Ningbo Incident


Hosokawa Clan

Zhengde Emperor

Ōuchi Clan

The Ningbo Incident (Ninpō no ran) occurred in Daiei 3 (1523) in the harbor city of Ningbo on the coast of China.  The incident arose from a confrontation between the Hosokawa and the Ōuchi over the issue of the right to trade with the Ming dynasty after each clan dispatched its own team of envoys on simultaneous missions to China.

Trade between Japan and China

Trade between the Muromachi bakufu in Japan and the Ming dynasty in China commenced at the beginning of the fifteenth century under the reign of the fourth shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshimochi, and the second emperor of China, the Jianwen Emperor.  Ming China considered Japan a tributary state in a world order with China serving as the Middle Kingdom.  Under the Ming tributary system, Japan could present tribute to the Chinese imperial court and be rewarded in the form of gifts by the emperor.  The dynasty bestowed peerage by imperial edict upon the Ashikaga shōgun as the King of Japan, issuing certificates known as tallies.  This gave rise to the kangō bōeki, or tally trade.

The Chinese “tally” was a certificate issued by the Ming.  The tallies served essentially as licenses to exclusive trading rights with the Ming, and were particularly coveted owing to a general maritime prohibition by the Ming against seafaring activities aimed at curtailing piracy, smuggling, and associated security threats.  The first one hundred such tallies were conveyed to Japan in 1404.  Only those with proof of Imperial permission represented by tallies were officially allowed to travel and trade within the boundaries of China; and only those diplomatic missions presenting authentic tallies were received as legitimate ambassadors.  The tallies served to distinguish authorized traders from unauthorized seafarers known as wakō, a term applying to pirates, smugglers, and other private enterprises operating without official authorization.  Envoys dispatched by the bakufu were accompanied by leading merchants from Hakata and Sakai who engaged in personal business at the same time.

The formal tribute goods presented to the Ming Court from the Japanese included horses, sulfur from the Ryūkyū Islands, swords and other arms, and various craft products such as screens, fans, inkstones, and lacquerware.  In return for these tribute offerings, Japan received from the Ming Court silver, silks, large amounts of copper coins, and various luxury goods such as porcelain objects, brocades, and bronze items.  Japanese members of the missions, in their private and official trade activities, brought sappanwood, copper, and pepper, as well as swords, sulfur, and craft products such as inkstones, fans, screens, and lacquerware.  In return, the Japanese received Chinese lacquerware, copper goods, sugar, ceramic wares, books, scrolls of calligraphy, silks, hemp, cotton, and medicines.

The dynasty assigned the city of Ningbo as the port of entry for Japanese traders into China.  Between 1401 and 1547, as many as twenty trade missions were made between Japan and China, headed by a Zen Buddhist monk from one of the Kyōto Gozan, or five great Zen temples of Kyōto, including the Nanzen, Tenryū, Shokoku, Kennin, Tofuku and Manju temples.  The flotillas ranged in size from three to as many as nine ships.  The ships could hold three hundred men, with officials and merchants comprising approximately one-half and the helmsmen and crew the remainder.

Securing the rights to trade

The Hosokawa clan served as kanrei, or deputy shōgun, in the Muromachi bakufu during a period of internal struggle in the Ashikaga family that gave rise to the Ōnin-Bunmei War in 1467.  This conflict, which raged in the capital of Kyōto for over a decade, prevented the Ashikaga from managing trade activities with China.  This provided an opening for the Hosokawa and Ōuchi clans to compete for control of the lucrative trade.  The city of Sakai served as the base for commercial activities conducted by the Hosokawa. Meanwhile, the powerful Ōuchi clan, based in the city of Yamaguchi in Suō Province, relied upon the harbor town of Hakata for trading activities.

The Zhengde Emperor served as the eleventh head of the Ming dynasty from 1505 to 1521.  From 1511 to 1513, the Ōuchi supported Ashikaga Yoshitane, the shōgun, to sponsor a mission with a party of six hundred men on merchant vessels for trade with China.  Ryōan Keigo, a diplomat and monk from the Buddhist Rinzai sect, served as the chief envoy of the mission to Beijing.  The mission succeeded in securing exclusive rights for the Ōuchi to trade with the Ming dynasty as evidenced by tallies issued by the Zhengde Emperor.

In 1516, Ashikaga Yoshitane guaranteed the Ōuchi perpetual trading rights with China as recognition for the support earlier provided by Ōuchi Yoshioki to reinstall Yoshitane as shōgun in Kyōto in 1508.  Years earlier, in 1493, Yoshitane had been forced to give-up his position and flee Kyōto owing to differences with Hosokawa Masamoto, the deputy shōgun, in an important event known as the Meiō Political Disturbance (Meiō no seihen).  Consequently, Yoshitane favored the Ōuchi at the expense of the Hosokawa in regard to the award of trading privileges with China.  This moved the center of trade with China from Sakai to Hakata, meaning the loss of a key source of revenue for the Hosokawa.  Upon the return by Ōuchi Yoshioki to his home of Yamaguchi in Suō Province, Hosokawa Takakuni (the adopted son of Masamoto), initiated a confrontation with the Ōuchi over the issue.

Details of the conflict

In 1523, separate trade fleets from the Hosokawa and the Ōuchi clans set sail from Japan on a journey to Ningbo just days apart.  The Ōuchi delegation, led by Kendō Sōsetsu, carried the most up-to-date tally from the Zhengde Emperor, and reached Ningbo before the Hosokawa delegation led by Rankō Zuisa and Song Suqing, who carried outdated tallies from Zhengde’s predecessor, Hongzhi, dating back to 1495.  Nevertheless, Song Suqing was able to bribe the head eunuch of the Maritime Customs Office, Lai En, giving the Hosokawa priority for inspection of their vessels contrary to the practice of conducting inspections in order of arrival.  The Hosokawa also succeeded in having Rankō Zuisa take a position ahead of Kendō Sōsetsu in the guest hall.

Enraged at the actions of the Hosokawa, the Ōuchi responded by killing Rankō Zuisa, and attacking and torching the Hosokawa ships. The harbor officials sided with the Hosokawa in an unsuccessful attempt to put down the trouble. Song Suqing fled to the Shaoxing with the Ōuchi in pursuit, killing other officials along the way. Unable to capture Song Suqing, the armed band burned and plundered their way back to Ningbo, proceeding to kidnap a garrison commander, Yuan Jin, and setting sail on commandeered ships.  A Ming flotilla led by Liu Jin, the regional commander, pursued them but the Ōuchi fought back and killed Liu Jin as well.


The Ningbo Incident became a significant diplomatic issue between China and Japan.  The Ming dynasty abolished the customs office in 1529, causing a loss of official trade between the countries.  Meanwhile, private trade, including trade by the wakō, increased significantly.  Song Suqing was arrested and sentenced to death.  He died in prison in 1525.