In recent decades the Japanese have descended in droves to visit, live, and work Thailand. Japanese enclaves have been founded by businessmen, salary men, housewives, and students all over the country—from their mega-companies and factories to golf courses, the izakaya (gastropubs), and the pleasure parlours along Thaniya and Sukhumvit Roads. However, the first Japanese ‘Floating World’ landed on Thai shores long ago, establishing a history through diplomatic, commercial, military, and romantic liaisons for centuries.
In the late 16th century, when the Japanese government permitted the Japanese to trade overseas, the ‘Red Seal’ ships—Japanese armed merchant sailing ships with red-sealed letters issued by the early Tokugawa shogunate—came and fostered commerce in Ayutthaya. The bonds between Siam and Japan were strengthened through these trade ties, and communications between the kings and the shoguns. Siamese exports consisted of lead, tin, ceramics, sappan wood for using as dye, and forest products. The Siamese would exchange for Japanese silver and handicrafts such as swords, lacquered boxes, and paper.
Like other foreigners, Ayutthayan kings allowed the Japanese to settle outside the city wall. Thus a Japanese community of merchants, mercenaries, and Catholic convert exiles thrived in Baan Yiipun, the Japanese settlement, situated in Koh Rian sub-district on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River. At its peak, in the early 17th century, the inhabitants numbered around 1,500.
The Japanese were also accepted into a small army of King Songtham’s personal bodyguards because of their martial expertise and quality swords. They were organized under Krom Asaa Yiipun, a ‘Department of Japanese Volunteers’. One of them was Yamada Nagamasa, who lived in Siam for over 15 years. Born in 1590 in Shizuoka, Japan, the adventurous Yamada arrived in Ayutthaya and established himself as a trustworthy trader, warrior, and eventual leader of the Japanese community.
Yamada also supported King Songtham’s military campaigns by heading a Japanese army flying the Japanese flag. He rose to prominence from the rank of Kuhn, low Thai nobility, to Ok-ya, a senior noble. He was eventually titled Ok-ya Senaphimuk and became the governor of Nakhon Sri Thammarat. He travelled back to Japan a few times and died in Siam in 1630, from being poisoned by King Prasart Thong’s emissary.
After Yamada’s death, King Prasart Thong (who usurped the throne) and the authorities in Ayutthaya were worried that the Japanese had become too involved in the Siamese economy and gained too much influence. They ordered the Japanese to be expelled or killed. The colony went through an upheaval but was not allowed to return to Japan on penalty of death because of Sokaku, the period of national isolation. Most were killed while some, along with the survivors of Yamada’s army, escaped to Cambodia. Upon hearing the news, Tokugawa Iemitsu, shogun of Japan, cut off relations with Siam. In the end, however, the Japanese who remained in Ayutthaya and were not killed were given tracts of land.
The next interesting yet harrowing episode of Japanese-Thai relationship came during World War II. Thailand officially adopted a neutral position until it was invaded and occupied by Japan in 1941. In the beginning, the Japanese Empire pressured the Thai government to allow the passage of Japanese troops to invade British-held Malaya and Burma. Despite fierce fighting in Southern Thailand, the resistance lasted only a matter of hours before ending in a ceasefire. The Thai government under General Plaek Phibunsonkhram considered it preferable to co-operate with the Japanese.
A mutual offensive-defensive alliance pact between the two countries was signed. The agreement gave the Japanese full access to Thai weaponry, railways, roads, airfields, naval bases, barracks, warehouses, and communication systems. To promote greater military and economic co-operation, Japan stationed 150,000 troops on Thai soil and built the infamous ‘Death Railway’, or Thailand-Burma Railway, using Asian labourers and Allied prisoners of war.
The legacy of war not only spawned traumatic remnants of the railway—the “Bridge over the River Kwai”, and the war cemetery in Kanchanaburi—but also a famous Thai novel Khu Karma (The Ill-Fated Couple). The book portrays Angsumalin, a proudly patriotic Thai woman, in a conflicting relationship with Kobori, an Imperial Japanese navy officer during the period. Akin to Madam Butterfly with a twist, it was adapted into TV series and films numerous times.
After the dust of battles had settled, commerce took over. Loving foreign things, Thais happily consume and adopt all things Japanese—from sushi to anime. We admire Japanese discipline, order, courteous manners, and deference for traditions and society. Nowadays Thai tourists flock to Japan and gawk over sakura blossoms while Japanese tourists in Thailand are amazed at the charming chaos. Neither country seems to be encumbered by historical baggage. Buddhism has influenced both countries, perhaps playing a more overt role in Thailand than Japan. Both royal families also hold great respect in each society, thus the mutual admiration and fascination never seems to end.