Japan As They Saw It > Contents > Economy > Money

The chief building in the square [at Nagasaki] is devoted to the exchange of foreign money for Japanese paper currency.

In an up-stairs room, approached by a scrupulously clean staircase, on the upper step of which is a row of Japanese slippers, sit three or four grave two-sworded officials round a table on which are placed two boxes, one full of metallic, the other of paper currency. It is useless to endeavour to persuade a Japanese shop keeper to take a foreign coin, however large and tempting it may be. The Government has forbidden him to receive anything from the foreigner but the little oblong pieces of card which bear the Government stamp; so to this little room every foreigner is compelled to resort to obtain an available circulating medium. The currency between the foreigners and the tradespeople is taels, mace, can, and cash—in name the same as in China, but representing very different values, inasmuch as Japanese paper-money is granted by the treasury in exchange for Spanish and Mexican dollars, at the rate of four taels seven mace per dollar.

Narrative of the Earl of Elgin’s Mission to China (1859)

The circulating medium was at this time paper, called taels, of which 4.65 went to the Mexican dollar. The natives were prohibited from taking foreign specie, as I was several times made to understand by pantomimic signs of losing their heads or being well bambooed when I offered them coin to pay for any purchases. Those merchants, therefore, who could obtain a sufficient supply of paper money were enabled to buy their cargoes, and immense sums of money were, no doubt, made by them in the first days of the trade.

Japan, the Amoor, and the Pacific (1861)

The currency in Japan is in a curious position, as all payments are made in Japanese notes (down to ten cents). As these are printed in Chinese characters, it takes a good deal of trouble to learn the different descriptions. From all I could gather, finance is the great difficulty of Japan, as of many other countries. Now, we know that when finances are bad, and cash payments suspended, gold is always at a premium. Such, at the present moment, is the case in Russia, Austria, Italy, and the United States. In the course of my journey, gold was seventeen premium in New York, and seven in Italy, where I had known it ten barely twelve months before. What struck me as extraordinary in Japan was, that, with the finances in a critical position, and cash payments suspended, gold commanded no premium—in fact, was at a small discount. The people seemed to prefer paper. On the day of my landing I tendered at the railway station a Mexican dollar as the fare to Yeddo. The clerk did not evidently like it; but, as we spoke no language in common, he at length received it. On my inquiring about this at the hotel, they told me he would make a loss, though almost infinitesimal, on my dollar. Before starting for Hakone, as I was going where I had little means of communication, I was anxious to lay in a stock of Yens (paper dollars), Bus (quarter dollars), and lesser notes; but these were procured for me with some difficulty, and at a premium. This extravagant fondness for paper is different from anything I ever experienced elsewhere.

A Visit to Japan, China, and India (1877)

Japanese money is very curious to us. They have in circulation gold, silver, copper and scrip. Iron cash—coins of very small value—were formerly used. The largest gold coins are the O-ban and the ko-ban, the great and small ban. These are of an elliptical shape, and are not often seen at the present day. There are also small gold coins of various values; but having been extensively counterfeited, they are not in general use. Our principal coins in use now are the silver boos, ni-shius and i-shius, of the respective values of twenty-five, twelve and a half, and six and a quarter cents. These are oblong in shape, with Chinese characters stamped upon them.

There is also a variety of copper coins; the largest is the elliptical tempo (one cent). The smaller coins are worth one-fifth, one-sixth and one-tenth of a tempo. Then there are the paper satz (or scrip), the rio (one dollar) and the ni-bu, ichi-bu, ni-shiu and i-shiu, or two boos, one boo, half boo and quarter boo. This scrip is the principal money in circulation, but is easily counterfeited.

The Sunrise Kingdom (1879)

The modern coins are very handsomely designed. The national traditions oppose the stamping of the image of the divinely descended Mikado upon them, and some time will probably yet elapse before this is brought about. His majesty’s imperial and family crests or badges, the kiku and kiri, with wreaths and tassels and bannerets bearing the sun and the moon, adorn one side of the gold coins, which are five in number; the other side being decorated with a splendid dragon and legend round. The silver coins bear a similar dragon and legend on one side, and the kiku crest with wreaths and tassels, and the coin’s denomination on the other. All but the smallest coins in gold and silver have milled edges. The new silver “trade dollar” does not greatly differ in appearance, nor in size and weight, from the “one yen” piece, the yen being the Japanese dollar. It has lately been notified that the trade dollar, which was originally coined for the convenience of commerce at the open ports, and was current only at those ports, will henceforth be made universally current, and may therefore be used in making and receiving payments of taxes and in all other public and private transactions, both internal as well as external. The bronze coins do not differ materially in design from those of silver, but none of their edges are milled.

Japan: Its History, Traditions, and Religions (1880)

Small round iron coins, pierced in the middle, and strung by hundreds on a rush string, as the brass cash are in China, are the chief money used among the people of Japan. Their calculations among themselves are always in cash or ghe-ne. One hundred of these are equal to an oval pierced copper coin of good appearance and well cast; seventeen of which, or 1700 ghe-ni or cash, make an oblong silver coin, called an i-tshe-boo. A quarter i-tshe-boo is a small silver coin of the same form. Four of these i-tshe-boo make a rio or coban, a thin oval gold coin. These cobans were formerly a great article in the trade of the Dutch at Nangasaki, and were debased several times to cheat them, as I before related. A Japanese money table may run thus:

1700 Cash = 1 Itsheboo (silver).

4 boo = 1 rio or coban (gold).

