Mikael S. Adolphson Inaugural Lecture

Japan and the World:
The Continent and Japan’s First Economic Miracle

© Mikael S. Adolphson.
No use of transcript or slides without permission.

Thank you Vice Chancellor. Distinguished guests, colleagues, friends, students, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to extend a welcome to all of you who have taken the time to come here today from both near and afar. I am humbled and most grateful to be part of a tradition where newly appointed professors here at Cambridge introduce themselves in an inaugural lecture. I will take this opportunity to share with you some thoughts about my current project, but I would also like to connect it to the state of Japanese Studies and scholarship. At the end, I would like to share our vision, because I am speaking for a group of dedicated and outstanding Japan faculty here, about Japan’s position and potential in the world of academe, and indeed even in the world in general.

Before I get started, however, I should like to say a few words of gratitude. First of all, I want to thank Churchill College and the Møller Centre for allowing us to use this wonderful space. It is perhaps only fitting that a Swede gets to address such a magnificent audience in a place built by a Dane. Second, as we gather here today, I should like to acknowledge all of those pioneers who came before us. As many of you already know, Japanese got its beginning here at Cambridge in the late 1940s through the pioneering efforts of Eric Ceadel. He graduated from Cambridge with a degree in Classics in 1941, but learned Japanese and ended up teaching 200 young men Japanese from 1942 to 1945 as part of the war effort. In October of 1947, he was appointed lecturer of Japanese at Cambridge, a position he would hold for 20 years, before moving on to become University Librarian.

There are many more to whom we owe gratitude following Ceadel and time does not permit me to mention them all, but I would be remiss if I did not note those who guided us through the crisis in the early 1980’s when funding cuts threatened the very existence of the Japanese programme. At that point, Dr. Carmen Blacker and former Ambassador Sir Hugh Cortazzi managed through incessant lobbying and by making pleas in Japan and in the UK, to secure additional funding that allowed the establishment of a professorship.

Since then, Cambridge has become known for innovative scholarship on Japan, but we should not forget that fundraising efforts to safeguard and ensure the continued life of our subject have also become part of our jobs. Here I would like to recognize the efforts of two recent colleagues, who are also my two immediate predecessors: Richard Bowring and Peter Kornicki. Over the past 25 years, beginning with Richard’s arrival as the first holder of the professorship, Herculean efforts were made to secure support, which today is the foundation for much of the activities of the Japanese Studies group. As in studies of various religious traditions in Japan, founders such as Kūkai, Saichō and Hōnen usually get all the attention, while those who continue the hard work and often are crucial in the development are neglected. This is exactly why I think it is essential that we not forget the accomplishments by Sir Hugh, Dr. Blacker, Richard and Peter. And since Richard and Peter are both here, would you please join me in giving them a big applause?

On a more personal level, I would like to mention someone who meant everything to me in terms of my own academic training, namely Professor Jeffery P. Mass at Stanford University. It was Jeff who took a chance on an unproven student from Sweden, who unselfishly spent days teaching me how to write as a scholar and how to be an academic. He also showed me how to be a mentor, how to appreciate the work of those who have come before us and why the field of Japan is so important to all disciplines, a point I will return to later. Unfortunately, Jeff is no longer with us, but I do know that had he been alive, he would have been here today beaming with joy as we celebrate Japanese studies and scholarship at Cambridge, despite the fact that his part-time appointment in the UK was at that other place further west.

So what kind of scholarship are we currently doing and why? Seeing that I have the pleasure of giving this lecture, allow me to share something of my current research that I hope will reflect the direction in which we are looking to take Japanese scholarship.

