NIPPONIA No. 45 June 15, 2008


Special Featuresp_star.gif“Japan, the Land of Gold.” How True Is the Old Legend?

“Zipangu” was actually a land of silver, not gold!

In 1397, the Muromachi Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu had the Temple of the Golden Pavilion constructed in the Japanese capital, Kyoto. Much of the three-story pavilion was covered in glittering gold leaf, making it not just a gorgeously decorated Buddhist building, but also a symbol of Japan as a land of gold. The pavilion was also meant as a place to welcome delegates from China’s new Ming Empire. It certainly did impress them, because Ming China soon granted Yoshimitsu the right to trade with it. But the trade included little gold—most goods shipped from Japan were craftwork decorated with small amounts of gold (such as illustrated lacquer ware, screens and fans), and swords, copper and sulfur.

By the time the Portuguese arrived in Japan in the mid-1500s, there was very little gold left in the Oshu region. On the other hand, Japan had by then become one of the world’s top producers of silver, much of it from mines at Iwami Ginzan and Ikuno Ginzan. Some reports ranked Japanese silver production at one-third of global totals. The Japanese archipelago became known as the Islas Platareas (Islands of Silver), and actually, Japan used some of that silver to buy large quantities of gold from Ming China! The Portuguese and others must have asked themselves whatever happened to all that gold in “Zipangu.”


Later searches for legendary gold in Japan’s north

In the second half of the 1500s another legend arose among Portuguese seamen: that a Portuguese ship had washed ashore on an island rich in gold and silver in the Pacific Ocean near Japan. This was a newer version of the old tales of Japan as a collection of islands of gold. Spanish Manila galleons plying the ocean trade route between Manila in the Philippines and Acapulco in Mexico rode the north-flowing Kuroshio ocean current past Japan, and they were naturally on the lookout for the fabled islands of gold and silver. The Spanish king ordered a search for the islands, and an entrepreneur called Sebastián Vizcaíno set out to find them. He searched in vain from 1611 to 1613.

In 1643, Maerten Gerritsz de Vries, a navigator from Holland working for the Dutch East India Company, continued the search on his ship, the Castricum. He began developing trade routes with the Tartars of East Asia. He heard that gold and silver could be found on the island of Ezo (Hokkaido), and claimed it would be possible to exploit mines there. The Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies in Batavia was keen for the search to continue, but the collapse of the Ming dynasty of China in 1644 interrupted gold hunting plans in Ezo.

About two and a half centuries later, in 1898, large quantities of gold were discovered in the Horobetsu River and some of its tributaries in Hokkaido, not far from the Sea of Okhotsk. Over a period of five years, panning yielded about 1,875 kg of gold. If the Dutch East India Company had continued its search, the legend of Zipangu, the island of gold, might have gained new life.


Picture scroll depicting the Buddha eye-opening ritual at Todai-ji Temple, Nara. Even the Great Buddha’s pedestal (photo center) is a brilliant gold. (Property of Todai-ji Temple;photo credit:Nara National Museum)