Ancient Japan appears to us as a land of warriors, priests, aristocrats, artists, poets, lovers, peasants — but one group is missing.
Where are the traders, and the makers of tradable goods?
They’re there — just hard to see.
Let’s take a closer look. Trade, like speech, seems definingly human. It’s as old as speech. It’s a form of communication. It’s driven by need, but also by something else. Salt, fish, fish hooks, pottery and stone tools are basic necessities; if you don’t have them, you seek those who do, and either fight them or trade with them.
Other items — jade, amber, seashell-jewelry, lacquer — enhance rather than sustain life; you can do without them if need be. And yet shell jewelry from mollusks native to Okinawa has been found in graves as far away as Hokkaido, implying a vast trade network for so primitive a society as Japan was circa 5000 B.C., roughly midway through its pre-agricultural Jomon Period (10,000-200 B.C.).
Did merchants, then, precede, by several thousand years, farmers?
Too little is known about the mechanics of early trade, then or for thousands of years after, to definitively write the merchant into the prehistoric cast of characters. Markets, in any case, do seem to have existed — at grave sites, perhaps, some experts theorize.
The first literary reference to a market occurs in Japan’s earliest surviving poetry anthology, the 8th-century “Manyoshu.” The poet Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (circa 655-710) received word that his wife had died: “Hoping to heal my grief … I journeyed to Karu and searched the market place where my wife was wont to go!” We imagine crowds, browsing, shopping, milling, haggling. We can imagine anything we like; no details are given, the poet’s mind is elsewhere: “No voice of her I heard, though the birds sang in the Unebi Mountain. None passed by who even looked like my wife.”
A revolution in Hitomaro’s lifetime turned Japan, in theory, into a mini-China. Clans ceded authority to a central government, the Emperor as its head. All land, in theory, was his, distributed at his pleasure and taxable.
The system broke down almost immediately. Japan was not China after all, and theory proved impotent to make it so. Great nobles and great temples became great landowners, and great tax evaders. The tax code became a dead letter. The political history of the next 500 years can be read as a slow unraveling of the great centralizing revolution. Trade slowed to a trickle. The economy from the ninth century on, like that of contemporary feudal Europe, became increasingly manor-based. Each manor produced what it needed and prospered; or failed to and starved. Jomon Japanese were more active traders than medieval Japanese.
Money there was none — or almost none, the minting of coins having ceased by 960. Transactions — such as there were — were paid for in kind. In the 11th-century classic “The Tale of Genji,” we see bolts of silk cloth heaped on the ubiquitous messengers as rewards for their services. A 16th-century Noh drama (“Eboshi-ori”) set in the 12th century shows the warrior-hero ordering a formal court cap from a hatmaker — and offering a sword as payment.
No hero, no larger-than-life visionary, shapes the expansion of commerce. It’s a story of small steps taken by small men struggling to better their small lives, little dreaming where those steps were leading.
“Even as late as the early decades of the 13th century, most cultivators continued to live on what they planted and could obtain from nearby mountains, forests and waters,” writes Kozo Yamamura in “The Cambridge History of Japan.” “But compared with their ancestors in the preceding century, cultivators were now acquiring more non-agricultural goods” — pottery, hoes, pots, pans, kegs, bowls, tubs.
Who made them? In earlier times, farmers themselves, as best they could, probably not very well. A gradual evolution produced the full-time artisan, more skilled, more productive, too absorbed in his craft to farm himself and therefore needing to be fed. Here is the beginning of “economy” as we know it. Typically, Yamamura explains, a craftsman would be accorded a “stipendiary paddy,” feeding him but worked by others. The craftspeople so accommodated on one manor included weavers, a plasterer, a dyer, carpenters, “a singing puppeteer,” makers of paper, saddles, umbrellas, pottery and so on. On another, one belonging to the great Todaiji temple in Nara, a temple document dated 1271 mentions stipendiary paddies for a smith, a founder, carpenters, teamsters and providers of “miscellaneous services from morning to night,” whatever that might mean.
Such documents are scarce; we know little, says Yamamura, and we are ignorant of much. In early times, it seems, craftsmen, like farmers, produced, under varying degrees of compulsion, goods for consumption by their feudal overlords. A document dated 1250 records products received by Todaiji from one of its manors: rice, barley, paper, cloth, nuts, fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, sesame oil, firewood, hemp, ladles, buckets, tatami, firewood — all in amounts carefully specified.
Over time, artisans slowly won the freedom to take their wares to market. They formed za (guilds) for protection and bargaining power. The oldest known pertinent document, dated 1092, refers, says Yamamura, to “woodcutters belonging to the Seiren-in Temple (who) voluntarily formed a (za) that was allowed to sell firewood in the capital in exchange for providing litter-bearing services to the temple.”
Markets, rooted deep in prehistory, edged slowly from the periphery of life towards the center. In historical times, the temple was the typical market venue. Market days might number three a month; later, six. Reclaimed land and better farming fed population growth. This favored the growth of towns, in which markets and shops could — had to, if the expanding edifice was not to crumble — come into their own.
What was missing? Money. Its time had come. Copper coins flowed by the shipload into Japan from China — some 100 million of them in 1242. Chinese authorities shuddered at the resulting deflation, Japanese at the consequent inflation. But there was no stopping it.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”