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A 100-Yen Distraction

One reason I am such a slow reader is that I get easily distracted by questions which come up while I am reading. The other day, for instance, I read the following passage in Osamu Dazai’s The Setting Sun:


“When I had finished disposing of the wood, I asked Mother for some money, which I wrapped in little packets of 100 yen each. On the outside I wrote the words ‘With apologies.’”

Dazai, Osamu, The Setting Sun, translated by Donald Keene, New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1956, p.34.


The story takes place in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Kazuko, the narrator of the story, and her mother have recently moved from Tokyo to a Chinese-style villa in Izu.


“After my father died, it was Uncle Wada—Mother’s younger brother and now her only surviving blood relation—who had taken care of our household expenses. But with the end of the war everything changed, and Uncle Wada informed Mother that we couldn’t go on as we were, that we had no choice but to sell the house and dismiss all the servants, and that the best thing for us would be to buy a nice little place somewhere in the country . . .” 

Dazai, Osamu, The Setting Sun, p.17.


The changes, Uncle Wada speaks of, are the societal upheaval brought about by the end of the war and the new constitution, which became law on 3 November 1946 (Emperor Meiji’s birthday) and went into effect six months later on 3 May 1947 (Constitution Memorial Day). Article 14 of the Constitution states:


“All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin. Peers (華族, kazoku) and peerage (貴族, kizoku) shall not be recognized. No privilege shall accompany any award of honor, decoration or any distinction, nor shall any such award be valid beyond the lifetime of the individual who now holds or hereafter may receive it.”


Kazuko and her mother are members of the soon-to-be abolished Japanese aristocracy, known as the Kazoku (華族, lit. “exalted lineage”). The Kazoku, or hereditary peerage of the Empire of Japan, was created after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 by merging the Kuge (公家, royal family), which had lost much of its status with the rise of the Shogunate in the 12th century, with the former Daimyō (大名, feudal lords) of the Edo Period (1603-1868). (More here.)

Although the number of families in the Kazoku peaked at 1016 families in 1944, the Constitution of Japan effectively did away with the use of noble titles outside the immediate Imperial Family. Nevertheless, many descendants of the former Kazoku occupy positions of influence in society today. One such person who comes to mind is Morihiro Hosokawa, the 79th Prime Minister of Japan (August 1993 to April 1994). Hosokawa was the eldest grandson of Moritatsu, 3rd Marquess Hosokawa, and the 14th Head of the Hosokawa clan. His maternal grandfather was the pre-war Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe. I have heard that Hosokawa never had to touch money, relying instead upon an assistant to handle such matters. I have heard the same about Tarō Asō from his own kabanmochi (鞄持ち, lit. “bag holder”), or assistant.


So that answered one of my questions. The second question concerned the value of 100 yen at the end of the war.


I found some interesting data on this. According to the bank of Japan, 100 yen in the following years is worth (in 2005 yen):



1931       ¥888,903

1932       ¥801,084

1933      ¥699,895

1934       ¥686171

1935       ¥668,913

1936       ¥641,795

1937       ¥528,537

1938       ¥501,055

1939       ¥453,547

1940       ¥405,180

1941       ¥378,214

1942       ¥347,751

1943       ¥324,976

1944       ¥286,718

1945       ¥189,809


After the end of the war, Japan experienced runaway inflation which would last for over four years. Wholesale prices doubled by the end of 1945 and continued to rise. In the first year of the occupation, prices rose by 539 percent. 1.4 kilograms of rice, which had cost 2.7 yen in June of 1946, would end up costing 62.3 yen by early 1950.

In his National Book Award-winning Embracing Defeat, John W. Dower provides the following example of what life immediately after the war was like:


“Okano Akiko, a middle-class Osaka housewife writing for a women’s magazine in 1950, offered an intimate picture of what ‘enduring the unendurable’ had been like for her family. Her husband, a teacher at a military-affiliated school, became unemployed after the surrender but soon found a low-level job as a clerk at a salary of 300 yen a month. At that time, about a quart and a half of rice cost 80 yen, so to make ends meet, they began selling off their belongs.

“In the confusion of early 1946—when a ‘new yen’ was introduced in a futile attempt to curb inflation—the company employing Okano’s husband went out of business, leaving him with a mere 900 yen in severance pay . . . The price of rationed riced tripled in 1946, but, out of principle as well as poverty, the family tried to use the black market as little as possible.

“Eventually, her husband found a job as schoolteacher at a salary of 360 yen per month. They had little choice but to continue to sell their possessions, purchasing black-market goods about eight times monthly, at a cost of roughly 400 yen per month . . . Her husband lost his job again when the school ran into financial difficulties, this time receiving only 50 yen as severance pay. He, too, began to suffer noticeably from malnutrition, his entire body beginning to swell up . . .

“In 1948, the food situation improved somewhat, although potatoes remained the mainstay of the family diet. Both wife an husband fell seriously ill that year and went deeply into debt. In 1949, another child was born, and meat and fish finally became plentiful again, although it was still a struggle to make ends meet, as rent and food prices continued to climb. As 1950 began, her husband found a teaching position at a college. For the first time since the war ended, they could live on his income; and so, Okano wrote, she was finally able to think about the quality of family life, not mere survival.”

Dower, John W., Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WWII, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999, pp. 101-102.


In 1945, the value of 100 yen, according to the Bank of Japan, was equivalent to \19,200 in 2012. One must keep in mind, however, this is the value of the yen based on the prices companies used when conducting business among themselves. Some, looking into wages paid or prices in the market in the postwar years put the value of 100 yen in 1945 at anywhere from four thousand to fifty thousand yen.

Whether one hundred yen in those days was four thousand yen, twenty-thousand yen or even fifty thousand today was all rather academic to Kazuko and her mother, we will learn in the third chapter, because they recieve a letter from their Uncle Wada that informs them that:


“. . . our money is all gone, and what with the blocking of savings and the capital levy, [Uncle Wada] won’t be able to send us as much as he has before. It will be extremely difficult for him to manage our living expenses, especially when Naoji arrives [from the South Pacific] and there are three of us to take care of.”


Now back to reading Dazai's The Setting Sun.

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