Japan early trade coin and the commercial trade
beetwen Vietnam and Japan in the 17th century

Thuan Luc
May 1999

There was no historical record to recite exactly when the Japanese started trading with Viet Nam. Vietnamese historians only knew that Chinese merchants traded with the Viet a couple hundred years before the Japanese. According to Professor Hasebe Gakuji and Professor Aoyagi Yogi from a recent archaeological expedition in Japan, fragments of Vietnamese ceramic were found in a northern part of Kyushu island. Among them was a wooden plate with character showing the date 1330 on it. Did the Japanese go to the Viets or the Viets sailed to Kyushu? Or perhaps the Chinese, and the Javanese acting as middle man traded these goods northward? Vietnamese history records showed that when Lord Nguyen Hoang founded Hoi An port at the beginning of the 17th century, hundreds of Japanese residents were already there.

Early Vietnamese official records documented the first contact between the Japanese and the Viets occurred in 1585. Lord Nguyen Hoang's sixth son led a squadron of more than ten ships to Cua Viet seaport where he destroyed two of the pirates' ships of Kenki, a Japanese pirate mistaken for a Westerner. Later in 1599, Kenki's ship had been wrecked in the ThuanAn seaport and captured by Lord Nguyen Hoang's general. In 1601, Lord Nguyen Hoang sent the first official letter to Tokugawa Shogunate apologizing for his attacking the ship belonging to Kenki, a Japanese merchant, and to praise for the amicable friendship between the two countries.

Tracing back through history, there were good explanations for the Japanese wanting to trade with the Viets. Since the Tang dynasty in the 8th century, Chinese merchants had already crossed the open ocean to Japan, Champa, and Java for commercial trade. And in the 12th century, the Japanese merchants began sailing to China with the same purpose. During the Ming dynasty in the 16th century, trade friction between Japan and China mounted as Japanese pirates attacked many Chinese seaports. The Ming banned its citizens from trading abroad with foreigners, especially the Japanese regardless of whether they are honest Japanese merchants or pirates and applied the embargo policy towards Japanese ships. During that period, Japan desperately needed high-quality Chinese raw silk for their royal Court and war materials for their army. Therefore when direct trade with China was becoming increasingly difficult, the Japanese merchants alternatively turned south towards Vietnamese ports, neutral trading sites with Chinese merchants. That may explain why Hoi An in Cochin-china and Pho Hien, Ke Cho in Tonkin became prosperous for several decades during the 17th century.


In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated the Hideyori loyalists in the battle of Sekigahara. Three years later, Ieyasu was appointed Shogun by the emperor. It marked the beginning of the Edo era and the Tokugawa Shogunate ruled Japan for over 250 years. The Shogun often exchanged correspondence with Lord Nguyen Hoang. The commercial trade between the two countries prospered during this period.

According to Professor Kawamoto Kuniye, in the Gaiban Tsuuho - a collection of official diplomatic documents of trade between Japan and other countries from 1599 to 1764, in a reply to Lord Nguyen Hoang in the 10th month of the year 1601 Ieyasu stated that 'In the future, ships visiting your country from our country are to be certified by the seal shown on this letter, and ships not carrying the seal should not be deemed lawful'. Hence the Shuinsen (Vermillion Seal) policy came into effect. Any Japanese merchant ship carrying the red seal of Tokugawa must be considered as the Shogun's representative to trade with foreign countries. The powerful Shuinsen trade license, by the authority of the Shogun, was issued only to the noble families in Japan such as Chaya, Araki Store, Phuramoto, Suminnokura.

Professor Iwao Seichi has traced the number of Japanese red-seal ships clearing for the Great Viet and found that at least 124 ships visited both Tonkin and Cochin-china in the period from 1604 to 1635, besides the number of ships which did not have license or arrived before 1604. The Viet rulers successfully achieved commercial trade with Japan in the 17th century.

