History Lecture by Visiting Professor

“Merchants, Priests, and Mongol Invaders: Rethinking Medieval Japanese Foreign Relations”
Professor Ethan Segal
Wednesday, March 8th
12:30 – 1:45 p.m.
Sakamaki Hall A-201

In 1277, a Japanese merchant vessel received permission to trade in China. The incident might seem unremarkable, but it stands out for two reasons. First, Japan’s Kamakura warrior government (1185-1333) and the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) were at war. Khubilai Khan twice ordered invasions of Japan, and although his efforts were unsuccessful, tensions remained high for decades to follow. Second, most accounts of thirteenth-century foreign relations focus on war, with little mention of trade or other types of exchange.  Yet during these same years, merchants and Buddhist priests were regularly sailing between Yuan China and Kamakura Japan. Who were these figures, and what can they reveal about thirteenth-century foreign relations?

This paper attempts to answer such questions by focusing on non-military aspects of Yuan-Japan interactions. After reviewing the emphases on war and politics in existing scholarship, it provides a brief but detailed examination of the emerging economy, intra-regional trade, and religious exchanges. Whereas textbooks accounts often depict Japan as isolated during its Kamakura period, this paper highlights links between early medieval Japan and rest of Asia that laid the groundwork for the cultural and economic fluorescence of the subsequent Muromachi period (1336-1573).

Ethan Segal is Associate Professor of History and Chairperson of the Japan Council at Michigan State University.