Nominal Money: merchant capital and the power of names in Tokugawa Japan

Nominal Money: merchant capital and the power of names in Tokugawa Japan

John D'Amico - PhD Candidate, Department of History, Yale University

Wednesday, September 27, 2023 - 12:00pm to 1:30pm
Room 202, Rosenkranz Hall See map
115 Prospect Street
New Haven, CT

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 is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Yale. He specializes in the social and economic history of Tokugawa Japan (1600-1868). His dissertation project is about the role of merchants and their money in the 18th and 19th century, centering on the Nakai Genzaemon (1734-1942), one of the wealthiest and most expansive merchant houses of the period. Their archive of nearly 30,000 documents offers a unique window onto the complex interactions between commerce, merchant capital, and society in the late Tokugawa period, covering everything from finance, trade, and governance to disputes with gangsters, reports on local society, and the get-rich-quick schemes of disgruntled employees