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
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
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
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
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
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.