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Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press, 2009.

It is all too easy, and all too tempting sometimes to think of the Edo period as a single block, a single period that can be characterized in a single way. Of course there was change over the period, but the World History survey version of this, or very often even the East Asian survey or even Japanese history survey version of this, in my personal experience, has often seen simply one of (a) putting a system into place and then maintaining it, and (b) proto-industrial growth and “progress.” Of course, however, we all know that history is never so simple, and no society is ever so static. In Defining Engagement, Robert Hellyer provides a more complex and detailed description of the changes and developments in Japanese foreign policy over the course of the Edo period, emphasizing the decentralized and at times highly contested nature of policy-making, implementation and enforcement, and the dramatic shifts in attitudes and policies across the period.
Based on Hellyer’s account, we can see a number of watershed moments in the progression of foreign policy, namely the 1630s, 1764, and 1853, marking the bounds of periods decidedly different from one another in character.

Hellyer does not dwell for long on the initial decades of Tokugawa rule, or on the debates or considerations surrounding the decision to impose maritime restrictions in the 1630s, but it would be hard to argue that this is not a significant dividing line, between a period of active engagement with many different trading partners – Portuguese, Spanish, and English, among others coming to Japanese ports, and Japanese operating in Southeast Asian ports, to say the least – and one of much more careful, restricted engagement with the outside world, in which only the Dutch and Chinese trade at Nagasaki, and interactions with Ryukyu and Korea (and via them, China) are handled exclusively by the domainal authorities of Satsuma and Tsushima. From the settling of this mode of engagement in the early decades of the 17th century, through to the 1750s, as Hellyer describes in his first several chapters, Satsuma and Tsushima enjoyed considerable autonomy and agency in their management of trade, as did merchants in Nagasaki and elsewhere in the realm. Both Satsuma and Tsushima were able to leverage their indispensability in these commercial and political relationships to gain considerable privileges or concessions from the shogunate, arguing not only for the importance of the goods they were bringing in, but also for the value of the intelligence – information about political goings-on in the region – obtained via these domainal relationships with Ryukyu and Korea. Here, and throughout the book, Hellyer emphasizes that “Japanese” foreign relations in this period were not directed wholly by a central authority, with a set plan that all domains followed through on; rather, the realm’s interactions with the outside world were constituted by the competing, and sometimes complementary, desires, intentions, attitudes, and actions of several different parties, the shogunate, the lords of Satsuma and Tsushima, and their advisors, chief among them.

Japan and its peripheries, as seen in one of the woodblock-printed maps from Hayashi Shihei’s 1785 Sangoku tsûran zusetsu. Sakamaki-Hawley Collection, University of Hawaii Library. Photo my own.

Hellyer also characterizes this first half of the Edo period as a period of desperate attempts on the part of the shogunate to stem the flow of precious metals (especially silver) out of the country, in negotiation or competition with Satsuma’s and Tsushima’s demands for their own continued access to precious metals to export as vital tribute goods for Tsushima to present to Korea, and Ryukyu to China, in exchange for the exotic goods (incl. chiefly Korean ginseng and Chinese silks). Repeated debasements of the coinage executed by the shogunate in attempts to reduce the amount of silver flowing out of the country present considerable difficulties for both Tsushima and Satsuma, but both domains are able, for the time being, to petition or argue successfully for exceptions, or concessions, allowing them to continue their “traditional” patterns of trade relations. This would change in the latter half of the Edo period (from perhaps the 1760s or so onward), as stronger shogunate control over certain aspects of the economy, and increased domestic production of various goods, diminished the shogunate’s reliance on the two domains, and thus their leverage and agency.

Where Miyagi Eishō, among others, have argued for the importance of Arai Hakuseki in engineering, around 1709-1711, a dramatic shift in how the shogunate viewed the purpose or importance of the Korean and Ryukyuan embassies to Edo, casting it as a major turning point, Hellyer merely touches upon these issues, dwelling little on the missions and their role in contributing to Tokugawa legitimacy and authority (but that’s okay. We’ve got Toby for that. Hellyer does mention logistical changes put into place by Hakuseki (62-63), but draws his dividing line at 1764 (73). Though I remain unconvinced that anything occurred in precisely that year which should define it as a watershed moment, it is clear from Hellyer’s descriptions that the 1760s-1770s saw a very dramatic shift in shogunate approaches to foreign trade. Beginning at that time, the shogunate moved to implement a more systematic and more directly shogunate-controlled system of funneling revenues and import/export goods, dramatically reducing the agency of Satsuma and Tsushima, and the independence of Nagasaki and Osaka merchants in coordinating exchanges of certain prominent goods and in profiting from those exchanges. This period sees the expansion of the activity of the Nagasaki clearinghouse and the establishment of other clearinghouses and shogunate-authorized guilds (za), directing silver, copper, and marine products through shogunate-controlled, or –authorized, channels, essentially monopolizing the import, export, and domestic trade in those commodities for the benefit of shogunate revenues, rather than private merchant profits. It was around this time as well that the shogunate finally managed to shift the flows of goods away from trade patterns based on the export of silver, to ones where the export of marine goods, including kelp, sea cucumber, and abalone, was at the center; demand for marine products throughout the region – and especially in China – was high enough to allow the Japanese, through their various channels, to not only dramatically decrease the amount of silver they were exporting, but to actually begin importing silver, in exchange for marine goods.

Commodore Perry’s fleet, as depicted in a scroll recently acquired by the British Museum. Image from the Museum’s online collections.

