Special Feature“Japan, the Land of Gold.” How True Is the Old Legend?
Written by Miyazaki Masakatsu, retired professor, Hokkaido University of Education
“People on the Island of Zipangu (Japan) have tremendous quantities of gold. The King’s palace is roofed with pure gold, and his floors are paved in gold two fingers thick.” So wrote the Venetian merchant Marco Polo (1254-1324). Because of his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, Europeans believed that “Zipangu” was a land of gold, and Columbus later sailed across the Atlantic in search of it.
Gold was first discovered in Japan in 749, in river deposits. In that year, about 38 kg of gold from the Oshu region in northeastern Honshu was presented to the capital city of Nara, to help gild a statue of the Buddha being built there. When the Great Buddha was completed in 752, about 439 kg of the gold covering it had come from Oshu. The glittering Buddha, measuring 15.8 meters in height, was viewed as an impressive display of Japan’s wealth by official delegations from the Kingdom of Silla (Korea) and Buddhist monks from Tang China and India.
After work on the Great Buddha was finished, Oshu continued to send gold to the capital, although in lesser quantities (about 22 kg each year). Before long, gold panned from Oshu rivers was being used also to pay for a program organized by the government—sending envoys, students, and student monks to Tang China on a regular basis. China was perhaps the most advanced country in the world in those days, and the purpose of those visits was to introduce Chinese civilization into Japan. There is a record showing, for example, that when a Japanese delegation of about 500 people left for China in 804, the ambassador and his deputy were given about 7.5 kg and 5.6 kg of gold, respectively, to use for their living expenses in China. Students and student monks were also members of the delegation, and they needed large amounts of gold for their long stays learning about the Tang civilization.
So it was natural that, over time, legends about the enormous riches of the country of Wakoku (Japan) would spring up in the capital of Tang China. The legends were picked up by Muslim merchants in the Chinese port of Khānfū (Guangzhou), and then spread as far as western Asia. The merchants were naturally keen to learn more. In those days, many Muslim traders were doing business with China, using sailboats called dhows, and about 120,000 of them lived in Khānfū. In the second half of the 9th century, the Muslim geographer Ibun Khurdādhbeh repeated reports from China saying that, in the golden land of Wāqwaq (Wakoku = Japan), dog chains and pet monkey collars were made of gold. Stories about Wāqwaq later evolved into the legend of Zipangu, the land of gold.
During the time of China’s Sung dynasty (960-1279), Japan exported large quantities of gold to China, and in return imported copper coins, silk, ceramics and other goods. In 1124, a golden hall was constructed at Chuson-ji Temple in Oshu, and this made Chinese merchants even more interested in tales of Oshu gold.
The Mongols and Muslim traders played an active role in China during the time of the Yuán (Mongol) Empire (1271-1368). Chinese trade goods spread throughout much of Eurasia, and Zaytún (Quanzhou) became an international port for trade as far as Alexandria in Egypt. The more than 10,000 Muslim traders living in Zaytún played a leading role in that trade. Among them, the old legends about the bullion of Wāqwaq (Japan) took on new life as the legend of Zipangu, the land of gold. These tales probably sounded even more convincing when certain facts were added, such as the golden hall of Chuson-ji Temple, which Chinese merchants knew about.
Marco Polo’s book spread word in Europe about Japanese gold, and he apparently learned about it from Muslim merchants in Zaytún. He wrote that the Emperor Khubilai Khaan sent a military expedition to the Japanese archipelago to take its gold, but that the expedition failed after a huge storm scattered the Mongol fleet.
Ironically, it is estimated that Japan produced only about 255 tons of gold from the 8th to the 16th centuries. This was only about 5% of the global production of 5,000 tons before the California gold rush.