Important Cultural PropertyLetters from Vietnamese officials

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  • 2 sheets
  • Ink on paper
  • Later Le dynasty (Vietnam)
  • Kyushu National Museum
  • P14982, P14983

Letter from Vietnamese vice-minister and marquis Nguyen to the “King of Japan”

This document is the oldest extant diplomatic document exchanged between Japan and Annam (present-day Vietnam). Its contents are as follows:

“Vice-Minister Nguyen of the Annam Kingdom addresses this letter to the King of Japan. My sources tell me that your country greatly treasures loyalty, and believes that it should be honored as such. When I met your ambassador, Chen Liangshan, last year, he told us that you would appreciate a fine elephant. I thus endeavored to send him back with one, but his ship was too small for it. Instead, I entrusted upon him two pieces of incense wood, one parasol, one elephant’s tusk, and two fine rolls of cloth to be presented to you as a symbol of our desire to maintain good relations with your country.

“However, when I met your ambassador Long Yan this year, he informed me that neither Chen Liangshan nor my gifts had arrived. As such, I am sending him back with another parasol as a symbol of our loyalty. If you should like more curiosities from us, you need only to send Long Yan here again with two fine swords and one set of armor from your country. I will collect some rarities from my country and send them to you in return. I hope that this allows us to maintain friendly exchange between our countries.”

Scholars believe that this letter was written by Nguyen Canh Doan 阮景端, a high-ranking official of the Annam Kingdom during the Late Le dynasty. It was addressed to the “[Honorable] King of Japan,” which may have referred to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ruler of Japan then. Hideyoshi had demanded tributes from Joseon, Ryukyu, Takasago (present-day Taiwan), and Luzon. It is therefore possible that he might have requested the same of Annam in an attempt to build trade relations with them. Little is known, however, about the two ambassadors named in the letter. As such, it is also possible that they may have been Chinese maritime traders seeking trade with Annam by claiming they were sent by the King of Japan.

Whichever the case may be, this letter undoubtedly documents the relationship between Japan and Annam toward the end of the later wave of wakō (Ch. wokou; lit., “Japanese pirates”) invasions, as Japan moved toward a period of government-sanctioned maritime trade. As a historical document, it predates previously known sources by around a decade.

Letter from a Vietnamese marquis to Japanese merchants

This is a letter sent from a marquis of the Annam Kingdom (present-day Vietnam), addressed to “Ichirō Hekizan Hakutō.” Its sender was one Tran Tinh 陳靖, a marquis based in Nghe An, where a trading port was located. He may have been in charge of the region. It is unclear who the addressee(s) was/were, as it could have been a person with the surname Ichirō, or a list of multiple names.

Regardless, the contents of the letter tell us that the addressee(s) had sailed to Nghe An in 1609 on an official trading ship owned by Suminokura Soan. The ship and its 105 crew members were shipwrecked on their return trip, off the shores of the straits of Dan Nhai. Taking pity on these merchants who were suffering far from home, the king of Annam had ordered the Van Ly marquis (Văn Lý hầu) Tran, along with the duke of Thu county (Thư quận công) and the Quang Phu marquis (Quảng Phú hầu), to distribute rations to the victims. The marquises then appealed to the king for food, clothing, and a large ship for the victims.

In the same year that the addressee(s) had set sail to Annam, the Japanese government had granted three permits for merchant ships to sail to Cochinchina in central Vietnam. This letter thus serves as proof that many merchant ships had sailed to Vietnam under the government-sanctioned maritime trade system. It also provides evidence of the friendly relations between the two nations during that period.