Hisashi Takagi | Yasuda University – Means of exchange in small transactions in 16th century Japan: lower class bronze coins, silver currency, and credit use

The aim of the presentation is a case study of how bronze was used by common people in early modern Japan.

  Gold currency was a large currency rarely used by common people – it will not be discussed in this paper. The shortage of documents also prevent us from knowing about common people, and most documents were written by higher class people.

  Between 7th and 10th c. in Japan, zenis were the most used coins, but they stopped being issued. In the 11th c., they were replaced by imported Chinese bronze coins. Imitations soon emerged. These were also used as currency in Japan. This led to the resumption of copper production in Japan during the 12th and 13th c. Some coins were also produced without any inscription, and could still circulate. So inscriptions were not necessary. Another reason is that Japan did not produce tin, and tinless bronze could not be cast or minted with readable letters.

  During the 16th c. entrepreneurs hired craftsmen to produce coins, when the import of Chinese coins was discontinued, leading to a coin shortage. Coin production boosted as well as prices diminished. Another factor in these changes was civil wars.

  The supply side: imports decreased with late 16th c. events and the repression of coins smuggling by pirates. Chinese also started to mint counterfeited coins for export to Japan. All in all bronze coins imports in Japan ceased in the late 16th c.

  People used various coins, all with the value 1 mon (equivalent of 1 wen in China), thus being the standard coin. This principle went out of usage after the 16thc. and coins were hierarchized by size, leading to standard and substandard coins and the pluralization of coins.

  The regime accepted that hierarchization and defined the discount ratios of non-standard coins in 1569. For example the bita emerged from the Chinese coins scarcity. Bita refers to all coins except standard coins. Thus bita was worth less than 1 mon. But bita coins started to increase in parallel to the rising prices of rice. Thus, in 1570s, bita became the standard coin as it appreciated. The Oda regime in 1580 accepted to make bita the standard coin. Bita was distributed not only in the Oda domain but also outside: it was promoted through commercial practice and not political decisions. Its value was supported by merchant networks centred on Kyoto. Toyotomi Hideyoshi maintained the bita coin policy and defined it as his standard.

  A silver rush occurred in the 1st half of 16th c. At the same time almost all silver was exported to China. But because of its falling price (American competition) and bronze shortage, silver started to be used domestically. Thanks to this fall in value, the silver currency became convenient for small transactions, along small bronze. Silver was transacted by weight. Content and weight changed along manufacturers, which made silver rather inconvenient. The standardization of silver ingots ensued. And an official silver currency family was elected (Daikoku in Sakai) around 1590.

  Credit and book credit: credit worked in small transactions among commoners. Documents as early as the 14th c. See a famous trial related to cakes bought by Samurais. Credit permitted to reduce costs of transactions.


Common people used mainly bronze coins


Akinobu Kuroda – Copper coin 1st circulated at 1 mon, and later on the circulation stratified. But the exchange rate diverged region by region without relation to the actual content. Silver was introduced by weight, but monopolized by one merchant, under government rule.

A. : The bita value, variable from region to region, converged through social practice.

Anders Ögren – What about personal pledges and communal responsibility?

A. : Social practice: kunijichi: loan owner can request the debt to the debtor but also to the members of the same community.

Not sure of the relative value and number of coins. Sources do not allow for statistical analysis. In the Edo period, bita was not necessarily a counterfeited money, as it was the case in the medieval period.

Akinobu Kuroda – Historians say that in Edo period this currency was used to price rice. To make a price, they changed the quantity of rice. The transformation of the most important coins is related to how prices for food were designed and fixed.

A. : It is difficult to give a definitive answer, because of the shortage of documents.

Abstract of workshop : Money of the poor (4 – 5 July / Juillet 2019)
Organization : Patrice Baubeau, U. Paris Nanterre / IDHES (UMR8533)
Grant UPL (Université Paris Lumières) 2019/2021

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