Ivory tally system

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  • Established: 1474
  • Japanese: 日朝牙符制 (Nicchou gafusei)

The ivory tally system was a system devised in 1474 to help ensure the authenticity of Japanese envoys to Korea claiming to represent the Ashikaga shogunate.

Pieces of ivory roughly 13.5 cm in circumference were split in half, with one half kept by the Korean court, and one half by the Ashikaga shogunate. Each piece was inscribed Chôson tsûshin (K: Choson t'ongsin) on one side, along with a number from one to ten, and "10th year of Chenghua" (K: songkwa), i.e. 1474, on the other side. The inscription was written straight down the center, where the tallies were split, such that the Japanese tallies would have the left half of each character of the inscription, and the Koreans, the right.

In theory, these tallies might have been distributed among shogunal vassals, to serve for them as a mark of authenticity to give to their envoys. However, it seems the shogunate kept them all, and simply used them in turn.

The Japanese envoy to first bring these tallies back to Japan in 1474, a Zen monk named Shôkyû, was held by the Sô clan of Tsushima, who attempted to gain the tallies from him, and to gain information about how the system worked, presumably so that they could continue to collaborate with imposter envoys. However, they somehow failed to obtain the tallies, and Shôkyû successfully delivered all ten to the shogunate.

Tallies eventually made their way to other daimyô, however, and some did end up getting borrowed by the Sô clan to help their imposter envoys seem more authentic. This occurred at least once, when, in 1509, a Sô clan envoy used an ivory tally borrowed from either the Ôuchi or the Ôtomo clan.

The ivory tally system did not last long, and petered out sometime in the late 15th century. It was revived, however, in 1503, when Ashikaga Yoshizumi wrote to King Yongsan-gun of Joseon requesting that new tallies be made and exchanged. New tallies were indeed made, with the right side of the inscription given to the Japanese this time, so that the old tallies could not be passed off as the new ones. The Ôuchi and Ôtomo clans, who each controlled part of Hakata Bay, each sided with a different claimant to the shogunate at this time - the Ôtomo with Yoshizumi, and the Ôuchi with Ashikaga Yoshitane. The new, valid tallies were held only by the Ôtomo, however, so it was with Yoshizumi and the Ôtomo that Hakata merchant elites, and the Sô clan of Tsushima, had to side if they wanted to engage in trade with Korea.

This situation lasted a few years, until 1511, when, after the defeat of Ashikaga Yoshizumi, and Yoshitane's establishment as shogun, the Ôtomo and Ôuchi made peace with one another, and gave the tallies to the shogunate, to be given or lent out to appropriate parties. Beginning in the 1530s, the Sô clan kept a number of tallies to be used themselves (including for sending imposter envoys).

The system ended around the same time as the end of official relations between Ming China and Muromachi Japan, in 1551.


  • Hashimoto Yû. "The Information Strategy of Imposter Envoys from Northern Kyushu to Choson Korea in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries." in Angela Schottenhammer (ed.) The East Asian Mediterranean: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Commerce and Human Migration. Harrassowitz Verlag, 2008. pp289-315.