Two years ago, I was honored to play a small role in a Hawaii Kabuki production, The Vengeful Sword, and to serve as dramaturg. This involved doing research on a variety of elements that come up in the play – including the historical events that inspired the play, the history of the locations, the meaning of certain terms – and sharing the results of my research with the cast & crew via a private (closed) blog. I’ve posted before, on numerous occasions, about the production, but now, I’m finally getting around to re-posting, publicly, some of that content. I hope you find it interesting.
In The Vengeful Sword, the courtesan Oshika claims to have lent the samurai Mitsugi ten gold pieces, or ten ryō in the Japanese. Each “gold piece” would have been a coin called a koban, roughly the size of the palm of your hand, and each worth one ryō.
Right: Two koban coins from roughly 1818-1830, each worth one ryō. Each would be roughly the size of the palm of your hand, and perhaps roughly as thick as a quarter. Not pure gold, they would have been roughly 80% gold, 20% silver, the coins having been debased numerous times since the beginning of the Edo period.
But how much money was this, really, in terms of value? Oshika talks of selling all her special kimono, and her regular kimono, hair ornaments, all to try to raise this money for Mitsugi. Must be quite a bit of money. Of course, given how expensive kimono could be, how many did she have to sell? This webpage indicates that a men’s ensemble (haori, hakama, and kimono) would have been about one ryô at the cheapest; I’m merely extrapolating, but I’d guess that the much more elaborate, embroidered, and otherwise more fancy kimono of the courtesans would have cost much more. Three ryô each? Five?
Still, that doesn’t give us a very good feel for the real value of the ryô. So how much is “ten gold pieces”? Well, it’s hard to say. For much of the 17th century, for the most part, one ryō was, at least in theory, equal to one koku, a set standard measurement of rice said to be equal to the amount needed to sustain a man for a year. But by 1796, when our play takes place, there was considerable inflation, and the coins were debased. One koban no longer contained enough gold to be worth a full ryō in terms of the precious metal it contained, but was one ryō only in face value; furthermore, one ryō was not worth as much as it once was – you couldn’t buy as much with it. As with all currencies, purchasing power, and thus “real value,” fluctuated widely across the Edo period, and so it is impossible to say with any certainty an exchange rate between 1796 ryō and 2011 US dollars.
However, a few figures might help us put it into perspective.1
*The salary of kabuki star Ichikawa Danjūrō I (1660-1704) peaked at 800 ryō.
*Yoshizawa Ayame I (1663-1729) was the first kabuki actor to attain an annual salary of 1000 ryō.
*The Kansei Reforms, in 1794, two years before our play is set, put a cap on kabuki actors’ salaries of 500 ryō.
*In 1711, a high-ranking hatamoto (direct retainer to the Shogun, rather than to a provincial daimyo) earned 483 ryō.
It’s only a rough estimate, and fairly sloppy, but let us assume for a moment that we can apply this figure of 483 ryō to 1796, eighty years later. If a high-ranking hatamoto is earning less than 500 ryō (and has expenses in excess of his income!), then this ten gold pieces that Oshika has supposedly given to Mitsugi is fully one fiftieth of what a very high-ranking samurai (or a top-ranking kabuki actor) is earning. Mitsugi himself is only a low-ranking Shrine priest – surely, it’s safe to assume that this ten gold pieces is a rather sizeable sum for him. What is his annual income? Ten ryō? Twenty? Fifty? I can’t imagine it would be above 100, or maybe 150 or 200 at the absolute most.
Cecilia Segawa Seigle, in her volume on the Yoshiwara, suggests an arbitrary conversion rate of $450 to one ryō, and suggests that one’s first visit to a major Yoshiwara bordello could cost as much as 10 ryō, including tips to the nakai (serving girls) and taikomochi (men who work in the teahouse) [hey hey! I get tips!].
One website, giving a rundown of typical Edo period prices, costs, and incomes indicates that an officer of the law, i.e. an officer of the magistrate’s office (奉行所同心) earned about 28 ryō a year.
Seeing a play at Ryōgoku in Edo cost 32 mon in 1820, or roughly 1/125th of a ryō, at 4000 mon to the ryō. Sending your child to temple school (terakoya) for a year cost up to 1/4 of a ryō, while hiring a maid cost roughly two or three ryō for a year. Buying a small room in Edo (roughly 80 square yards or 66 square meters) was 360 ryō.
So, in the end, I am not sure what we can say about quite how much money 10 gold pieces (ten ryō) is to Mitsugi or to Oshika, as we don’t really know their incomes. On the one hand, in terms of income, ten ryô might be a very sizeable portion of Mitsugi’s annual income – anywhere from 1/10th to 1/2 of his total annual funds. But, on the other hand, in terms of prices or costs, ten ryô could just be the price of visiting the Aburaya a few times. I guess it becomes clear that Mitsugi has been living far beyond his means. Even a high-ranking samurai like Manjirô (son of the Chief Counselor to the daimyo of Awa province), whose income is presumably much more than Mitsugi’s, got himself into debt with the teahouse, and had to pawn the precious Aoi Shimosaka sword.
So, while we can’t really come up with any particularly definitive answer, let us just suffice it to say that “ten gold pieces” is quite a lot of money. Yes, granted, it is only about the same amount as the cost of a visit to a prominent teahouse in the Yoshiwara, but it is also about four times the total annual salary of a housemaid, one third the total annual salary of a local officer, or 1/50th the total annual salary of a high-ranking shogunal retainer or top-ranking kabuki actor. So, not exactly the kind of money you just throw around. Nor would I want to encourage throwing it around – those gold pieces are large and heavy, and could do some serious damage if you hit someone in the head with them.
EDIT: This post, from two years ago, represents only my first tentative effort to dip my toe into this subject. Having looked into it a bit more in the last two years since then, the issue of how much a mon or a ryô is worth, and how much things cost, remains frustratingly elusive and complex. The multitude of currency denominations – not only koban and ôban and ryô and mon, but also momme and bu – along with differences between gold, silver, and copper, and of course the dramatic changes in the strength of the currency over the course of the Edo period, make an understanding of the real purchasing power value of the currency, and of the real ‘cost’ of this or that item, extremely difficult. But, I continue to explore the subject; what little I’ve come up with can be found in an article on Currency on the Samurai-Archives Wiki.
(1) Samuel Leiter. “Edo Kabuki: The Actor’s World.” Impressions 31 (2010). pp114-131