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Reviewed by:
  • Coins, Trade, and the State: Economic Growth in Early Medieval Japan
  • Suzanne Gay
Coins, Trade, and the State: Economic Growth in Early Medieval Japan by Ethan Isaac Segal. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011. Pp. xvi + 258. $39.95.

Ethan 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. During that time an ad hoc system of exchange came into being through the efforts of a large cast of characters: elites, non-elites, provincials, and metropolitans. In short, Japan made the shift to a market economy. Rather than impeding economic growth, Segal maintains, political disunity created opportunities that were readily exploited. Though of only moderate length, Segal’s book includes much useful information and analysis, such as a lucid explanation of money and its historical functions. A few highlights of his narrative follow.

Chapter 1, “Cash Fever,” describes the increasing use of metal currency in the late Heian period in defiance of the central government. With no minting occurring in Japan, vast quantities of Chinese copper coins were imported in exchange for gold in the twelfth century, a process portrayed here within the greater East Asian context of the Song economic expansion. Meanwhile, the civil aristocracy, mainly interested in its own political authority, resisted the use of currency even as Kyoto’s own security organ, the kebiishi-chō, understanding the functioning of the market, encouraged its use.

Chapter 2, “Making Change,” describes the burgeoning rural market scene in early medieval Japan as increasingly reliant on Chinese coins for transactions. Segal argues that cash came into common use not through fiat from above but because many constituencies favored it. Giving examples high and low to support this claim, he provides indirect but persuasive evidence of the regular use of money: the practice of charging cash penalties for crimes committed, the depiction of money belts on peasants in illustrated scrolls, and the like. He correctly sees local warriors gradually winning out economically over the old elites, even as the latter controlled lucrative toll stations. More emphasis, however, could be placed on the reality of great local variety and the resilience of the traditional elites like Tōdaiji and Kōfukuji [End Page 408] that remained in firm control for centuries. In his discussion of rural markets, Segal challenges Amino Yoshihiko’s well-known characterization of medieval markets as places free of connections, positing instead that they were places over which competing powers sought to establish control.

In this chapter Segal asserts that Buddhist attitudes toward money were positive compared to those of medieval European Christianity (and, he might have added, compared to some Islamic teachings), which viewed commercial transactions with suspicion and ranked greed as the greatest sin. If he insists on sweeping comparisons, Segal would do well to acknowledge the divergence between practice and teachings, both in Christian Europe and in Buddhist China and Japan. Just as monastic orders in Europe were not suspicious of commerce but rather deeply invested in the production and sale of goods on their lands, so were the major temples of medieval Japan economic and commercial powerhouses, owning vast lands and controlling lucrative guilds that were, strictly speaking, in defiance of some Buddhist values. The priests of Enryakuji, for example, took forty-eight minor Bodhisattva vows, one of which prohibited clerical involvement in commerce. Yet this did not in the least deter them from participating in the commercial and financial affairs of the monastery. Indeed, widespread if unsanctioned abandonment of their Buddhist vow of clerical celibacy motivated some Enryakuji monks to build and preserve fortunes for the sake of their progeny. Generally, scholars of Japan would do well to acknowledge that the medieval West and Japan each had rich complexities, spiritual and otherwise.

In Chapter 3, about money and the Kamakura Bakufu’s authority, Segal’s narrative of economic change shifts gears into intellectual and political history. After analyzing extensively the ancient Chinese concept of “virtuous government” (tokusei) and its evolving meanings in Japan, he discusses the Bakufu’s amnesty of 1297 for its retainers. Here, Segal challenges the...


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pp. 408-413
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