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  • Japanese: 座 (za)

The za were one of the primary types of trade guilds in feudal Japan. They first appeared in the 12th century, and remained the dominant form of trade association until roughly the end of the 16th century, when guild structures began to shift and other types of organizations began to grow in number.

A number of other types of associations were also known as za; the common feature between all of these was that they represented a form of horizontal association between people coming together to protect common interests. Groups often acknowledged some kind of seniority, whether based on age or length of membership, but to a large extent honored a sense of relative equality among members. For example, seating at the meeting of a particular za might have been according to seniority, but the distribution of revenues was largely egalitarian.

Origins and purpose

The za grew out of protective cooperation between merchants and temples and shrines; merchants would travel and transport goods in groups, for protection from bandits and the vacillating whims of samurai and daimyô. They would also enter into arrangements with temples and shrines to sell their goods on a pitch or platform in the temple's (or shrine's) grounds, placing themselves under the auspices and protection of the temple or shrine. The word za, meaning seat, pitch, or platform, was thus applied to the guilds. The name may have also come, more simply, from the idea of merchants within a guild or association sharing a seat or platform in the marketplace. Performing troupes and other za organizations had similarly protective relationships with temples or shrines.

Za represented a form of association and collective protection outside of official political structures, which formed, in part at least, as the result of anxieties or concerns about the instability or un-trustworthiness of the official structures. In an age of weak or untrustworthy government, and especially amongst the chaos of the Sengoku period, za represented a certain stability and opportunity for collective defense against the chaos. Being outside of officially sanctioned structures, however, meant that at times, certain authorities saw the most powerful za as potential threats to their power.


The earliest za came into being in the 12th century, consisting not only of trade guilds, but also guilds of performers and entertainers. Even today, performers of kabuki and noh are in associations called za (see Kabuki-za). Outcastes formed their own za, which might be seen to fall under the rubric of "occupational" or "trade" guilds. Village religious organizations which worked together to organize local festivals and ceremonies, however, were also known as za - miyaza ("shrine za") to be specific.

The za trade guilds appeared as a major force in the 14th century, and lasted in their original forms through the end of the 16th, when other guilds and trade organizations arose and subsumed the za. While no longer powerful in their original forms, it could be argued that the basic concept of the za, and most likely the same merchants running them, continued to exist as powerful agents in the market through to the 18th, going through many organizational and structural changes over the centuries, and eventually being eclipsed by other organizations like the ie trading houses. Though very powerful at times, and enjoying certain tax exemptions and other formal governmental benefits, it is important to note that the za, at least in their original forms, were never as official or organized as the medieval guilds of Europe.

Za in the Muromachi period

However, it was not until the Muromachi period (1336-1467) that the za really came to be a significant presence in Japan's economic world. By this time, many more za had appeared, and were larger, more organized, and more well-connected with temples, shrines, and nobles. While many associated themselves with temples and shrines, many other guilds allied themselves with noble families, gaining protection in exchange for a sharing of the profits. For example, Kyoto's yeast-brewers were associated with the Kitano Tenman-gū shrine, and the oil brokers had the Tendai monastery of Enryakuji as their patron. The gold leaf makers of Kyoto placed themselves under the protection of the Konoe family, and the fishmongers under the Saionji, a particularly powerful and wealthy family, who earned two-thirds of the profits of Kyoto's fish markets from the arrangement. Two troupes of Yamato sarugaku performers, the Yûzaki-za and Emai-za, enjoyed the protection of the Kôfuku-ji.

During this period, agricultural and economic advancement and growth was quite rapid in the countryside, or "Home Provinces", and za began to conglomerate into groups organized by their locality, not by their trade. These rural za were generally associations of wealthier peasant farmers who combined to sell oil, bamboo, rice, or other agricultural products in bulk; they occasionally allowed urban brokers to join their guilds, to act as their proxy or guide in the city markets. However, in the large cities, where economic progress was occurring in a different way, za formed up, as might be expected, by trade, and began to concentrate themselves in small sections of the city. Ginza, meaning "silver za" (silver trade guild), in Tokyo, is one of the most famous place-names to reflect this activity, though the Guildhall area of London, on the other side of the world, is a perfect example of the equivalent English activity.

