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  • Japanese: 銀 (gin)

Though used in Japan since nearly the earliest times, silver became particularly prominent in regional maritime trade and domestic concerns in the 16th-18th centuries.

Silver was a major export of Japan in the 16th-17th centuries, with Japanese silver mines being in fact one of the chief sources of silver in the world market at that time, alongside the mines at Potosi in Bolivia.[1] Japan may have accounted for as much as one-third of the total world silver output at that time, exporting as much as 130,000-160,000 kg of silver just in the period 1615-1625 alone.[2] As silver was the chief means of payment for Chinese goods, it flowed out of the country in incredible amounts, via Chinese and Dutch merchants at Nagasaki, and via the Tsushima-Korea and Satsuma-Ryûkyû trades. This considerable outflow became a major concern of the Tokugawa shogunate in the 17th century, and various steps were taken in efforts to reduce the outflow of silver while trying to avoid any downward impact upon the volume of imports of Chinese silk. In the end, even as Japanese mines bled dry, by the 1760s[3] Japan had successfully halted the outflow of silver from the country, chiefly through processes of import- & export-substitution, and began to in fact import gold and silver.

Throughout the Edo period, silver was measured chiefly by weight, not by coin, in everyday market interactions in Kamigata (Kansai), where it was the standard mode of currency (gold was more standard in Edo). The most common denomination of silver was a 43 momme nugget called a chôgin.[4]

Sixteenth Century

Though under the kangô bôeki tally trade system of the Muromachi period silver flowed chiefly from China into Japan (despite bans at times by the Ming Dynasty against any export of silver from China), by the 16th century, the direction reversed. China now demanded silver above all else, and exported relatively little of it, though it remained a prominent tribute good "gifted" in all directions within the tributary relationships in the region. The trade in silver for Chinese silks and other Chinese goods represented a significant portion of the maritime trade in the region throughout this period, and played a central role in the piracy/smuggling activities of the wakô.

The Iwami Ginzan in Iwami province (Shimane prefecture) was the largest silver mine ever to operate in Japan, and was named a World Heritage Site in 2007.[5] The site was a particularly contested one during the Sengoku period, with the Amako clan gaining control of the mines in 1537, losing them briefly to the Ôuchi in 1539 but regaining them just two years later, and then losing them again, this time to the Môri clan, in 1562. Using technology imported from China in the 1530s which increased extraction capabilities significantly, Iwami Ginzan was able to produce as much as 150 tons of silver each year in the 16th-17th centuries.[6]

Mines in other parts of the country were significant as well, as regional daimyô began to mine more extensively, and gold and silver began to circulate more widely. In Noto, Suruga, Kai and Sado in particular, a combination of the opening of new mines, and the implementation of new technologies imported from China via Korea led to a considerable expansion in production from the 1530s onwards, making Japan a major world producer of silver up into the 17th century. Agents in service to the daimyô began to certify pieces of gold or silver as pure or authentic, a practice which continued into the 17th century, with the vermillion-wrapped shuhô gin produced by Kaga han a particularly famous and widely circulating example, though other domains also developed distinctive stamps for their silver bars.

Meanwhile, independent dealers called kin'ya and gin'ya emerged, exchanging gold or silver for rice or other goods, in part in order to allow peasants and commoners to pay their taxes in the obligatory form.

Seventeenth Century

In the 17th century, the Tokugawa shogunate tested out a variety of policies in efforts to stem the tide of silver exports. The 1655 abolition of the itowappu silk monopoly, established in 1604, was one such effort, but it backfired; the free competition that emerged after the dissolution of the monopoly caused silk prices to rise, which only served to increase the amount of silver leaving the country for the same amount of imported silk.

The export of pure silver ingots from Nagasaki was banned in 1609, and in 1616 a Nagasaki ginza was established to oversee controls over the export of silver. A series of regulations gradually limited and eventually banned the export of specific items made from silver, and in 1668, the shogunate banned the export of silver entirely.[7]

In 1671, a system was put into place in which Japanese officials set the prices for imports. This worked to some extent, and was manageable largely because Qing Dynasty bans on maritime activity along the South China coast reduced the number of ships calling at Nagasaki. Once those bans were lifted in 1684, the number of ships more than tripled, leading the shogunate to impose a series of quotas the following year. Chinese merchants were not to engage in more than 6000 kan (a unit of silver) worth of trade, and Dutch merchants not more than 3000. After those numbers were reached for the year, additional ships were turned away. Satsuma and Tsushima han were requested to implement similar restrictions in their trade with Ryûkyû and Korea, respectively. Despite these restrictions, however, a certain rather significant amount of silver was required to be provided to Ryûkyû and Korea, to pay in tribute, in turn, to China. Ryûkyû often borrowed considerably from Satsuma to afford this, and both Satsuma and Tsushima often borrowed in turn from the merchant class.

