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Ayutthaya was a Siamese kingdom known by the name of its capital city. In the 16th to early 17th centuries, Ayutthaya was one of the most powerful and prominent polities in Southeast Asia, and the most prominent Southeast Asian trading partner with Japan and the Ryûkyû Kingdom. Its capital was also home to the largest Nihonmachi (Japantown) of the era; the community housed as many as 1,500 Japanese at its peak in the 1620s,[1] including some six hundred warriors, and four hundred Japanese Christians,[2] while the city of Ayutthaya as a whole boasted a population over 100,000.[3] A small number of Siamese ships, officially under the name of either the king or one of the royal princes, traveled to Nagasaki over the course of the 16th-18th centuries. Despite maritime restrictions against trade with most outside powers, Nagasaki accepted these Siamese ships under the category of "Dutch ships," given their Western-style construction.



The kingdom was founded in 1351 by U Thong, also known as King Ramathibodi I, who may have been from a local Chinese diaspora merchant family. The kingdom was visited by Zheng He twice, in 1408 and 1421. Its chief products were rice, raw cotton, rhino horn, deer hides, elephant teeth, and a variety of forest products, and some of its chief imports were Indian textiles and Chinese porcelains.[4] Siamese envoys traveled to Korea on a number of occasions in the 14th century, if not earlier, and may have passed through Japan on their way there, but records on this subject prior to the 17th century are extremely sketchy.[5]

Ayutthaya was a major tributary to the Ming Dynasty in the 14th-15th centuries, sending 68 tribute missions between 1369 and 1439. These missions were more numerous, and carried a greater variety of goods, than those sent to China by any other tributary.[4] Ayutthaya was one of the most distant polities - culturally, at least, insofar as Siam is an Indic culture, not a Sinic one - to maintain regular relations with the Ming court. The kingdom fought off attacks by Ming Chinese armies in the 1580s-1590s, but also engaged in regular tribute trade, sending missions to China once every few years, and receiving investiture in return. In 1575, Ayutthaya sent envoys to Ming to request a new royal seal to replace one destroyed in fighting with the Burmese, and in 1592 King Naresuan offered to send his navy to help the Ming defeat Toyotomi Hideyoshi's attempts to conquer Korea,[6] though the offer was formally rejected the following year.[7]

Ayutthaya entered into trade relations with Ryûkyû in the mid-to-late 15th century, and traded local products such as sappanwood and pepper for East Asian goods such as folding fans and Japanese swords. These swords became an integral part of the Siamese king's regalia, while the Siamese products were crucial elements of Ryûkyû's tributary goods, given as gifts to Ming Dynasty China.[5] Ayutthaya only began trading with Japan a century later, in the 1570s. Official trade with Japan was overseen by a Siamese Department of Eastern Maritime Affairs and Crown Junks; the office was headed by a resident Chinese official, and employed Chinese language in much of its activities, Ming diplomatic protocols being standard throughout much of the region.[2]

Early Modern Period

The city grew in strength after 1511, when the Portuguese conquest of Malacca drove many Chinese and Southeast Asian merchants to relocate, and to operate out of Ayutthaya instead. Ayutthaya quickly secured a treaty with the Portuguese in 1516, mainly to secure access to firearms, and to defend against the development of European hostility against the kingdom. Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits then established missions in the city in 1566, 1587, and 1607 respectively.[8]

