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Coins, Trade, and the State

Coins, Trade, and the State

Economic Growth in Early Medieval Japan

Ethan Isaac Segal

ISBN 9780674060685

Publication date: 07/11/2011

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.

    —Suzanne Gay, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies


  • Ethan Isaac Segal is Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University.

Book Details

  • 276 pages
  • 6 x 9 inches
  • Harvard University Asia Center