Home | Index Japanese Archaeology January 26, 1999
last revised: April 8, 2008

Oldest Coins in Japan Found Recently

by Charles T. Keally

On January 19, 1999, the Nara National Research Institute of Cultural Properties (Nara Kokuritsu Bunkazai Kenkyujo, or Nabunken) reported finding 33 bronze coins at the Asukaike Site in Asuka Village, Nara Prefecture.* These coins were excavated from a layer of charcoal near the center of the site from August through December last year. The Asukaike Site dates to the late 7th century and the beginning of the 8th century. In March last year, this site was in the news because a mokkan (strip of wood for writing on) with the oldest reference to "emperor" (tenno) and dated 677 was found there ("Tenno", 1998, p. 1).

The 33 coins reported include six complete coins. These are round, averaging 2.44 cm in diameter, 1.5 mm in thickness, and 4.25-4.59 g in weight. They have a 6-mm square hole in the center. On the face are two kanji -- tomi (wealth) and moto (source) -- pronounced fuhon, located above and below the hole, and two sets of seven dots, located on the left and right sides of the hole. The back of the coins is plain.

The fuhon possibly comes from the Chinese saying that the wealth of the people is in food and money. The seven dots possibly represent the Ying and the Yang, and the five elements: wood, fire, earth, gold and water.

There was a mokkan with the date 687 associated with these coins. This would mean that these coins pre-date the well-known Wado Kaichin coins by about a quarter century. The Wado Kaichin coins have four kanji, the Wado coming from the name of the era when they were manufactured (Wado: 708-715).

There is a good possibility that these Fuhon coins are the bronze coins mentioned in the Nihon Shoki passage in the 12th year (683) of the reign of Emperor Temmu:

(Aston 1896/1972, vol. II, pp. 359-360)

The silver coins in this passage might be the 11 silver coins found at the Sufuku-ji temple site in Otsu City. This temple was built by Emperor Temmu's brother, Emperor Tenji (reign 662-671). But there is a much earlier mention of silver coins in the Nihon Shoki:

(Aston 1896/1972, vol. I, pp. 391)

What exactly these earlier coins are is not known. Aston feels this is a reference to Chinese coins and has nothing directly to do with Japan. The oldest coins found in Japan are Han Chinese, dated to the 1st century A.D. (Kidder, 1972, p. 25). T'ang Chinese coins dated 621 or after appeared in large numbers, and this became the model for the later Japanese coins. But archaeologists and historians have generally accepted the Wado Kaichin as the oldest locally made coins -- until now.

Silver coins were probably never widely circulated because the silver has intrinsic value and can be sold. But copper or bronze coins have little intrinsic value. Thus, the government sets their value as money and backs up this value. These Fuhon coins might be the first coins to be used this way, but they might not have had wide circulation. These Fuhon coins are quite well made compared to the rougher, later and widely circulated Wado Kaichin coins. And only five others have been found -- at the nearby sites at Heijo-kyo, Fujiwara-kyo and Naniwa-kyo. Heijo become the capital in 710, Fujiwara in 694, and Naniwa was used by several emperors in the late 7th and early 8th centuries, including Emperor Temmu (673-686) (Kidder, 1972, p. 10).

February 2002

As of early 2002, there were 10 reported finds of Fuhon coins, at 8 different sites -- 3 at Fujiwara-kyo, 2 at Heijo-kyo, 1 at the Saikotani site in Osaka City, 1 at the Asukaiki site in Asuka Village, 1 each at sites in Takamori Town and Iiida City in Nagano Prefecture, and 1 in Fujioka City in Gunma Prefecture.
  • Matsumura, Keiji. (2002). Fuhonsen o Meguru Shomondai [Questions Concerning Fuhon Coins]. Kikan Kokogaku [Archaeology Quarterly], 78: 32-36. (in Japanese)
  • Yomiuri Shimbun. (1999). Fuhonsen? Nagano de mo Shutsudo [Possible Fuhon Coin Unearthed in Nagano Prefecture]. Yomiuri Shimbun, January 27, p. 30. (in Japanese)
  • Yomiuri Shimbun. (2001). Fuhonsen Gunma de Kakunin [Fuhon Coin Confirmed in Gunma Prefecture]. Yomiuri Shimbun, January 10, p. 38. (in Japanese)