The city was destroyed by Burmese invaders in the 1560s (as it would be again in the 1760s), but it recovered to become perhaps the largest city in Southeast Asia by 1600.[4] It was located a short distance upriver from the coast along the Menam River, making it more protected from coastal raiders and pirates than many of the other major port cities in the region (such as Malacca).[9] It was further defended by a set of city walls, outside of which the king granted designated areas of land to each of a number of foreign communities. This served to protect the city to a certain extent from possible uprisings by these foreign merchants & settlers, but also served the simple logistical convenience of enabling foreign ships to dock at the docks associated with their community. The city was home to communities of Chinese, Malays, Chams, Persians, Indians, Arabs, and by 1600 or so, Japanese as well. The Chinese were by far the largest group, numbering around 3-4,000 by the 1680s, and were so numerous, and so well-integrated into the local society that local rulers seem to have considered them nobles & commoners, i.e. regular members of society, and not foreigners.[10] The Chinese were particularly prominent in the local society as merchants, shippers, and shipwrights, as well as in a variety of other positions. Roughly half the ships in port at any given time were Chinese-owned, and quite a few Japanese merchants, based in Osaka or Sakai, purchased their ships (or commissioned them to be built) in Ayutthaya. Many Crown Ships, which operated on behalf of the court, king, or royal princes, were also built and captained by local Chinese. Between the 1630s and 1720s, as many as nine Siamese ships made port at Nagasaki each year. These Crown Ships were also accepted at Qing Dynasty Chinese ports as private Chinese trade ships, and not as a foreign court's official trade (in which case they would have been subject to the protocols and obligations of the tribute system). Revenues from this maritime trade accounted for roughly one-third of royal income.[11]

The Japantown was located on the eastern bank of the Menam, along with the Dutch East India Company (VOC) factory, and a brief-lived British enclave (from 1612-1625). Enclaves of Portuguese, Chinese, Malay, and Vietnamese sat on the opposite shore; many Japanese Christians sent their children to be educated in the Portuguese quarters. These foreign communities settled most internal matters themselves, but Siamese authorities still had jurisdiction; none of these foreign communities enjoyed extraterritoriality until the VOC attained such privileges in 1664.[2]

The Japanese community in Ayutthaya got its start around the 1570s, as Japanese ronin, merchants, smugglers, adventurers, and the like began to settle there. As early as 1593, there were by some accounts as many as five hundred Japanese resident in the city.[12] Some came to be employed by the royal court, as bodyguards, or in other capacities, and by the 1620s, Japan was Ayutthaya's most major trade partner. The head of the Nihonmachi, elected by the community and approved by the court, oversaw both the community and incoming & outgoing trade, and served as liaison or representative to the court.[2]

Ayutthaya made a habit of having foreigners as royal guards, and the Japanese were preceded by the Portuguese, with whom the kingdom signed a treaty in 1516; some 120 Portuguese were hired by the king in 1534 to serve as members of his guard. The Portuguese were followed by the Japanese, who were then followed in turn by Chams and Malays as the dominant group within the Siamese royal guard.[13] More than twenty Japanese merchant houses, along with some number of independent individual sailors, were active in trading between Ayutthaya and Nagasaki each year, and the kingdom enjoyed formal relations with the Tokugawa shogunate as well, beginning in 1606, and received arms and other supplies from the shogunate to aid in Ayutthaya's defense against periodic Burmese attacks.[14] Following an unofficial mission which nevertheless was received in audience by the shogun in 1612, Ayutthaya sent official diplomatic missions to Japan in 1616, 1621, 1623, 1625, 1626, and 1629.[1] These missions followed a similar form to that which would later become standard for Ryukyuan and Korean embassies to Edo. Two Siamese envoys, accompanied by some 20 Siamese officials, and another 40 or so Japanese associates, for a total entourage of roughly 70 individuals, traveled to Kyoto or Edo, where they were lodged at a Buddhist temple. They were received by the shogun in audience three times in short succession during their brief stay, and presented him with extensive gifts and a formal letter from their king, receiving gifts and a formal response in return. Letters from the Siamese king were written in Chinese, in a standard format in line with Ming protocol, except with the notable exceptions of that they employed the invented reign/era name "Ten'un" (heavenly cloud) rather than offend the Japanese by using the Ming reign name, and that they were written on sheets of gold, rolled up inside a hollowed-out elephant tusk, which was in turn placed in a decorative box wrapped in damask cloth.[15]

