Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Origin of Za in Japan

Did you know that trade guilds in Japan originated as early as the twelfth century or earlier. Trade guilds derived from an early form of association called a za which means a seat and probably signified a place reserved at ceremonies or a market for a group of persons having the same interest. Early za were social groups that developed into occupational groups such as dancers, musicians, and other entertainers that performed for court nobles, powerful religious institutions, or manorial lords. This custom actually has persisted into modern times such as a company of actors, the Kabuki-za.

By the fifteenth century some mercantile za were organized by market rather than just commodity for example in certain towns. However, in the bigger cities such as Kyoto the za still tended to be organized by specific commodity and were usually concentrated in a special quarter of the city. This can still be seen today in certain cities in modern Japan such as the Zaimoku-za (timber merchants) quarter of Kamakura or the famous Gin-za (silver merchants) of Tokyo.

In their earlier forms, these organizations were not independent but were subordinate to a monastery, shrine, or a manor lord for which they served. But eventually these traders began to form quasi-independent za not only for their own protection but to increase their power and their profits. With this increasing power, many za began to have a monopolistic character by preventing competitors from obtaining raw materials within a certain area. A very powerful early za were the salt dealers of the Yamato province which controlled the salt wholesalers, retailers, and pedlars of the entire province. Eventually by the fifteenth century the za made powerful enemies by abusing their privileges and were forced to give way to other forms of mercantile organization such as "free" markets and guilds established by Oda Nobunaga.

Another famous za that I am sure most of you are familiar that has survived into modern Japan is the Yaku-za. This modern za has interests in many kinds of businesses and trades.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, the trade guilds and associations were transformed into more modern forms of business with the growth of the zaibatsu and keiretsu monopolies of the 20th century.

Sansom, George (1961). A History of Japan: 1334-1615.


  1. Wonderful post, Jon! I had no idea about any of this, but find it very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    By the way, have you read all of Sansom's History of Japan books? I haven't yet. Many I talk to tell me they are the most boring books on earth, but I'm guessing a healthy interest in Japan can push us past any boredom. What do you think?

  2. I have read the first two and I have the third which I will also read. They are actually very interesting and in spite of their age are actually one of the best series of books that cover much of Japanese history. But please note that I am a Japanese history nut. I love this stuff so for me they are not boring for others they may be. :)

  3. Anonymous1:48 AM

    Very good post, I normally avoid blog articles submitted to Digg, but for some reason I was drawn to the description and was not disappointed at all, I'll keep and eye out for more of your posts, as I too am a Japanese History nut albeit a n00b.

  4. Great post.... to be honest, as a non -Japanese visitor to Japan, it's very easy to become accustomed to things just because that's the way they are. And then along comes something that gives you a double-take.

    Nice one.

    Also Sansom's history is very good - but it's a little dated in feel (but still a very good source of info from the time when you really needed to know your stuff).

  5. Thanks Anon, I'm glad you liked it.

    Thanks Ben, I agree regarding Sansom being somewhat dated. But his three books are still a pretty overview of Japanese history and a good starting point for those interested in Japanese history who are wondering what are good books to start with. I've read dozens of other Japanese history books previously but had not read Sansom for the dated reason but I decided I would read them anyway and they are somewhat enjoyable.

  6. Ah yes, but when did guilds exist to help one another take down the Level 121 super boss?

    Couldn't resist. MMO fan here.

    Though I didn't know that about the Yakuza. Interesting.

  7. I haven't gotten to the section of the book that covers the Level 121 Super Boss yet. :)

  8. Interesting post.

    I didn't know the story behind Za. It actually has intrigued me for some time though.

    I am a member of a Za; Yagiza (山羊座). It's me & a bunch of goats. Of course, I'm referring to the zodiac & to Capricorn.

  9. Oh good, for a second there I thought you said you were a member of yakuza, Yagiza is better.

  10. Fascinating post - and I agree with you on the worthiness and (surprising) readability of the Sansom books. Truly a gold-mine of historical nuggets. As for the Za, I assume that the motorbike couriers of Tokyo who style themselves "Za Sugu" are a kind of express delivery guild....

  11. Yes, the three Sansom books are an excellent overview of Japanese history to 1868.

    I've heard of that express delivery guild. I would beware of those guys. I hear they're pretty tough.