Saturday, January 28, 2006

Encyclopedia Drew and the Mystery of the Mixed-Up Currency

As my grandmother cleans out the house she's been living in for the past fifty years, she comes across things that she'd like to pass down to younger generations of the family. As a result, it's now not uncommon to receive Christmas presents from her that verge on heirloom status. Some family members complain, but I like the practice.

This last Christmas — a day that, as of this writing, is more than a month past — my grandmother gave my brother and me each half a collection of Japanese pesos. The only background information she could supply was that her cousin Dave had picked these up during his stint in southeast Asia in World War II. She didn't know how or why the Japanese government got to printing pesos, much less disseminating them through out the Pacific.



Having never been to southeast Asia, I can't identify the tall tower depicted on these bills. I can, however, clearly read the word "peso" — not "yen" or "dollar" or "giant stone coin of the Yap islander." What's especially odd to me about these bills is that the text reads "one peso" and "the Japanese government" in plain English text.

I eventually got around to researching these weird bills online and found that they are the result of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II. It seems obvious, in retrospect. The Philippines still use the peso as its currency today, and English is one of its official languages. It seems that when the Japanese took over the Philippines, they tried to force this currency on the Filipino people. Essentially IOUs from the Japanese, the bills were met with resistance from the Filipinos, who dubbed them "Mickey Mouse dollars" and correctly figured that they'd never be worth anything. Instead, the people persisted in using crude, homemade currencies.

I wish there was more info about the Japanese peso online. So far, all I've gotten that still works is the talk section for the Wikipedia page on the Filipino peso — good ol' Wikipedia, once again — and this eBay page detailing one guy's attempt to sell his pesos for, I'm guessing, actual money. I suppose there's this page to now, so good luck to you future researchers of the Japanese peso.

I like these bills, and not only for their status as a trivial footnote in recent world history. Just looking at them, I feel like they represent some crazy intersection of too many cultues sweeping through one area in too short a time. The Japanese government, English text, a Filipino monument, a currency that initially began in Spain and a graphic design that to me looks like it was inspired by that of the American dollar. In a way, these short-lived bills are nicely emblematic of the Philippines in general. This little nation has been unfortunately bitched around by bigger nations for such a long time that its currency looks like some kind of multicultural singles mixer.

That, plus the fact that when I read "THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT" all in caps like that, I hear it in this ridiculously official megaphone voice. And that's funny.

[ "m" minus some serious hardcore. do you get it yet? ]

6 comments:

  1. funny shit. I'm throwing you some linky goodness!

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  2. do you know about the great vowel shift?

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  3. yes, i studied it in intro to linguistics sophomore year. i'll bet i was the only one in the room who was riveted. fucking riveted.

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  4. Anonymous4:24 AM

    the 'tower' in the japanese peso bill is probably Dr. Jose Rizal's(our national hero) monument in Luneta park, I also have one of these japanese peso bills and they were called as mickey mouse money coz they really had no value, and they really caused serious economic inflation in the country during the occupation (for instance 1 sack of the jap peso = lets say a cup of rice etc.) other than that most people used them as toilet paper. :P -Saber-

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  5. Anonymous2:51 PM

    I actually have one of these funky bills. Thanks for helping me understand what the heck I have and the fact that its worthless (but still funny). I'd like to give it to some Japanese tourist in Mexico and have him try to spend it, that would really confuse some naive vendor lol. PS - I noticed if I hold mine up to a light you can see some weird farm crop, have no idea whats up with that.

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  6. Anonymous10:58 AM

    You should check out Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson...it doesn't talk about the Japanese peso specifically but does talk a lot about currencies in WWII and various attempts to establish legit currencies (including both Japan & the Phillipines).

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