In 1621, for example, the mission's entourage included the interpreter Itô Kyûdayû, Nagasaki bugyô Hasegawa Gonroku, and Sakai merchant Kiya Jazaemon. They were lodged at Seigan-ji temple in Edo, and met with the shogun in Edo castle in at least one formal audience, at which they presented a series of gifts, as well as a formal letter from King Songtham, two addressed to the rôjû from Siamese officials, and one from Yamada Nagamasa, head of Ayutthaya's Japanese community, addressed to Hasegawa. The logistical and ritual precedents set by this mission were employed as standard protocols for all those which came afterward.[16]

In 1610, King Ekathotsarot was succeeded by Songtham; that same year, the kingdom suppressed a Laotian invasion and an uprising by Japanese merchants, and established a royal guard consisting of Japanese. This guard eventually came to be headed by the ronin adventurer Yamada Nagamasa. Other Nagasaki merchants were similarly rewarded for their service in helping defend the kingdom from Burmese invasions. Kiya Kyûzaemon was appointed to succeed Arima Sugihiro as head of the Nihonmachi, and Tsuda Matazaemon was permitted to marry a daughter of the king.[1][17]

When war broke out between Ayutthaya and Cambodia in 1622, Ayutthaya delayed its mission to Japan until the next year. A letter from King Songtham delivered to Iemitsu by that 1623 mission asserted that the conflict was due to Cambodia's refusal to pay tribute, or discourteous misconduct otherwise. The king called upon the strong ties between Japan and Siam, and asked that Iemitsu warn Japanese merchants not to travel to Cambodia, and not to aid the Cambodians against Ayutthaya's invasion. Iemitsu responded positively, writing that he took no responsibility for the actions of Japanese resident in Cambodia, and instructing Songtham to feel free to "exterminate" any Japanese who dared oppose his legitimate punitive attack. In addition, over the next three years, the shogunate issued only one red seal license for trade in Cambodia.[18]

Ayutthaya expelled and banned the Spanish from its territory in 1624, coincidentally the same year the Tokugawa shogunate took similar measures in Japan. This came after a Spanish ship captained by a Don Fernando da Silva, supposedly thrown off-course by a storm while on his way to Manila from Macao, ended up at the mouth of the Menam River (near Ayutthaya), and attacked a Dutch ship it found there. In light of the strong and friendly relations between the Siamese court and the Dutch East India Company, the Spanish were expelled.[19] Yamada Nagamasa interceded on the behalf of the Portuguese, however, at that time, convincing the court to allow the Portuguese to stay, and only the Spanish to be banned.[20] Several years later, in 1628, the Spanish sank three Siamese ships (including one royal junk), and one Japanese shuinsen (red seal licensed authorized merchant ship) off the Siamese coast. The latter had just been recently purchased by Japanese merchant Takagi Sakuemon in Nagasaki; three survivors of the attack made their way back to Nagasaki and reported on what happened.[21]

A series of court intrigues, and a violent coup d'état, led to the destruction of the Nihonmachi, and the death of Yamada Nagamasa, in 1630. Yamada Nagamasa had served for some time as head of the royal bodyguard, had led a force of some 700 Japanese in suppressing insurrections, Burmese incursions, and the like, and had been elevated to high court rank. He had also been named governor of several provinces, and held monopolies over the trade in deerskin and a number of other goods.[22] The community prepared and shipped some 150,000 skins a year.[2] He thus represented a significant obstacle to Prasat Thong, a member of the royal family who seized the throne in 1629 following the death of King Songtham. In the course of his coup, Prasat Thong had Yamada murdered, and the Nihonmachi burned to the ground, in order to prevent Yamada's fellow Japanese from seeking violent retribution. A number of Japanese fled to Cambodia, and some returned later, with amnesty from a later king.[23] Where the Japanese had previously exercised some degree of influence within the royal court, and the port's commerce, this now left the Dutch and Chinese merchants in a far more prominent position.[24]

