The Shuinsen Project

The Red-seals Ships in the Asian Settings: ‘State Letters’ and Envoys Sent To and From Japan in the Sixteenth and the Seventeenth Centuries

Members (specialties):

Matsukata Fuyuko (Leader:Early Modern Japan, Dutch and Japanese sources)
Harada Akiko (Papal States)
Hashimoto Yu (Medieval Japan; Chinese and Japanese sources)
Hasuda Takashi (Vietnam; Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese sources)
Kawaguchi Hiroshi (Siam/Thailand; mainly Thai sources)
Kimura Kanako (East Asia; mainly Chinese sources)
Okamoto Makoto (Medieval Japan; Chinese and Japanese sources)
Peng Ho (Early Modern Japan; Chinese and Japanese sources)
Shimizu Yuko (Early Modern Japan; Japanese and Spanish sources)

About the Shuinsen Project

Our Project:

In the autumn of 2013, the Historiographical Institute of the University of Tokyo exhibited its holdings related to Japan’s foreign relations. Among the items exhibited were manuscript copies of Khmer documents sent to Japan between the beginning of the seventeenth century and the middle of the eighteenth century. These are the only extant examples of written Khmer of this period in the world. Unfortunately, they are not the originals, but hand copies by Kondo Juzo, an eighteenth-century Japanese scholar. Kondo did not read Khmer, so he copied the shape of characters. Kitagawa Takako, an expert of Cambodian history, has deciphered them and translated them into both Japanese and English. Most of the letters were correspondence between the Tokugawa shogun in Japan and the Cambodian king. The letters from the Cambodian kings were written in Khmer and accompanied by Chinese copies, while the Tokugawa shogun sent only letters written in Chinese. Okamoto Makoto, a specialist in medieval Japanese history, helped Kitagawa by reading the Chinese letters. When they presented their findings at a symposium in Tokyo, I served as a commentator. That was beginning of our project.

Some of the letters mention the red-seal ships (shuin-sen). We realized that this sort of correspondence should be the basis for an understanding of the purpose of the red-seal passes.

Our intent is as follows:

First, we want to introduce a Southeast Asian perspective into the study of the red-seal passes (shuinjo). The Cambodian king asked the Tokugawa shogun to issue the passes in order to limit the number of Japanese junks visiting Cambodia, thus we have to see the origin of the pass system from the Southeast Asian side.
Second, we would like to know the common sense which the both sides shared in such exchange of letters.  In Japan, the word kokusho (state letter or diplomatic letter) is very familiar in diplomatic history, but its origins and evolution have yet to be subject to academic analysis. What, then, is a kokusho?
I now incline to believe that the foundation of diplomatic relations around the China Seas was not a system of exchange of diplomats, as in Europe in the same period. Instead, until the nineteenth century, formal relations were maintained through frequent correspondence between monarchs.
Kawaguchi Hiroshi, a historian of Thai history, introduced us to the prarachasan (king’s letters) exchanged between Vietnam and Siam in the nineteenth century. He supposes that this style of correspondence likely originated in the seventeenth century.

Third, we would like to explore the various functions that kokusho and passes (shuinjo) served, and to compare them with similar modes of communication employed elsewhere—for example, the Thai prarachasan or Portuguese cartaz.

To sum up, we would like to revisit the topic of red-seals ships by focusing on what the ships tell us about diplomatic and foreign relations rather than on the goods traded or issues of Japanese expansion.

My own concern is to describe how European newcomers in Asia interacted with Asian diplomatic structures. This line of inquiry was first opened around fifteen years ago by Leonard Blussé, who pointed out that Asian diplomatic tradition attached much greater ceremonial value to letters than was customary in Europe. I agree with Blussé at this point and would name it "letter diplomacy," but I would like to go further.

First, I would like to emphasize that "letter diplomacy" does not indicate a structure, either horizontal or vertical, but only a way of doing. Looking at historical practices based on sources, we would be able to anatomize the so-called "tributary system."

Second, "letter diplomacy" functioned often accompanied by a pass system. We should look at sites where the passes worked. The passes were issued sometimes for careers’ of letters, but sometimes also for merchants who did not bear diplomatic letters.

Third, I have a doubt for an understanding which compares Europe against Asia. In order to reach develop effective conclusions, multilateral comparisons and a greater understanding of intra-Asian diplomacy are essential. I hope our project will be fruitful for both Japanese history and global history.

Matsukata Fuyuko


松方 冬子(まつかた ふゆこ) 東京大学 史料編纂所 教授 博士 (文学) Professor,the University of Tokyo Ph.D.(the University of Tokyo, 2008)