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  • The Lamp-Oil Merchants of Iwashimizu Shrine:Transregional Commerce in Medieval Japan
  • Suzanne Gay (bio)

During the medieval period, a group of lamp oil dealers near Kyoto built a prosperous business niche of remarkable durability and geographic reach. Based in the community of Ōyamazaki , located on the Yodo river south of Kyoto, they started out in the Heian period as producers and purveyors of oil to the nearby Iwashimizu Hachiman shrine. As lay affiliates (jinin or jinnin) of the shrine, they participated in and helped finance its major festivals in return for special privileges as protected merchants, in particular, access to raw materials on shrine lands and exemptions on tolls. They steadily extended their geographic range, which from the thirteenth century reached from Owari and Mino provinces in the east to Kyushu in the west; as they plied the trade routes connecting these regions, they acquired raw materials that they shipped back and processed into oil at Ōyamazaki. They submitted some of the finished product as a service tax to Iwashimizu shrine; they also supplied some oil to the imperial court and regency families and then sold the rest locally as a commodity. Thus even at the beginning of the medieval period they were both purveyors and merchants. Toll barriers posed the main impediment to their prosperity: the tariffs charged on travelers and goods at these ubiquitous stations could make transport costs prohibitive. To overcome this obstacle, which often exceeded the protective powers of Iwashimizu shrine, the oil merchants sought and received the mediation of the imperial court and later of the [End Page 1] Muromachi shogunate. They prospered, diversifying into transport, land acquisition, and moneylending.1

The oil merchants thrived in the context of a medieval commercial revolution. What had been in the eleventh century a largely subsistence economy with an estate-based core was transformed by the early fifteenth into one that was market driven and commodity based. Kyoto, home of the imperial government and numerous landed overlords, was the hub of a countrywide commercial system and had the largest concentration of consumers in Japan. Other notable features of this transformation included technological advances in agriculture and transportation; rising agricultural output; the expansion of existing land and sea trade routes; urbanization, including the growth of existing cities and markets as well as the emergence of new ones; and monetization.2 In this setting merchant and craft groups proliferated, typically enjoying local protection as guilds (za). These were occupational organizations with internal rules of governance that provided products and services (over time often commuted into a cash tax) to overlords who in return backed the group's commercial interests within a given locale. In economic terms, guilds used commonly agreed-upon business practices that resulted in collusive behavior, and they enjoyed protection from competition, either from outside their area or from local newcomers to their occupation. Thus it is axiomatic to attribute local monopoly powers to medieval [End Page 2] guilds. It is also usually assumed that over the medieval period guilds evolved from service groups subordinate to their overlords to semiautonomous commercial organizations.

To apply the guild model to the Ōyamazaki oil dealers, as historians have traditionally done, is to posit that they enjoyed monopsonistic control of raw materials and a retail monopoly on oil over a large area.3 These oil dealers, however, stood outside any guild arrangement. As we will see, they did not enjoy sole control over raw materials or the sale of their product. Nor did they evolve from shrine subordinates into merchants. Rather, they were both, simultaneously and from very early times. One of the most prominent of medieval commercial groups, they likewise functioned on a different level in the medieval economy from that of guilds: for about two centuries their strategic location, high-demand commodity, and elite connections allowed them sustained success in the trans-regional economy. Even as local warriors slowly gained power at the expense of traditional overlords, the infrastructure supporting the estate system—including trade routes and personnel tying distant lands to markets—remained functional. Operating within its framework, the oil dealers were able to go beyond their base to thrive across regions. As an important contrast to the...


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