Yamada Nagamasa in Siam

An imperialist hero or just another trader?

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared as
"An imperialist hero or just another trader" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 138(40), 1 October 1987, pages 44-45

A somewhat different version appeared as
"Yamada Nagamasa tales fact or fiction?" in
The Japan Times Weekly, 31 October 1987, page 6

Blue phrases were cut from the FEER version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the FEER version.

This month marks the first centennial of modern diplomatic relations between Thailand and Japan. But the celebration has stirred a controversy about Japanese living in Siam over 350 years ago.

University of Kyoto political scientist Toru Yano questions the historical accuracy of popular stories about a Japanese adventurer named Nagamasa Yamada, who is said to have gone to Siam in the early 17th century and become a martyr in the service of the kings of Ayutthaya, the capital of Thailand from 1350 to 1767. Japanese are taught to regard Yamada as a national hero. "They come up with his name as soon as Thailand is mentioned," Yano writes. "It's practically a conditioned reflex."

Travel brochures published by the Tourism Authority of Thailand mention Yamada only in passing. Japanese counterparts portray him up as a symbol of friendship between the two countries.

Thailand has gotten a lot of attention in the Japanese press this year. The January marriage between "Slum Angel" Prateen Ungsongtham and Japanese volunteer worker Tatsuya Hata was widely reported. Other stories have focused on the increasing number of Southeast Asian women and men in Japan, including Thais, who are employed as bar hostesses or construction workers, some legally, others not.

A number of newspaper articles have covered Thai history and life. Color features have shown some of the Thai treasures on display in commemorative art exhibitions in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. The Tokyo exhibition runs from 25 August to 4 October, which straddles 26 September, the date of the 1887 signing of the Japan-Siam Treaty of Amity and Commerce.

Relations between Thailand and Japan go back to the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Before Japan withdrew from the world in the middle of the 17th century, tens of thousands of Japanese sailed to Southeast Asia, most as licensed traders, some as pirates. Thousands settled in Japan towns in the Philippines, Batavia, and Siam.

Yamada was born around 1590 and arrived in Siam about 1610, according to popular stories. The tales portray Yamada as one of the most influential men in Ayutthaya, then one of biggest cities in the world and an important east-west trade center with large communities of Chinese, Japanese, Indians and Europeans.

Yamada may have been a dealer in Siamese deerskins, but legend knows him better as a king maker in Siamese politics. He was made the governor of Ligoor for leading a Japanese force against some enemies of the Siamese court. But he was murdered by poison in 1630 after becoming entangled in a succession dispute of his own making. Some historians think that the Dutch were behind the assassination. Others say that he was a victim of Muslim or Chinese intrigue.

Shortly after Yamada's death, Siamese forces attacked Ayutthaya's Japan town, killing many of the residents and drive the others into Cambodia. Only a few dozen got back to Japan, but their reports moved the Shogun to severe all ties with the Siamese court. The Japanese settlement may have been destroyed by friction in the deerskin trade.

Japanese documents show that a man named Nagamasa Yamada (with a different Chinese character for "masa") sent from Siam, to a councilor of the Shogun in Edo (now Tokyo), a letter with two shark skins and 120 kilograms of gunpowder. But no such name appears on the rolls of men who received a Shogunate license to sail to Siam. Political scientist Yano, who specializes in Southeast Asian diplomatic history, believes that Yamada either stowed away or used a false name. Dutch East India Company records refer to a Japanese man who held a Siamese government post, but they do not give his name.

If primary historical sources are silent on Yamada's life and deeds, secondary and tertiary sources are vociferous. An 18th century account became the basis of an early 19th-century work by Atsutane Hirata (1776-1843), a nationalist scholar and shintoist who held that Yamada "ought to be a model for when the people of the spirit of Great Japan go overseas." Hirata's writing was emulated in the Yamada books that appeared from the 1890s to the 1940s when nationalists advocated the "southern expansion doctrine" by which Imperial Japan acquired Formosa in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895 and the German treaty ports and protectorates in East Asia and the Pacific in World War I.

Hirata's imaginative account of Yamada leading samurai in battle astride an elephant inspired artwork in some nationalistic children's literature. State history textbooks and historical novels similarly eulogized Yamada as a national hero. Yamada thus became a vehicle for the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere ideology which Japan used to rationalize its "liberation" of Southeast Asia during World War II.

Forty years later, as Japan again "looks east" and seeks closer ties with other Asian countries, Nagamasa Yamada is being revived as a national hero. Recent books on Yamada review the historical evidence, but most still retell his story as though it were true.

Yano admits that Yamada probably existed, but not as the hero which nationalistic writers create by enlarging on history. Yano also criticizes the "anti-historical" and "anti-intellectual" attitudes of Japanese who take the accuracy of the old Yamada tales for granted.

Yano may be right, historically. Yet history's silence leaves room for embellishment that is not necessarily motivated by nationalistic fervor. For most Japanese, Yamada is merely a larger-than-life hero of the hometown-boy-makes-good variety. The ethnic pride which they take in his alleged feats is comparable to the affinity that Euro-Americans feel toward bona fide meddlers like Hernando Cortes or Matthew Perry.

Worship of real or imagined heroes seems harmless and even healthy beside the paranoid "intellectual" analysis of historical data which suggests that the Japanese were victims of "misunderstanding" over "trade friction" even in the 17th century. Yet the stories of friction may be less fictitious than the tales about Yamada.

Dutch East India Company records apparently show that in 1624 the company was losing money to Japanese monopolists who were buying up the best skins of the day. The Chinese were also dealt a blow by the Japanese competition. And a certain Spanish observer urged that the Japanese be barred from trading deerskins because their indiscriminate hunting was threating the Siamese deer with extinction.

Four centuries later, as modern Thai-Japan ties enter their second century, such history seems to be repeating itself on a global scale.