Early Japanese Slavery

Shibari News

To understand the real origins of Japanese bondage, also known as Shibari or kinbaku, we have to understand early Japanese slavery. For this, we will have to travel back in time to the 3rd century AD. This is when Japan had an official slave system during the Yamato period. At this time, masters referred to slaves as Seiko or “living mouth.” There are Chinese historical records from export slavery from Japan. However, it is unclear what system there was and if it was a rather common practice at the time.

After the Portuguese first made contact with Japan in 1543, a large-scale slave trade developed. In it, the Portuguese purchased Japanese as slaves in that same country and sold them to various overseas locations, including Portugal itself. The Portuguese purchased large numbers of Japanese girls to bring to their own country for sexual purposes. Sebastian Portugal banner this exchange in 1571.

Early Japanese Slavery and Hideyoshi

These traders occasionally sold Japanese woman as concubines to African crew members. This occurred along with their European counterparts serving on Portuguese ships who were trading in Japan. Some slaves even became slaves themselves to other slaves when the Portuguese brought Japanese to Macau. Hideyoshi, a Japanese “daimyō” and politician of the late Sengoku period, became very disgusted at this practice. He was against of his Japanese people were being sold in mass into slavery on Kyushu, “which is the most southern and third largest island of Japan’s five main islands.”

So much so that he wrote a letter to Jesuit Cive Provincial Gaspar Coelho. In it, he demanded that the Portuguese, Siamese and Cambodians stop purchasing and enslaving Japanese. Furthermore, he ordered their immediate return home. Hideyoshi blamed the Portuguese and Jesuits for this slave trade and banned Christian proselytizing as a result.

But the Japanese Weren’t the Only Ones

The Portuguese also mixed up some Korean slaves in this trade, and bought them. These people had been prisoners of war transported to Japan during the Invasions of Kore from 1592 to 1598. The strange thing here is that Hideyoshi himself, who expressed his indignation and outrage to the Portuguese, engaged in the mass slave trade of Korean prisoners of war in Japan. But the Portuguese referred to Asian slaves (that is, Japanese, and Chinese) as much more than slaves. They attributed qualities like intelligence and industriousness.

Early Japanese Slavery: Conclusions

Now we’re in Portugal, 1595. The law finally passed on banning the selling and buying of Chinese and Japanese slaves. Nevertheless, forms of contract and indentured labor persisted alongside the period of penal codes and forced labor.

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