Yamada Nagamasa

Yamada Nagamasa bigraphy, stories - Japanese explorer

Yamada Nagamasa : biography

1590 – 1630

Yamada Nagamasa was born in Numazu in 1590. He is said to have been a palanquin bearer of the lord of Numazu. He became involved in Japanese trade activities with South-East Asia during the period of the Red seal ships and settled in the kingdom of Ayutthaya (modern-day Thailand) from around 1612.

Japanese settlement in southeast Asia

Yamada Nagamasa lived in the Japanese quarters of Ayutthaya, home to another 1,500 Japanese inhabitants (some estimates run as high as 7,000). The community was called "Ban Yipun" in Thai, and was headed by a Japanese chief nominated by Thai authorities. It seems to have been a combination of traders, Christian converts who had fled their home country following the persecutions of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, and unemployed former samurai who had been on the losing side at the battle of Sekigahara:

The Christian community seems to have been in the hundreds, as described by Padre Antônio Francisco Cardim, who recounted having administered sacrament to around 400 Japanese Christians in 1627 in the Thai capital of Ayuthaya ("a 400 japoes christaos").Ishii Yoneo, "Multicultural Japan" Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-00362-8

The colony was active in trade, particularly in the export of deer-hide to Japan in exchange for Japanese silver and Japanese handicrafts (swords, lacquered boxes, high-quality papers). They were noted by the Dutch for challenging the trade monopoly of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The colony also had an important military role in Thailand. Yamada Nagamasa is alleged to have carried on the business of a corsair or pirate from the period of 1620, attacking and plundering Dutch ships in and around Batavia (present day Jakarta). Stories of Yamada burying his treasure on the East Coast of Australia persist but it is highly unlikely that Yamada would have ventured along the east coast of Australia and, in particular, Magnetic Island off Townsville, as there were no trade routes in this region and the only ships to venture to this region were the ones blown off course during the summer storms. This is speculative, however: Yamada would have passed thousands of islands in the Torres Straits and Coral sea and these would have provided safe keeping for any treasure and avoided a very long recovery voyage in the future.

Military involvement and lordship

The army of Yamada Nagamasa in Thailand. The Japanese colony was highly valued for its military expertise, and was organized under a "Department of Japanese Volunteers" (Krom Asa Yipun) by the Thai king.

In the space of fifteen years, Yamada Nagamasa rose from the low Thai nobility rank of Khun to the senior of Ok-ya, his title becoming Ok-ya Senaphimuk (Thai : ออกญาเสนาภิมุข). He became the head of the Japanese colony, and in this position supported the military campaigns of the Thai king Songtham, at the head of a Japanese army flying the Japanese flag. He fought successfully, and was finally nominated Lord of The World (modern Nakhon Si Thammarat), in the southern peninsula in 1630, accompanied by 300 samurai.

Travels between Siam and Japan

Yamada Nagasama’s fighting ship, 17th century painting After more than twelve years in Siam, Yamada Nagamasa went to Japan in 1624 onboard one of his ships, where he sold a cargo of Siamese deer hide in Nagasaki. He stayed in Japan for three years, trying to obtain a Red Seal permit, but finally left in 1627, with the simple status of a foreign ship.

In 1626, Nagamasa offered a painting of one of his fighting ships to a temple of his hometown in Shizuoka. That painting was lost in a fire, but a copy of it remains to this day. It portrays a ship with Western-style rigging, 18 cannons, and sailors in samurai gear. He returned to Siam in 1627.

In 1628, one of his ships transporting rice from Ayutthaya to Malacca was arrested by a Dutch warship blockading the city. The ship was released once the identity of the owner became clear, since the Dutch knew that Yamada was held in great respect by the King of Siam, and they did not wish to enter into a diplomatic conflict. Yamada was also valued by the Dutch as a supplier of deer hide, and they invited him to trade more with Batavia (Accounts of the castle of Batavia, March 1, 1628).

In 1629, Yamada Nagamasa visited Japan with an embassy from the Thai king Songtham.

He soon travelled back to Siam, but became involved in a succession war following the death of the King Songtham. He was wounded in combat in 1630, and then apparently poisoned through his wound, which led to his death.

End of relations between Siam and Japan

Following Yamada’s death in 1630, the new ruler and usurper king of Siam Prasat Thong (1630–1655) sent an army of 4000 soldiers to destroy the Japanese settlement in Ayutthaya, but many Japanese managed to flee to Cambodia. A few years later in 1633, returnees from Indochina were able to re-establish the Japanese settlement in Ayutthaya (300-400 Japanese).

From 1634, the Shogun, informed of these troubles and what he perceived as attacks on his authority, refused to issue further Red Seal ship permits for Siam.

Desirous to renew trade however, the king of Siam sent a trading ship and an embassy to Japan in 1636, but the embassies were rejected by the Shogun, thus putting an end to direct relations between Japan and Siam. Japan was concomitantly closing itself to the world at that time, a period known as Sakoku. The Dutch took over the lucrative Siam-Japan trade from that time on.

Nagamasa now rests in his hometown in the area of Otani. The remnants of the Japanese quarters in Ayutthuya are still visible to visitors, as well as a statue of Yamada in Siamese military uniform.

Film adaptations of Yamada’s life

  • The Gaijin (山田長政 王者の剣) – 1959
  • Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya – 2010