Various oban gold coins used during the Edo period are on view, the gold content varying by era./Yomiuri Shimbun
Various oban gold coins used during the Edo period are on view, the gold content varying by era./Yomiuri Shimbun

Japan counts its old money

Art December 25, 2017 01:00

By Yusuke Sano
The Japan News/Yomiuri

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The Currency Museum shows how diverse our units of commerce have been



THE BANK of Japan’s Currency Museum in Tokyo exhibits mainly currencies that have been circulated in Japan, including fuhonsen coins said to be the first ever used in this country, toraisen coins imported from China during the medieval period, and oban and koban (large and small gold coins).

Visitors who turn right after entering the museum will encounter a glittering display of gold coins produced during the Edo period (1603-1867), such as keicho oban, genroku oban and kyoho oban coins. 

The oval-shaped coins, which were often given as gifts, are about 15 centimetres long and 9cm wide and weigh 165 grams.

The seal-mark inscribed in Indian ink on each coin is the signature of the Goto family, who produced the coins. As oban coins without the seal were of lesser value, the seal would be rewritten when the ink faded. 

The Goto family and Edo shogunate, which commissioned their production, guaranteed the coins’ value and thus their circulation.

Since gold and silver coins were in short supply during the Edo period, han (domains) across the country issued their own bills. Into the early Meiji era (1868-1912), more than 200 kinds of han bills were issued, mainly in western Japan. 

The creditworthiness of a domain determined the value of its bills.

Han bills issued by the Kii Wakayama domain./ The Japan News/Yomiuri 

In 1871, the Meiji government established a new currency law and changed the currency unit from ryo to yen. 

At the time, a one-ryo bill issued by the Shinano Matsushiro domain (Nagano Prefecture) was converted into 0.889 yen, while a one-ryo bill issued by the Satsuma Kagoshima domain (Kagoshima Prefecture) was converted into 0.322 yen. 

To finance battles during the Meiji Restoration, the Satsuma domain issued so many bills that their actual value was less than the face value.

The museum also features foreign currencies that suffered extreme losses in credibility. 

After Germany’s defeat in World War I, its Ruhr industrial district was occupied by foreign troops. 

Germany subsequently experienced rampant inflation, leading to a collapse in the value of the mark in 1923. 

Rai stone money was used on the Micronesian island of Yap. 

 

The denomination of banknotes increased rapidly, with 100-trillion-mark notes entering circulation.

A large stone is displayed near a staircase in the museum. It’s a form of money called rai, which was used on the Micronesian island of Yap.

Rai were used for land and other transactions, but were never physically moved. 

Even units that had sunk to the ocean floor were used. Nor were transactions involving the stone money recorded. 

The sense of trust between seller and buyer is said to have guaranteed the currency’s value.

The Bank of Japan’s Institute for Monetary and Economic Studies runs the museum. It opened in 1985 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the bank’s establishment. 

The museum exhibits about 3,000 items, including currencies and banknotes.