“Itshee” in Japanese means one. They have two sets of numbers up to ten. In telling you the price of an article, a man would say Seboo, or four Itsheboo; and if he wished to make it more intelligible, he would add, Itsheboo yutz, or one Boo four times. Itsheboo, however, is the word which foreigners have adopted as the name of the coin, singular or plural; and although, like the word Japan, it is incorrect, it will continue to be used, especially as the Japanese shopmen have already got accustomed to the European manner. This Itsheboo by assay is said to be worth 37½ American cents, or 18¾d.

A Mexican dollar weighs 3 2/17 Itsheboos. All coined silver of States recognized by treaty is taken for its equivalent weight of Japanese silver coin, and it is the same with gold against gold; but as an English sovereign is about the same weight as a Japanese coban, the actual value which the owner would receive for it if he wished to change his coban in Japan, would be four Itsheboos in silver. Thus, a sovereign worth 4½ Mexican dollars, is in Japan only worth 1⅓ dollar silver, if changed for Japanese gold and spent in the country. Any traveller, therefore, proceeding to Japan, would do well to provide himself with plenty of silver. I may mention, however, that these cobans are not to be purchased from the Japanese for four Itsheboo. Their worth is much more, and the Chinese in Nangasaki greedily buy up all they can get for from eight to ten Itsheboo.

Changing money weight for weight, if the metal is of equal standard, must be a losing speculation to the Government, which has the expense of coining and waste. This, added to the insufficiency of coin to supply foreigners, may have induced the Japanese Government to change their system at this time. For the Itsheboo before mentioned, 3 2/17 to the dollar, they substituted an Itsheboo of the same value and weight as the Mexican dollar, in two coins of half an Itsheboo each. Their table would then have been—

1700 Cash = 1 Itsheboo

1 Itsheboo = 1 Dollar

Thus was the price of the iron cash raised 3 2/17 fold, a most disastrous measure, and one which threw all the poor tradespeople of the different parts into a frightful panic. The firm protest of the consuls caused the plan to be abandoned at Yedo and Nangasaki; but short as was the interim during which it was in operation, much damage had been done to trade. Whilst the new plan was abandoned at Yedo, orders had been transmitted to Hakodadi to try it there, and the 3rd of August was the first day of the change.

On going ashore as usual, I went to the comprador to change dollars into Japanese money, was offered the new coins, and refused them. I had given an order a few days before, to the amount of some twelve Itsheboos, and I wished to-day to fetch away my purchase. An article in the treaty stipulates that all sorts of coins are to be taken, and I knew perfectly well that all sorts were taken; as almost every shop keeper in the open ports has a book containing impressions of all European and American silver coin, with their value in Japanese cash, or they weigh the coin and calculate its value also in cash. I therefore took up my purchase, and paid down four dollars, thirteen Itsheboo. As I expected, the trader refused to take them. Nothing could be done but refer the matter to the Government officers, and I started off, surrounded by a whole posse of the man’s friends, male and female, to the officer at the comprador’s. He grinned, was very polite, and told me that the coin had been changed, that I must pay in the new coin, which meant, that I must pay twelve dollars for what I had a few days contracted for at the price of four dollars. It was for the manufacture of an article, the material for which I had myself supplied. Seeing that the Government official was, after the manner of his kind, and for his own profit, giving the cause against me, I took the law into my own hands, forced the four dollars on the man who refused to receive them, and seizing my property, I walked out, followed by officers and people. In the street, they attempted to snatch the packet out of the hands of the sailor who was carrying it, when I took it myself, and then laid my stick heavily over the back of the first one who tried to despoil me. This led to an uproar, but my stick cleared me a way to the temple where the consul resided. An hour afterwards, the man of whom I had ordered the things, and whom I had beaten, came with many bows to return me a string of cash, the change of my four dollars, to express his sorrow for the mistake, and to tell me it was all right. I was glad I had not hurt the poor fellow, as the fault was not so much his as that of the rascally officials who misled him, and I saw enough during the afternoon to convince me they were all beside themselves with dismay. They were hurrying in all directions, searching up their debtors to get their money in the old coin; shops were deserted, and nothing could be bought; the possessors of dollars strove to get rid of them wherever they could, giving them for one Itsheboo instead of three, and if any of the European merchants had had a quantity of the old coin, they would have made a pretty thing by buying them up. Fortunately for the Japanese merchants they had not. In a country like this, where laws, manners, and life in general had gone on unchanged for ages, it can hardly be imagined what an effect this change had on the people. A little schooner soon afterwards came in from Yedo, and brought the order, which put an end to the system. On my return from Yedo, the now half Itsheboo was passing as half the old one, or three times less than its intrinsic worth, and the people seemed glad enough to get rid of the coin.*

*Since my return to England, I have read that the avarice of Europeans in trying to buy up the gold coin from the natives was the great cause of the ill-feeling between them. The truth is, that Europeans very seldom got Japanese gold coin at all, except they gave their own purer gold weight by weight for it. The people knew long ago the difference in value between silver and gold, and the Chinese have been for years in the habit of buying the gold cobans for silver, nearly at the real value of the gold they contained. A European trying to obtain cobans for four Itsheboos silver (for which he only gave 1⅓ dollar) of any of the natives at the ports, would only be laughed at for his pains.

Japan, the Amoor, and the Pacific (1861)

◀ RailwaysShopping ▶