The Nihonmachi revived following its destruction in 1630, though it would never again attain its former levels of activity. The imposition of policies of maritime restrictions by the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 1630s meant that Japanese could no longer return to Japan (and very few left Japan, either, after this time), severing the Nihonmachi from any infusion of new blood, and severely hampering its economic power. Further, the Tokugawa shogunate, seeing Prasat Thong as an illegitimate usurper, severed formal ties with the kingdom of Ayutthaya. Though several missions were later sent to Japan attempting to restore formal relations (including missions in 1640 and 1644 which were lost in storms), none were ever successful.[25] Formal diplomatic relations between Siam and Japan would not take place again until 1887.[26]

Still, figures such as Kimura Hanzaemon, who served as head of the community for nearly thirty years, from 1642 to 1671, remained prominent in local trade activities, including supplying the Dutch East India Company factory in Ayutthaya with deer skins.[10] Another man by the same name, possibly the elder Hanzaemon's son, traveled widely across Southeast Asia in the 1680s.[27] Despite the decline of the Japanese community, Siamese trade with Japan (aboard Chinese, Dutch, and Siamese ships) in this period came to exceed even Siamese trade with China.[28]

The Japanese community of Ayutthaya played some role in bringing King Narai to the throne in 1657, and official royal involvement in trade with Japan increased, even though it was not formally recognized as diplomatic court-to-court relations by the Tokugawa.[25] At least 41 Siamese ships traveled to Japan to trade between 1689-1723, and were received at Nagasaki as either "Chinese" or "Dutch" ships; some carried goods worth millions of silver dollars.[29] Where Siamese goods entering Nagasaki previously did so chiefly on Chinese ships, royal investment now increased.[28] Narai was perhaps among the most active of Southeast Asian rulers in engaging with the West. In 1673, he received formal diplomatic communications from both Louis XIV of France, and Pope Clement IX, and reciprocated them. Narai's relations with France led to his declaring war on the English East India Company in 1687; the following year, French East India Company forces, ostensibly there to help combat the English, seized Bangkok and a number of other areas, before finally being convinced to quit their occupation and return these areas to Siamese control. Narai died that year, and was succeeded by Phra Phetracha. With Narai's death, the royal junk trade ended, and in the aftermath of the English-French conflict, all Europeans were ejected for several decades.[11] Siam's volume of international trade declined somewhat as a result, and while trade with Japan remained central, trade with China began to grow, growing even more significant over the course of the 18th century.[30] Rice remained Siam's chief export to China, while its exports to Japan shifted from a focus on deer hides and ray skins to a growing volume of trade in sappanwood and other aromatic woods.[31]

The Dutch, meanwhile, made extensive use of Ayutthaya. Ships traveling between Batavia and Nagasaki very often made an intermediate stop at Ayutthaya, where they purchased Siamese goods to sell in Japan. The Dutch made use of a triangle trade formation, purchasing textiles in India with Japanese silver, selling the textiles in Ayutthaya and purchasing deer hides, ray skins, sappanwood, etc., and then selling the Siamese goods in Nagasaki for silver.[32] This pattern lasted until 1715, when the Tokugawa shogunate's Shôtoku shinrei ("New Edicts of the Shôtoku era") changed the terms of trade at Nagasaki. From then on, Batavia-based ships traveled to Nagasaki without stopping at Ayutthaya. However, the VOC's Ayutthaya-based ships continued to make the journey, and in fact came to dominate the Ayutthaya-Nagasaki route for a time, pushing Chinese merchants aside, until the Chinese broke the VOC monopoly in the 1750s, and dominated the route themselves until 1800 or so.[31]

