Setting the stage: Of feudal development

The organization of land into a standardized system was one of the developments necessary to allow the rise of Japan's militarist society. Historically, the traditional uji (clans) had maintained themselves through basic agriculture while dominating the collective political environment. More people and planning were needed, however, in order to create the paddy system for rice cultivation (which was developed in the centuries before 600 CE).
In 645, the Japanese adopted the Chinese 'equal-field' system, whereby all rice land was nationalized. The Japanese made modifications to this before implementation, which were called the Taika ('great change') reforms, whose key goals were asserted in 646.
They were triggered by the death of the ruling Prince Shotoku in 622, whose incapable son accessed the throne and was summarily slain. A new emperor, Kotoku, was installed and a new family, the Fujiwara, was created; this new family was to breed with and politically dominate the throne for many hundreds of years.
The Taika reforms defined extensive sociopolitical changes. Their goal was to reestablish Imperial authority and return to the late Emperor Shotoku's plan to establish an effective and fair government based on the Chinese models.
All private lands were seized and collated for future Imperial redistribution, along with all rice lands, according to the aforementioned Equal-Field System. To set a royal example, the new prince Naka (who later became the Emperor Tenji) donated all his lands to the state.
A new capital was needed; to accomplish this a bureaucracy was necessary, along with roads, taxes, a standing army, communication, and an infrastructure. In order for the old clans (Uji) to accept this arrangement, they had to be bought out by installing them as high-level officials in the new government.
A national capital was then established at Nara (710-784), and this Chinese land/taxing system was utilized to provide revenue. All existing rice paddies were considered public land that could be freely redistributed by the Emperor, and a census was conducted in 670 to determine the nature of the population.

Social Classes in Feudal Japan

1. The Emperor
Although the Emperor is the logical apex of this structure, most of his time was spent ensconced away from the lower classes who were not allowed to lay eyes upon him. In fact, the emperor-figurehead was thrilled by any opportunity to leave the Palace and be moved through the streets of Heian-Kyo (Kyoto). Ordinarily, his time was spent 'observing' and was never allowed to actually do anything. Therefore, many Emperors ultimately become Monks, because it allowed them more personal freedom.
The position of 'Emperor of Japan' is truly a historical cipher. Imperial power soon came to be destabilized, which heralded the rise of 'classic' Japanese feudalism. As the so-called 'Omnipotent Non-Competent', it soon comes to pass that his authority is delegated to Regents (Sessho) and the Shogun (Japan's top military oligarch).
It could be said that the Emperor is typically controlled by the previous Emperor, who historically had been controlled by the Fujiwara family. The Fujiwara continually married into the Imperial line to retain sway as aristocrats, and rushed headlong into the political fracas that was the court microcosm.

2. The Kuge
The old hierarchy was not simply abandoned with the establishment of the Yamato government; they were in fact re-formed into the kuge, a social class of inherited nobility that was intertwined with powerful positions in the central government. Since Japan's beginning, a wide social disparity has existed between the floating grandeur and culture of the Capital versus the harsh reality of life in the provinces.
Immediately below the Emperor socially (and it must be said that some argue the existence of a more lateral relationship) were the kuge, being both Imperial Descendants and Court Aristocrats. Their lives consisted of detailed court ceremony, which was designed to occupy all the spare time they had.

3. The Buke
Below were the buke, or the hereditary/official military classes established around 1100. The years 1185-1400 make up a transitory, proto-feudal period where the central provinces of Japan were set up as geographic extensions of the Kuge. As farmers, the original buke living in distant provinces rebelled against high taxation, and from them came a form of proto-samurai: farmers who could be called to battle in short order (similar to the American 'Minutemen'). The buke class, then, encompasses the gamut of warring types, including all from the lowest foot-soldier (Ashigaru) to the most illustrious governor-general (daimyo). The Samurai are the driving force of this feudal society, and as such is a most appropriate case-study for understanding the nature of Japanese feudalism.
In Edo society, craftsmen and merchants were socially ranked even below the farmers, with the merchants at the bottom solely because of the money they made off of others' efforts. Craftsmen were classified into 3 main types which were then sub-classified:
 Those with their own shop
 Those who arrive on-site to perform work
 Wandering Craftsmen (which had individual ranks based on why they wander)
At this time (17th c.), the most money was typically made in one of the 'five crafts': roofer, sawyer, stonemason, plasterer, and carpenter. Those in the same trade lived together in a certain area of town, and paid their taxes as much in goods and services as in cash. Therefore, when the 1850's came around and feudal Japan was faced with the reality of the west already undergoing the industrial revolution, there was a level of craftsmanship unheard of outside of Asia.

