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TOKUGAWA JAPAN
Social Order: The Four Classes
Tokugawa Japan Video Clip

Robert Oxnam :: In addition to securing political order, the Tokugawa rulers sought to ensure social order as well. To this end, they institutionalized a four-class structure designed to limit social mobility.

Carol Gluck :: Which is to say, you had a four, allegedly, a four-status system with the samurai at the top; next the peasants because they were the producing agriculturists, they were the root of the nation; followed by the artisans and the merchants at the bottom, because the merchants in good old Confucian parlance did not produce anything, but only trafficked in goods.

 

the warrior is one who maintains his martial discipline even in time of peace ...

the farmer's toil is proverbial ... he selects the seed from last fall's crop and undergoes various hardships and anxieties through the heat of the summer until the seed grows finally to a rice plant ... the rice then becomes the sustenance for the multitudes ...

the artisan's occupation is to make and prepare wares and utensils for the use of others ...

the merchant facilitates the exchange of goods so that the people can cover their nakedness and keep their bodies warm ...

 

Carol Gluck :: Now this idealized system was supported, as the political order was, with a whole slew of regulations. What kind of clothes you could wear if you were a merchant; that you couldn't drink tea if you were a peasant; that you weren't allowed to ride in palanquins, etc. These are the so called sumptuary laws. So the idea was that society would be ordered so that there wouldn't be any of this kind of rising up from the bottom, which had happened in the medieval period.

Robert Oxnam :: Actually, as so often in history, the reality of the Tokugawa social system was somewhat different from the idealized four-class structure.

Henry D. Smith, II :: My own feeling is that a better way to understand Tokugawa society is as the samurai versus everyone else. The samurai to begin with were not a class, if by class a we mean a group with similar economic interests. Samurai economic interests varied tremendously depending on where one stood within the hierarchy, from the daimyo at the very top, who ruled singlehandedly over small kingdoms, down to the lowest level of the samurai who were essentially no better than petty foot soldiers and guards.

But whatever their class, whatever their particular level within the large group that we know as the samurai, accounting for as much as seven to eight percent of the population of Tokugawa Japan, they all shared a common identity as military men. This is profoundly important.

Excerpt from Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, Sources of Japanese Tradition, Vol. I (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), p. 330.