Let me begin with the century I probably know the best. Contrary to popular belief, I am not a person of the twentieth century but of the twelfth, at least in spirit. It was, not just in Japan but also, interestingly, here in the UK an era of chaos, sibling rivalry and civil strife, but also of warriors and state-builders. In the UK, one knight stands out, namely the loyal and brilliant William Marshal, who served five kings loyally, fought in battles until the age of 70 and steadied a ship that was about to sink. In Japan, we also find chaos: factional struggles at court that intensified with a comeback by the imperial family, sibling rivalry, civil war and above all the rise of warriors to national prominence, culminating with the establishment of the Kamakura Bakufu in 1185, Japan’s first shogunate (1185-1333). The man behind this creation, which would last for nearly 700 years, was Minamoto no Yoritomo, the focus of my mentor’s works. What he did not know, and what I just recently realized, was that both William Marshal and Yoritomo were born in 1147. On top of that, they were both brought up as hostages and yet managed to charm their captors and eventually become the most powerful military leaders in their countries. There is certainly something very intriguing about these two great islands states separated by a slightly bigger landmass we call the Eurasian continent.

At any rate, considering the widespread fascination with the samurai across the world, it is perhaps not surprising that warriors have been the main focus of countless studies. Were one to survey what historians generally focus on in their research on Japan before the late nineteenth century, one would find a vast majority of them dealing with something related to the warrior. But, this approach has also led to one-dimensional descriptions of a society that was considerably more complex than is assumed. This is particularly the case for the Kamakura age (named after the shogunate), when, in point of fact, the imperial court still decided over state matters, civil cases and religious appointments until the late 14th century. The old elites, courtiers and temples, continued to enjoy special privileges, holding far more land than any warrior or indeed the shogunate. In short, the Kamakura shogunate only concerned itself with warriors, never with court matters or religious affairs unless warriors were involved. Its main responsibility was to contain the warrior class not to promote its interests. The Kamakura age was, as Jeffrey Mass put it, a diarchy, and certainly not the age of warriors.

The “rise of the warrior class” is accordingly a narrative based on the wisdom of hindsight, where the two subsequent shogunates (Ashikaga and Tokugawa, from 1336 to 1868) indeed did dominate politically. But when it comes to the first shogunate, it would be more appropriate to see it as being part of a larger trend, where we also needs to take into account Japan’s interactions with the continent. Thus, moving away from a narrow, political view of rulership and history, we need to reconsider our traditional periodization schemes. Substantial changes did take place in the twelfth century but they do not happen at once nor as suddenly as scholars often assume. I would like to suggest that it is warranted to think of the period 1100-1400 as an age with certain common denominators, perhaps best described as “early medieval Japan.” But this age was not led or dominated by warriors, but rather one where warriors emerged as part of one of two much bigger developments:

1) First, we find a pluralization of power, where elites from three blocks of power effectively came to share in the privileges and responsibilities of rulership. Besides members of the court, temples and warriors now also became part of the state apparatus. These power blocs all had economic and judicial privileges for their own estates, they controlled their properties and human resources independently of the court, and they maintained their own administrative headquarters, which served as quasi-governmental agencies. Competition and factionalism were intense within these blocs, but on a higher level, they collaborated as co-rulers, a kind of decentralized and shared rulership that some may say characterizes a medieval age.

2) The second dramatic development of this age is far less known and understood, but at least as important, namely the Beginning of a monetization of the economy. This started in the mid-twelfth century, eventually leading to the emergence of a cash economy by the late 13th century.

What is perhaps most important about these trends is that neither follows the traditional periodization based on the first and second shogunates, which indicate two eras beginning 1185 and 1336. In addition, neither of them can be directly attributed to the rise of the warrior class. Rather, while the first can be seen as internally induced, the second received a strong impetus from abroad. And this is what I would like to talk about today.

Let me take you back some 1500 years to the first efforts of state-building in Japan. As you all probably know, Japan learned about statecraft from China, often via the Korean peninsula, from the 6th through the 8th centuries. This ranged from ideologies and religions to more practical matters such as state administration, architecture and art, but also the minting of coins. These early coins were used in part to pay government officials but also for payments of tribute and as valuables.¹ But cash transactions never really took hold among the population and the need for coins declined sharply in the ninth century until the last coins were issued in 958. Instead, for the majority of the Heian age, it was rice and silk that served as barter, though other products were occasionally used as well. Coins, in the meantime, were not used, and for two centuries they were non-existent until they suddenly appear again in the mid-twelfth century.

