Wokou Japanese Pirates of the Middle Ages

Wokou is Chinese for pirate and literally means Japanese-bandit.

These are tradition Japanese sailing ships. Photo by Abassa, public domain.

They were a problem in the middle ages. The Wokou Japanese pirates would sit among the many islands of the Japanese archipelago and the Chinese coast waiting for a nice juicy trading vessel to come along and like pirates (and government officials) everywhere they had no respect for private property, but if they saw, they took. They grew bolder over the years and raided coastal towns, even traveling up rivers in China and repeatedly looting the capital city of Korea. The Wokou were supported and commanded by coastal feudal lords of Japan. Most of them were peasants who were sent out to loot for their lord. It became such a problem that the Ming court of China ordered that only government ships could sail and trade with nearby nations, which caused the, unintended but obvious, result of huge smuggling operations and growing pirating activities by the Chinese, until Chinese pirates outnumbered Japanese. Ah, government, what they won’t think of next.

Map Activity

Print this Wokou Pirates Map showing the pirate activity. Color the early pirate activity areas in purple and the later pirate activities in dark blue. Trace the rivers in light blue and color the ocean light blue. Color the land green. Trace routes to the raiding coasts from Japan in red.


Additional Layers

  • What would the pirates have found on trading vessels at sea?  Find out what the Japanese and Chinese traded back and forth.
  • How are East Asian ships different from European or Arab ships?
  • Learn more about the Ming Dynasty of China, which was in power when the Wokou were at their height.
  • Use an atlas to label some of the islands and seas on the map.
  • This map activity is from Unit 2-16 of the Layers of Learning Curriculum.

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