Number of ships in year   Tonkin	Cochin-china
1604-1605		       5		     9
1606-1610		       2		     9
1611-1615		       3		    26
1616-1620		       9		    22
1621-1625		       6		     7
1626-1630		       3		     5
1631-1635		       9		     9

Every year, during the month of January through March, when the favorable NorthEast wind for sailing South was blowing, Japanese ships with heavy loads of silver and copper arrived at the Viets river-ports. In Hoi An, to handle the large influx of Japanese, the local authority set up a Japanese town quarter, Nihomachi. And the Chinese merchants had a nearby town quarter as well. They exchanged goods with each other or with the locals in open market fair. The Japanese preferred Chinese or Vietnamese raw silk, sugar, spices, sandalwood. In the early 17th century, Christoforo Borri who lived in Hoi An noted about the profit from the trade 'This Calamba (sandal wood) where it is gathered, is valued 5 ducats the pound; yet at the Port of Cochin-china it yields more; and scarcely to be had under 16 ducats the pound: and being transported to Japan, it is valued at 200 ducats the pound...with a piece of such greatness that a man lay his head on it, as on a pillow, the Japanese will give 300 or 400 ducats the pound'. When the SouthEast trade wind blew during July, August, the fleet of merchant ships began to leave the Great Viets heading home. In the Inner Region, Chaya Shirojiro was the most famous merchant who bought fine silk, sandalwood, calamba and sold copper coins, silver, bronze to Nguyen Lord.


The friendship between two countries developed quickly at both national and local level. Nguyen Lord and Tokugawa exchanged letters and gifts annually through Japanese merchants. In 1604, Lord Nguyen Hoang even took the initiative to adopt Hunamoto Yabeiji, a Japanese merchant. Later on, Lord Nguyen Phuc Nguyen, Lord Nguyen Hoang's son, tried to improve upon relationship even further. According to Phan Khoang in Viet Su, Xu Dang Trong (Vietnamese history, the Inner region), Lord Nguyen Phuc Nguyen married his daughter, Princess Ngoc Khoa, to Araki Shutaro, another Japanese merchant. Lord Nguyen even permitted Araki to have a royal Vietnamese name as Nguyen Taro, called Hien Hung. Nguyen Lord also wrote to some other Japanese merchants, Honda Kouzukenosuke and Chaya Shiro Jiro encouraging them to pursue trading in the Inner Region.

Meanwhile the relationship between Japan and the Outer Region did not improved much. Before 1635, fewer Japanese ships arrived in Tonkin and Japanese merchants set up trade office in Pho Hien and Thang Long. The most famous Japanese merchant in the Outer Region was Suminokura Kyoi who sold copper coins, arms and silver to Lord Trinh and bought fine silk. Until Tokugawa promulgated the close-door policies, sakoku, in 1635 and Japanese merchants were banned to go abroad, a number of Japanese merchants decided to stay and moved to the Outer Region to settle definitely. The Dutch as their best intermediaries to contact with the Vietnamese merchants hired those who were familiar to Vietnamese customs, experienced in trade and spoke the local language fluently. Because the relationship between the Dutch and Nguyen Lord was poor, the Dutch maintained more frequent contacts with Trinh Lord. According to Dumoutier, some Japanese had close relationship with the Court. He mentioned about a Japanese lady, Ouroussan became a beloved concubine of King Le Than Tong.

Japanese merchants were at ease with the natives in the region. They mixed with Vietnamese people and adopted local customs gradually. A great number of Japanese merchants married the local people and donated money to repair or to build Buddhist pagodas and bridges. In the ancient town of HoiAn, the Japanese bridge, namely the Bridge-shaped Pagoda also, connecting Tran Phu street and Nguyen thi Minh Khai street was the best symbol of the Japanese-Vietnamese friendship.


To understand why Japanese merchants brought copper coins to the Viets for trade in the 17th century, one should review the monetary history of Japan. Japan was originally rich in natural resources of precious metals such as silver, gold and copper. As early as the beginning of the 8th century, gold, silver and copper coins not only existed but also were minted in Japan. These coins were made for reward more than for use as a means of exchange. In those days, Japan was still in the stage of barter economy. From the 12th century to 1587, Japan stopped minting and sent goods to China to exchange for Chinese copper coins, as demand for coins gradually increased. In the 15th century Ashikaga Shogunate sent request to the Ming dynasty in China many times for a supply of copper coins. Therefore the Toraisen, a imported coin from China, and such as Jia Ding Tung Pao (Katei Tsuho) of the Sung, Hong Wu Tung Pao (Kobu tsuho) and Yung Lo Tung Pao (Eiraku Tsuho) of the Ming circulated throughout Japan. Meanwhile the supply of Toraisen was still not enough to fulfil the demand for money due to the expansion of commercial trades. The nobles to fill the gap minted Shichusen, privately minted Japanese coin. In the 16th century, cracked or worn out Toraisen and poor quality Shichusen were called Bitasen, a poor quality coin. People began to select coins and to refuse the face value of Bitasen. In the Tokugawa period, the exchange ratio between the Toraisen and Bitasen was 4 to 1. The Shogun wanted to resolve the monetary disorder, to monopolize the authority of minting coins and to standardize Japanese currency. In 1608, Tokugawa prohibited the circulation of Bitasen, including the imported Chinese coins. He promoted the production of gold, silver and copper mines and the application of sophisticated Chinese technology to refine the metal. Gold and silver coin and bar as well as the Tensho Tsuho, Genna Tsuho and Kanei Tsuho began to replace the old coins.