These new coins came to change Japan so drastically that the rice- and silk-based exchange system had by the late thirteenth century been replaced by an economy where copper coins had become the preferred means of exchange. This led in turn to an expansion of domestic trade, and the establishment of numerous guilds that by the fourteenth century had obtained an unprecedented level of independence, not unlike those in northern Europe. And we see an enormous increase of trade with the continent that eventually led to the emergence of trading towns, such as Sakai, which was a self-ruling city by the fifteenth century (map; topic of one of our fourth year student’s dissertation this past spring). Coins also helped undermine the privileged position of the elites as they lost control of trade barriers and markets, ushering into an age dominated by warriors. But, what is most remarkable about this development is that it took place without the minting of a single coin in Japan, for the coins that were used for 400 years were Chinese copper coins. This minting-less monetization is Japan’s first economic miracle! I apologize if some of you thought I was going to talk about the so-called economic miracle of the twentieth century, but I hope you will agree by the end of this lecture that the first one is just as important. At the very least, it was just as transformative.

That Japan used Chinese coins for trade during medieval times is well known among Japanese historians. And yet, the most crucial question of them all has not been satisfactorily answered. Who, in this rice economy, would think of importing coins to be used as mediums of exchange? And where did the impetus come from? To answer those questions, we need to understand Japan as part of the larger context of Asia and look beyond its borders.

While coins fell into disuse from the ninth century, the exchange of goods continued throughout the Heian period, including with the continent. And, yet our historical records reveal that the court as a whole was also concerned with continental traders coming and going freely. Likely, these courtiers, who themselves obtained numerous luxury products, such as rare animals, incense, ceramics, perfumes, medicine or books, as a way of displaying their refinement and wealth, wanted to control supply and demand. Accordingly, we see an ambivalent attitude toward continental traders arriving in Japan, whereby traders were only allowed to trade in Hakata every three years, despite noble cravings for Chinese goods.

Among these luxury imports, suddenly, in the mid-twelfth century, we find copper coins from Song China. The first record is a land sale document from 1150 where a private residence and land were sold for the price of 27 strings (27*1,000=27,000) of coins. In addition, a religious fund raising register from 1151 notes donations of small amounts of cash (30-50 coins) to a temple on Shikoku Island, at some distance from the capital. Coins subsequently became increasingly common, and within a matter of decades, they had become so prolific that it had come to the attention of the imperial court, which did not fully condone their usage as barter. For example, in 1179, we find complaints about the “disease of money” (zeni no yamai) in noble diaries. Yet, that same year, the court also issued an edict regulating the exchange rate between cash on the one hand, and rice and other commodities on the other, reflecting what seems to be some kind of acceptance of their use. Scholars have long argued about the meaning of these two contradictory records, but I do not think we should be surprised if there was some ambivalence regarding the use of Song coins. In principle, there were no objections to using coins in transactions, but if prices were determined by supply and demand, and the coins were minted in China, then the members of the court effectively lost control of the terms of trade.

Archeological finds show that the volume of coins imported in the 13th and 14th centuries was substantial. Indeed, millions of Song copper coins have been found across Japan. This volume would naturally have reflected the arrival of heavily loaded ships, which we find evidence for in a wreck that sank off the coast of Korea in the early fourteenth century (1323). It contained some 800,000 coins, destined for one of the temples in central Japan. There was undoubtedly a great demand for these coins, and it appears that their very weight may have contributed to the ship’s demise. The discovery has received ample attention in Japan, and a model of it is currently on display in Fukuoka City Historical Museum.

But who imported these coins to begin with and why? It is rather farfetched to think that traders or nobles simply decided to use Chinese cash for domestic transactions. Exchanges of goods already took place peacefully and without any major problems using silk and rice as barter, so why would they want to replace them with Chinese currency?

One theory presented by a handful of Japanese scholars suggests that the coins were initially used as ballast. The Japanese exported rather heavy material, especially gold, mercury, sulfur, pine and cedar boards (among the lighter products were lacquer ware, mother-of-pearl inlay, crystal, knives, swords and fans), but imported much lighter luxury products such as fans, cosmetic kits and porcelain. This is not good news for the captain, who need stability in the keel, lest the ship topples over, so, some kind of ballast was necessary. And this is where strings of heavy copper coins come into the picture.

