by Jonathan Perry – Gainesville Coins
Few coins are as distinct or carry with them a history quite like the Japanese Ryō Coin, also known as the koban during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). The ryō coin is unique in its design and composition, has an interesting history, and has become a powerful pop culture reference.
What comes to mind when people think of a coin is a round shape. This is not the case for the Japanese Ryō Coin, which are a long and wide oval shape. The ryō is a gold coin and its name is actually a reference to a measure of weight based off the Chinese tael. There were contemporary coins to the ryō that were more round such as the mon, which was similar in design to the Chinese wen due to a hole in the center. The mon was minted from either copper or iron. Other contemporaries to the ryō were the bu and shu, which differed in design from both the mon and the ryō by being rectangular. The shu was made out of silver while the bu was a lesser gold weight to the ryō. Coins were minted in Japan by pouring whatever the desired metal was into a mold. For ryō, each coin is stamped with its value and the name of its mint master.
4000 mon = 16 shu = 4 bu = 1 ryō
What’s most interesting about the ryō is its complex history. Japan’s original currency came from China around 221 BC. These coins looked a lot like mon but their scarcity eventually led to merchants and warlords minting their own coins. The ryō first appeared during the Kamakura period. Beginning in 1192, the Kamakura period (1192-1333) is known for having the first shogunate under Minamoto no Yoritomo, the rise of feudalism in Japan, and consequently the creation of the samurai as a warrior caste. This environment of increasing structure demanded more normalized currency, and thus the ryō was born. The Kamakura period also represented the flourishing of Buddhism in Japan, a belief brought from contact with China. The exchange of ideas between China and Japan, with everything from trade to religion, is another contributing factor in the creation of the ryō. One ryō was said to be the equivalent of one koku of rice. A koku of rice was thought to be enough rice to feed a man for one year. This standard was vague and loosely based on the rice crop each year, yet was still a valuable standard for giving worth to a ryō.
It was during the aforementioned Tokugawa period that the ryō truly blossomed, but under a new name, as a koban or oban. The Tokugawa shogunate made a more concentrated effort to make an effective currency than had previous shogunates. The koban and oban differ in a few key ways. Oban were more akin to collectible currency today: they were handed out primarily as rewards and not usually meant to be spent often. An oban would usually come straight from the mint, with the ink signature of the mint master on it. Koban were different in that they were meant to be spent and lacked the ink signature of an oban. Both were still worth one ryō. Large purchases with koban were done by placing them all in a package; the package was then sealed and signed by the sealer of the package. Much of the gold used in the making of koban was mined from the Sado gold mine on Sado island, which has been in operation since 1601. Eventually, the koban would be replaced with the yen.
The ryō also holds a certain place in Japanese popular culture. In period piece films and animations, the ryō holds a certain symbolism in its distinct design. The koban is often depicted with the statue of the Maneki Neko, otherwise known as the Fortune Cat or Beckoning Cat. (This distinction is based on which paw the cat is holding out.) The origins of this statue can be partially traced back to the popular Japanese phrase “Neko ni koban,” which translates to “gold coins before cats.” The phrase is a lot like the Western phrase, “pearls before swine,” in that it communicates you shouldn’t give things of value to those who won’t appreciate or understand them. Even video games have used this currency. The popular video game series Ganbare Goemon, or Mystical Ninja, used the ryō as its main currency. The famous video game series Pokémon had the character Meowth, which not only had a koban on its head as a reference to the Maneki Neko, but also threw kobans in its characteristic “Payday” attack.
The ryō coin is both unique in its design and history. The once-powerful coin of shogunates, it continues its proud legacy now in popular Japanese culture. Like Shintoism and Samurai, the ryō coin is something purely Japanese.