The Economic History Review

The making of paper money in early modern Japan

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Authors: John D'Amico
Published online: October 31, 2023DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13303

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This article explores the conception and execution of paper currency schemes in Tokugawa Japan (1603–1868). Paper currency was widely used as a form of local money in early modern Japan, but has received close to no attention in Anglophone scholarship even amid a recent upsurge in interest in the global history of money. From the perspective of monetary history, Tokugawa paper currency presents an intriguing puzzle. Even as paper currencies repeatedly collapsed in value, they remained in common use as an essential component of the early modern monetary system. Using the case of Sendai domain, a large fiefdom in northeastern Japan, the article argues that the monetary practices and expectations of ordinary subjects transformed paper money, created through partnerships between the samurai ruling class and powerful merchant financiers, from a tool meant to serve the interests of state finances into a low-denomination currency convenient for everyday transactions, resulting in the bills’ surprising longevity as a form of small change. Drawing on approaches that centre the role of non-state and marginal actors in the making of money, it sheds new light on the political economy of late Tokugawa Japan and offers new insights into the global history of money.