I find this theory interesting, but it also seems insufficient. If the coins were not actually used for anything, then other material would have served the same purpose at a cheaper price, if not free. Why not use rocks for example? The choice of copper coins must therefore be connected to other factors as well, a pull-factor, something that could have generated some benefit and profit. Coins certainly provided the weight needed for stability, but it was not the coins themselves that the traders were importing to Japan. Rather, what they brought over to Japan was copper. Seeing that Japanese elites would not have been much exposed to a monetary exchange system, this should not surprise us and yet this important factor has been overlooked. One argument for this conclusion is that the traders, as demonstrated by many excavation finds across Japan, had a strong preference for Northern Song coins, whose quality and ratio of copper was considerably higher than those of the South.

Obviously, this import could not have happened in a vacuum, and we need to understand the world surrounding Japan at the time. Copper coins had to be available for them to be exported, and the monetary policies of the Southern Song and later the Yuan dynasties played an important role here. While production of copper coins had in fact decreased in China from the twelfth century, the enormous number of copper coins minted during the preceding Northern Song Dynasty numbered in the 100s of millions, annually. On top of that, the printing of paper money preferred by the Southern Song and Yuan dynasties made copper available for other profitable exploits. Now, this is not to say that the export happened with the government’s approval as there were many cases when bans were frequently issued against the export of coins.

For instance in 1199, an edict was issued in China, proclaiming that “Japanese” and “Korean” merchants must not be allowed to export copper coins. Half a century later, a Song official noted that Japanese traders only desired copper coins whenever they visited the trading towns of Taizhou, Ningbo or Wenzhou to trade. When they came to Taizhou, he stated, the town was emptied of coins overnight. By the way, I realize that my Chinese pronunciation may be uncommon to those who speak modern Mandarin, but as many of you will know, I am using an old Ningbo dialect…

But what was the copper used for in Japan, a country that in fact had its own copper ore? One major reason for the lack of confidence in coins in the ninth century was that they were constantly being debased so that the real value declined. What copper was mined went mainly to temples for various objects, especially bronze bells and statues. At the same time, the existing mines were gradually depleted, which of course led to a dearth of copper. But the demand for copper did not decline during the Heian period; indeed, it actually increased from the second half.

This increased demand for copper was closely connected to Buddhist beliefs and institutions. Bells and statues were still made of course, but in addition, there was a new custom of sutra burials, which had become increasingly common in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. This was an age that was commonly understood to be in decline (known as mappō – “the final age of the Buddhist Law”), beginning in 1052 according to Buddhist calculations. In that setting, many monks and nobles believed that sutra burials would accrue merit for its sponsors and preserve the sutras for the next age (Maitreya), a practice that had spread from Kyushu to central Japan. The sutras were interred in a container that was made out of stone, bronze or even porcelain (imported from China), but the most popular material was copper.

The early copper containers were made from domestic copper, but analyses of excavated containers have revealed that copper from China became dominant from the middle of the twelfth century. It goes without saying that the demand for copper and the desire to trade for copper coins in China are deeply connected. This would, of course, explain why Japanese traders sought mainly Northern Song coins and avoided the poorer coins from the South. We should also note that historical records indicate that numerous bells were made out of melted coins in the thirteenth century and that recent chemical analyses have shown that the Daibutsu in Kamakura contains Chinese copper.

Using the copper in these coins to make other artifacts was nothing new. We have records of melting taking place in various regions in China as well as in Vietnam and Korea. For example, in 1135, one Wang Yu, a minister of census, complained that great numbers of coins were melted down and made into various utensils, especially in the region of southeast China. The Song government responded by issuing bans, such as in 1155, and again the following year, when “many coins were melted for making wares, most of which are lost over the sea in the south and in the north.”

The importance of all this is that the initial impetus for the import of coins to Japan was not a desire to import currency or use coins in trade, but rather a response to the demand for copper to make other products. Japan was not unique in that aspect, but it is perhaps the only state to eventually start using these coins as currency and then monetize solely with the help of foreign coins. This development, then, took place simply because of the availability of these coins in Japan, an unintended consequence of the demand for copper by temples and noble elites.

