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Because Japan was overwhelmingly rural with few consumers, commerce did not play a significant role in the economy or most people’s lives during the six centuries from 600 to 1200. This period may be divided into three phases based upon the nature of commercial relations. The 8th century witnessed a construction boom led by a relatively centralized state. Besides building five capital cities and numerous other governmental and religious structures, the state minted copper cash. Low-ranking bureaucrats traded in lumber, cloth, and other commodities, often for profit. The commercially most advanced region in Japan was in and around the numerous capitals located in the Kinai (Kyoto-Osaka-Nara) region. Interregional trade bound local regions together and was a source of illegal profiteering for officials. Gift-giving and barter dominated the less developed provinces, mostly in eastern Japan. Across the ocean, Japan participated in exchange with China and Korea on a limited basis to 800. Beginning as early as 735, epidemics and famines decimated Japan’s population. The value of copper cash declined, as inflation commenced. Government revenues also dropped. Government-appointed tax farmers garnered tax items for the tiny elite at court, enriching themselves in the process. The Song Dynasty (960–1279) arose in China and began trading with the Japanese elite, providing a spur to Japan’s commercial development for the rest of period. Overseas merchants were forced by Japan’s ruling elite to stop at Dazaifu in northern Kyushu, where Chinese goods could be obtained for Japanese gold. Japan’s depopulation continued unabated, subject to particularly harsh epidemics between 990 and 1050. To reverse flight from the land, the court initiated a two-pronged land system consisting of tax-farmed provincial areas and estates cultivated by sharecroppers and paying rents to capital and local elites. The rents were paid in-kind, and to secure the value of goods such as rice, salt, lacquer, iron, tea, and many other products, values were pegged to a gold standard. Song merchants also received gold for their wares. To buy Japanese raw materials, the Chinese paid with their own copper cash, helping to remonetize the archipelago. By the 1170s, inflation took off in Japan. A Ningbo–Hakata trade route became established for Song merchants, with bulk items such as sulfur, lumber, and mercury traded from Japan to China. By the late 1100s, the warrior family known as the Ise Taira took control of overseas trade with China, bolstering the family’s power at the Kyoto court.

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The Ainu are an indigenous people of northeast Asia, and their lands encompassed what are now known as the north of Honshu, Hokkaido, the Kuril archipelago, southern Sakhalin, the southernmost tip of Kamchatka, and the Amur River estuary region. As such, Ainu space was a maritime one, linking the Pacific, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Sea of Japan, and the Ainu settlements were dynamic actors in various maritime trade networks. Hence, they actively traded with other peoples, including the Japanese, from an early stage. Spreading over thousands of years, relations between Japan and the Ainu evolved in an ever-tightening way. These relations can be read in diplomatic or political terms, but also, and maybe even more so, in economic, spatial, and environmental terms, as Japan’s relationship with the Ainu people is deeply rooted in its relationship to Ainu goods, lands, and resources. Furthermore, Ainu songs reveal the importance of the charismatic trade with Japan in the shaping of Ainu society and worldview. From the 17th century, the initial, relative reciprocity of Ainu-Japanese relations became increasingly unbalanced, as the Tokugawa shoguns’ domestic productivity and foreign trade came to hinge upon Ainu labor, central to the transformation of northern marine products. During the 18th century, overlapping authorities and conflicting interests on both sides of the ethnic divide led to the advent of an inextricable web of mutual interdependencies, which all but snapped as the northeastern region of the Ainu lands became the convergence point of Japanese, Russian, and European interests. The need to establish clear regional sovereignty, to directly reap regional economic benefits and prevent Ainu unrest, led the shogunate to progressively establish direct control on the Ainu lands from the dawn of the 19th century. Although shogunate control did not lead to a full-fledged colonial enterprise per se, from the advent of the Meiji era, Ainu lands were annexed and their inhabitants subjected to colonial measures of assimilation, cultural suppression, and forced agricultural redeployment on the one hand, and dichotomization and exhibition on the other hand, before they all but disappeared from public discourse from the end of the 1930s. From the 1990s, within a global context of emerging indigenous and minority voices, Ainu individuals, groups, and movements have strived to achieve discursive reappropriation and political representation, and the past years have seen them be recognized as a minority group in Japan. Given past and ongoing tensions between Russia and Japan over sovereignty in the southern Kuril, and the future opening of the Arctic route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Ainu could play an international role in both diplomatic and environmental terms.

Article

Historians translate a variety of terms from 13th- through 17th-century Japan, China, Korea, and Europe as “Japanese pirates” (e.g., Jp. kaizoku, Kr. waegu, Ch. wokou). These constructs reflected the needs of regimes and travelers dealing with a maritime world over which they had little direct control, and often denoted bands of seafarers who based themselves in maritime regions beyond and between the reach of land-based political centers. Seafarers rarely used the terms to refer to themselves. Japanese pirates opportunistically traded, raided, and transmitted culture in periods when and places where the influence of central governments attenuated. However, some innovated forms of maritime lordship that enabled them to establish dominance over sea-lanes and territories at the heart of the Japanese archipelago. Pirates developed expertise in navigation and naval warfare that helped them acquire patrons, who provided access to networks of diplomacy and trade. In the 16th century, some Japanese pirates forged multiethnic crews that seized control of the maritime networks linking East and Southeast Asia. Labels for Japanese pirates also operated as ethnographical, geographical, and historical symbols. Traumatic assaults by waves of Japanese pirates who massacred and enslaved local populations were indelibly etched into the collective memories of Koryŏ–Chosŏn Korea and Ming–Qing China. By contrast, in early modern Japan the eradication of piracy enabled the state to extend its maritime sovereignty as well as to then commemorate pirates as ethnocentric symbols of Japanese warrior prowess.