- Other Names: 早舟 (hayabune), 玄関船 (genkan bune)
- Japanese: 関船 (sekibune)
In the Edo period, the shogun, as well as a number of daimyô, possessed luxury sekibune which had been refitted to serve as gozabune (ships with a formal seat for a lord); these were known as omeshi-sekibune, or simply as sekibune.
The origins of the name sekibune are unclear, though it is often said to derive from some association with their use in the Inland Sea and elsewhere in western Japan, in enforcing the tolls and inspections at maritime checkpoints (sekisho), and defending the checkpoints from pirates. In any case, it seems that the name was not fixed until the Edo period, and so the style of ship now known as sekibune may have been known by a number of names during the Sengoku period; one 1761 source, the Wakan sen'yô shû, suggests that they only came to be called sekibune around one hundred years earlier, and that prior to that they were called Takao-fune.
Sekibune were long and narrow, with a pointed prow that allowed it to move speedily, cutting through the waves. The superstructure was done in a yagura style, with 40 to 80 oars, and the hull in one or two levels, making for a two- or three-story ship in total.
Serving a role akin to a cruiser in comparison to the "battleship" of the age, the atakebune, the sekibune were not large ships, but rather were middle-size ships, with thirty to forty oars (for comparison, an atakebune could have anywhere from 60 to as many as 200 oarsmen).
A great many were built at the orders of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, to be used in his invasions of Korea. Shipwrights in Iyo, Izumi, elsewhere in the Inland Sea region, Karatsu, Bungo, and Sakai each used their own distinctive modes of construction, but in the end, most were overall extremely similar.
The Tokugawa shogunate instituted a series of policies in 1609 aiming to curtail the naval strength of the daimyô, banning them from possessing ships of over 500 koku in size (tonnage), and banning the daimyô of western Japan in particular from maintaining atakebune. This left the sekibune as the strongest ships in most daimyô's fleets. Some built larger 70-oar sekibune at that time, organizing their fleets around these as flagships.
Many of the western daimyô then came to use these larger sekibune in their sankin kôtai (alternate attendance) journeys. They fixed them up to be luxurious seagoing gozabune, and sailed them on the round-trip between their domains and Osaka, where the entourage would switch to riverboats to go to Fushimi (Kyoto), and then the rest of the way to Edo overland. The shogun's luxury ship, the 76-oar Tenchi-maru, was also a model example of an omeshi-sekibune.
Thus, in contrast to the benzaisen which were the typical vessels in commercial shipping in the Edo period, sekibune were the standard martial ship. Also unlike the benzaisen, which incorporated advances and developments in maritime technology, the sekibune remained unchanged over the course of the period. This is said to have been the result of the Pax Tokugawa, that the daimyô no longer had a need to develop military advances.
The sekibune began to be discarded in the Bakumatsu period, as some daimyô began to acquire steamships and other modern warships. The shogunate discarded its sekibune, including the Tenchi-maru, in 1862.
- "Sekibune," Nihon kokugo daijiten.
- "Sekibune," Kokushi daijiten, Yoshikawa kôbunkan.
- "Omeshi sekibune," Nihon kokugo daijiten.
- William Wayne Farris, "Shipbuilding and Nautical Technology in Japanese Maritime History: Origins to 1600," The Mariner's Mirror 95:3 (2009), 276-277, 283n76.