Meiji Yen value

Simon Partner's picture

Dear colleagues,

I have a question for the hive mind. I am trying to find out what 4 Yen was worth in 1876, compared to an income denominated in silver monme in the Edo period. So I am trying to figure out the Yen-monme exchange.

As I understand it, the Edo-period ryo was worth an average 60 monme through the Edo period, and double that in the final decade after Japan adjusted to global silver prices. And also as I understand it, the Yen was introduced in 1871 at a rate of 1 ryo=1 Yen (actually I have noticed that even in the Edo period, people sometimes referred to the ryo as the えん 圓).

So it would be logical to assume 1 Yen was worth around 120 silver monme.

But I also understand (admittedly from Wikipedia) that the official weight of the silver Yen was 24.26 grams, while one monme was fixed at 3.75 grams of silver. So based on this, the value of 1 Yen would be only about 6.5 monme of silver.

My understanding is that the monme was not a currency, but a weight of pure silver, so not subject to debasement. So how could the value of the ryo/Yen go from 120 to 6.5 monme in just 3 years? Does anyone have any insight into this?

Thanks!

Simon Partner, Duke University

Dear Simon,

When the Japanese Yen was introduced in 1871 it was pegged to the Mexican silver dollar, which was effectively equivalent to the U.S. dollar. I don't know the value in 1876, but in 1874 American employees of the Japanese government submitted expense reports that used dollars and yen interchangeably. I think the three currencies (yen - Mexican dollar - U.S. dollar) were more or less equivalent until the inflation of the 1880s.

For a source on the Japanese yen see Gaimushō Chōsabu, ed., Dai Nihon gaikō bunsho (12 vols., Tokyo: Nihon Kokusai Kyōkai, 1936-1940), 4: 677. It is available online. If you look at 4: 627-630 in the same volume it gives a document that shows how the foreign ministry planned to get foreign merchants to exchange their Japanese currency (nibu) for the new yen. There is also an interesting article in the New York Times, February 10, 1872 (page 11) that talks about the new yen. With the sources given above and the Wikipedia data about the ichibu, the koban (I think the Wikipedia data about the ichibu and koban are probably reliable) you can probably figure out a silver-based equivalency between Tempo ichibu and the Japanese yen.

As for how the value could drop so quickly, I think what happened is that the value of silver coins stayed fairly stable (the Tempo ichibu was almost pure silver, and the Ansei ichibu was still very high quality), but the value of the koban (a "gold" coin) dropped a lot as it was debased in the 18th and early 19th century, and then plummeted because of the export of gold after the opening of Yokohama in 1859.

Rob Eskildsen, International Christian University

Dear Rob,

I just downloaded from the NDL website the 日本外交文書 vol1.1-9. But subsequent volumes do not seem available. Can you suggest how I can obtain volumes through 1882 (Meiji 15)? I just signed a contract with Oxford University Press to do a book on Huang Zunxian 黃遵憲 in Japan (1877-1882) and his 日本雜事詩. One used to be able to get at these archives via http://kindai.ndl.go.jp/index.html , but that link is now defunct. I'd be grateful for your help. Thanks.

Cheers, Richard
Professor Emeritus of Chinese Thought and Literature
University of Toronto

richard.lynn@utoronto.ca
https://utoronto.academia.edu/RichardJohnLynn

Dear Richard,

The digitized 日本外交文書 through 1935 is available on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website:
https://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/annai/honsho/shiryo/archives/mokuji.html

You may also want to do a quick check of the online archive JACAR (Japan Center for Asian Historical Records アジア歴史資料センター):
https://www.jacar.go.jp

It has a good search interface and you may find something. The most important records have been published, but there may be a few unpublished Japanese records available in the online archive.

The National Diet Library changed is digital website a couple of years ago and that is probably why you can't find 日本雜事詩. I think this is the source you are looking for (I found it on Google).
https://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/895775

Best of luck to you!

Regards,
Rob

Robert Eskildsen
Department of History
International Christian University

Dear Rob,

Many thanks, just what I need. https://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/annai/honsho/shiryo/archives/mokuji.html takes the place of the published volumes nicely, and easier to find things. And it is especially important to know that the defunct
https://www.jacar.go.jp now = HTTP://kindai.ndl.go.jp/index.html. As for 日本雜事詩, I've had a PDF copy since I copied it at the Nichibunken in 1997, when a visiting professor there. Looks like the same edition as available at NDL. The three links you provide are all very helpful.

Cheers, Richard