L5R - Great Stone Bridge
(Researched and Written by Bookkeeper)
For the average Rokugani samurai, economics is not even a subject that will cross their mind in their lifetimes. That being said, the economic forces of the Empire are significant and the leaders of the clans ignore them only at their peril.
The Average Samurai
The average samurai has a very narrow field of economic decisions to make. The number and breadth of those decisions is largely dependent on his status, both within his clan and in terms of his family. A married samurai with a household of his own has more to consider than a single samurai who still lives and serves within a castle’s walls. Those decisions explode exponentially should a samurai become the master of said castle.
The first thing to note is the annual stipend. According to the 3rd edition core rulebook, a samurai receives a stipend equal to their status x 10 Koku per year. Since the Rokugani do not, as a rule, have a salary system, such payments are usually annual – given out after the harvest has been accounted. This allows the courtiers to make such gift and accouterment purchases as may be necessary for the coming Winter Court. It also means there’s no more money coming until next fall. How far a samurai needs to make that money go depends on several factors.
A single samurai living within a castle has almost all of his basic needs provided. He eats with his fellow soldiers and sleeps in a barracks room set aside for him. His weapons and armor are provided by his lord, as are most of his basic goods. The only things such a samurai would spend their money on much of the time would be entertainment and anything that their lord didn’t provide as necessary to their duties. From Go Boards to Geisha, it’s not bad being a barracks samurai, but such a life is generally limited to the very low ranking – promotion usually comes with expectations of marriage and a family.
Running a household dramatically increases a samurai’s expenditures. Luckily, most samurai marry other samurai, increasing their stipend accordingly. A samurai who maintains a residence of their own has to pay for that residence and everything (and everyone) in it. Furniture is only the beginning – a samurai is expected to maintain a relatively opulent lifestyle, at least when compared with the ruck-and run of humanity. While a samurai’s lord still provides weapons and armor, most samurai living on their own will be obliged to acquire some of their own clothing as well as food for themselves, their family and their staff.
Ah, yes…the staff. Any household worthy of the name must have servants. Traditional Japan established the lady of the house as the holder of the purse strings. In Rokugan, this is complicated by the fact that the lady of the house may very well be a warrior in her own right. Among the Matsu, Moshi, and Utaku families, it is very likely the husband who is expected to run household affairs. When two Bushi marry, it is likely that at least one of the servants in the household will be a goyo shonin, or official purveyor. The goyo shonin is a form of merchant, whose tasks involve ensuring that a household is fed and provided for. The well-heeled samurai will provide the goyo shonin with a shopping list and trust to their servant’s frugality (not to mention honesty).
Of course, if the samurai wants to run their own household, they are free to. The Ide, Yasuki, and Yoritomo families often manage their household finances personally, or keep a goyo shonin for appearances while running things behind the scenes.
If managing a single household seems fraught with opportunities to find oneself in debt, imagine running a castle. For a daimyo, a goyo shonin is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity. The goyo shonin of a castle is likely one of the most powerful non-samurai living there – they are responsible for all the food, weapons, kimono, firewood, and sake that comes into the household.
So what does a samurai buy at market? What can a samurai buy at market? Depending on location, the type and quality of merchant can vary widely.
In urban areas, the petty merchants, or shonin, worked out of small shops and stalls. In the countryside, samurai and peasant alike must wait for the arrival of travelling peddlers, carrying their wares either on their own backs or on a donkey. The shonin are often organized into guilds, called kobuna-kama, who share risk and profit. Samurai must take care not to cheat the wrong merchant, for the kobuna-kama have long memories and untrustworthy samurai will find themselves unable to buy the necessities of a noble’s existence.
For samurai living in a castle or a household, much of the shopping will be done by the goyo shonin. The samurai simply informs the goyo shonin of what is needed and pays whatever the goyo shonin tells him it will cost. Because the goyo shonin is often merchant-trained, they generally get good deals and can acquire items that may not be obviously available.
Finally, castle managers will, at one point or another, deal with the Ton’ya, the official wholesalers. The ton’ya are the salesmen of the clans, selling trade goods and surplus rice to shonin and goyo shonin (though in different markets, see below). Both the goyo shonin and the ton’ya usually have samurai patrons who back their investments and receive some of the profits.
For the Yasuki, the Ide, and the Yoritomo, there is often opportunity to do some selling as well as buying. Such activities bring with it the stain of dishonor – peddling is hopelessly middle-class, regardless of the level of peddling done. For those who would trade away some honor for the good of their clan (and/or their own coin purses), there are two major areas to be worked.
The first is comprised of the same markets where the samurai do their shopping. Merchant patrons may patronize shonin, goyo shonin, or ton’ya, depending on their acumen and level of responsibility. Each clan has surplus goods it can sell and goods it must buy. Merchant patrons who are more involved than average in their clan’s mercantile dealings have avenues of information about demand that the heimin cannot match – they may speak directly with their fellow samurai. This can be both a blessing and a curse as most samurai will not speak openly about material shortfalls within their own clans and grow suspicious of those who pry too much.
The second major market is rice. Rice occupies its own market in Rokugani trade due to the fact that it is not only a staple commodity but also the basis for Imperial money system. The principal Imperial rice exchange is now headquartered in Toshi Ranbo, having moved from the old capitol. While the Crane, Lion, Phoenix, and Scorpion clans all play major roles as the four principal rice exporters, the exchange is largely under the control of the Daidoji Trading Council and the Ichiba Consortium of the Scorpion Clan. The Lion and Phoenix can, if they pool their resources, match either one of the two powers, making the politics of the exchange more than a little complicated.
