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  • Japanese: 赤金・銅 (akagane, dou)

Copper has been used for coinage in China and Japan since ancient times, and was a major maritime trade and tribute good throughout the pre-modern to early modern period. In the Edo period, copper was perhaps Japan's chief export, as the archipelago became the chief source of copper to the entire region,[1] and quite possibly the largest producer of copper in the world.[2]

Early Coinage

An example of a wadô kaichin coin, on display at the British Museum

The Wadô era (708-715) is named after the significant discovery of copper seams in Musashi province; the era's name means literally "Japanese copper." Copper coins minted during that period based on the form of Chinese ones are believed to have been the first coins minted in Japan.

The Song Dynasty produced more copper coins than any other dynasty; in the 1070s, China was producing nearly six billion coins per year, a process which required 9600 tons of copper each year.[3] Many of these coins made it to Japan, where Chinese coins remained a standard mode of exchange over domestically minted coins throughout much of the pre-modern period.

Muromachi Period

Though copper coins were for a time a major trade and tribute good, or form of payment, exchanged between China, Japan, Korea, Ryûkyû, and beyond, and indeed were one of Japan's major imports from China in the kangô bôeki "tally trade," the Ashikaga shogunate banned the outflow of copper coins from Japan in 1471, especially to Ryûkyû via Satsuma.[4]

Though not comparable to production during the Song Dynasty, the Ming Dynasty, especially under the Yongle Emperor (r. 1402-1424), saw considerable minting of copper coins. Coins from the Yongle era circulated so widely in Japan that even today the character 「永」 (J: ei, C: Yǒng as in Yongle) is sometimes used to refer to copper coins (e.g. 「永二〇〇文」 , meaning 200 mon of copper coins).

Edo Period

Copper coins remained a common mode of exchange in this period, alongside gold and silver. Copper was typically measured by weight in momme, with around 100 copper coins being worth roughly one momme of silver.

The shogunate began promoting the export of copper more forcefully in 1695 as a substitute for silver, which was flowing out of the country at worryingly high rates. That same year, the shogunate imposed further restrictions on the export of silver, and banned the export of gold outright.[5] This export substitution of copper for silver was greatly successful for a time. Chinese merchants found the Japanese copper to be of high quality, and available for prices competitive with the Chinese market. Meanwhile, the Qing Dynasty government was minting around 40,000 piculs (J: kin, C: jīn, approx. 2,740 tons) of copper coins each year. Japanese copper was of higher quality than that produced domestically in China at the time, and would play a significant role in helping meet the Qing government's demand for over forty years, until in 1738, the Qing turned to relying more heavily on mines in Yunnan province, which had expanded their production and/or raised the quality of their output, deliberately as part of efforts to wean China off of Japanese exports.[6] Around this same time, at the end of the 17th century, the shogunate claimed exclusive authority to mint currency, putting an end to regional/domain production, and establishing its own shogunal gold, silver, and copper mints in Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto. Copper was also exported via Tsushima han to Korea, as the Korean Court required copper to mint its own coins, and via Satsuma han to the Ryûkyû Kingdom, along with tin, marine products, and other goods, which Ryûkyû could then use as tribute payments to the Chinese Court.[7]

A series of "Shôtoku regulations" engineered by Arai Hakuseki and implemented in 1715 aimed at reducing the amount of copper flowing out of the country, reinforcing policies put in place in 1685 which restricted the Chinese to 6000 kan of silver worth of trade, and the Dutch to 3000, each year. Within this, Hakuseki restricted copper exports to three million kin, and over the course of the century, both the number of Chinese ships calling at Nagasaki and the amount of precious metals they exported dropped dramatically, from 40 ships carrying away 8,000 kan worth of exports in 1717, to 15 ships carrying 4,000 kan in mid-century, down to ten ships and 2,7400 kan in 1791.[8]

While copper mines operated in many parts of the archipelago in this period, the chief source of copper production was Akita han. Many of these mines saw considerable expansion in their production in the 17th century, but were well on the way to being exhausted by the end of that century, joined by Japan's silver mines not long afterwards. In 1763, just as silver exports came, essentially, to an end, the shogunate reported that the mines in Akita and elsewhere in northern Honshû had been exhausted, and decreased the amount of copper Chinese and Dutch merchants could take out of the country; the Chinese quota was reduced by 300,000 kin to 800,000, and the Dutch similarly reduced by 200,000 kin. The shogunate moved to maintain the volume of trade, however, by forcing mining domains to sell export copper at reduced rates, and passing the savings on to the Dutch; Nagasaki was thus able to maintain its level of imports, and both the Nagasaki kaisho (customs house) and the mining domains made back the loss by simply charging higher prices on the domestic market.[9]

In 1766, the shogunate banned all private sales of copper, and established a new copper guild, to which it gave a monopoly on the minting of copper coinage, and the shipment of copper between Osaka and Nagasaki.[10]


  1. John Whitney Hall, “Notes on The Early Ch’ing Copper Trade With Japan,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 12, no. 3/4 (December 1, 1949), 445.
  2. Marius Jansen, China in the Tokugawa World, Harvard University Press (1992), 16.
  3. Bonnie Smith, et al. Crossroads and Cultures, vol. B, Bedford St. Martins (2012), 385.
  4. Tanaka Takeo, "Japan's Relations with Overseas Countries," in John Whitney Hall and Toyoda Takeshi (eds.) Japan in the Muromachi Age, Cornell University East Asia Program (2001), 159-178.
  5. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 59.
  6. Hellyer, 54.; Schottenhammer, Angela. “Empire and Periphery? The Qing Empire’s Relations with Japan and the Ryūkyūs (1644–c. 1800), a Comparison.” The Medieval History Journal 16, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 171.
  7. Hellyer, 55.
  8. Jansen, 33.
  9. Hellyer, 78.
  10. Hellyer, 86.