- Four centuries ago, a Portuguese missionary found himself in a distant land journaling about a mysterious figure.
He lives in a grand fortress and possesses many retainers, holdings, and ships that continually fly across the waves.
He is so powerful that all pay him annual tribute out of fear that he will destroy them.
He wasn't talking about Blackbeard or Sam Bellamy.
He was talking about Noshima Murakami Takeyoshi, one of the great sea lords of Japan.
The self-proclaimed sea lords were just as vital to Medieval Japan as Samurai, Shogun, or Daimyo.
For 200 years, nearly everything that made its way in or out of the island nation had to go through them.
They held immense political power and helped integrate Japan into the early global economy.
Yet during their reign, they were called pirates, bandits, smugglers.
Labels meant to stigmatize them as outsiders.
So who were these sea lords really?
I'm Joel Cook, and this is Rogue History.
[bright music] Unless you watch One Piece, you've probably never heard of the sea lords.
That's right, One Piece fans.
We see you, we hear you, we love you.
For the rest of you, sit tight.
It'll be well worth it.
Japan is made up of around 7,000 islands linked together by sea lanes.
The most important of these is the Seto Inland Sea, which for centuries connected Japan's medieval capital, Kyoto, to the western islands and the rest of Asia.
Even today, it remains extremely important for Japanese maritime commerce.
During the medieval era, ships carry goods like silk, salt, fish, indigo, and rice along this maritime highway.
At a time when people relied on sailing vessels to transport foreign goods, few were brave enough to navigate the inland sea's fierce tides, narrow waterways, and shallow reefs.
Adding to the natural dangerous present were human ones, pirates.
And lots of them.
Mariners sailed through Japanese waters in constant fear of who might approach them.
Today, Japan might deploy its navy or maritime self-defense force to protect imports and exports.
But in that era, it didn't exist.
Specifically, from the 14th to the 16th centuries, this lack of oversight allowed enterprising sea lords to set up shop on nearby islands with a few narrow choke points available for safe navigation.
They created toll barriers and charged for entry into their zones of control.
They also profited from the protection business, escorting merchant vessels through perilous waters in exchange for money and goods.
Now I can hear you thinking, but wait, I thought the sea lords were the pirates not a defenses against the pirates.
Well, they were both.
By frequently raiding merchant ships, they created demand for their protection services.
You may have seen a similar racket scheme in pop culture depictions of the mafia.
- Your weekly dues to us will give you all the supplemental safety net you'll ever need.
- I can't authorize anything like that.
It'd have to go through corporate in Seattle.
- How do you think corporate would feel if, for the sake of argument, someone threw a brick through your window?
- And while many people at the time considered these sea fairs pirates, they didn't see themselves that way.
They presented themselves as sea lords to project a sense of legitimacy.
In fact, throughout history, there's no objective or even consistent definition of a pirate.
It was often a name assigned by their rivals or victims.
Let's take a step back.
What was happening in Japan at the time that opened the door for the sea lords to rise to power?
In the 14th century, mainland Japan was governed by a futile system.
While the emperor was technically at the top, the real power was held by the Shogun who commanded the military.
Beneath them were the Daimyo, powerful lords who presided over the land.
By the 15th century, the emperor and the Shogun were struggling to enforce their authority.
As ruling families wrestled for power, the nation split into various autonomous regions.
From 1467 to 1600, Japan was in a near constant state of civil war.
A time known as the Sengoke Jidai, or the warring states period.
Land managers operating along the shores saw these sweeping changes as a chance to seize power.
They recruited local sea merchants, naval mercenaries, and expert navigators, forming loyal bands of followers.
With increased numbers and no one to report to, they rebranded.
Laying claim to the Inland Sea, the sea lords started acting autonomously.
They built massive floating sea castles, adorned them with intricate woodwork, and defended them with bows and arrows, grenades, and the occasional canon.
They even enjoyed aristocratic art forms like poetry and tea ceremonies as well as other cultural traditions.
Both men and women participated in sea lord operations.
Lower class women served as infantry, merchants, and toll collectors.
While women in the upper echelons engaged in discussions about policy.
In time, those on the mainland came to rely on the sea lords for a wide range of tasks.
From commerce to the fighting of sea battles and the protection of foreign envoys.
But no matter how hard they tried, people on land were skeptical.
At this time in Japan, land ownership equaled respect and power.
You know what's hard to own?
As a result, the sea lords weren't nearly as respected or as prominent as land lords.
Take a poll of other people living in Japan at the time and you might hear the sea lords condemned as kaizoku, pirates, or reduced to the more vague term ama, sea people.
Landlubbers gonna landlub.
But one family of sea lords was able to make a real and respectable name for themselves.
Active in the 16th century, Noshima Murakami Takeyoshi of the Noshima Sea Lord family was arguably the greatest Japanese pirate, sea lord, of all time.
Over many generations, the Noshima family built connections in the Inland Sea.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, they began enrolling sailors into pirate bands in launching attacks on unassuming merchant ships.
At the same time, they used their vast maritime network to curry favor among ruling elites.
When land-based Daimyo wanted to eliminate pirate forces affecting their commerce, the Noshima family could recruit naval mercenaries to do the job.
What the Daimyo didn't know was that those pesky pirates were likely hired by the Noshima family in the first place.
Takeyoshi learned a lot from the way his family did business.
Under his leadership, the Noshima lord switched sides at least 10 times and in some instances fought for multiple sides in the same conflict.
He also married the daughter of another sea lord house uniting their families and their resources.
But what set Takeyoshi apart from all the other sea lords wasn't his family or political schemes.
It was this flag.
You're probably familiar with the infamous Jolly Roger flag that induced terror in the golden age of piracy.
But more than 100 years earlier, Takeyoshi invented his own version that would enforce his fleet's reputation even further.
Visible from a distance atop the mast head as floating signposts, these flags accomplished the otherwise impossible task of marking territory and the fluid medium of the ocean.
The Noshima sea lords threatened incoming ships with violence if they didn't display the Noshima flag.
Anyone who wanted to pass through freely had to pay Takeyoshi and get his permission to fly the flag.
With a consolidation of the Japanese government at the end of the 16th century, Takeyoshi surrendered his islands in power in the Inland Sea in exchange for a position as an admiral under the Mori Daimyo family.
In the last 15 years of his life, Takeyoshi oversaw the dramatic transformation of his family from autonomous sea lords into vassals or landholders who have pledged allegiance to futile lords in Japan's new, early modern regimes.
From then on, his family aided in solidifying Japan and ushering in a period of peace.
In the centuries since his death, Takeyoshi's descendants have worked with generations of scholars to rewrite the story of the Noshima sea lords, ensuring they would go down in history as Suigun, loyal naval vessels.
Not the powerful autonomous sea lords they actually were.
Today's Suigun heritage instills regional pride and channels the exciting history of Japanese pirates.
You can even take a local ride in the straits around Noshima Island or visit the Murakami Pirate Museum.
But despite how fondly they're remembered nowadays, medieval Japanese society never overcame prejudice towards those they othered as sea people.
Shifting power structures and biased sources have always skewed our perspective of historical figures.
Whether we like it or not, outlaws played a heavy hand in shaping our world today.
It wasn't always as clear as bad people versus good people.
All of this begs the question, how would history look different without people like Noshima Murakami Takeyoshi and the other sea lords?
[gentle bright music] ♪