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A History of the Japanese People by F. Brinkley

If we count only 500 mon to the yen


the present time the wages of a carpenter are almost a yen a day. Now the yen is equal to 1000 mon of the smaller sen and to 500 mon of the larger ones, so that he could have provided himself with rice, if we count only 500 mon to the yen, for sixteen years on the wages which he receives for one day's labour in 1900." (Munro's Coins of Japan.)

Much difficulty was experienced in weaning the people from their old custom of barter and inducing them to use coins. The Government seems to have recognized that there could not be any effective spirit of economy so long as perishable goods represented the standard of value, and in order to popularize the use of the new tokens as well as to encourage thrift, it was decreed that grades of rank would be bestowed upon men who had saved certain sums in coin. At that time (711), official salaries had already been fixed in terms of the Wado sen. The highest received thirty pieces of cloth, one hundred hanks of silk and two thousand mon, while in the case of an eighth-class official the corresponding figures were one piece of cloth and twenty mon.* The edict for promoting economy embodied a schedule according to which, broadly speaking, two steps of executive rank could be gained by amassing twenty thousand mon and one step by saving five thousand.

*These figures sound ludicrously small if translated into present-day money, for 1000 mon go to the yen, and the latter being the

equivalent of two shillings, 20 mon represents less then a half-penny. But of course the true calculation is that 20 mon represented 240 days' rations of rice in the Wado schedule of values.

Observing that the fundamental principle of a sound token of exchange was wholly disregarded in these Wado sen, since their intrinsic value bore no appreciable ratio to their purchasing power, and considering also the crudeness of their manufacture, it is not surprising to find that within a few months of their appearance they were extensively forged. What is much more notable is that the Wado sen remained in circulation for fifty years. The extraordinary ratio, however, by which copper and silver were linked together originally, namely, 4 to 1, did not survive; in 721 it was changed to 25 to 10, and in the following year to 50 to 10. Altogether, as was not unnatural, the early treatment of this coinage question by Japanese statesmen showed no trace of scientific perception. The practice, pursued almost invariably, of multiplying by ten the purchasing power of each new issue of sen, proved, of course, enormously profitable to the issuers, but could not fail to distress the people and to render unpopular such arbitrarily varying tokens.

The Government spared no effort to correct the latter result, and some of the devices employed were genuinely progressive. In that epoch travellers had to carry their own provisions, and not uncommonly the supply ran short before they reached their destination, the result sometimes being death from starvation on the roadside. It was therefore ordered that in every district (korf) a certain portion of rice should be stored at a convenient place for sale to wayfarers, and these were advised to provide themselves with a few sen before setting out. It is evident that, since one of the Wado coins sufficed to buy rice for twelve days' rations, a traveller was not obliged to burden himself with many of these tokens. Wealthy persons in the provinces were also admonished to set up roadside shops for the sale of rice, and anyone who thus disposed of one hundred koku in a year was to be reported to the Court for special reward. Moreover, no district governor (gunryo), however competent, was counted eligible for promotion unless he had saved six thousand sen, and it was enacted that all taxes might be paid in copper coin. In spite of all this, however, the use of metallic media was limited for a long time to the upper classes and to the inhabitants of the five home provinces. Elsewhere the old habit of barter continued.

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