By the early 18th century, the Japanese community in Ayutthaya disappeared, assimilating into the broader Siamese society through intermarriage and acculturation, while the Chinese community grew ever larger, in part due to increased immigration, as many people fled South China during the Manchu subjugation of the region. By the 1760s, there were perhaps as many as 30,000 people of Chinese descent living in Ayutthaya; though the majority had long been Hokkien speakers (from Fujian province), they now came to be outnumbered by Teochius from Guangdong.[33]

The kingdom fell to Burmese invasion in 1767.[34] A new dynasty was then founded by Taksin, the son of Guangdong merchant Zheng Yung & a Siamese mother; his dynasty was quite short-lived, however, as his son-in-law, also of partial Chinese descent, founded the Chakri Dynasty in 1782. This remains the reigning dynasty in Thailand today.[33] While Chinese trade out of Siam continued through this dynastic change, Dutch activity in the port came to an end.[31]

Kings of Ayutthaya



  • Cesare Polenghi, Samurai of Ayutthaya: Yamada Nagamasa, Japanese warrior and merchant in early seventeenth-century Siam. Bangkok: White Lotus Press (2009).
  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Geoffrey Gunn, History Without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800, Hong Kong University Press (2011), 222-223.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Polenghi, 23-24.
  3. Bangkok was, incidentally, only a small village at the time. Polenghi, 72n2.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Craig Lockard, “‘The Sea Common to All’: Maritime Frontiers, Port Cities, and Chinese Traders in the Southeast Asian Age of Commerce, Ca. 1400–1750.” Journal of World History 21, no. 2 (2010): 239-240.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Ishii Yoneo, "Siam and Japan in Pre-Modern Times: A Note on Mutual Images," in Donald Denoon et al (eds.), Multicultural Japan, Cambridge University Press (1996), 153.
  6. David C. Kang, “Hierarchy in Asian International Relations: 1300-1900.” Asian Security 1, no. 1 (2005): 62.
  7. Polenghi, 14.
  8. Ishii, "Siam and Japan," 154.
  9. Polenghi, 21.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Lockard, 241.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Lockard, 242-243.
  12. Polenghi, 25.
  13. Polenghi, 22.
  14. Khien Theeravit. “Japanese-Siamese Relations, 1606-1629” in Chaiwat Khamchoo and E. Bruce Reynolds (eds.) Thai-Japanese Relations in Historical Perspective. Bangkok: Innomedia Co. Ltd. Press (1988), 22, 26-27.
  15. Polenghi, 41-43.
  16. Nagazumi Yoko. "Ayutthaya and Japan: Embassies and Trade in the Seventeenth Century." in Kennon Breazeale (ed.). From Japan to Arabia: Ayutthaya's Maritime Relations with Asia. Bangkok: The Foundation for the Promotion of Social Sciences and Humanities Textbook Project (1999), 91-92.
  17. Polenghi, 40.
  18. Polenghi, 45-46.
  19. Polenghi, 47.
  20. Polenghi, 51.
  21. Polenghi, 48.
  22. Wray, William. “The 17th Century Japanese Diaspora: Questions of Boundary and Policy.” Thirteenth International Economic History Congress, Buenos Aires 2002. Preconference: Corfu, Greece, 21-22 September 2001, 10.
  23. Iwao Seiichi. “Reopening of the diplomatic and commercial relations between Japan and Siam during the Tokugawa period.” Acta Asiatica v.4 (July 1963), 2-4.
  24. Gunn, 224.
  25. 25.0 25.1 Iwao, 28-29.
  26. Polenghi, 55.
  27. Nagazumi, 100-101.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Shimada Ryuto. “Economic Links with Ayutthaya: Changes in Networks between Japan, China, and Siam in the Early Modern Period.” Itinerario 37, no. 03 (December 2013), 93.
  29. Kang, 69.
  30. Shimada, 96.
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 Shimada, 102.
  32. Shimada, 94.
  33. 33.0 33.1 Lockard, 244.
  34. Coedes, G. (H.M. Wright, trans.) The Making of South East Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press (1966), 164-165.
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