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Feudal social stratification and explicit fine grained ranking in Japan existed long before the Edo era, beginning with major stratification attempts as far back as the Taika Reform in 645 A.D., modeled from Tang dynasty legal code, following a major and devastating coup attempt that not only exterminated entire clans, but tore apart a gaping hole in Japanese indigenous religion, paving the way for Buddhist-Shinto syncretism of religion. The Taika Reforms were the legal glue deemed necessary to thwart future coup d'etat. Nevertheless, frequent warfare and political instability in following centuries provided countless opportunities to usurp, bend, and mobilize positions within social ranks, and even the ranks themselves (especially military ranks became more respected, if only out of necessity.) Confucian ideas also provided the foundation for a system of strict social prescriptions, along with political twists and turns of the day. However, the first Tokugawa Shōgun Ieyasu was especially wary of social mobility given that one of his peers and a Kampaku (Imperial Regent), Toyotomi Hideyoshi, whom he replaced, was born into low caste and rose to become Japan's (and invaded Korea's) most powerful political figure of the time, and Tokugawa clan sought to nail down any and all loose ends. Those loose ends also applied to daimyō, forcing them, their wives, and their children to be held hostage at Edo.
At the top of the social order, although below the Emperor, the shōgun, daimyōs (lords), and the samurai were the ruling class. The peasants (heimin) 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 as decades and calamities rolled by.
The Tokugawa government intentionally created a social order called the Four divisions of society (shinōkōshō), 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 nō), artisans (工 kō) 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. The 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.:45 Third were artisans because they produced nonessential 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, shinōkōshō does not accurately describe Tokugawa society.:7 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, the 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.:135–136
Samurai functioned as the warrior class in Japan; they constituted about 7–8% of the population. The other classes were prohibited from possessing long swords such as the tachi or katana. Carrying both a long and a short sword 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 could not own land, which would have given them income independent from their duty. Samurai generally lived around their daimyō's castle, creating a thriving town or city environment around the middle of a domain.
There were social stratifications within the samurai class. Upper-level samurai had direct access to their daimyō 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 daimyō 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 could not rise above a few social steps beyond their birth.:30
Outside the traditional samurai–lord relationship were rōnin, or masterless samurai, who were generally afforded very low levels of respect, had no income, and often became gamblers or bandits.
Life for rural peasants focused on their villages. Peasants rarely moved beyond their villages, and journeys and pilgrimages required a permit, but 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, also reinforced through seasonal festivals. Villages were highly collective; there were strong pressures to conform and no room to deviate from custom.:12 Though there were conflicts, they were seen as disruptive to the village and order and were to be limited as much as possible.:13
The peasant class owned land, but rights to tax this land were given to the daimyō. 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, implemented elsewhere.:45
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. During the reign of the third Tokugawa shōgun, Iemitsu, farmers were not allowed to eat any of the rice they grew. They had to hand it all over to their daimyo and then wait for him to give some back as charity.
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.:43 The daimyōs and their samurai did not produce any goods themselves, but they used the tax surplus from the land to fuel their consumption. Their 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 due to their low status were forced to hustle, yet grew increasingly powerful during this period, in spite of their social standing, top merchants commanded a certain amount of respect. Osaka and later Edo were had dominating concentrations of merchant classes. 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 overtly. Still, their consumption combined with that of the samurai served to reinforce the growth of the merchant and artisan classes.
Lowest rungs of society
Role of women
A woman's life varied immensely 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 adults. Women from the lower classes were much less restricted by social expectations and could play an integral part in the family's business.:15 Peasant women were expected to do household chores in the early morning before working in the fields with their male relatives and, regardless of age, were important, working members of their families.
Marriage 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.:14 Female virginity at marriage was important in the samurai classes; it was much less important to the lower classes.:14 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 common, and a woman from a poor household could very easily leave her husband and return to her original family.
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 increasingly burdensome cost of proper social etiquette, so many samurai became indebted to wealthy merchant families. The wealthy merchants, in turn, were restricted from showing their wealth for fear of violating the laws that restricted privileges to the samurai class. That created deepening resentment but also increasing interdependence between the two classes.:159 Some scholars began to question the Confucian beliefs that provided the foundation of society.:57
The numerous changes in rural areas caused by introduction of laws following emperor Shiji 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 more families lost ownership of their land. This sparked resentment that sometimes erupted in violence towards landlords and village elite.
The challenges laid the foundation for the changes that would follow during the Meiji period.