Ancient Japanese Gold Coins

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While relatively ancient by modern standards, Japanese gold coinage is somewhat modern from a historical standpoint, with its development arising well into the Christian Era (C. E) as compared to the far more ancient coins of countries such as Greece and Rome with coinage that dates back to the age of antiquity. Like Ancient Egypt, early Japan had no official form of currency, relying solely on barter as its only means of exchange. Rice, the main staple of the Japanese nation to this very day, was once used as a type of currency in much the same way that corn or oil was used by the Ancient Egyptians as a rudimentary form of money for general purchase. [1] Other forms of rudimentary currency were commodities like arrowheads, sea shells, hemp cloth, and – until much later – gold powder. [2]

It was due to the influence of the Chinese court during the Tang Dynasty that the Japanese adopted an alternative form of currency involving metallic coinage, but because they had yet to develop their own forms of currency, much of the currency used at that time still remained largely commodity money. However, the need for official currency that could be used for general trade as well as local use prompted the Japanese nobility to develop some form of currency minting, imitating the currency of its trade partner China. By the 7th century CE, Japan had developed its first rudimentary form of currency in the form of copper coinage and copper bars referred to as Tomimotosen coinage. [3] An imperial currency that formalized Japan's monetary standards was developed and finalized at around 708 CE. Called the Kochosen, it was commissioned by the Empress Gemmei, along with the minting of Japan's first official coin – the Wadokaichin. [4]

This type of currency however soon became rapidly debased, with blatant forgeries often being employed by many of the Japanese peoples in the stead of authentic ones. A reform of currency was soon put into place, with a new copper coin called the Mannentsuho, a silver one called the Taiheigenbo, as well as the appearance of the first gold coin – the Kaikishoho. [5]

The strong growth of Japanese economy meant that they needed more currency than they could at the time produce, facilitating a need to use another monetary currency not their own – that of the Chinese. This period lasted from middle of the 12th to the latter part of the 17th century, until the feudal lords of Japan began experimenting with developing official currencies that could be reliably used in international trade.

The true use of gold coins as Japanese currency began when the Daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi developed the Oban, a large gold plate (the largest of all Japanese gold currency) made in the shape of an oval that was used as currency. [6] This would later give rise to the various forms of gold currency that would be employed during the Tokugawa Period. An earlier type of Japanese gold coinage preceding that of the Tokugawa Era coins were known as Bundokin – gold nuggets or gold plated copper nuggets resembling Chinese sycee that were divided into two types – Kobundo (small ones), and Obundo (large ones). Used as weights in scales, they represented approximately 373g in gold by weight. [7] During Ieyasu Tokugawa's reign, the monetary system of Japan changed. Copying the gold standard coins of Hideyoshi, Ieyasu also issued his own gold coinage, alongside silver, copper, and bronze coins to be used as payment for imported goods. The Oban of Hideyoshi was retained, with its worth now amounting to ten ryo (a system of weights that denoted value which later became the face value of currency), with the addition of other gold coins such as the koban, another ovoid gold coin worth one ryo, and rectangular shaped coins made from both gold and silver, referred to as Ichibuban (worth half a Koban), and smaller gold pieces called Nishuban and Isshuban, which were smaller denominations of worth half or quarter an Ichibuban. [8]

While the face value of these coins were fixed, they actually suffered fluctuating rates on the exchange market and had to face devaluation and re-evaluation, with the content of gold their gold coinage reduced dramatically, first in 1695, and secondly during 1706 – 1711. [9] The use of gold as currency for trade as well as private investments soon created a fluctuating wave of inflation and deflation that took some ten years before any sort of stability resumed. It was then thought that exporting gold coins to pay for imports and other trade commodities was a great loss to Japan, owing mostly to the limited amount of gold that their land possessed, so that by 1715, Hakuseki Arai issued a ban on the export of monetary species with the substitution of trade. Trade was altogether stopped and controlled due to Iemitsu Tokugawa's edict of Sakoku (locked country), that began in the middle of the 1600s. [9] Due to its closure from all foreign trade, Japanese currency, more so its gold currency remained in use only nationally, and its trade economy, though somewhat limited, allowed the Japanese nation to thrive.

The production of gold coins, along with other denominations continued until the latter part of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and was discontinued with the end of Sakoku in 1853, where its value was highly lost due to exportation. Today, Japanese gold coins are valued as collector's items. Because Japan has now adopted a more Westernized monetary standards, the production of gold coins such as the Oban and Koban is no more, although Japan now has its own gold bullion yen[10]. Some eccentric collectors may still choose to mould their gold into traditional Japanese coinage, although authentic traditional gold coins are not used as bullion investments. Japanese gold coinage also features much in ornaments and period movies.

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Content researched and created by Alexander Leonhart for ©

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