At the end of the 17th century, the shogunate put an end to regional/domain minting of coins (or ingots), claiming for itself exclusive rights to such activity, and establishing mints (ginza) in Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto.

Eighteenth Century

The dearth of silver in the country led to numerous remintings and depreciations of the currency, with the Yotsuhô currency issued in 1711 the most depreciated in the period, at only 20% pure silver.[8] One of the first major instances of this took place in 1695, when the government moved from 80% silver Keichô coins to 64% silver Genroku coins. Gold coins were reduced to 57% gold at that same time.[9] These debasements brought much-needed savings, or profits, for the shogunate's finances, typically worth millions of ryô. They created problems at times, however, for foreign trade, as the 80% silver Keichô ingots used throughout the 17th century were highly trusted and widely able to be circulated throughout the region, second only to the 90% silver Mexican silver dollar, the standard means of exchange for both East Asian and European traders at the time. Following the Genroku debasement, Korean merchants trading with agents from Tsushima han feared that the newly debased Japanese ingots might not be easily accepted by Chinese merchants, and so were hesitant to accept them; prices rose, and Tsushima's revenues for the year were severely negatively impacted.[10] They were permitted soon afterwards to return to using 80% ingots, specially minted just for trade with Korea; Satsuma han complained about the impact upon its trade with Ryûkyû as well, but received only lesser concessions. Regardless, only four years later, in 1715, Arai Hakuseki engineered a return to 80% ingots more broadly.[11]

Some scholars and policy-makers, including Shogun Tokugawa Ienobu and agricultural thinker Miyazaki Yasusada, discussed the possibility of a centrally coordinated, directed, effort to grow cash crops for export, as a means of reducing the outflow of precious metals. Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune took active steps to pursue this sort of program, requesting gazetteers and other materials out of the Momijiyama shogunate library, commissioning Japanese and Chinese scholars to perform investigations and reports, and even building experimental agricultural stations. Sugar cane was among the chief products the shogunate aimed to encourage. These programs were successful to a point, introducing a variety of cash crops to a number of regions across the archipelago, some of which had profoundly positive impacts upon the local or domain economies; it also spurred considerable growth of scholarly activity in botanical categorization and pharmocopoeia. It did not, however, single-handedly solve the country's silver problem.[12]

In 1736, the shogunate debased the coinage again, producing 46% silver ingots known as Genbun coins or Genbun ingots. As domestic production of ginseng and silk had grown considerably by this point, the shogunate decided it no longer needed to provide silver to Tsushima to support its trade in these goods, and so put an end to the domain's supply of 80% silver ingots. From that time forward, the domain gradually ceased exporting silver, switching to copper and other means of payment. Though later reporting that they had not exported any silver since 1736, in truth they likely continued to export diminishing amounts up into the 1750s or 1760s.[13]

Silver exports via Nagasaki came to an end around 1763, though no specific ban was put into place. Domestic production of ginseng, sugar, and silk had grown to such an extent by this point that the Japanese could now afford to actually export those goods, along with a variety of marine products, and begin importing gold and silver. The export of copper was significantly reduced at this time as well.[14] Over the course of the period from 1763 to 1803, the shogunate implemented six new exemptions to the Chinese trading quotas aimed at increasing the amount of silver Chinese merchants brought into the country, along with 29 such exemptions aimed at doing the same for gold. Beginning in 1769, the Nagasaki kaisho (customs house) also began obtaining silver from the Dutch. The supplemental trade conducted through these and other exemptions amounted to as much as 31% of the total trade in the second half of the 18th century.[15]

In 1779, the shogunate banned the circulation of nanryôni, pure silver coinage, switching over more exclusively to coins of gold-silver alloy, as well as copper coins.

By the mid-to-late 18th century, many of Japan's gold, silver, and copper mines were approaching exhaustion.


  • Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 52-59.
  1. Kobata Atsushi, "Production and Uses of Gold and Silver in Sixteenth- and Seventeeth-Century Japan," The Economic History Review, New Series, 18:2 (1965), 245-266.
  2. Marius Jansen, China in the Tokugawa World, Harvard University Press (1992), 16, 21.
  3. Robert Hellyer cites 1764 as the turning point. Hellyer, 73.
  4. Timon Screech, Obtaining Images, University of Hawaii Press (2012), 79.
  5. Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape, UNESCO.
  6. Cesare Polenghi, Samurai of Ayutthaya: Yamada Nagamasa, Japanese warrior and merchant in early seventeenth-century Siam. Bangkok: White Lotus Press (2009), 31.
  7. Jansen, 28.
  8. Hellyer, 67.
  9. Hellyer, 59.
  10. Hellyer, 60.
  11. Hellyer, 65.
  12. Jansen, 35-37.
  13. Hellyer, 77.
  14. Hellyer, 78.
  15. Hellyer, 84.