Okay, so you might have noticed we’ve made some changes to our format. A little crisper, a little cleaner perhaps? Well maybe we should try a new topic as well? Maybe something Heian? No, no, we’ve done Heian for the past several months. Nara period? Well, we had Yorozu. What’s something we haven’t done, yet?
Oh, I’ve got it! Let’s do something in the Edo period, how about that? And not just any samurai from the Edo period, but let’s actually leave Japan for it. Let’s talk about…Yamada Nizaemon Nagamasa.
Yamada was born in the year 1590, the son of a knife-maker in the Tokugawa-controlled Sunpu domain. At the age of sixteen he got a job as a palanquin bearer for the Okubo clan of nearby Numazu domain. It seems that he held this position for about seven years before the daimyo of Numazu, Okubo Tadasuke, died without an heir.
The Tokugawa Shogunate took control of Numazu and Yamada was forced to return to his homeland, now unemployed. Yamada’s father had died when he was a small boy and when he returned home he discovered that his mother had died while he was in Numazu and that his relatives sold their property and moved away without telling him. I suppose if your mother can die without you knowing, you’re probably not the kind of relative anyone would want to leave a forwarding address with.
Regardless of the Yamada’s dysfunctional family situation, this left him unemployed and homeless. Yamada is said to have made his way to the port city of Sakai and taken up a position as a dockworker. At some point, apparently before the year 1612, he hopped aboard a ship and sailed to Thailand, at that point still known as the Kingdom of Siam.
Japan and Siam had been allies and trading partners for many years at this point and had a thriving Japanese community in Ayutthaya. The head of the community was named Kiya Kyuzaemon and he took a liking to Yamada, taking the young man under his wing. Under Kiya’s tutelage Yamada learned Siamese and an unknown European language. He became involved in the lucrative deerskin trade of the region and it was around this time he changed his name to Yamada Nagamasa.
Ayutthaya was economically prosperous, in part because King Songtham traded freely with the European trading companies of the Dutch, English, Spanish, and Portuguese as well as the Chinese, Malay, Vietnamese, and of course…the Japanese.
Part of the reason why the Japanese were so well tolerated within Ayutthaya were that King Songtham utilized them as a major component of his royal bodyguards. You see, many of the Japanese who moved to Siam were ronin. Samurai who had backed the wrong horse at Sekigahara, fired samurai who were unable to be rehired because of strict Tokugawa regulations on ronin, and retainers of confiscated domains – like Yamada.
Yamada volunteered to fight alongside the Siamese troops in the north against a Burmese incursion. During the battle Yamada engaged the general of the Burmese army, defeating and killing the enemy commander. For this deed he was invited to the royal palace and granted a title of nobility. He eventually became commander of King Songtham’s Royal Guards and was permitted to control a monopoly on the deerskin trade and eventually even owned his own trade ship.
When Kiya decided to leave Siam and return to Japan, he named Yamada as his successor. This happened sometime between 1619 and 1621, although it is unclear exactly when this occurred or exactly what happened to Kiya after his departure.
Now as the head of Songtham’s royal guards and the head of the Japanese colony within Ayutthaya he sent word to the Tokugawa Shoguns several times in advance of formal Siamese embassies being sent. The Shogunate, curious who this man was, had him and his background investigated, and so he is recorded in formal Shogunate documentation at this point in history for the first time. Yamada was the Siamese royal court’s official representative to Japan, after all.
Between 1624 and 1629 Yamada sent several trade missions to Nagasaki, loaded with Siamese deerskin. He had wanted to receive a red seal for his ship, allowing him to trade with the Japanese, however it took over a year to get the ship approved. In this time he sent another load of deerskin on a Dutch ship and apparently made quite a profit.
After he received the red seal of approval from the Japanese government he committed to a few more trade missions with Nagasaki. However he fell into a bit of an issue in 1627 when the Dutch fleet captured his ship and held it. However when the Dutch realized who the ship belonged to the local governor for the Dutch East India Company released the ship and awarded Yamada a trading license for the Dutch properties within Batavia. Yamada began a very profitable trade with the Dutch East India Company after this.
