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Reframes medieval Japan through the perspective of seafarers, a novel supplement to conventional land-based analyses


Lords of the Sea revises our understanding of the epic political, economic, and cultural transformations of Japan’s late medieval period (ca. 1300–1600) by shifting the conventional land-based analytical framework to one centered on the perspectives of seafarers who, though usually dismissed as "pirates," thought of themselves as sea lords. Over the course of these centuries, Japan’s sea lords became maritime magnates who wielded increasing amounts of political and economic authority by developing autonomous maritime domains that operated outside the auspices of state authority. They played key roles in the operation of networks linking Japan to the rest of the world, and their protection businesses, shipping organizations, and sea tenure practices spread their influence across the waves to the continent, shaping commercial and diplomatic relations with Korea and China. Japan's land-based authorities during this time not only came to accept the autonomy of "pirates" but also competed to sponsor sea-lord bands who could administer littoral estates, fight sea battles, protect shipping, and carry trade. In turn, prominent sea-lord families expanded their dominion by shifting their locus of service among several patrons and by appropriating land-based rhetorics of lordship, which forced authorities to recognize them as legitimate lords over sea-based domains. By the end of the late medieval period, the ambitions, tactics, and technologies of sea-lord mercenary bands proved integral to the naval dimensions of Japan’s sixteenth-century military revolution. Sea lords translated their late medieval autonomy into positions of influence in early modern Japan and helped make control of the seas part of the ideological foundations of the state.

Peter D. Shapinsky is an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois, Springfield. His research interests include the maritime history of medieval Japan, intercultural exchange in premodern East Asia, and cross-cultural cartography i

"In step with the maritime turn in global history, Lords of the Sea takes readers down to the shore for a fresh look at Japan in the heyday of the samurai. Reading against the grain of a terracentric archive, Shapinsky demonstrates beyond a doubt the importance of sea power to late medieval Japanese society—as well as to the consolidation of an early modern order, in the archipelago and beyond. Essential reading."—Kären Wigen, Stanford University

"Lords of the Sea makes a number of important contributions. It is the first book-length monograph on this topic in English, and it covers the topic thoroughly, placing Japanese pirates in an appropriate late medieval/early modern context that will be useful to scholars studying other parts of the world. The research draws on an impressive list of primary materials, making this volume the obvious starting point for any future research into piracy in Japan. But surely the book’s greatest strength lies in its treatment of sources, revealing how various biases have led to obfuscation of sea lords and their roles in late medieval Japan. Shapinsky demonstrates convincingly that most premodern sources assumed the propriety of land-based authority—something he labels 'terracentrism'—and that they overlooked or mischaracterized the actions of others, including those on the water. . . . Through his detailed research, effective integration of scholarship that addresses piracy in other parts of the world, and careful questioning of the hidden biases in primary sources, Shapinsky has produced a fine book that is sure to be of interest to specialists of medieval, early modern, and maritime studies."—Ethan Segal, H-Net Reviews

"This is a fine book: thoroughly researched across an impressive array of primary sources, covering the subject broadly and in depth, and meticulously set within the context of previous scholarship on both premodern Japan and piracy as a world historical phenomenon."
--Journal of Japanese Studies

- Karl Friday

"...an impressive study of sea power and state formation that resituates medieval Japanese history within a dynamic East Asian maritime world."
--Monumenta Nipponica

- Noell Wilson