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Hierarchical structure of Feudal Japan

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Title: Hierarchical structure of Feudal Japan  
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Subject: Hierarchy
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Hierarchical structure of Feudal Japan

Society during the Edo period (or Tokugawa period) in Japan was ruled by strict customs and regulations intended to promote stability. Confucian ideas provided the foundation for a system of strict social prescriptions. At the top of the social order, though below emperor, shogun, and daimyo (lords), were the samurai who functioned as the ruling class. Second most praised were the peasants (heimin), who lived in villages and produced agricultural goods. Increasing urbanization and rising consumerism created merchant and artisan classes in towns and cities. Social mobility during this period was highly limited. As wealth became concentrated outside of the samurai class, conflicts between class arose and the social order became increasingly challenged.

Four class order

The Tokugawa government intentionally created a social order called the Four divisions of society (Shinokosho), that would stabilize the country. This system was based on the ideas of Confucianism that spread to Japan from China. By this system, society was composed of samurai (士 shi), farming peasants (農 ), artisans (工 ) and merchants (商 shō). Samurai were placed at the top of society because they started an order and set a high moral example for others to follow. This system was meant to reinforce their position of power in society by justifying their ruling status. Peasants came second because they produced the most important commodity, food. According to Confucian philosophy, society could not survive without agriculture.[1] Third were artisans because they produced non-essential goods. Merchants were at the bottom of the social order because they generated wealth without producing any goods. As this indicates, the classes were not arranged by wealth or capital but by what philosophers described as their moral purity.

In actuality, shinokosho does not accurately describe Tokugawa society.[2] Buddhist and Shinto priests; or court nobles (kuge); and outcast classes including eta and hinin (those sold or sentenced into indentured servitude) were not included in this description of hierarchy. In some cases, a poor samurai could be little better off than a peasant and the lines between the classes could blur, especially between artisans and merchants in urban areas. Still, this theory provided grounds for restricting privileges and responsibilities to different classes and it gave a sense of order to society. In practice, solidified social relationships in general helped create the political stability that defined the Edo period. [3]


Samurai functioned as the warrior class in Japan; they constituted about 7-8% of the population. The other classes were prohibited from possessing weapons. Carrying two swords became the symbol of the samurai class.

During the feudal period, samurai were warriors that fought for a lord in a feudal relationship. The Edo period, however, was largely free from both external threats and internal conflicts. Instead the samurai maintained their fighting skills more as an art than to fight. Samurai were paid a stipend from their lord, limiting their ties to the economic base. In addition, samurai were limited from owning land which would have given them income independent from their duty. Samurai generally lived around their daimyo's castle, creating a thriving town or city environment around the political center of a domain.

There were social stratifications within the samurai class. Upper-level samurai had direct access to their daimyo and could hold his most trusted positions. Some achieved a level of wealth that allowed them to retain their own samurai vassals. Mid-level samurai held military and bureaucratic positions and had some interactions with their daimyo if needed. Low level samurai could be paid as little as a subsistence wage and worked as guards, messengers and clerks. Positions within the class were largely hereditary and talented samurai were limited in rising only a few social steps beyond their birth, if anything.[4] Outside the traditional samurai-lord relationship were ronin, or masterless samurai. These samurai were generally afforded very low levels of respect, had no income, and often became gamblers, bandits, or other similar occupations.


Life for rural peasants focused on their villages. Peasants rarely moved beyond their villages and journeys and pilgrimages required a permit, though young people occasionally sought seasonal employment outside of their village. As a result, people were highly suspicious of outsiders. Social bonding, critical to the survival of the whole village, was also reinforced through seasonal festivals. Villages were highly collective; there were strong pressures to conform and no room to deviate from custom.[5] Though there were conflicts, but these were seen as disruptive to the village and order and were to be limited as much as possible.[6]

The peasant class owned land, though rights to tax this land were given to the daimyo. Peasants worked to produce enough food for themselves and still meet the tax burden. Most agriculture during this time was cultivated by families on their own land in contrast to the plantation or hacienda model that was implemented elsewhere.[7] Peasants could amass relatively large amounts of wealth but remained in the same class because of their association with the land. Wealthier families and those that held their own land and paid taxes were held in much higher regard and had more political influence in village matters. However, the survival of the village depended on every household cooperating to meet the tax burden and overcome natural disasters such as famines.

Merchants and artisans

By 1800 as much as 10% of the population of Japan may have lived in large towns and cities, one of the highest levels in the world at the time.[8] The daimyo and their samurai did not produce any goods themselves, but they used the tax surplus from the land to fuel their consumption. These needs were met by artisans, who moved to be around the castles, and merchants, who traded local and regional goods. Each class in the city was restricted to living in its own quarter.

Merchants grew increasingly powerful during this period. Wealthy merchant houses arose to organize distributors and hold legal monopolies. As their wealth grew, merchants wanted to consume and display their wealth in the same manner as the samurai, but laws prevented them from doing so in an overt fashion. Still, their consumption combined with that of the samurai served to reinforce the growth of the merchant and artisan classes.

Role of women

A woman's life varied greatly according to her family's social status. Women in samurai families were expected to submit to their male heads of household but as they aged they could become the ranking household member if their husband died. Children were enjoined to respect both of their parents, even as they became adults. Women from the lower classes were much less restricted by social expectations and could play an integral part in the family's business.[9] Peasant women were expected to do household chores in the early morning before working in the fields with their male relatives; peasant women of all ages were important, working members of their families.

Marriage during this time was not based on romantic attraction. Families tried to use marriage as a way to increase their social standing or, among wealthier groups, to increase one's influence and holdings. Most often, however, marriage occurred between two families of equal status.[10] Female virginity at marriage was important in the samurai classes; it was much less important to the lower classes.[11] After marriage, women were restricted from taking additional sexual partners. Males of the upper classes, however, were able to take concubines and have relations with unmarried women. Divorce was not uncommon and a woman from a poor household could easily leave her husband and return to her original family.

Challenges to the social order

The foundation of this period was its stable social order. However, as wealth became increasingly concentrated outside of the samurai class, social conflict grew. The fixed stipends on which samurai lived did not increase despite the rising cost of commodities and the ever more burdensome cost of proper social etiquette. As a result many samurai became in debt to wealthy merchant families. These wealthy merchants, in turn, were restricted from showing their wealth for fear of violating the laws that restricted privileges to the samurai class. This created deepening resentment but also increasing interdependence between the two classes.[12] Some scholars began to question the Confucian beliefs that provided the foundation of society.[13]

Changes in rural areas were also creating conflict. New technology increased productivity and allowed some families to produce a surplus of food that could be used to support ventures beyond farming. Some peasants also became indebted to their wealthier neighbors and an increasing number of families lost ownership of their land. This sparked resentment that at times erupted in violence towards landlords and village elite.

These social stresses laid the foundation for the changes that would follow during the Meiji period.


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