Samurai Money – Japanese Gold Coins of the Tokugawa Shogunate

Samurai Money - Japanese Gold Coins of the Tokugawa Shogunate
Here is a fine example of a nishu-kin (2 shu) gold coin minted during the Japanese Tokugawa shogunate between 1832 and 1858.  The pale gold color is due to the fact that this coin, like most Japanese gold coins of the period, was minted from a gold-silver alloy known as electrum.  Tokugawa era Japanese gold coins are often called "samurai money" as an ode to their feudal origins.

We live in a fake world.  We are surrounded by fake wood, fake leather and even fake breasts.  A world overrun by imitations isn't a particularly new phenomenon either.  Even the ancient Romans were deceived by unscrupulous merchants who peddled brass as gold to the unwary.  The counterfeit has been with us for a very, very long time.

In modern times, ingenious humans have found innumerable ways to imitate the finer (and by implication more expensive) things in life.  But these unconvincing copies are pale facsimiles - mere shadows - of the real article.  Those who understand these subtleties also know that genuine items of great beauty and real value are still available for those willing to take the time to look.

Feudal-era Japanese gold coins are one interesting possibility.  Minted from the early 17th century until just after the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1869, these distinctly Asian coins reflect the rich samurai culture of feudal Japan.  Feudal Japanese gold coins are remnants of a time when Japan was still largely agrarian, feudal and isolated.  At this point in its history, Japan was ruled by traditional samurai lords who had cultivated their warrior philosophy for more than a millennium.

The monetary system of Tokugawa era Japan consisted of a disorganized mish-mash of bronze, silver, electrum (an alloy of gold and silver) and gold coins issued in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.  Theoretically, 16 shu equaled 4 bu, which also equaled 1 ryo.  But, in reality, coins traded by weight as bullion pieces.  Shu denominations, the smallest of the three, were often, but not always, minted in silver.  Bu coins were either silver or gold.  Larger denomination ryo coins were exclusively gold.

The Japanese word for silver is "gin" and their word for gold is "kin".  Therefore, a one bu silver coin would be called an ichibu gin, which translates as "one-bu silver".  Likewise, a similar one bu coin in gold would be called an ichibu kin, or "one-bu gold".  Most Tokugawa period Japanese gold coins available in the market today are smaller one (ichi) or two (ni) shu or bu denominations.  These coins are called isshu-kin (one-shu gold), nishu-kin (two-shu gold), ichibu-kin (one-bu gold) and nibu-kin (two-bu gold), respectively.

These smaller shu and bu Japanese gold coins from the Tokugawa shogunate have an unusual rectangular shape surrounded by finely beaded borders that is reminiscent of a miniature bar or ingot.  Covered in exotic Japanese calligraphy and stylized paulownia flowers, shu and bu gold coins unequivocally exude the style of traditional samurai Japan.  The warm, soft glow of their electrum alloy accentuates the intricate details of the pieces, giving them a compellingly tactile sensibility.

Tokugawa Shogunate Shu Japanese Gold Coins For Sale

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1832 1858 Japan Gold 2 shu
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1832 58 Japan 2 Shu Nishu Gin 16 Gram Gold Ingot High Quality Scans D023
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Japan ND 1832 1858 2 Shu Nishu Gun Tenpo Era Gold  Silver Silver Coin
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1832 52ND Japan Nishu Gin 2 Shu Gold Silver Alloy XF AU
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Due to their high purchasing power, most Japanese gold coins only received light wear.  Instead, everyday purchases in Tokugawa era Japan were made using lower value copper or silver coinage.  Gold coins were generally hoarded by those lucky enough to acquire them.

For over 250 years, from 1600 to 1868, warlords known as the Tokugawa shogunate ruled over a Japan divided into fiefdoms, each controlled by a local daimyo, or samurai lord.  But this traditional feudal structure began to deteriorate in the face of external threats.  After maintaining strict international isolation for over 200 years, Japan finally opened to foreign influence and trade when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry's infamous “Black Ships” entered Edo (Tokyo) Bay in 1853.  Japan then spent the next two decades immersed in a complex crosscurrent of radical new ideas and intense political turmoil known as the Bakamatsu period.

The old ways were changing.  A progressive faction that wished to modernize the island nation struggled against reactionary samurai forces that wanted to isolate the country again.  These conservative samurai elevated the Japanese emperor, who had previously been a figurehead, to an almost mythical status while rallying around the slogan, “Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians (foreigners).”

Ultimately, this internal conflict undermined the rotting, ineffective Tokugawa shogunate, leading to its collapse in 1868.  This ushered in the Meiji era, a time of rapid modernization and industrialization in Japan.  Feudal Japan and the samurai warriors who ruled over it were irrevocably lost to the mists of time.