Japanese merchants got a bright idea of buying these devalued and banned coins with a low price in Japan and selling them to the foreign merchants, then to other countries, making huge profits. In that period, Nguyen Lord had conflict with Trinh Lord. The southern Nguyen ruler needed copper to cast canon for the war. And in 1651, Prince Yung Ming in China required Nagasaki to provide copper coins as well. The local authority in Nagasaki began to cast the Yung Li Tung Pao (Eiryaku Tsuho) for the Ming. Near the end of the 17th century, Lord Nghia (Nguyen Phuc Tran) asked Tokugawa to provide copper coins on his behalf. Japanese coin export was so profitable for the merchants and the Shogunate. However, after the local government following repeated rejections made several requests by the Shogunate, finally Tokugawa permitted Nagasaki to cast coins only for trade from the 2nd year of Manji (1659) to the 2nd year of Jokyo (1685). According to Kristof Glamann in the Dutch Asiatic trade 1620 - 1740, the VOC vessels also shipped the Nagasaki coins to Europe, Netherlands on their way back home.

In Tonkin, the Japanese trade coins were circulated or were melted to make utensils as well. Alexandre de Rhodes, the French priest lived in the Outer Region in 1627, recited in his book that the current coin in Tonkin consisted of large copper coin brought in from Japan and small coin minted locally. Large coins were circulated everywhere, but small coins were used only in the capital and four surrounding districts. The value of the local coin varied depending on the quantities of great cash brought in each year but was normally priced at 10 small cash to 6 large cash.

Some details in the Register of the British East India Company showed the busy activity of coin trade in Pho Hien, Tonkin.
August 22, 1672: 3 Dutch ships arrived from Batavia bringing 6 millions Japanese cash and 1000 tael of silver.
April 7, 1675: 1 Chinese junk arrived from Japan with copper cash and silver.
June 17, 1675: 1 Dutch ship arrived from Batavia with 80 chests of Japanese cash.
February 23, 1676 2 Chinese junks arrived from Japan to bring silver and cash.

Meanwhile Cochin-china did not have natural resources for casting coin and Nguyen Lord desperately needed copper during the wartime. Source of copper of the region mainly came from Japan, and then China and Batavia. Even later, the fighting between Trinh Nguyen was over, the southern Nguyen ruler's need for copper for trading became increasingly important. The VOC Registers provided some details about the coin trade business. From 1633 to 1637, VOC imported 105,834 strings of cash coin, each string had about 960 coins. The total of imported coins to Cochin-china was 101600640 coins for the five year period. Dr. A van Aelst gave more details: 1,250,000 Yung Lo Tung Pao coin and 1,000,000,00 Kanei Tsuho coins. When the Japanese closed-door policy came into effect, Japanese merchants transferred their stock of 200 tons of cash coins to the Dutch to ensure a continuous supply.

Was the amount of imported copper coins into Cochin-china tremendous? That was the reason why Le Quy Don complained in his book Phu Bien Tap Luc that 'The Nguyen wasted lot of copper. They even used copper to make nails, door hinges.'.

Tracing back to the Register Record of the VOC, we could see the profit margin of the coin trade in the 17th century. During 1635 - 1636, one string of cash coins valued 1 liang of silver in Japan could be priced at 10.5 liang in the Great Viet.


Without mentioning about the Bitasen coins like Eiraku Tsuho that the Japanese brought in the Great Viet, there were three kinds of Nagasaki coins:

  • Nagasaki YungLi coin (Nagasaki Eiryaku Sen)
  • Nagasaki Five Element coin (Nagasaki Gogyo Sen)
  • Nagasaki trade coins (Nagasaki Boeki Sen).

The Nagasaki YungLi coins were copied from the Chinese Yung Li coin and used in Taiwan island. Yung Li was the reign title of Prince Yung Ming who was enthroned in Kwang Tung after the Ching already captured PeKing. The Prince sent order to Nagasaki for copper coins.