At the same time, Chinese traders would hardly have exported coins against the wishes of the government if there was not something they desired from the Japanese. And it is here that we find the real cause behind this exchange and the ultimate reason for Japan’s first economic miracle. It was sulfur that the Song government sought to import, and Japan had plenty of it. This sulfur, much of it coming from Iōjima, or Sulfur Island, was exported from the eleventh century (first instance recorded is 988), picking up substantially in the next two centuries. This is not the infamous Iwojima of the Asia-Pacific War, but rather another island by the same name located 100 kilometers south of Kagoshima.

In China, sulfur was used for fireworks, but above all for explosives against invading nomads at the northern border. For example, in 1084-85, some 300 metric tonnes of sulfur was imported to the Song, something that was far from coincidental. In 1084, the Song had launched an aggressive campaign against the Western Xia kingdom in the north, creating a demand for gunpowder to be used in the campaigns. It is hardly surprising that this demand was high also in the mid-twelfth century, when the Southern Song was under constant pressure from first the Jurchen and later the Mongols.

The next step in our inquiry is to figure out who made these important transactions happen. As I have already noted, the demand for copper was connected to a desire for Buddhist implements, so temples obviously played an important part. But in the twelfth century, it was likely their noble patrons who took the initiative in trading Japanese products from their estates in exchange for Chinese luxuries and copper. The best known figure is Taira no Kiyomori (1118-1181), a warrior-aristocrat who rose to the top of the court ranks in the 1160s and 1170s. Kiyomori was ambitious and through clever marriage alliances, managed to become the grandfather of the emperor. But a new imperial line needed its own symbolism, its own cultural capital if you will, and Kiyomori was aware of it. So he sponsored his own shrine complex at Itsukushima, was behind the creation of one of the most exquisite sutra scrolls in premodern Japan and even attempted to establish a new capital. All of these strategies were supported by his extensive trade with China, where he imported products that could enhance his status as the noble par excellence. These included rare encyclopedias, ceramics and of course copper. Some scholars have even made Kiyomori into a harbinger of Japan’s future as a major trading nation. We can see that here in the 2012, and fiftieth season of NHK taiga dorama, which focused on none other than Kiyomori.

Of course, this is clearly an oversimplification and we have in fact no evidence that Kiyomori himself promoted the use of coins. Moreover, we must keep in mind that temples and nobles were not the ones who did the actual transporting or the trading for that matter. And there is one group here that has been quite overlooked. As I alluded to before, traders came to Japan throughout the Heian period, but few Japanese went to the continent besides the occasional monk. One reason for this is that the court restricted continental trade to foreign merchants, so there was little room for Japanese traders to engage in similar activities for most of the Heian age.

We find instead a fascinating constellation of Japanese and Chinese traders who worked together. In the beginning, most of these traders seem to have been of Chinese origin, though in some records they were in fact referred to as being Japanese. The reason for this confusion is simply that record keepers at the time did not always pay attention to ethnicity but rather to the origins of ships crossing the ocean. And so when traders came from Japan or Korea, they would be called “Japanese” or “Korean” regardless of their ethnic background.

We have also learned from recent archeological excavations that the Chinese population in Hakata (Fukuoka) was quite substantial. In fact, Chinese ceramic ware and other objects discovered in Hakata suggest that there was a kind of Chinatown in the area. It was likely these maritime merchants who initiated and set up most of the continental trade network in Hakata, and it was their ships that crossed the sea to Ningbo and other ports. An interesting case in point of these close contacts dates to the mid-1160s, when three Chinese merchants residing in Hakata are noted as having donated funds to a temple in Ningbo in China. Others are referred to as being the product of a Chinese-Japanese marriage. The archeology both in Japan and in China not only speaks to the wealth of these Hakata merchants, but also of their dual “citizenship” and to their continued connections on both sides of the sea.