March 18, 2008

Nine fuhosen coins were found in a Sue ware jar at the Fujiwara-gu site. These coins were probably buried there as part of the purification ceremony related to the construction of the new capital of Fujiwara (694-710). The kanji for the "fu" and "hon" on these coins, however, differ a bit from the same kanji on the Fuhon coins found at the Asakaike site. The Asakaike coins were first made in 683; there are now 560 Fuhon coins from that site. The difference in the coins recently found at the Fujiwara-gu site probably indicates a changing of the molds with the move to the new capital. A passage in the Nihon Shoki from March 694 tells of the appointment of official minters, the setting up of minting as an independent profession -- "2nd day. Maro, Ohoyake no Ason, of Jiki-kwo-shi rank, Yashima, Utena no Imiki, of Gon-dai-ni rank, and Honjitsu, Kibumi no Muraji, were appointed Governors of the mint for (copper?) cash." [Aston 1896/1972, vol. II, p. 414]
  • Yomiuri Shimbun. (2008). U Wa Chigau Fuhonsen [Fuhon Coins with a Difference in the "Fu" Kanji]. Yomiuri Shimbun, March 18, p. 1. (in Japanese)
  • Sakaehara, Towao. (2008). Sento: Igata mo Tsukuri Naoshi [Move the Capitol: Also Remake the Molds]. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 8, p. 19. (in Japanese)

April, 2004

Replicas of the Fuhon coins are reported from sites dating to the early 16th century (Yahatayama castle, Hikigawa Town, Wakayama Prefecture), and younger Edo Period sites. These possibly were used as charms or toys.
  • Kii Minpo. (2004). Nihon Saiko "Fuhosen": Chusei no Mochusen Hatsushutsudo [Japan's Oldest "Fuho Coins": First Find of a Medieval Replica]. Kii Minpo, February 28. Reprinted in: Bunkazai Hakutsu Shutsudo Joho, April, p. 76. (in Japanese)

The value of Fuhon coins might have been equal to about 7,000 or 8,000 yen in today's money, based on the probable value of Wado Kaichin coins as suggested by passages in the Nihon Shoki. Their purpose is unknown, but might have been related to the financing of the Fujiwara-kyo capital, finished in 694.

The site is thought to have been a production center for these coins. The relatively large number of coins and evidence of the production process suggest this was the site where these coins were made. And sources of copper** and antimony have been found not far away. But it is not clear from the reports where the nearby source of ore was. The implication is somewhere in Nara Prefecture. But a passage in the Shoku-nihongi for the year 698 says that Inaba-no-kuni, a province on the Sea of Japan coast in Tottori Prefecture, gave the government a gift of copper ore. And in the year 708 (the 1st year of Wado), a gift of natural copper was given from the Chichibu area of Musashi-no-kuni, in what is now western Saitama Prefecture.

One of the Fuhon coins found at Heijo-kyo was made from the same mold as a coin from Asukaike, and the other four Fuhon coins found earlier also match the Asukaike coins in the composition of the metal (Onaji Igata, 1999, p. 30). It is also thought that the coins were made from molds produced from a single wooden original. This original was used to make a clay mold from which several template coins were made, and these were then used to make the final mold which produced several coins at a time, like fruit on the ends of tree branches.

*These coins were reported on the evening TV news on January 19th and on the front page of all of the major newspapers on the 20th. But, unless cited otherwise, I have relied on the reports in the western Tokyo Tama edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun on January 20th.

**The Japanese word for the material of these coins is simply do, meaning copper. The Japanese word for bronze is seido. But in most Japanese texts that I read, the word do is used to mean bronze, and the report here mentions antimony. These Fuhon coins most likely are bronze and not simply copper.

References Used

Other News Reports