This is part one of an article from Tanko Magazine November 2011.

The World of Rikyu
Sengoku Bubble
by YAMAMOTO Ken’ichi
Map of Japan (Detail of the Chugoku Region) by Fernão Vaz Dourado

Why is it that utensils used in chanoyu are so expensive?
Ignoring for a moment the utensils we use during regular okeiko, the famous historical utensils and works of art such as calligraphy are bought and sold for prices that are far beyond extravagent.
And then, as today they are expensive, in the time of Rikyu Koji, already they were expensive.
No, upon researching it, prices were even more expensive than in modern times.
For example, when the wealthy merchant Shioya Souetsu bought the nitarinasu chaire, the price was said to be 100 kan.
Three generations of the Shioya family later, the official Ootomo Sourin asked to buy it for 5000 kan. Furthermore, Toyotomi Hideyoshi bought it along with the Arata Katatsuki Chaire for 10,000 kan.
5000 kan most likely is not the most expensive price recorded that a tea utensil has been sold for.
In that day, a common soldier’s income, differing depending on each family, was generally 1 sen 3 kan to 5 or 6 kan for one year.
In other words, one chaire cost the same as nearly 1000 years to 2000 years worth of a common soldier’s income.
1 kan could buy 2 koku worth of rice.
That might seem inexpensive caculating from the price of rice, but as a normal worker’s income, if it is from the true feeling of living, thinking that 1 kan is about 1 million yen would not be a big mistake.
So if 1 kan is 1 million yen, the 5 thousand kan nitarinasu would be about 5 billion yen.
At last, a price to moan at.
Compared to 5 thousand kan, that is an expensive chaire.
A chaire worth an entire country!
A retainer of Oda Nobunaga, Takigawa Kazumasu, during the attack of Takeda for approving the attack???, requested of Nobunaga the the famous chaire called Shukou Konasubi.
Nobunaga refused, unable to bear bestowing the chaire upon him.
Instead, he bestowed upon him the whole province of Kouzuke and 2 counties of Shinano. The Shukou Konasubi chaire was worth more than an entire provice, so it is said.

Why have the untensils of wabi-cha come to be so expensive even to that degree? Previously it wasn’t so mysterious.
However, expensive they might be, if there weren’t people able to buy at that price, they wouldn’t be selling at that price.
In the case of tea utensils, I feel it was an occasion for those buying at that price to boast of that rather expensive price.
Things being bought and sold so expensively, those circumstances must have had a very abundent economic system.
As for Hideyoshi actually paying the price of 10 thousand kan, he probably had enough assets to pay it without worry.
How can he have such a surplus of assets?
Only in a territory ruled harshly as a basis of wealth, it is impossible to understand.
But in the Japan of Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a bubble economy of silver was growing.
To gain an understanding of this, let us look to the scholars of Chinese history.
In the first half of the 16th century, at the time when Nobunaga was still but a boy, China was producing a ton of silver. After that, Iwami Silver Mine was developed. In the Tembun period (1532-1555), since the new technique for refining metals of cupellation was introduced, the amount of silver produced in Japan greatly increased.
On the other hand, as the mines dried up, the amount of silver produced in China decreased.
For that reason, it became that the silver produced and exported from Japan exceed that of China.
According to estimates, in 1580 just the last year of Rikyu Imai, roughly 6 thousand kan (18.75-22.5 tons) of silver were exported from Japan in a years time.
However irritating it may be to not know exactly how much during that period, a little after at the start of the 17th century, it is conjectured that Japan was producing one third of all the worlds silver.

作家山本謙一(やまもと けんいち)