The threat posed by China’s Tang dynasty prompted Japan to boost the state’s economic strength by minting its first coins in the late seventh century, earlier than previously believed, according to an archaeologist at a national research institute.
The Nara National Research Institute of Cultural Properties announced this week that 33 Fuhonsen coins, which were found in August at the site of the Fujiwarakyo court in Asuka, Nara Prefecture, date from the late seventh century.
The finding, which rocked the archaeological and historical world, negates the belief that the issuance of Wado Kaichin coins in 708 marked the birth of Japan’s money economy.
In the late seventh century, China was the only part of Asia that minted coins, known as Kaigen Tsuho, which were used also in present-day Vietnam until the late 10th century and on the Korean Peninsula until the early 12th century.
The Fujiwarakyo court, which ruled much of Japan at the time, cast coins because it was in a position somewhat similar to the one Japan was in before the 1868 Meiji Restoration, reckoned Hiroyuki Kaneko of the institute.
At the end of the Edo Period in the mid-19th century, the Tokugawa shogunate feared that Western powers might attempt to colonize Japan. In the seventh century, Kaneko said, Japan feared China would attempt to invade.
In 663, Japan’s Imperial court, based in Naniwa (modern-day Osaka), sent 27,000 troops to the Korean Peninsula to aid Paekche, one of three kingdoms in ancient Korea, which was located in the southwestern part of the peninsula.
The joint forces of Japan and Paekche were defeated in the Battle of Hakusonko by Tang dynasty forces who were assisting Silla, a Korean kingdom in the southeastern part of the peninsula.
The court gave asylum to Paekche nobles, and sought to build up defenses in western Japan, believing the Tang forces would retaliate.
The Japanese court was also keen to copy Tang dynasty culture, which was in its heyday at the time, and introducing a political system based on laws was seen as a necessity.
The Fuhonsen coins are one example of the Japanese court’s adoption of the Chinese system, archaeologists said. The size of the coins discovered in the Asuka dig is nearly the same as that of China’s Kaigen Tsuho.
Because Japan had broken off relations with the Tang dynasty after the Battle of Hakusonko, information about Chinese currency came only from Silla, which did not mint coins itself, Kaneko said.
He said the design of Fuhonsen coins may have been modeled after China Yosho coins, which were used as charms, not money.
“After normalizing relations with China in 704 by sending a mission, the Japanese court may have realized it made mistakes with its coins, by looking at the Chinese coins, and made some fine tuning to introduce Wado Kaichin coins,” Kaneko said.
The name Fuhonsen may come from Tang dynasty documents, said Keiji Matsumura of the Nara institute.
According to the documents, the legendary warlord Mayuan (14 B.C. to 49) told Emperor Guangwu of the Later Han dynasty that “the basis for wealth of the people is food and money,” proposing a revival of Goshusen coins, which had been minted during the Former Han dynasty.
The kanji on the Fuhonsen are “fu” for “wealth” and “hon” for “basis,” apparently taken from the Tang dynasty, Matsumura said. “In Japan at the time, the new minting of China’s Goshusen coins was a well-known fact, and Japanese court people perhaps engraved the kanji on the head side of the coin,” he added.
He said the coin’s round shape and square hole symbolize the harmony of Earth and the heavens, and the seven dots on both sides of the hole indicate the seven stars in the Chinese principles of yin and yang. “One meaning in the design of Japan’s first coins may be to educate people who had no idea about the currency,” he said.