Japanese Feudal Class System

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

In this lesson we take a look at the highly stratified system of class during the Japanese feudal period. We'll look at the relationships between classes as well as see who fits and who doesn't.

Japan during the Middle Ages

For much of the Middle Ages, Japan had a caste system that determined a person's role in both society and the economy. However, as we will see, this caste system differed from what many other societies used to keep their communities structured. In this lesson, we're going to take a look at Japanese feudal society through the lens of its social castes. We'll start at the top, with the samurai, and end up with a comparatively shocking bottom caste.

The Samurai

At the very top of feudal Japanese society was the Emperor. However, for much of this period he was more of a formality. Real power was held by the shogun, who was sort of a prime minister. However, the shogun had relatively little power if he couldn't get the regional rulers, the daimyo, to go along with his plans.

So, what made these daimyo so powerful? Simply put, they had massive retinues of samurai at their disposal. Samurai were very similar to medieval knights. They were loyal to their liege and had to follow a strict code of conduct. However, also similar to knights, they held a great deal of power over everyone who ranked below them.

Also, priests ranked above the samurai, but power struggles meant that they often had to do what the samurai said.

Samurai
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Farmers

The majority of people in Japan during the feudal period were farmers. They were also the next highest social class. This may shock you if you're used to social levels in Europe, but Asian cultures often took a different view. The farmers were the caste that made sure everyone ate, so while they may not outrank the emperor or elite warriors, they certainly deserved plenty of respect! However, despite all that respect, they still had to bear a lot of the taxes that kept the upper classes in power.

Artisans and Merchants

Despite their training, artisans were relatively low-class in Feudal Japan. Simply put, they didn't have the associations with the land that made farmers so revered. Still, skilled artisans could prove their worth through their goods. This often enabled some them to become very wealthy. They were still looked down upon as a group, so they were often forced to live in a completely different part of town.

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