King Songtham fell ill in the year 1628 and named his younger son, Chettha as his heir. Since Chettha was so young he also named his maternal cousin, Prasat Thom, and Yamada as regents for the boy. With Songtham’s death a power struggle ensued between the Prasat and Yamada backed Chettha and Songtham’s older son, Phra Srisin. Phra fled and took up the priesthood to escape being killed off. Prasat convinced Phra to return in his princely vestments and used it as an excuse to murder the man. Phra was arrested and thrown into a well to starve to death, however his supporters threw a corpse into the well and helped Phra escape.
Phra started a rebellion and Yamada, as head of the Royal Guards, was sent to put down the rebellion. Phra was captured and executed as a result. Within a relatively short while Chettha was on Prasat’s hit list as well. Prasat had become annoyed with the young king’s activities; for instance when Chettha’s mother died he held a state funeral for her. Prasat was annoyed that all of the government officials had gone to the funeral for the king’s mother and he wasn’t able to hold council and get any work done.
This came to a head in 1629 when Prasat’s father died and he gave the man a state funeral of his own, going so far as to have his father’s remains cremated twice…a ritual normally reserved for kings. Chettha is said to have become enraged at this affront to his royal line and wanted to punish Prasat for his indolence, but one of Prasat’s allies calmed the king down.
And so it was a complete surprise when Prasat’s soldiers entered the palace and began killing the king’s supporters. King Chettha fled the palace but was captured and executed. With the king now dead, Prasat put the late king’s brother on the throne.
Yamada and another minister of the kingdom voiced concerns over this treasonous act. Prasat accused the minister of treason and had him arrested and executed, but Yamada was popular and commanded the veteran elite Japanese forces of the royal guard. Prasat figured there was a better way to get rid of his ally-turned-nemesis: Promote him.
Prasat was suffering from a rebellion in the southern province of Ligor and told Yamada that if his forces could put down the rebellion, Yamada would be named governor of the entire province. Prasat probably figured that it was a win-win for him. Yamada would either go south and fail, taking heavy casualties, at which point he would be easier to deal with by assassination…or he’d succeed and be given a prominent post far away from the capital.
Well regardless of Prasat’s plan, Yamada marched his men south and put down the rebellion, taking control of Ligor. Yamada married a member of the royal family after taking control of Ligor and set about governing his new province. Yamada had suffered a leg wound in the fighting and was content to relax, govern, and heal with his new wife and his adult son, Oin. He was forty years old now, it was time to start settling down.
It wasn’t long, however, before Prasat became even more ambitious. He murdered the king he had just put on the throne a few months earlier and declared himself the new king. Yamada is said to have voiced opposition to Prasat’s claim to the kingship and his repeated acts of regicide.
Yamada would never get the opportunity to stage his own rebellion, however, because his new wife was an agent of Prasat’s. While tending to his wound, Yamada’s wife wrapped a poisonous cast around his leg and he died shortly thereafter.
His son, Oin, took over as governor of Ligor and is said to have possibly raised a rebellion in his late father’s name. Prasat sent his army south and took control of Ligor forcing Oin and many of his Japanese compatriots out of Siam.
Shortly thereafter Yamada’s red seal ship returned from a successful trading mission in Nagasaki and Prasat attempted to seize it for himself. The Japanese inhabitants of Ligor refused to turn it over and so Prasat burnt down the Japanese colony there, killing many of the Japanese inhabitants and forcing many more to flee. Oin and his men joined the Cambodian army and eventually led an invasion of Siam…where they were slaughtered in a marine operation.
Yamada Nagamasa fell into the mists of obscurity at that point. Well at least until World War II when he became a prominent figure in Japan, being billed as an adventurous patriotic pioneer who made great contributions to ‘southern nations’ in the name of Japan. His role within Siamese society and government and his military capabilities were used to justify Japan’s involvement and expansionism in those regions during the war.
Not a bad run for a knife-maker’s son? Second most powerful man in the kingdom of Siam and leader of an elite 700-man strong force of Japanese warriors.