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date: 27 June 2022

Trade in Gold and Silver: The Yokohama Specie Banklocked

Trade in Gold and Silver: The Yokohama Specie Banklocked

  • Michael SchiltzMichael SchiltzModern Japanese Studies Program, Hokkaido University


Although the political and military aspects of Japanese imperialism have received ample attention from historians, other dimensions of the country’s expansionist experiment with total war have been left largely untouched. Nevertheless, technologies of “soft” power played a very substantial role; in many ways, they predated and prefigured many of the repressive and militarist hallmarks of Japanese expansionism. Gold standard adoption, for instance, was directly related to Japan’s geopolitical positioning. It was a tool for projecting financial power abroad and establishing enclave economies in the colonies, for example through the creation of gold-exchange standards, the direction of the colonies’ central banks and financial institutions, and so on.

Nevertheless, the adoption of the gold standard was not an aim in itself. It was a means to a yet higher end: the very establishment of the yen as a “vehicle currency” comparable to the British pound or, after World War I, the American dollar. For that reason, policymakers in Tokyo fostered distinctly mercantilist ideas about trade and, in particular, the share of Japan’s banking institutions and the Japanese yen in financing international trade and settling international trade transactions.

The institution in the vanguard of this project was the Yokohama Specie Bank (hereafter: YSB), a bank with the explicit mandate of insuring trade among regions or countries on different currencies and, by extension, different metals (gold and silver). Soon after its creation in 1879, it was made to team up with the Bank of Japan (hereafter: BOJ) and put in charge of the international aspects of the country’s financial and monetary policy. In that role,

1. It financed the bulk of Japanese imports and exports.

2. It collected specie, part of which was added to the BOJ’s currency reserve.

3. It underwrote Japan’s sovereign loan issues.

4. It represented the BOJ abroad.

5. It even issued currencies in Japan-occupied territories before and during World War II.

In view of its controversial role in Japanese imperialism (especially because of point 5), the General Headquarters of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) ordered its dismantling in 1946. Its assets were transferred to the newly formed Bank of Tokyo.

Although it is still heavily understudied in both Japanese and Western languages, it is key to understanding in the vanguard of Tokyo’s expansionist economic project(s)


  • Capitalism
  • Economic/Business
  • Japan

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