You keep it in your pockets every day, you spend it, you worry about it, but what or who exactly is depicted on these bills? Time to find out. This post deals with the 1000 Yen en 2000 Yen bank-notes.
On the 1000 Yen bills we have Noguchi Hideyo (野口英世), a bacteriologist who became famous because he discovered the causative agent of syphilis. Noguchi is also the first scientist to appear on a Japanese bank-note.
As a baby, Noguchi fell into a sunken fireplace, which resulted in a burn and the deformity of his left hand. At the age of eight, he underwent an operation and was so impressed by medical progress that he decided to become a doctor. Noguchi proved to be a very smart kid and obtained his medical license at the age of only twenty. He started working at several hospitals and institutions. As a doctor he distinguished himself by discovering a bubonic plague patient at the quarantine station, and was shortly after that dispatched to Manchuria in order to investigate and prevent the plague that was spreading there.
Noguchi was fluent in Chinese and English, and dreamed of pursuing an academic career abroad. In 1900, he set out for the United States. When his study of venomous snakes proved to be a success, he was appointed an assistant position at the University of Pennsylvania. Later, while working as an assistant for the Carnegie Institution of Washington, he studied for one year in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Upon his return, Noguchi started working at the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research, Washington. There, he dedicated the rest of his career to bacteriological research. He took a particular interest in yellow fever, and traveled to Central and South America and Africa to do research and develop a vaccine. His findings, however, were heavily criticized and discredited. Next to that, Noguchi had been accused of conducting an unethical human experiment by injecting extracts of syphilis in orphan children. In 1928, Noguchi contracted yellow fever himself and died at the age of 51.
Despite the fact that later research proved many of his theories false, his findings about syphilis and snake venoms are valuable contributions in the field of medical science. Noguchi was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times and received several honours around the world.
Fun Fact Noguchi was actually born Noguchi Seisaku, but changed his name because of the publication of “Portraits of Contemporary Students” (当世書生気質) by Tsuboichi Shoyo, a novel about a doctor named Nonoguchi Seisaku who lead a life of dissipation and eventually ruined himself.
The reverse side of a 1000 Yen bill is a cliché representation of Japanese nature: Mount Fuji, lake Motosu and cherry blossoms. It is based on a work of photographer Okada Kōyō (1895-1972). Okada had photographed Mount Fuji for over 50 years and published many Fuji collections. He even established the Fuji Photo Association in 1940. Besides Japan’s most famous mountain, Okada has taken pictures of the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923.
Fun Fact Before 2004, this scenery was actually depicted on the reverse side of a 5000 Yen bill.
A 2000 Yen bill is rather rare in Japan (some people compare it to the American 2 Dollar bill). I received a bunch of them when I exchanged money back in Belgium, but it appears that Japanese people do not like to use them. They are inconvenient because you cannot use them for vending machines or ATM (I used them without any problem in shops, though) and their unpopularity even lead to concern for the bill’s survival. Which is a pity, because I like the design of this bank-note.
The 2000 Yen bill was only introduced in 2000, to commemorate the millennium and the 26th G8 Summit, held in Nago, Okinawa. For that reason, the obverse side of the bank-note depicts a castle gate in Naha, capital of Okinawa prefecture, namely the Shureimon (守礼門), one of the main accesses to the Shuri Castle (首里城). This castle functioned as the palace of the Ryūkyū Kingdom (15th – 19th century) and was almost totally destroyed during the second World War. Besides its long history, the castle is remarkable because of its architecture: influences of Japanese, Okinawan and Chinese architecture are visible in the use of orange-red, clay tiles and its resemblance to the Forbidden City. The tablet on the gate as well, is in Chinese and reads 「守禮之邦」.When a Chinese delegation visited Okinawa, every Japanese official lower in status than the king had to perform a kowtow in front of the gate to welcome them: three times kneeling and nine times touching the ground with their head.
Fun Fact I The Shureimon was featured in many brochures and guidebooks to attract tourists. The gate, however, did not meet their expectations and got labelled “disappointing landmark”.
Fun Fact II For gamers, the Shureimon may seem familiar. Shuri Castle is the battlefield for the last American mission in Call of Duty: World of War.
The reverse side of a 2000 Yen bill displays a scene from the Genji Monogatari 源氏物語(The Tale of Genji), and a portrait of a peeking Murasaki Shikibu, the writer of this Tale. In the past, I have published some posts about Genji and his adventures on this blog (here and here). Often called the world’s first modern novel, Genji Monogatari is considered one of the most important works in Japanese classical literature. The tale was written around the 11th century and features a handsome and charming prince, Hikaru Genji 光源氏 (“shining Genji”), leading a life of amorous escapades and political intrigue. The scene depicted on the 2000 Yen bank-note is taken from a handscroll from the 12th Century and is linked to the 38th chapter “Suzumushi” 鈴虫, “The Bell Cricket” of the Genji Monogatari. It is a parallel chapter 並びの巻（narabi no kan), which means that it tells a short story that runs parallel with the main story line. The characters depicted are Prince Genji (right) and Emperor Reizei 冷泉院(left), actually his son, conceived out of an illicit affair with his stepmother.
Genji suggested that the whole night be given over to admiring the bell cricket. He had just finished his second cup of wine, however, when a message came from the Reizei emperor. (…) Even though he in fact had few commitments these days and the Reizei emperor was living in quiet retirement, Genji seldom went visiting. It was sad that the emperor should have found it necessary to send for him. Despite the suddenness of the invitation he immediately began making ready. (…) The Reizei emperor was delighted. His resemblance to Genji was more striking as the years went by. The emperor had chosen to abdicate when he still had his best years ahead of him, and had found much in the life of retirement that pleased him. (translator: Edward Seidensticker)
Now it gets complicated. The calligraphy on the bill does not describe this scene, but is an excerpt of another part of this chapter. It is difficult to read, but this is written in Japanese:
This is, however, only the half of a “caption” (kotobagaki 詞書), an arranged version of the original text. Compare:
with the original text:
On the evening of the full moon, not yet risen, she sat near the veranda of her chapel meditatively invoking the holy name. Two or three young nuns were arranging flowers before the holy images. The sounds of the nunnery, so far from the ordinary world, the clinking of the sacred vessels and the murmur of holy water, were enough to induce tears. Genji paid one of his frequent visits. “What a clamor of insects you do have!” (translator: Edward Seidensticker)
The woman in question here is Onna Sannomiya 女三宮, or the Third Princess. She is Genji’s niece and he marries her. Unfortunately, Genji has somewhat lost his youthful charm and his wife gets seduced by a young fellow called Kashiwagi. This liaison results in a baby boy. Onna Sannomiya feels so guilty she enters the nunnery, hence the chapel, holy images and nuns described in this excerpt. The link between these two scenes is the parallel theme of adultery and sons born out of wed-lock (and in my opinion, a hint of incest). Genji recognises himself in the affair his wife was having, blames himself and goes in exile. Maybe the message the Bank of Japan wants to send us by picking out these scenes for their 2000 Yen bank-note, is that you should not spend your money on adultery?