Nominal Money: Merchant Capital and the Power of Names in Tokugawa Japan

Event time: 
Wednesday, September 27, 2023 - 12:00pm to 1:15pm
Rosenkranz Hall (RKZ), 202 See map
115 Prospect Street
New Haven, CT 06511
Event description: 

By most ordinary measures, Tokugawa Japan (1600-1868) offered a decidedly unfriendly environment for business. Not only did it lack corporate law, support for free trade, and a predictable system of contract enforcement, it was also governed by a hereditary ruling class of warriors and organized according to a strict status system that placed little value on commercial wealth. And yet, many of Japan’s largest and most successful businesses today, including global giants such as Mitsui and Sumitomo, first became powerful economic players during the Tokugawa period. How, then, did large-scale business enterprises operate and grow in a social system seemingly so hostile to their interests? Drawing on the records of the Nakai Genzaemon merchant house (1734-1942), one of the wealthiest and most expansive businesses of the period, this talk shows how the abstract nature of names and identities within the Tokugawa status order allowed merchants to establish stores led by nonexistent people, trade illicitly under borrowed names, and collect debts in the name of the country’s most powerful lordly houses. Through this series of examples, the talk demonstrates how the logic of Tokugawa status society, far from restraining the growth of merchant enterprise, paradoxically worked to enable it. In this way, it challenges the Eurocentric assumption that specific legal and institutional forms – like the limited liability corporation and modern property law – are necessary for the growth of big business and economic dynamism.

John D’Amico, PhD Candidate, Department of History, Yale University