Framed by the decline of the Heian aristocracy in the late 1100s and the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate in the early 1600s, Japan’s medieval era was a chaotic period of diffuse political power and frequent military strife. This instability prevented central authorities from regulating trade, issuing currency, enforcing contracts, or guaranteeing property rights. But the lack of a strong central government did not inhibit economic growth. Rather, it created opportunities for a wider spectrum of society to participate in trade, markets, and monetization.
Peripheral elites—including merchants, warriors, rural estate managers, and religious leaders—devised new ways to circumvent older forms of exchange by importing Chinese currency, trading in local markets, and building an effective system of long-distance money remittance. Over time, the central government recognized the futility of trying to stifle these developments, and by the sixteenth century it asserted greater control over monetary matters throughout the realm.
Drawing upon diaries, tax ledgers, temple records, and government decrees, Ethan Isaac Segal chronicles how the circulation of copper currency and the expansion of trade led to the start of a market-centered economy and laid the groundwork for Japan’s transformation into an early modern society.
Segal’s book is a highly readable, lively analysis of money, trade, and the economy in pre-1600 Japan, with emphasis on the first half (late Heian through Kamakura periods) of the medieval age… Given its readability and substantive coverage, Coins, Trade, and the State could be used in Japanese history courses at all levels, surveys through graduate seminars… [Segal] richly illustrates how various members of society participated in a complex economy, including those with estate affiliations as well as those in warrior domains. This approach to history could put an end to the still-common notion that Japan before the early modern (Tokugawa) period was an economically primitive place, a sea of self-sufficiency.
Segal breaks new ground in Japanese history by focusing on economic developments in the 12th–13th centuries that laid the groundwork for the economic growth Japan experienced during the period of political decentralization and civil war in the 14th–16th centuries. In doing so, Segal fills a gap in knowledge of the economic history of Japan before the Edo period. Using evidence coaxed from a wide range of original Japanese sources and writing in an accessible style, he shows how the circulation of copper coins and the expansion of trade led to the emergence of a market-centered economy. A key part of this story is how the peripheral elites such as merchants, warriors, estate managers, and religious leaders devised new ways to circumvent the traditional center-controlled forms of commodity taxes and exchange by importing Chinese coinage, trading in local markets, and devising an effective system of long-distance money remittance. The author’s fresh analysis of the Kamakura bakufu’s late-13th-century ‘virtuous government’ (tokusei) decrees is particularly noteworthy.
- 276 pages
- 6 x 9 inches
- Harvard University Asia Center
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