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  • Coins, Trade, and the State: Economic Growth in Early Medieval Japan by Ethan Isaac Segal
  • Michael Laver
Coins, Trade, and the State: Economic Growth in Early Medieval Japan. By Ethan Isaac Segal. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011. 258 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

In Coins, Trade, and the State: Economic Growth in Early Medieval Japan, Ethan Segal traces the use of imported Chinese coins from the mid twelfth century, when these coins first started to make an appearance, to the later thirteenth century, when imported coinage infused even rural areas of Japan and became the primary medium of exchange in a variety of economic dealings both local and nonlocal, replacing other forms of “money” such as cloth or rice. This process, especially involving as it did the use of a coinage that was largely imported, is interesting in and of itself, but Segal’s purpose holds to examine the role that an increasingly cash-based economy had on medieval Japanese society. His two major contentions in this regard are that the coins that spread across all spectrums of the Japanese economy did so without the backing of the traditional elites, especially the court nobles of Heian, and indeed in the face of their overt hostility to imported coinage. It would not be until the Muromachi period that the bakufu would take a leading role in the monetization of the country. Second, and perhaps more important for Segal, the use of coins in the medieval economy facilitated a relationship between elite and non-elite as merchants, nobles, and warriors came into contact through the increasing use of moneylenders and a process through which peripheral actors began to ignore the court’s request for goods and instead forwarded their taxes in coins after selling their products in vibrant and ever more frequent rural markets. In short, Segal’s study “is expressly designed to call attention to the economic roles of non-elites at the periphery” (p. 184).

After tracing the general trajectory of the rise of a cash-based economy that was in full swing by the late thirteenth century, Segal tries to explain why such an economy took hold in a country in which domestic coinage was not only a relic of the past, but the court actively tried to forbid the use of imported Chinese coins. He comes up with several factors, most of them having to do not with the center, but rather with the periphery. For example, it was not estate proprietors who facilitated the use of cash in economic dealings, but rather “middle-level figures such as estate managers” (p. 68). An increase in agricultural productivity led to double cropping, allowing local producers to sell their surplus in rural markets, which became increasingly common in the countryside. Local warriors began to tap into the newly monetized economy as they levied taxes on villages to support their feudal obligations [End Page 968] to the bakufu in the form mainly of guard duty in Kamakura. Temples, shrines, and merchants all harnessed the ease of transport of cash over long distances, a phenomenon that taken even farther led to the invention of such economic innovations as bills of exchange. And finally, Segal identifies the international situation as facilitating the import of coins into Japan: the Mongols overran the Northern Song dynasty, and so large amounts of its coinage were available for export. This process continued when the Muromachi bakufu in the fifteenth century began to cultivate relationships with the new Ming dynasty for political and economic reasons, and in the process became the primary importer of Chinese coins.

One indication of the often-dramatic effects that the new cash-based economy could have on society was the “virtuous government edicts” of the Kamakura period onward. Segal identifies the edicts as a “corrective measure” (p. 124) to try to preserve the traditional relationship between bakufu and its vassals that began to break down in the new economic conditions of the thirteenth century. The edicts, which periodically restored land to its original owner and forgave outstanding debt, were an attempt to rescue warriors who had fallen into poverty at the expense of moneylenders. The thirteenth century saw a rash...


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pp. 968-970
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