8. Shirahama Kenki
Shirahama Kenki was most definitely a pirate, but when he departed from a Japanese port and kept sailing, he became something of an explorer. His became the first Japanese ship to make contact with the area that became known as Cochinchina, what we now know as Vietnam. Kenki showed up on the coast of the new land in 1585 and initially mistaken for a Westerner. His fleet of five ships attacked and plundered villages up and down the coastline until the sixth son of the local lord, Nguyen Hoang, went out to stop him. The son’s clan, which was also caught up in a civil war that would last for decades, succeeded in destroying two of Kenki’s five ships, sending them running.
Kenki didn’t entirely give up on the idea of setting up shop in Vietnam, though. Sixteen years later, he showed up again in a slightly different light. Nguyen Hoang wrote a letter to the shogun of Tokogawa, apologizing for an incident involving Kenki. The pirate’s ship had been wrecked in a Vietnamese port, and Kenki was attacked by a local magistrate who hadn’t realized that he was, as the letter says, “a lawful merchant.” The magistrate was said to have been killed in the altercation—perhaps conveniently—and Nguyen Hoang had been able to stop officials from executing Kenki in retribution for their magistrate’s death.
The play was pretty brilliant. The response from Japan was one that praised their thoughtfulness in dealing with the situation, and confirmed that, from then on, all their legitimate trading ships would be bearing the red seal of the shogun. Tokogawa declared such ships to be legitimate, and it was the beginning of regular and profitable trade between the two.