Ancient Fuhonsen Coins May Be Japan’s Oldest Minted Currency
Japan’s money economy began earlier than textbooks have described when archaeologists unveiled 33 bronze coins from the late seventh century unearthed in the village of Asuka, Nara Prefecture in 1998.
Now ten years latter, Nine Fuhonsen coins, which are thought to be the nation’s oldest form of minted currency, unearthed at a former site of Fujiwarakyu, the ancient capital from 694 to 710, in Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, differ slightly from previously discovered Fuhonsen coins, the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties
The finding suggests there may have been another mint in addtion to one discovered at Asukaike ruin in Asukamura.
Minor differences were found in the kanji character “Fu” used on the surface of the coins and a thicker frame surrounding a square hole in the center of the coins. The materials of four of the coins included arsenic and bismuth, and very pure copper.
The coins discovered in August 1998 at the Asukaike Ruins in Asuka, are older than the Wado Kaichin coins first minted in 708, thus bumping them from the archaeological record books as the nation’s first circulated money.
The bronze coins, whose existence has been known for some time, are called Fuhonsen, the name of a charm believed used during the Nara Period (710-784).
The time at which Fuhonsen coins were minted falls into the Fujiwarakyo Period (694-710), which is based in modern-day Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, where three sovereigns — Empress Jito Emperor Monmu and Empress Genmei — once held court.
The research institute said the 1998 findings prove that Fujiwarakyo was aimed at creating a polity with solid political and economical structures based on the Taiho Code (Taiho Ritsuryo) of 701.
The code consisted of six volumes of penal law (ritsu) and 11 volumes of administrative law (ryo), modeled after the legal code of China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907). The researchers said the coins may have been cast under the order of Emperor Tenmu, husband of Empress Jito.
“The coins perhaps did not function well as a monetary unit because the distribution system (in Fujiwarakyo) had not been developed,” said Jun Ishikawa, chief researcher at the Toyo Research Institute of Mint Coins.
According to the Nara institute, six of the 33 coins were unearthed intact, while others were found in pieces. The six intact coins were attached to a bronze lattice, showing that they were minted at the site and had not yet been circulated, it said.
Each coin is round and measures about 2.5 cm in diameter, with a 6-7 mm square hole in the center – about the same size as a Wado Kaichin.
The front carries two vertically aligned kanji characters – “fu” for “wealth” and “hon” for “basis” – flanked by a group of seven dots on each side.
The national institute’s Hiroyuki Kaneko said the design is similar to China’s Yosho coins, which were also used as charms.
He said those who were involved in minting the coins may have modeled them after Chinese coins that were available from Silla, one of the three ancient Korean kingdoms.
Prior to the discovery at the Asukaike Ruins, five Fuhonsen coins were found in 1985 at a dig on the former site of Heijokyo in today’s Nara city, which served as the nation’s capital during the Nara Period.
Since these were found to be from the Nara Period, archaeologists had believed they were cast in the same period as Wado Kaichin coins and used as offerings in religious rites and decorations for burials
The Nihon Shoki, the oldest official history of Japan, printed in 720, states that “bronze coins were issued for the first time” in 708. But the Japanese chronicle also suggested that bronze coins existed in the late seventh century, and this had left archaeologists perplexed. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), Fuhonsen coins were considered play money, and similar coins were made for charms, experts said.
Before the origin of the country’s monetary system is rewritten in the history texts, pundits said certain facts must be clarified, including the specific time when Fuhonsen coins were minted and whether they were circulated as money.
The Asukaike Ruins are believed to be a former site for “a national production center” where products related to the Fujiwarakyo court were manufactured under the latest technologies between the late seventh century and the early eighth century.
The ruins are located near Asuka Temple, Japan’s first large-scale Buddhist structure, which belonged to the Soga family, a powerful clan in the region until the mid-seventh century.
By CoinLink Monday, March 17, 2008
Ancient Times: Historical events and currencies in use, (Bank of Japan, Currency Museum website)