The Government Rice Granaries

The rice storage houses (kura) in Kuramae are a well-known landmark in central Edo. The Kuramae district, on the west bank of the Sumida river, is a very busy part of the city, and a very important one as far as the government is concerned, because this is the site of the government rice granaries, where much of the grain reserves for the city are kept.

Kuramae is located on the west bank of the Sumida river, just a few kilometers upriver from the Nihonbashi area. It is also located close to the trunk road that leads from Nihonbashi to the ferry boat crossing at Senju, the junction point for all of the main roads leading north and east from Edo. The Kuramae rice trading and storage operations are an important concern of the bakufu. Government officials, and even the Shogun himself, have to keep a close eye on the operations of the official granaries, since rice is the basis of Japan's economy, and the size of the grain reserves can have an important effect on the entire country.

Although most business transactions nowadays are conducted in gold, silver or copper currency, the underlying value of the currency is still based on rice. All Daimyo are granted land-holdings according to the amount of rice that can be produced on that land. Although lower-ranking samurai do not actually have responsibility for land-holdings, their salaries are nevertheless based on a certain amount of rice. The size of a daimyo's landholdings, as well as the salaries of his subordinates and those of government officials, are denominated in koku. One koku is equal to about 5 bushels of rice, and it is the approximate amount of rice needed to feed one adult for one year.

Since all of their incomes are denominated in rice, if the price of rice drops suddenly, the incomes of almost the entire samurai class fall too. For a lower-ranking Government worker with a salary of just a few hundred koku, it may be hard to make ends meet if the price of rice drops too low. Even the wealthy daimyo find their budgets stretched when the price of rice drops too low. On the other hand, if the price rises too high, poor city dwellers may be unable to buy enough rice to eat and there could be a famine.

The bakufu makes an effort to control rice prices by managing the supply. In addition to the rice it collects in the form of taxes, the government also buys rice on the open market and stores it at Kuramae, reselling it later when the demand increases. However, rice merchants in Osaka also buy and sell rice, and they often try to speculate in the market. In other words, they try to make profits by buying up lots of rice immediately after the harvest (when the price is low) and then reselling it at much higher prices later in the year.

The Shoguns have tried to restrict rice speculation many times in the past. However, since the rice merchants play an important role in ensuring that the rice market is efficient, and products are distributed to all parts of the country, it is almost impossible to completely eliminate speculative rice trading. The easiest way for the bakufu to keep rice prices steady is to maintain a large supply in kura (warehouse) districts around the country, buying and selling the rice as necessary in order to keep prices in balance. In this sense, the granaries at Kuramae could be considered as a sort of "Federal Reserve Bank of Edo."

Kuramae is a very impressive-looking place, especially when seen from the river. The long rows of kura along the river bank -- with their whitewashed walls and high, narrow windows -- are an impressive sight indeed. The basic structure of the kura in Kuramae is not that much different from the granaries that farmers maintain in their rural villages. They have thick walls of packed earth, plastered over a wooden frame and whitewashed to fill in any cracks. The doors and windows are small, and kept closed at all times except when rice is being loaded and unloaded. This keeps the inside fairly cool and dry, to prevent the grain from rotting. However, the buildings in Kuramae are many times larger than those found in local villages, and there are hundreds of them arranged in long rows along a series of narrow canals which lead inland from the river.

The rows of granaries are all concentrated in an area between the river and the main road. Facing the road, at the entrance to the district, are several large buildings where the traders and granary managers conduct rice transactions. All of the shipments into and out of the kura are recorded carefully in account books, and the summary figures telling the volume of rice in storage and the going price per koku are sent to bakufu officials once or twice a week. At harvest time the kashi (wharves), where rice is unloaded, are bustling with activity as boats from all over the country dock and unload their cargoes of rice. Usually, the jito (a low-ranking samurai who supervises production in a certain village or region) will travel to Edo with their rice shipments in order to ensure that the delivery is made safely, to get a receipt for their delivery, and to haggle with the officials at the kura in order to get the best price possible.

The dock workers carry the heavy bundles of rice off the barges and up the steps into the granary buildings. After rice is harvested and dried, the farmers who produced it bring their tax rice to the home of the jito (the word "jito" literally means "head of the land"). There, the rice is wrapped in large bundles made of straw. Since each bundle is supposed to contain exactly one-fourth of a koku of rice, it is easy for the warehouse managers to quickly tally the amount of each shipment. Each bundle bears the stamp of the region and farm that produced and bundled it, so if the managers find out later that the bundles don't contain the right amount of rice, they can easily tell who is guilty of trying to cheat the Government.

The government collects information from officials all over the country to determine how successful the rice harvest will be. If the government receives news that indicates the rice harvest may be poorer than usual, the officials will try to buy up as large a share as possible. Since the rice speculators in Osaka also collect information on the harvest and try to buy as much rice as possible in times of shortages, the bakufu officials need to keep a close eye on production conditions and the market price. If the government stockpile starts to run short of rice toward the end of the year, the Osaka merchants will be able to charge exorbitant prices and make a killing in the market. Not only is this a problem for the economy, but it can mean famine for villagers in badly-affected areas, who were not able to harvest enough to pay taxes and still provide enough to eat until the following year.

There have been a number of terrible famines in the past, when poor harvests and uncontrolled speculation by the rice merchants caused the supply of rice in rural areas to run out long before the next year's rice was ready. Many people starved, and when rural farmers found out that rice traders in the big cities had bought up large stocks of rice and were making a huge profit by selling only a little at a time, they attacked the granaries, smashing and looting the warehouses where the rice was stored. Since the Japanese word for "smash" is (kowasu), these peasant revolts have come to be known as kowashi (smashings). The worst of the kowashi continued for several weeks, and it took a long time for the Shogun to restore order. Since then, the government has done its best to maintain ample stores of rice in Kuramae and other parts of the country, to guard against future famines and prevent this sort of disorder and rebellion from happening again.

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