Towards the end of the Muromachi period, the za began to grow independent of the noble families, temples, and shrines they had placed themselves under, having grown large enough and powerful enough to protect themselves. This independence also allowed the za to further its own interests, namely profit; the za began to realize at this time that they had the power to alter market prices, and began to show signs of monopolistic activity. While most used their monopoly power only in retail sales of their particular trade good to consumers, some, such as the salt dealers of Yamato province, would purchase raw materials wholesale, entering arrangements by which they could deny other guilds and other merchants of these materials.

Though mostly independent from their former patrons, many guilds still engaged in agreements for protection with noble families on a one-time, rather than permanent, basis. However, their independence and increasing power earned many za political enemies; some from their former patrons. As the Muromachi period came to an end, in the late 15th century, other forms of economic associations arose which were less monopolistic, and which challenged the supremacy of the za.

Za in the Sengoku and Edo periods

The Ônin War of 1467 plunged the country into a period of chaos and war, called the Sengoku period, which would last over 130 years. However, the za continued to operate, and perhaps became even more powerful as the ability to safely travel and transport goods across the nation became increasingly dangerous.

Towards the end of the 16th century, one hundred years into the Sengoku period, Oda Nobunaga briefly took command of the country, and established "free" markets and guilds, known respectively as rakuichi (楽市) and rakuza (楽座). These dealt a severe blow to the power and influence of the older, monopolistic za, but did not replace them. Several other types of trade associations came into being around this time as well; though it could be argued that they replaced the za, it seems more likely that the change was a more gradual, organic one, and that the za could be said to have continued to exist, just in new forms and with new names. One of the new types of organization was called nakama (仲間), or kabunakama (株仲間) when they were authorized by the Shogun. These groups were essentially guilds based on the idea of shareholding; each member of the guild owned a share in the total profits of all the guild's members. However, the shares were not transmissible, unlike in our modern stock market. Another type of trade group, called toiya (or tonya in Edo), served as wholesale merchants, focusing primarily on shipping and warehousing.

By the end of the Tokugawa period, the guilds, in these various forms, had gained a significant degree of legitimacy and power. While the kabunakama and tonya received monopoly licenses and government support in other forms in exchange for either payment of set fees, or a share of the profits, the za came under more direct shogunate control. Employing a strongly centralized system, the za brought 90% of the nation’s silk processing to Kyoto by the 1720s. This centralization made monopolization of the industry far easier, and brought a significant wealth to the Kyoto government and to the merchant members of the various trade organizations. Some of the za most prominently under the control of the shogunate were the gold and silver guilds, known as kinza and ginza respectively, and a copper guild established by the shogunate in 1766; at that time, all private sales of copper were prohibited, and the guild was given control of both the minting of copper coinage and the shipping of copper between Osaka and Nagasaki. A ginseng za, meanwhile, oversaw the import and domestic markets in that highly demanded good.[1] The shuza, established in 1609, held a monopoly on the sale and distribution of cinnabar, while short-lived guilds dominated the flow of iron and brass from 1780 to 1787, when they were abolished by Matsudaira Sadanobu. Many of these guilds were either established or strengthened under the tenure of Tairô Tanuma Okitsugu in the 1760s-1780s, but many of his policies were reversed shortly afterwards by Sadanobu. Guilds also existed managing the circulation of alum and camphor.[2]

Over the course of the Meiji period, the trade guilds and associations, in all their various forms, changed over into more modern, and eventually Western, modes of business, giving rise to the zaibatsu and keiretsu monopolies of the 20th century. Some guilds were replaced, eclipsed, or destroyed. Others simply changed, gradually or rapidly, adopting new methods and modes of acting in the market, as technology and the general economic structure of the country changed.


  • Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility, Cambridge University Press (2005), 80-81.
  • Edward Kaplan, "The Cultures of East Asia: Political-Material Aspects," Chap. 16 & 18, 25 June 2003.
  • George Sansom, A History of Japan: 1334-1615, Stanford University Press, 1961.
  • Sansom, A History of Japan: 1615-1867, Stanford University Press, 1963.
  • Sansom, Japan: a Short Cultural History, New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1962.
  1. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 86.
  2. John Whitney Hall, Tanuma Okitsugu (1719-1788): Forerunner of Modern Japan, Harvard University Press (1955), 77-78.