It’s been a while since I last wrote about one of Tomb Raider 2013’s collectable relics and since it’s been a year since the game was released, what better time to examine one of the ancient coins that Lara finds inside the Cliffside Bunker on Yamatai?
The 100 mon coin, also referred to as a “Tempō Tsūhō” (天保通寶), is one of the two Japanese coins Lara finds inside the cliffside bunker; the other being the “2 sen coin“. As Lara quite correctly points out, thousands of these coins were issued by the Japanese government in the mid-1800s. The Tempō Tsūhō was made of copper or a copper alloy and is characterised by its oblong shape and square hole in the centre.
But before I talk about Japan’s defunct tri-metallic currency system, let’s take a closer look at the coin itself, starting with the obverse (or front) of the coin.
The four kanji characters on the front of the coin read “Tempō Tsūhō“. The word “Tempō” is composed of the characters for “heaven” (天) and “protection” (保) and while the word itself means “divine protection”, it has a completely different meaning here: Tempō was the Japanese era name for the period between December 1830 and December 1844. I won’t go into too much detail about Japanese era names but for most of Japan’s history, new era names were designated shortly after the ascension of a new emperor or, on occasion, following a major battle or natural disaster.
In the wake of a devastating fire in Edo – modern-day Tokyo – in 1829 and a deadly earthquake in Kyoto, court officials serving under Emperor Ninkō (仁孝天皇) announced the creation of a new era, Tempō, as a way to honour those who had perished. They hoped it would also protect the people from further hardships. Unfortunately, any divine protection it may have offered was short-lived. The country experienced widespread public unrest and a four-year famine just a couple of years later, events that signalled the beginning of the end for the Tokugawa shogunate.
The word “Tsūhō” (通寶) is a little less symbolic. It simply means “circulating treasure” or, quite simply, “currency”. So “Tempō Tsūhō” can be translated as “currency of the Tempō era”. Straightforward, if a little unimaginative.
Now, let’s take a look at the other side (reverse) of the coin. The two characters above the square hole say “tō hyaku“. Hyaku (百) is the Japanese word for “100” and “tō” (當) means “to act as” or “equal to”. This tells us that the coin had a face value of 100 mon. Mon was one of the units of currency in use during the Tokugawa (or Edo) period.
The Tokugawa shogunate used a tri-metallic currency system which consisted of gold, silver, and copper coins of varying values. Mon was the smallest unit of currency and perhaps the most commonly used, so the coins’ square holes actually served a practical purpose: they allowed people to string the coins together in bundles, making it easier to carry around larger sums of money. The shogunate’s mints issued thousands of Tempō Tsūhō coins between 1835 – when the coin was first adopted – and 1870, when the tri-metallic system was abandoned in favour of a more modern, national currency, the yen.
Beneath the square hole is a curious little symbol that resembles a flower or butterfly. In fact, it’s the stylised signature (kaō) of Gotō Shozaburo Mitsutsugu, the Kyoto-born metalworker and engraver who was appointed Master of the Mint by the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu. In 1601, Gotō Shozaburo was invited to the Tokugawa capital, Edo, to oversee the minting of gold koban coins and help the shogun establish his new monetary system. Gotō’s descendants and family were entrusted with overseeing the shogunate’s chief bank and various gold and silver mints until 1869, when Japan took its first steps towards establishing a modern market economy.
Tokugawa coinage was abandoned shortly after the Meiji Restoration (1868) and replaced with the yen. Although it is no longer legal tender, you will still find Tempō Tsūhō in circulation on Ebay, coin collectors’ sites, and even online jewellery stores, where they are sold as lucky charms. Perhaps one of the Cliffside Bunker’s former residents felt he could use a little “divine protection” in the form of an old copper coin.
Sources & Further Reading:
- 100 Mon coin from Japan, 1835 (Powerhouse Museum)
- Guide for Attribution of Tenpo Tsuho (1835 – 1871) (Chinese Coinage Website)
- Japanese Coinage 1601-1972 (Numismatic Room)
- La Moneda de la Protección Celestial, Una Pieza Japonesa del Siglo XIX (Museo Cerralbo)
- The British Library’s Sado Mining Scrolls by Hamish Todd, British Library Journal (24:1), pp.130-143.
- Tokugawa Coinage (Wikipedia)
- Tokugawa Period (Wikipedia)
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about the art and artefacts seen in the Tomb Raider games, feel free to check out the other articles listed in the “Arte-Factual” archive.