Social Structure of Feudal Japan

I have always liked Japanese history. I think like many others I was attracted by the samurai and ninja stories as well as the beautiful architecture and the charm of the pagodas. And I am sure many of you are familiar with these warriors and other members of society such as geisha and courtesans due to movies, and novels popularising their image. However, I always have the feeling that because of this, we miss the wider picture and we tend to forget that there was more to their society than just samurai and geisha to the sociopolitical and economic structure of Japan. Moreover, this is a system that remained untouched for a long time- various centuries- and that i would like to explore with you today. Traditionally speaking, the feudal period in Japanese history spreads between the years 1185 and 1603. During this time,  Japanese society was structured in different layers or strata, in what may resemble the classic pyramidal division. However, I would like to point out that, although it is like that for the most part, this system does not fully apply (I will explain why). Nevertheless, and like in the case of most societies at this time in Europe and elsewhere in the world, the nobility comprised around 12% of the population. The overall stratification goes as follows:

The Emperor

The Japanese emperor was considered to be of divine origin. Generally speaking, the emperor did not care much for the political or economic issues of the nation. In fact he acted more like a figure-head while the Shogun actually  ruled the country and controlled the land. Nevertheless the emperor was still the head religious figure of Japanese society, and his court would have counted with both Buddhist and Shinto priests.

The Shogun

These were the effective rulers of medieval Japan. The Shogun were military leaders  with political and economic power that they exercised on behalf- or instead of- the emperor. However they still had to undertake the ceremony of being appointed by the emperor as a way to acquire legitimacy. Their title seems to have been hereditary in characters, and their seat of power was known as the bakufu (tent office/government- referring to their role in the military and capability to rule). There were two main shogunate during this period, the Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333) and the Ashikaga shogunate (1336-1573).

The Daimyo

There have being acknowledged around 260 Daimyo in this period. They were court nobles with large domains, although sometimes they have been understood as warlords. They were directly subordinated to the Shogun and possessed economic and military power. Furthermore, the Daimyo had the right to collect ichimangoku (salaries) from the lands they owned and that were transferred within the family, as these were hereditary holdings.

The Samurai

This is perhaps the caste better known to us all. The Samurai formed around 10% of the total population of feudal Japan. They work at the service of the Daimyo, to whom they owed obedience and loyalty to their masters and followed the strict path of the Bushido. The violation of the Bushido code would end with the life of the Samurai by the ritual of Seppuku . Nevertheless, the samurai also had some privileges such as the having their family lineage traced by a surname, or a coat of arms. Perhaps, the more important of these benefits was that they could carry weapons. As an interesting note,  it also seems that some women may have been allowed to serve as samurai, but always under the leadership of a man.

The not so privileged population

The lower strata of the Japanese feudal society was formed by craftsmen, farmers and villagers. Experts have suggested that there was some sort of hierarchy amongst the peasantry, meaning further classification and stratification. In this way, farmers would traditionally be at the top due to their economic contribution. Nevertheless, there was a difference in ranking between farmers who own their land and those who did not. Farmers would be followed by craftsmen and artisans due to their production value- they also had their own reserved area in the city that secluded them from the lower merchants and other classes. Interestingly, merchants seem to have been appreciated the least- this seems to be because within the social philosophy and mind of feudal Japan, influenced by Confucian ideals, they were seeing as parasites, making profit from other people’s work. Moreover, there was a social class even below of the vast majority of society.

That was the place occupied by the ronin. A ronin was a wandering, master-less samurai, who was considered an outcast and lived in the fringes of society. Generally, these would have been people with a previous military background, mainly samurai who had been dishonoured, therefore cast aside. Due to their privileged-and-lost status, many of these men became hired swords and mercenaries, some even criminals in an attempt to seek revenge for their disgrace. However, their position as outcasts was mainly perceived and attributed by the Daimyo.

In addition, there were people who lived in the peripheries of society and had their own strata depending on their origins or role within society. This collective was formed by the so-called Ainu. The  Ainu are an ethnic minority in Japan (and some areas of Russia). Many of them were discriminated and even used as slaves. However it seems that those employed in industries that had a social taboo could also be included as living in the margin of society. Finally, it has to be considered that prostitutes, courtesans and geisha, also were independent to the pyramidal system. Regardless of their position in the entertainment, company or pleasure industries, these people were ranked depending on their skill and beauty.

As an afterword it is worth mentioning that moving into the Edo period, this social order continued in a very similar fashion. In fact, it would not be until the Meiji Restoration that these social hierarchy changed, mainly due to the disappearance or diminishing of the military ranks. However, most of these traditions and structures prevailed in the Japanese mind until the Occupation period, and some argue are still reminiscent nowadays.


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