Without dismissing the demand created by the elites, we must therefore acknowledge that these merchants and captains, of continental, Japanese and sometimes mixed origins, were crucial in identifying the demand for copper in Japan and that they saw the solution in Chinese copper coins. In short, the conditions behind Japan’s initial import of these coins speak of a complex society, with multiple actors and conditions intersecting. Without the trading community in Hakata; without the availability of coins in China and the demand for Japanese sulfur, the exchanges themselves and the import of coins would never have occurred. This development and the drastic transformation it eventually induced, involved agents at different levels of society, and in different locations, but most importantly, it occurred within the context of twelfth century East Asia, not in isolation from it.

This brings me to the conclusion and the title of this talk. As I have noted, medieval Japan monetized without minting a single coin, which does not conform to theories of medieval economic developments currently used by historians. The assumed centrality of the minting of coins in medieval states is based on observations of Western societies, as is the case with many theories in the discipline of history today. As scholars it behooves us to allow evidence from the full range of societies to dictate our generalizations. Above all, East Asia ought to play a more prominent role when considering and creating models and theories that aim to explain historical developments. As one colleague has put it, “we need to generate theories out of East Asia.”

I am in other words making an argument for bringing Japan into the discipline of History by engaging its past with historical theories that are often taken for granted to be the universal. In my case, Japan’s medieval monetization simply goes against common wisdom among European historians and that in itself should be sufficient to make it relevant in the discipline. But this is an argument that should, and must, be made also for other academic discipline, such as politics, sociology, literature, anthropology as well as economics. Indeed, I would even argue that Japan’s future in academe hinges on it taking its proper place among the disciplines.

So what can we do about this? Well, we are undoubtedly fortunate in that so many research universities across the globe have area studies departments, where Japanese Studies, as well as Chinese, Korean and other areas, can thrive and promote a better understanding of culture, history, society and languages. But at the same time, this set-up puts those very regions outside the mainstream theories and discussions in many academic disciplines. This means, in effect, that as we continue to emphasize the importance of language and culture, we also need to bring Japan out of area studies, where we have been isolated, and sometimes ignored. In fact, I would argue that also the sciences are sometimes neglected in places like Japan because of a perceived cultural barrier that prevents the exchange of ideas and collaborative research. This is not to say that this is always the case, and indeed there are pockets of superb collaboration within the sciences and the humanities here at Cambridge, but we have to do much better. And this is not just about understanding Japan but also about addressing the challenges of technology, security, international relations and not the least the climate change that we face, not mainly as individual, isolated nations, but as global community.

And so, we propose to make Cambridge a new and exciting hub of exchange of ideas, students, scholars and professionals with Japan connections. We hope to create a centre that can enable such exchanges, not just to promote research and scholarship on Japan, as other centres do, but to also bring research from Japan to Cambridge and vice versa regardless of field. Such a centre would be unique and much needed, as we have heard from representatives in Japan at all levels. This is the centerpiece of our Japan and the World project, which we are launching today. The pamphlet describes our vision, and I have listed some of our goals here, but we are still at a stage where we are exploring what would serve Japan, Cambridge and scholarship in general the best.

Today, I am delighted to be able to share with you that beginning next year, we will be offering several scholarships for deserving master students. We have named them “Japan and the World” scholarships and they are of course meant to not just give young and talented scholars an opportunity to further their education under the guidance of some of the best mentors in Japanese Studies, but also to enrich our own intellectual environment. In addition, we will also be creating scholarships for Ph.D. students, though I am not at liberty to divulge any details today, so please stay tuned for an exciting announcement in the near future. Because of these initiatives and more that we are planning, we are looking forward to welcoming more scholarship and scholars to Cambridge, and we will keep working on expanding our community for the next several years.

As I now conclude this lecture and we head off to the wonderful reception area, we would be delighted to listen to ideas regarding our vision and the centre. We hope that you will consider helping us connect with students, researchers, institutions and even companies, where there is a desire to collaborate. We hope that you will help us welcome researchers and students from Japan, and engage with Japanese research. We can, and we must, make Japanese Studies and Japanese research part of the world. Part of the world of academe, part of the world of scholarship and part of a world that can solve the challenges that we face ahead.

¹ In total, twelve different coins were minted over a period of about 250 years.


This inaugural lecture was presented on 21 October 2016 at the Møller Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge.