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  • Japanese: 株仲間 (kabunakama)

Kabunakama were merchant guilds of the Edo period, which evolved out of the more basic merchants' associations known as nakama. The kabunakama were entrusted by the shogunate to manage their respective trades, and were allowed to enjoy a monopoly in their given field.

Each kabunakama was made up of a set number of merchants whose membership was defined by their possession of a "share," or kabu. These kabu were passed on to one's heirs within a household (ie), and were sometimes traded to another family, under particular circumstances, in order to transfer membership in the guild. Similar systems were used in early modern villages to define which families, through their possession of a kabu, were acknowledged as members (i.e. residents) of a given village, as members of the gôshi (rural samurai) class, or as members of the gokenin class of low-ranking direct retainers of the shogun.[1]

Some kabunakama, known as gomen-kabu, were even allowed to set prices and manage the operations of other nakama. Though the shogunate originally opposed monopolies, they eventually gave in to the increasing numbers and organization of merchants' associations, and decided to make an attempt to control them by officially licensing them. In 1721, the government began to authorize individual nakama to become kabunakama, and to oversee the organization and trade within given fields. A given kabunakama typically enjoyed exclusive privileges in the production and distribution of a single product, such as tea, cotton, tobacco, or salt, and could rely on the shogunate helping to enforce other merchants' exclusion from the market in that good, so long as the kabunakama policed its own members, ensuring a steady supply at reliable prices and quality.[2] The goal was to encourage cooperation, not competition, and always to work towards the goal of advancing the economy. It is said that these groups became quite social and merchants' moral codes thus developed to a significant degree. Those who were not following ethical market behavior, behaving uncooperatively, or encouraging competition, were shunned by their kabunakama comrades, and likely by the larger market community.

By 1785, there were over one hundred kabunakama in Osaka alone, including a number granted special privileges by the shogunate, but taxed heavily in exchange. Meanwhile, the shogunate exerted stronger control over the older guilds, known as za, leaving the kabunakama with a relatively greater degree of autonomy.[2]

In the 1840s, rôjû Mizuno Tadakuni attempted to do away with the kabunakama, in order to combat monopolies, but this and many of his other reforms were resisted so strongly by the merchants of Osaka (and others) that he was forced to abandon his efforts. The kabunakama were all dissolved, however, in 1870 as the economy modernized and new forms of business associations appeared.


  • Frederic, Louis (2002). "Japan Encyclopedia." Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  • Sansom, George (1963). "A History of Japan: 1615-1867." Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  1. Chie Nakane, "Tokugawa Society," in Nakane and Shinzaburô Ôishi (eds.), Tokugawa Japan: The Social and Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan. University of Tokyo Press (1990), 225-226.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 86.