The Nagasaki Five Elements coins were cast to wish good luck to Teiseiko who defected to Taiwan. There were five types of this coin: Four Metal (Kin Sen), Four Wood (Moku Sen), Four Water (Sui Sen), Four Fire (Ka Sen) and Four Earth (Do Sen).

The Nagasaki trade coins, as well as silver and gold bar and raw copper were used for trade between the Japanese and the Great Viet in the 17th century. According to Kristof Glamann in 'Dutch Asiatic trade 1620-1740', in 1621 ,the Japanese copper coins were shipped to Netherland for testing in Amsterdam. The result did not come up to expectations.

The most common Nagasaki trade coins were found with the inscription Yuan Feng Tung Pao, namely Genho Tsuho in Japanese. There were about 40 versions of GenHo Tsuho Nagasaki coins. Some had the character Feng smaller than the others. Some were written in orthodox style, or grass style (Gyo Sho Genho), seal script style (Cho Kan Ho Genho).

The inscriptions of Nagasaki trade coins were copied from the Sung dynasty's reign title. The diameter of Nagasaki trade coins was about 24 mm. However there were special characteristics between Sung's coins and Nagasaki coins to differentiate them. The prominent feature of Nagasaki coins was the large square hole with the side about 7mm to 8mm, the rim of the hole were very straight and neat. The second important feature was the simplicity of characters on the coin. Sometimes the stroke was so simple making the coin unique, for example the character Feng of Genho Tsuho in grass styles. The rust of oxidized copper on Nagasaki coins sometimes looked different in color than Chinese coin. Perhaps the combination of alloy in Japanese coin played an important role for this feature.

The Xian Fu Yuan Pao, namely Shofu Genho in Japanese, were commonly used as the Genho Tsuho. Its characters were on the clockwise direction. Other Japanese trade coins written in orthodox style as Jia You Tung Pao (Kayu Tsuho), Xi Ning Yuan Pao (Kinei Genho), Tian Sheng Yuan Pao (Tensei Genho) and Huang Sung Tung Pao were found in Vietnam territory.

According to Ta Chi Dai Truong in 'Nhung Bai Da Su Viet' (The Vietnamese unofficial history), the Tai Ping Tong Pao, namely Taisei Tsuho in Japanese, with either the character 'bun' (Van in Vietnamese) or the dot and crescent on the reverse side was considered as Nagasaki trade coin.

Several Japanese trade coins were written in seal script style such as Zhi Ping Yuan Pao (Jihei Genho), Shao Sheng Yuan Pao (Shosei Genho) and Xi Ning Yuan Pao (Kinei Genho).

According to Mr.Le Hoan Hung in Saigon and Mr.Francois Thierry in France, there were Vietnamese copied versions of Nagasaki trade coins. With several years of collecting Vietnam cash coin, Hung cited that the most common Vietnamese copied version was Genho Tsuho and that the calligraphy of character Feng of the copied version was poor. Other copied versions were small and thin. Francois recently informed me about his study in alloy of Nagasaki trade coins and coins mentioned in Phu Bien Tap Luc (Miscellaneous Records of pacification in the Border Area). His research would be published in 1999.


Since 1633, even as Tokugawa Shogunate banned Japanese traders from going abroad, the trade between Japan and other Asian countries still flourished. After the closure of Japan, the Dutch ships and the Chinese junks from Southeast Asian ports were still permitted to visit Nagasaki. The main Japanese supplier turned over his stock of copper coins for Cochin-china to the Dutch East India company. The Japanese sakoku policy was not primarily a policy of economic isolation. However until 1685, when the regulations of restricting silver export and then copper export in 1715 were strictly applied, the trade was in decline. Silver and copper acted as stimulus to the trade in Asia at that time. When the export of these metals were restricted, the copper coin trade declined rapidly and trading overseas in Asia was in an deep slump.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Englishmen and Spaniard merchants seldom visited the Great Viet because they realized that the profit was not significant as it was in the past. Englishmen found that the cotton market in India was more promissing. The Malayan peninsula and West Java lost its monopoly on spices market because these products could be found in Africa and South America as well. The overseas trade in the Great Viet was reduced significantly. The declining period of Pho Hien, HoiAn ports and Cachao came into existence. Both the Inner Region and the Outer region of the Great Viet saw unpleasant economic hardship. A series of famine, natural disaster and epidemic lead to the collapse of both Trinh Nguyen regimes before the rise of the great Tay Son.


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