties.

Pictured right: a Chinese anchor stone found in Hirado port
Festivals throughout the year at the Shichiro Shrine
copyright Matsura Historical Museum)

From the Song dynasty onward, China began to use gunpowder weapons to fight the Mongol Empire to the north. Among the 3 main raw materials for gunpowder (saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur), sulfur could not be obtained in China. Therefore, it was traded from Japan where it was mined on the volcanic Kikai Island off the southern tip of Kyushu and transported up the western coast of Kyushu and then to China using the southern route. During this time, small stone pagodas and Chinese guardian lions made of tuff stone from near Ningbo were erected around Hakata, Hirado Island, and the southern Satsuma Peninsula, where they still remain today. In Hirado, they can be found at Mt. Shijiki, Mt. Yasumandake, and a former seaside temple in the Tabira area. They are believed to have been dedicated by Chinese sea traders at esoteric mountain temples.

After the end of the Heian period (794-1185), monks such as Eisai, the founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, and Dogen, the founder of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism, traveled to Song China to practice Zen Buddhism. The network of Zen temples in Japan became influential in trade activities as many Zen temples were built along the southern route coastline, including Seifukuji Temple in Hakata in 1195 and others in Hirado. They played an important role in trade and diplomacy from then on through to the last Japanese envoys to Ming China in the 16th century.

During the Kamakura and Nanbokucho periods (1185-1392), both Japan and China were affected by internal warfare, and the trade activities along the southern route were also affected. Threatening the economic base of ruling coastal groups that were dependent on trade activities in various ways, these clans turned to their own foreign activities. This may have be one factor for the emergence of Japanese pirates groups that ravaged the Korean coast during this period.

The Ming Dynasty, founded after the fall of the Yuan, prohibited private trade and established a tributary trading system involving the passage of official envoys between states. The Japanese Muromachi military government responded in kind, dispatching about 20 envoys between 1401 and 1549.

In the 1540’s and 1550’s, Chinese mercantile pirate groups actively traveled to Japan to trade in silver. The port of Hirado, which was located near the middle of the southern route, became their gateway to Japan, and the head of the Chinese pirates, Wang Zhi, set up his residence here.

In 1550, Portuguese ships arrived in Hirado for the first time. Francis Xavier, who had landed in Kagoshima the previous year, also visited Hirado to offer mass to the sailors. Missionary activities in Hirado were initially conducted individually around Hirado Port, but in 1558 and 1565, whole communities were converted on Ikitsuki Island, Takushima Island, and in the Koteda and Ichibu clan territories on the western shore of Hirado Island. Churches and crosses were built in the villages, and each group of believers held their own events and recited different prayers called “orasho”. Around 1600, a group on Ikitsuki Island started the common catholic way of worshiping the Holy Image, but the characteristic form of the local faith during that early period was maintained even during the age of Christian prohibition, and has been continued on to today's faith of the Kakure Kirishitan communities.

Kakure Kirishitan Faith
Holy object called Nandogam

In 1609, a Dutch ship arrived in Hirado and a Dutch trading post was established. The volume of trade with the Dutch increased dramatically in the 1630’s. In 1613, an English ship arrived at Hirado Port and an English trading post was also established in Hirado. Japanese red seal ships also sailed out from Hirado to various Asian empires. However, in 1641 the Dutch trading post was forced to move to Nagasaki by order of the Japanese military government and with Japan’s new closed-door policy, Hirado's 800-year history as an overseas trading port came to an end.

Established in the 9th century and in use until the early 17th century, the southern route between Hakata and Ningbo has long served as Japan's most important passageway to the outside world. Hirado served as an important transit port on this route, and was therefore continuously influenced by different cultures. As an international hub these influences spread from Hirado to other areas of Japan. Many of these influences, whether they are stone arch building techniques, foreign sweets or others, accumulated as new elements to the indigenous traditional culture and livelihood. The remnants of these foreign influences have been carried over to the present day as part of the local identity.

Hirado port acted as an international gateway
Hirado Dutch Trading Post
Stone arch building technique (Saiwai Bridge aka Dutch Bridge)
European influenced sweets (Casdouce)