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Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

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.

Scanned from the Kyûhaku catalog.

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.

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The Asahi Shimbun reports today that a document has been discovered, sent from Annam (Vietnam), and addressed to Toyotomi Hideyoshi using the title “King of Japan” (日本国王). The announcement comes from the Kyushu National Museum. Up until now, the oldest known extant document related to Japan-Vietnam relations was believed to be one from 1601, received by Tokugawa Ieyasu, and visible today at the National Archives of Japan Digital Archive – a document which, incidentally, I once wrote a paper on.

The Tokugawa-era document comes from Nguyen Hoang, lord of southern-central Vietnam1, who writes to Ieyasu reporting that he has captured the pirate Shirahama Kenki, who had terrorized the Vietnamese coast sixteen years earlier. Nguyen uses this occasion as a pretext for extending offers of good will, and requests for a continuation of good relations. Ieyasu’s response, which I have never seen as an image of an original document, but have only read descriptions of, describes the shuinjô (“red seals”) system, explaining that any Japanese seamen who do not carry licenses with the shogunate’s red seal can be apprehended as smugglers or pirates, but that those who do carry such licenses are licensed “above-board” merchants, authorized by the shogunate. Thus was the earliest known extant document recording, marking, the establishment or continuation of Japanese-Vietnamese relations – that is, until now.

The 1601 letter from Nguyen Hoang to Tokugawa Ieyasu, from the Gaiban Shokan.

The newly discovered Hideyoshi-era document is on display at the Kyushu National Museum in Dazaifu (Fukuoka prefecture) as part of a Vietnam exhibition which opened April 16.

In this document, a Lord Nguyen (presumably the same Nguyen Hoang, r. 1558-1613) writes, in Classical Chinese of course, something to the effect of “I offer gifts, and would like to bind us in friendly relations.” The document is dated with a Vietnamese reign era which corresponds with 1591 on the Western calendar, and is explicitly marked 「日本国・国王」 (“Country of Japan, King”). It seems to have been brought to Japan by a Japanese merchant, many of whom were actively engaged in maritime trade in Southeast Asia at the time. The primary figure active in Japan at that time for whom the title “King of Japan” would correspond would have been Toyotomi Hideyoshi; however, whether the Vietnamese were aware of Hideyoshi, or knew specifically who they were writing to, is unclear.

1) Generally known as Quang Nam 広南 or Cochinchina, in contrast to Tonking 東京 to the north, ruled by the Trinh family, and Champa, the territory of the Cham people to the south.

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Thanks to Archaeology Magazine’s online news feed…

Some further details on the 18th century ship unearthed at the World Trade Center site have been unearthed. After the preserved wooden skeleton of the ship was discovered back in July, archaeologists have been working to figure out what sort of ship it was, its age, and other such details.

It remains unclear just how the ship came to rest under the World Trade Center, though it is important to note that the site was, 200+ years ago, part of the Hudson River. Whether the ship was intentionally or accidentally used as part of landfill to build up Manhattan Island, we might not be able to determine. The scientists are now saying, however, that the ship was a “Hudson River sloop,” traveling up and down the river, or perhaps up and down the East Coast, carrying such goods as sugar, rum, molasses, and salt. Seeds, nuts, and fruit pits have been found in the ship’s remains, though scientists are still considering whether these represent the goods being carried, or just the crew’s lunch.

The ship was originally roughly 60-70 feet long, the length of an extra-long NYC bus, the article explains, though only 32 feet remain today. As is the case with many other older ships found in this manner, underground or in bogs or the like, it was the waterlogged, anaerobic environment which preserved the ship, preventing microbes from breaking it down, as they had no access to air. Now uncovered, the ship must be kept soaked, to prevent it from decaying, so they have apparently placed it in a tank of purified water. It was not the only thing from the late 18th and early 19th centuries to be found in the course of cleaning up the Ground Zero site: china dishes, many many shoes, stemmed glasses, and bottles were found too, as well as a coin, found inserted into the ship’s structure, a half-penny from the reign of George II (1727-1760).

Today’s article finishes with a brief summary of how the ship was originally found, for those who haven’t heard about it until now (all too often, I feel, the news assumes you’ve been keeping up with it, and only tells you the newest part of the story, so this is a welcome addition).

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Meanwhile, a brief article about Vietnam’s World Heritage Sites being under threat from wear and tear of the great numbers of tourists visiting, and lack of funds to repair or maintain the sites.

This is, of course, nothing new. World Heritage Sites and other historic sites the world over, especially in Southeast Asia, suffer from the damage done by millions of hands and feet, by the moisture in our breath, and by the lighting used to make the sites visible and accessible. A friend wrote her MA thesis on this subject, and I am sure it is a much-discussed topic, a serious problem with no obvious answer.

I just hope I get to see some of these sites in Vietnam before they are gone. Let me rephrase that. I hope that the funding can somehow be obtained, from within the country, or overseas, from governments or non-profits, to preserve and maintain these sites already acknowledged as being of importance to the entire world.

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