The merchants were much-maligned by the civil government and grew more feared in correlation with their growing incomes, which in turn correlated with growing social influence. In a phenomenon similar to the Italian Renaissance, the capital generated by the merchants spawned a related culture.
Merchants dealt not in rice but in coin, and utilized four metals: gold (oban, koban, ichibu kin), silver (chogin, mame-ita, monme), copper (zeni), and iron. They had square holes in the center based on the Chinese system, and were carried on strings of hemp.
Like all other classes, merchants were strictly sub-classified but the critical difference was that they made up their own rules (compared to the other classes, who were defined by the military). Merchant dogma directed one to work dilligently and avoid things like the following:
 Sponsoring charity wrestling tournaments
 Trips to Kyoto
 Sports, incense-discrimination, or poetry
 Familiarity with geisha (prostitutes) and/or actors of the Kabuki (lower-class)variety
 Lessons in iaijutsu (art of the quick draw) or sword-fighting
There is a particularly fascinating feudal development that relates to merchant culture: at roughly the same time as the northern Italians (and perhaps a bit earlier: 1400-1500s), money replaced rice as the primary means of exchange at Sakai, the merchant village established on foreign trade and not feudal relations.

To be Ronin (masterless) was not necessarily dishonorable to the individual; in fact, 'seven times down, eight times up' is a traditional anecdote describing how a lord would (periodically throughout a samurai's career) dispatch certain bushi on a year-long wandering mission. In the ranks of employed warriors, however, one without a master was a social outcast due to his personal autonomy, which was unheard-of in all strata of Japanese society. The Ronin, however, came to treasure his freedoms and found it possible to spiritually grow beyond the limitations he previously railed against.
The Ronin, then, are what represent the 'renaissance' fighting man in classical Japan. They were adventurers, seekers of psychological and physical challenge, and stood out in diametric contrast compared to the rigid stratification of Japanese society-at-large. They were men of great value, who had been socially ostracized due to the fickle zephyr that is politics. In groups, time and again they proved their effectiveness against the organized and centralized military government, the shogunate of Tokugawa Ieyasu, also known as the Bakufu. This system of military government ultimately outlasted the Ronin as a collective; nonetheless, there will always be a decided historical romanticism in the notion of the highly skilled, self-sufficient outcast who had to constantly defend himself against mastered samurai, who had the social wherewithal to be offended by the presence of the masterless warrior.

An entire course could be dedicated to this subject because ninja are so widely misunderstood. To put it concisely, the ninja performed the military tasks that were so socially maligned that no samurai or ostensible warrior could perform them. Such missions included sabotage, surveillance, assassinations, infiltration, et cetera. Ninja lived in extremely tight and secretive family organizations, and the finest secrets of their art are probably lost (or at least hidden from the lay eye).
This ethic (largely inconceivable to the western mind) was all-important in common practice, as a warrior would fight bitterly to his last sinew if ordered by his liege to do so; in fact, samurai literature dictates that each day one should awake with his mind prepared to die that very day.
Consequently, warriors often had to be forcibly blocked from throwing their lives away in the heat of battle. The way of the samurai was of death, and of desperateness.
This also manifested in unjust (and lethal) hostility that became increasingly prevalent as the samurai declined.
This social decline was due to the ultimate futility of their existence as their society began to morph into an increasingly accelerated tangent due to modernization and westernization, combined with hundreds of years of peace.

The highest social rank for a buke to hold (below the shogun) was to be a daimyo or 'great name'. These were the provincial military governors famous for being patrons of an artistic and cultural explosion that occurred around 1600.
This year also marked the formative Battle of Sekigahara; the victors, led by Tokugawa Ieyasu, established a new shogunate and between 250-260 feudal governors, or daimyo. Daimyo existed in three basic forms:
 Shimpan - "Related Lords" - Honorable family members
 Fudai - "Inner Lords" - Hereditary lords who controlled Han (fiefs) and assisted bakufu policies
 Tozama - "Outer Lords" - Powerful lords who were indifferent or hostile, and were dealt with carefully
Shimpan lived close to the capital, which was now in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and held significant offices in the civil government (though they lacked any real power).
Fudai were the lords who had previously been vassals of the Tokugawa family before the pivotal Battle of Sekigahara; Tokugawa Ieyasu was the last of the 3 Unifiers, and the man who finally succeeded in establishing the new shogunate. Fudai han (fiefs) were essentially a living buffer that would encircle the central core under bakufu control; in return, fudai also occupied important positions in the government.

Tozama were the remaining ujikami (clan chieftans) who were rivals of Ieyasu, and acknowledged his title of Shogun.
The arrival of the Americans in 1853 upset the delicate balance of threats that the bakufu maintained between kuge intrigue and daimyo uprisings. This then triggered the restoration of the Meiji Emperor in 1868, after 'revere the Emperor and expel the barbarians' became a popular catch-phrase.

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