The Tokugawa shogunate, like many governments throughout history, had an overspending problem.  Maintaining the excessively lavish lifestyle of the shogun and supporting his numerous retainers required more money than the government could easily collect via taxes.  It also didn't help that most peasant farmers paid their taxes in the form of rice instead of money.  Consequently, the Tokugawa regime almost continuously debased the currency during its lengthy reign.

Japanese gold coins from the early Tokugawa shogunate started the 17th century with a fairly high purity of over 84% fine.  By the mid 19th century some of these Tokugawa shogunate gold coins had fallen to just over 12% fine gold.  Debasement didn't occur in a strictly chronologically linear manner however; the purity of feudal Japanese gold coins varied widely, depending on the denomination and era struck.  The shogunate diluted their gold coins with silver instead of a baser metal like copper, leading to the many electrum (gold-silver) issues of the late Tokugawa era.

Tokugawa Shogunate Bu Japanese Gold Coins For Sale

1832 1860 Japan 2 BU NiBu Shogunate Gold VF XF
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Japan NIBU KIN 2 BU Gold Meiji Era
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JAPAN 1868 1869 Meiji nibu 2bu kin gold bar
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The nishu-kin (2 shu) gold coins most commonly found for sale today were minted between 1832 and 1858, in the Tenpo era.  They are composed of 30% gold and 70% silver and measure approximately 13 mm (0.51 inches) long by 7 mm (0.28 inches) wide.  They weigh about 1.62 grams (0.052 troy ounces) each.  These small, intriguing coins are "samurai money" in the truest sense of the term.

Their larger nibu-kin (2 bu) cousins have four times the nominal face value of the smaller nishu-kin coins, but are otherwise quite similar.  The nibu-kin type most frequently seen on the market today was produced during the upheaval of the very early Meiji era in 1868 and 1869.  These Japanese gold coins circulated in the tumultuous period of rapid change immediately following the disintegration of the Tokugawa shogunate.

These late shogunate nibu-kin coins are composed of 22% gold and 78% silver and measure 19 mm (0.75 inches) long by 11 mm (0.43 inches) wide.  They weigh around 3.00 grams (0.096 troy ounces) each and were the last Japanese coins made in the old, bar style.  All later coins of the Meiji era were minted in the Western, machine-struck, round style that is familiar to us today.

For those looking for the ultimate in samurai money, larger denomination gold coins were also produced: the koban (1 ryo), goryoban (5 ryo) and oban (10 ryo) denominations.  These impressively large coins circulated exclusively as bullion pieces, trading by weight.  The massive goryoban and oban coins are extremely rare and can command astronomical prices (up to several tens of thousands of dollars each) when they do come to market.  The smaller koban pieces are more common, though still scarce and highly desirable.

These large, Tokugawa-era Japanese gold coins are oval in shape, with flowing script and artistic flower seals against a background of horizontal grooves or crenulations.  The reverse is blank except for scattered hallmark stamps and sometimes an era indicator.  Few gold coins are as profoundly attractive as these masterpieces of the feudal Japanese coiner's art.  As a result, they are in perpetually high demand with prices to match.

Tokugawa Shogunate Koban and Oban Japanese Gold Coins For Sale

Japane Gold Coin MAN EN KOBAN 1860 67
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GOLD Japan Kyoho Koban 1714 1736 nice very rare leipzig
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Japan Shipwreck Hoei Koban Kin Gold Coin 1710 1714   Ext Rare
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Regardless of the creeping infiltration of the pseudo into the modern world there is one thing that is certain – Japanese gold coins of the Tokugawa shogunate are as genuine - as real - as it gets.  As with most coins, the price of these cultural treasures is dependent on condition, rarity and the era minted.  It is recommended that that investors look for specimens that are damage-free and possess good eye appeal.

The more common nishu-kin (2 shu) and nibu-kin (2 bu) examples from the 19th century generally trade in the $50 to $300 range per coin, while koban typically start above $600.  Prices quickly escalate for scarcer pieces from the 18th century or earlier, especially kobans and other large denominations.  For investment purposes, acquiring more common examples in Very Fine or better in condition would be advisable.  Fine condition or better is acceptable for larger denominations or scarcer specimens.  Condition becomes a secondary consideration for extremely rare pieces, assuming they can be found at all.

The Tokugawa shogunate was a simpler time of noble samurai, elegant geisha and rough peasant farmers that succumbed to the encroachment of the modern era.  Feudal Japanese gold coins represent a satisfying and captivating way to acquire a physical link to this near mythical period in Japanese history.  In a world where so much is so artificial, a collection of gold "samurai money" possesses an allure that is difficult to deny.

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