Finally, we come to the 1850s, when Western merchants enter onto the scene in a more major way, though Hellyer does describe earlier encounters. At first, Western merchants seek to insert themselves into the regional trade networks already in place, and for a brief time samurai officials consider using Western ships as intermediaries in the China trade, exchanging marine products for silver, among other goods. However, the focus quickly shifts to more direct engagement with the Western powers, within increasingly Western modes of exchange, and over the course of the 1850s-60s, the traditional systems, especially at Nagasaki, fall apart surprisingly quickly.

Hellyer’s account skims over the diplomatic or political aspects of relations between the various shogunal/domainal samurai authorities on the one hand, and the royal courts of Korea and Ryukyu on the other hand, and treats the Korean and Ryukyuan missions to Edo, the Satsuma presence in Ryukyu, and the Tsushima missions or interactions in Korea, very minimally. However, his narrative illuminates important factors contributing to shifts and changes throughout this period, including changeovers in shogunal advisors or leadership (focusing especially on the differing attitudes and approaches of Arai Hakuseki, Tanuma Okitsugu, and Matsudaira Sadanobu, along with a few others), and shifts in the supply and demand of certain goods. As Japanese silver mines run dry, domestic production of ginseng grows, diminishing somewhat the indispensability of silver exports to Korea; as Japanese copper exports are reduced, the Chinese expand their mining efforts in Yunnan and Vietnam. Matsudaira Sadanobu tries in the 1780-1790s to dramatically reduce foreign interactions, but concedes that the domestic demand for medicinal herbs, roots, and the like was too high to shut things down more fully. And then, just as marine products begin to dominate the export market, the people of the archipelago come, circa 1800, to have a taste for those products, for their own personal local consumption, like never before. This narrative reveals, or highlights, the powerful importance of goods like medicinal herbs and roots, and marine products such as kelp, sea cucumber, and abalone which generally go largely overlooked in favor of “sexier” or “flashier” goods such as gold, silver, silks, and porcelains, a product of our biases as scholars, given our own proclivities and/or cultural background. One thing missing from this narrative, however, even as Hellyer focuses on the attitudes and approaches of different shogunal advisors, is any detailed coverage of changes in attitudes or approaches among the daimyō of Satsuma and Tsushima. Those names already prominent in our historical awareness already due to their involvement in Bakumatsu affairs, such as Shimazu Nariakira and Shimazu Hisamitsu, are chiefly those discussed in any detail, leaving us in the dark as to who the daimyō of the late 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries were, let alone their personalities or policies.

We do, however, learn about a number of significant figures and incidents within Satsuma and Tsushima history, however, which I imagine are scarcely (if at all) covered elsewhere in English. Thus, in addition to the great value and interest of this book for its coverage of economic and foreign relations matters, I also very much enjoyed seeing these domains’ histories “rescued from history” to a certain extent. We learn, for example, about the great efforts at domainal financial reform of Satsuma retainer Zusho Shôzaemon, and the foreign relations efforts of Satsuma retainer Godai Hidetaka, as well as about Tsushima’s foreign relations nightmares dealing with the Russians, and the incredible factionalism and numerous coups within Tsushima leadership in the 1860s. It frustrates me that these events are not more widely discussed, and incorporated into the narrative, and that figures such as Zusho and Godai, along with Sasu Iori and Ôshima Tomonojô, not to mention daimyô such as Sô Yoshiyori and Sô Yoshiakira, continue to languish in such obscurity outside of Hellyer’s account. I hope that my own work can bring to light the stories of more significant figures, not as pawns within broader developments, but as real historical individuals – though, to be honest, I’m not sure my current project actually will. I shall have to hold onto that for the future.

All in all, Hellyer provides a valuable contribution to discussions of Tokugawa foreign policy, both fighting back against survey level misconceptions about static systems of “isolationist” foreign policy dictated from the center, and doing much to inform the more specialist reader as to the complex shifts in domestic production and demand of certain goods, monetary policy, and shifting attitudes or approaches of shogunal elites versus the desires or needs of domainal lords, among other factors which all combined to produce a dynamic, multi-centered, and oft-times contentious economic and political scene in Tokugawa era management of foreign affairs.

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A suite of articles published recently by Forbes allege that Japan’s actually been doing quite well, and that the supposed Lost Decades of economic stagnation since the 1990s have been false, a myth, all along. Of course, as one commenter adroitly stated, if that’s the case, why did no one notice or realize it until now?

But, while I by no means consider myself an expert in contemporary macroeconomics or business or financial policy in any way, and while I by no means mean to give myself a pat on the back, I have kind of been saying this all along. I’ve been to Japan, I’ve lived in Japan, I’ve seen the lifestyle people lead there, and I’ve read of Japan still being the 2nd largest economy in the world for all those years (now 3rd), while constantly putting out new technologies, lightyears ahead of us in robotics, in cellphone features (up until the advent of the iPhone), in bullet trains, and most certainly in customer service and overall quality of life. All of this sparkly shiny, and yet people are saying that Japan’s economy is in the dumps? Not that I knew any better, in terms of hard-and-fast macroeconomic statistics or anything, but, still, it was a bit hard to swallow.

One way or the other, I am no expert, and I have no idea what the truth is. But these articles present some interesting perspectives.

As an aside, I wonder why it is that these Forbes articles include one by NYTimes constant commentator Paul Krugman. I have no doubt that Krugman’s a really bright guy, well-read, and all of that. But he’s no Japan expert. I wonder what Hiroko Tabuchi, the NY Times’ own Japan specialist, has to say about all this. And, considering the Times’ track record, continuing to talk about wacky Japan and inscrutable Japan, refusing to put aside Orientalist attitudes even in the 21st century (couldn’t find any particularly excellent examples, but, believe me, they’re out there), I wonder what real Japan experts, like Gerald Curtis, have to say about it? Why is it Krugman, and not Curtis or Tabuchi, who’s reporting on this?

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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

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