The yen is the official currency of Japan. It is the third most traded currency in the foreign exchange market after the United States dollar and the euro. It is also widely used as a reserve currency after the U.S. dollar, the euro, and the pound sterling.
The concept of the yen was a component of the Meiji government's modernization program of Japan's economy; which postulated the pursuit of a uniform currency throughout the country modeled after the European decimal currency system. Before the Meiji Restoration, Japan's feudal fiefs all issued their own money, hansatsu, in an array of incompatible denominations. The New Currency Act of 1871 did away with these and established the yen, which was defined as 1.5 g of gold, or 24.26 g of silver, as the new decimal currency. The former han (fiefs) became prefectures and their mints private chartered banks, which initially retained the right to print money. To bring an end to this situation the Bank of Japan was founded in 1882 and given a monopoly on controlling the money supply.
Following World War II the yen lost much of its prewar value. To stabilize the Japanese economy the exchange rate of the yen was fixed at ¥360 per $1 as part of the Bretton Woods system. When that system was abandoned in 1971, the yen became undervalued and was allowed to float. The yen had appreciated to a peak of ¥271 per $1 in 1973, then underwent periods of depreciation and appreciation due to the 1973 oil crisis, arriving at a value of ¥227 per $1 by 1980.
Since 1973, the Japanese government has maintained a policy of currency intervention, and the yen is therefore under a "dirty float" regime. This intervention continues to this day. The Japanese government focuses on a competitive export market, and tries to ensure a low yen value through a trade surplus. The Plaza Accord of 1985 temporarily changed this situation from its average of ¥239 per US$1 in 1985 to ¥128 in 1988 and led to a peak value of ¥80 against the U.S. dollar in 1995, effectively increasing the value of Japan’s GDP to almost that of the United States. Since that time, however, the yen has greatly decreased in value. The Bank of Japan maintains a policy of zero to near-zero interest rates and the Japanese government has previously had a strict anti-inflation policy.
Yen derives from the Japanese word, which borrows its phonetic reading from Chinese yuan, similar to North Korean won and South Korean won. Originally, the Chinese had traded silver in mass called sycees and when Spanish and Mexican silver coins arrived, the Chinese called them "silver rounds" for their circular shapes. The coins and the name also appeared in Japan. While the Chinese eventually replaced with, the Japanese continued to use the same word, which was given the shinjitai form 円 in reforms at the end of World War II.
The spelling and pronunciation "yen" is standard in English. This is because when Japan was first encountered by Europeans around the 16th century, Japanese (え) and (ゑ) both had been pronounced and Portuguese missionaries had spelled them "ye". Some time thereafter, by the middle of the 18th century, and came to be pronounced as in modern Japanese, although some regions retain the pronunciation. Walter Henry Medhurst, who had neither been to Japan nor met any Japanese, having consulted mainly a Japanese-Dutch dictionary, spelled some "e"s as "ye" in his An English and Japanese, and Japanese and English Vocabulary (1830). In the early Meiji era, James Curtis Hepburn, following Medhurst, spelled all "e"s as "ye" in his A Japanese and English dictionary (1867); in Japanese, e and i are slightly palatalized, somewhat as in Russian. That was the first full-scale Japanese-English/English-Japanese dictionary, which had a strong influence on Westerners in Japan and probably prompted the spelling "yen". Hepburn revised most "ye"s to "e" in the 3rd edition (1886) in order to mirror the contemporary pronunciation, except "yen". This was probably already fixed and has remained so ever since.
In the 19th century, silver Spanish dollar coins were common throughout Southeast Asia, the China coast, and Japan. These coins had been introduced through Manila over a period of two hundred and fifty years, arriving on ships from Acapulco in Mexico. These ships were known as the Manila galleons. Until the 19th century, these silver dollar coins were actual Spanish dollars minted in the new world, mostly at Mexico City. But from the 1840s, they were increasingly replaced by silver dollars of the new Latin American republics. In the later half of the 19th century, some local coins in the region were made in the resemblance of the Mexican peso. The first of these local silver coins was the Hong Kong silver dollar coin that was minted in Hong Kong between the years 1866 and 1869. The Chinese were slow to accept unfamiliar coinage and preferred the familiar Mexican dollars, and so the Hong Kong government ceased minting these coins and sold the mint machinery to Japan.
The Japanese then decided to adopt a silver dollar coinage under the name of 'yen', meaning 'a round object'. The yen was officially adopted by the Meiji government in an Act signed on June 27, 1871. The new currency was gradually introduced beginning from July of that year. The yen was therefore basically a dollar unit, like all dollars, descended from the Spanish Pieces of eight, and up until the year 1873, all the dollars in the world had more or less the same value. The yen replaced Tokugawa coinage, a complex monetary system of the Edo period based on the mon. The New Currency Act of 1871, stipulated the adoption of the decimal accounting system of yen (1, 圓), sen (1⁄100, 錢), and rin (1⁄1000, 厘), with the coins being round and manufactured using Western machinery. The yen was legally defined as 0.78 troy ounces (24.26 g) of pure silver, or 1.5 grams of pure gold (as recommended by the European Congress of Economists in Paris in 1867; the 5-yen coin was equivalent to the Argentine 5 peso fuerte coin ), hence putting it on a bimetallic standard. (The same amount of silver is worth about 1300 modern yen, while the same amount of gold is worth about 6500 yen. )
Following the silver devaluation of 1873, the yen devalued against the U.S. dollar and the Canadian dollar (since those two countries adhered to a gold standard), and by the year 1897, the yen was worth only about US$0.50. In that year, Japan adopted a gold exchange standard and hence froze the value of the yen at $0.50. This exchange rate remained in place until Japan left the gold standard in December 1931, after which the yen fell to $0.30 by July 1932 and to $0.20 by 1933. It remained steady at around $0.30 until the start of the Second World War on December 7, 1941, at which time it fell to $0.23.
The sen and the rin were eventually taken out of circulation at the end of 1953.