Merchants who deal with the exchange must deal with the Nakagai, the rice brokers. Profit is made both in resolving supply/demand differences and through rice speculation. Two “forms” of rice are sold at the exchange. True Rice, or Shomai, is rice that has been bought and delivered to a warehouse. This is traded largely like any other good in the marketplace. Merchants can also deal in “Paper Rice”, or choaimai, which is a written promise to buy a certain amount of rice for a certain amount on a certain date. Once this agreement has been signed, choaimai can be bought and sold just like true rice, leading to a speculative market in which merchants will buy against a future harvest at the current price, expecting the price to rise in the future. While many in the Imperial government have attempted to suppress this sort of speculation in the past, the fact that it’s all on paper until delivery makes it difficult to pin down and, strangely enough (at least to samurai who don’t know the first thing about economics) the choaimai market actually tends to mitigate the worst price swings.
Cash in hand
A koku is, approximately, enough rice to feed a man for a year. While this is fine as a stand-alone definition, it makes for lousy currency as one cannot carry bushel upon bushel of rice in order to buy the necessities of life. According to the rules, a katana costs 20 Koku, but do not try to pay the swordsmith with 100 bushels of rice – he’ll just look at you funny.
The Empire maintains a metallic money system based on gold, silver, and copper. The koku is represented by the ryo, which is supposed to be one ounce of gold. A bu is the next denomination, equaling an ounce of silver and set at a rate of five bu to one ryo. Finally, the copper zeni is the only coin many peasants will ever see. They convert at 10 zeni to one bu and are often collected into strings of 10, 50, or even 100.
Over the twelve centuries of Imperial History, the government has, from time to time, reaped a profit through debasing the coinage – that is reducing the amount of metal in a coin while claiming it at the previous value, allowing them to mint more coins. Such debasement was always followed by a period of rapid inflation, much to the consternation and bewilderment of the samurai. Over time, wise Emperors learned that it rarely paid to debase the coinage, at least over the long term.
While the Imperial government does not issue any sort of paper money and discourages its use, the Great Clans find that they like keeping their metallic money close at hand. It was an 8th century Yasuki who first came up with the idea of a paper certificate that could be redeemed for its face value at any of the rice exchange branch offices. Such “Province Money”, or hansatsu, is usually only good within the borders of that particular clan’s land, but has gone a long way towards expanding the amount of readily available money while protecting the precious metals in the clan’s coffers.
The only thing that comes close to a national paper currency is the rice voucher. The rice exchanges usually accept any form of currency brought to them: choaimai, hansatsu, or hard currency. The hansatsu is often deeply discounted, depending on its clan of origin. The exchange will also issue rice vouchers. These vouchers were created so that travelling lords could sell their rice before leaving for a larger city and then exchange the voucher for necessary food upon arrival at their destination. Clever bankers realized that such a voucher didn’t just have to act as a transit coupon and could, in fact, be used on the way. Travelers now often use rice vouchers at the inns and restaurants along the roads of the Empire.
You need to buy a gift for your lord’s favorite niece. You broke your katana blade in an illegal duel. You need to feed your household in a time of famine. There are a million reasons why a samurai may need more money than they have on them. Simply waiting for the annual stipend is not always an option and there are times and circumstances when the clan just isn’t going to lay out a pile of ryo for a samurai to spend. For these occasions, it’s time to go get a loan.
For the average samurai, taking out a loan is a simple matter, if a bit of tarnish on one’s social standing. Simply approaching a heimin moneylender and demanding an interest-free loan might work…once. For those samurai who do not wish to pay for everything at 200% markup for the rest of their lives, they must provide collateral and they must pay interest.
Interest rates are usually very low in the Empire, no more than the rate of inflation +1-1.5%. Moneylenders know they are a hated and feared class and do as little as possible to rock the boat. Collateral can take many forms: physical goods, a portion of the annual stipend, or even a house can be used. One of the most common forms of collateral is choaimai. Despite the fact that no money exchanges hands in a choaimai document until the date of delivery, no shonin or nakagai who wishes to do business ever again would think of reneging on such a document.
Goyo Shonin: Official Purveyor; the house merchant and procurer of goods.
Shonin: Petty Merchant; Sells their wares out of a stall or shop
Ton’ya: Official Wholesalers; responsible for selling clan goods to shonin and goyo shonin
Kobuna-kama: Merchant Guild; an organized group of merchants who pool resources and share risk
Nakagai: Rice Brokers; the buyers and sellers of rice for the clans
Shomai: “True Rice”; Rice that has been bought, delivered, and stored
Choaimai: “Paper Rice”; Essentially rice futures; a written agreement to accept a certain amount of rice at a certain time for a certain amount
Koku: The basic unit of money in the Empire; equal to enough rice to feed one man for a year or five bushels
Ryo: A coin set at a value of one koku; Imperial standard weight is one ounce of gold
Ichibukin or Bu: The next denomination of coin, worth one bushel of rice. Imperial Standard weight is one ounce of silver. There are five bu to one koku
Zeni: The smallest coin in the standard Imperial currency system. 10 Zeni are equal to one bu
Hansatsu: “Province Money”; Paper certificates worth a certain value at clan rice exchanges; the closest the Empire gets to paper money
Tekiya: Street peddler guilds.