In a blog post almost exactly three years ago, I summarized an April 2013 news article that indicated that a document had been discovered which was now the oldest known extant communication between Vietnam and Japan – dated to 1591, it beat the previously oldest known document, from 1601, by ten years. I mentioned in that same blog post that the newfound document would be included in an exhibition being held that summer at the Kyushu National Museum.
Well, I’ve now obtained a copy of the catalog to that exhibit (just from the library – not for me to own, sadly), and it is *gorgeous*. Lots of fantastic stuff – paintings of red seal ships, red seal licenses, objects from the collections of red seal captains, Vietnamese royal crowns, this 1591 letter, other letters exchanged between Vietnam and Japan at that time, not to mention some very nice essays about a range of aspects of Vietnamese history. I was particularly excited to finally learn more about that 1591 document. I know it’s a super obscure one thing, but I think this letter is pretty exciting. And, hopefully, Hideyoshi fans will find it exciting as well.
Here is my rough translation of the catalog entry for the 1591 letter, with my own comments interspersed:
This is the oldest [extant] letter from Vietnam to Japan. It is addressed to “the King of Japan” 日本国国王, from 安南国副都堂福義侯阮, (a lengthy title that I don’t fully know / understand, but) which probably refers to Nguyen Hoang (d. 1613), who would later become lord of Quang Nam / Cochinchina, the southern/central part of Vietnam, and who would also initiate relations with Tokugawa Ieyasu in a 1601 letter previously believed to be the oldest such communication, before this one was discovered in 2013.
The content is, roughly, as follows: the previous year, someone named Chen Liangshan 陳梁山 came, and because I [he?] had heard that the King of Japan liked male elephants, I entrusted him with one. The ship was small, and he [we?] couldn’t get the elephant onto the ship, so we sent [instead] favored incense and the like. The following year, someone named Long Yan 隆厳 came to this country, and said that he had not yet seen Chen Liangshan or the goods, and so we gave him those goods over again. Since the King likes strange things from this country, I have sent Long Yan with swords and helmets and armor, that he should buy strange things, and then to establish back-and-forth exchange of communications 往来交信 [i.e. relations] between the two countries, I am sending this letter.
At that time (in 1591) in Vietnam, the Mac 莫 clan and the Le 黎 clan were vying for power. The Mac would lose Hanoi the following year (in 1592), and with northern Vietnam embroiled in war, Nguyen Hoang would make his base at Hue, to the south. This letter is addressed from a “Lord Nguyen” 侯阮, so it’s presumably from Nguyen Hoang, or someone closely associated with him.
The earliest communication from Vietnam to Japan recorded in the Tsūkō Ichiran 通行一覧 and the Gaiban tsūsho 外蕃通書 by Kondō Jūzō 近藤重蔵 (1771-1829) is in both texts a letter from Nguyen Hoang to “the king of Japan” (i.e. Tokugawa Ieyasu) in 1601. However, the Gaiban tsūsho also records that that 1601 letter included references to earlier communication, and the Tsūkō ichiran indicates that the first “Vietnam ship” to enter port did so in 1595. (The term I’m translating here as Vietnam ship is 交趾船, with 交趾 (V: Giao Chỉ, C: Jiāozhǐ, J: Kōshi) being the term that gave birth to the European term “Cochinchina.” I am unclear whether “Vietnam ship” here refers to a Japanese ship designated for Vietnam, which I do think is a possible interpretation of this term, or more straightforwardly a Vietnamese ship, in which case the port would be a Japanese one.)
In any case, returning to the 1591 letter, for the addressee “king of Japan,” Toyotomi Hideyoshi would seem the obvious guess. Hideyoshi would establish the red seal ships (shuinsen) system the following year, in 1592. However, there does not seem to be any evidence that either Chen Liangshan or Long Yan ever arrived in Japan bringing Vietnamese goods, and it seems they may have been false envoys who were not of Hideyoshi’s concern/business 関知しなかった偽使 .
Still, comparison of the dates – that Japan had an intercalary First Month 閏正月 and that Vietnam had an intercalary Third Month that year – would seem to suggest the genuineness of this document.