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The Tokugawa Shoguns, Forces of Social Change

Young samurai, Tokugawa period, bunraku, domestic peace, highest prestige

The Tokugawa shoguns also attempted to impose a rigid status system on the country that made a sharp distinction between the samurai warrior elite, who constituted between 5 and 6 percent of the population, and the commoners—peasant farmers, town merchants, and artisans—who made up the rest. The samurai, who wore two swords as a mark of status, enjoyed the highest prestige in Tokugawa society and were subject to different laws and punishments than were the commoners.

Society did not remain rigidly frozen, however. On the contrary, domestic peace set in motion forces of social change. With the endemic warfare of previous centuries at an end, the samurai class underwent a transformation. The daimyo, seeking to prevent their vassals from plotting against them, had already begun to move the samurai off the land into castle towns in the 16th century, and they completed the process in the 17th. The samurai were no longer a landed class but an urbanized one. Their income came not from rents collected from peasant cultivators but from stipends paid by the daimyo. No longer needed as warriors, the samurai instead served as officials in the shogunal or daimyo governments, where reading, writing, and arithmetic were more important skills than horsemanship, swordsmanship, and archery.

Even though the samurai were now civil bureaucrats rather than battle-scarred warriors, they set themselves apart from the commoners by maintaining a different set of values, later known as Bushido. Young samurai were trained to prize not only the martial values of physical courage and loyalty to their lord but also the social values of obedience to superiors, piety toward parents, personal self-control, frugality, and hard work. Many of these values rested on the older warrior tradition, but they were also influenced heavily by Confucianism, the major source of elite political and social ideas during the Tokugawa period.

Peace also brought in its wake a spurt of economic development. The daimyo and the shogun were able to devote their human and material resources toward reconstruction, and a burst in population growth in the 17th century stimulated production and trade. Under the impact of the sankin kotai system, the shogun’s capital and local castle towns grew rapidly. By the end of the 17th century Japan was probably one of the most urbanized societies in the world. To meet growing urban demand, agricultural production grew steadily, as did the production of many consumer goods. Even in rural villages, many peasant farmers began to buy goods and utensils that they had once made for themselves.

The growth of the economy brought with it changing patterns in the distribution of wealth. While the daimyo and samurai class remained dependent on agricultural taxes collected from the peasants, many commoners became more affluent through the expanding commercial market. By the 18th century a class of wealthy merchants had emerged in Japan’s major cities and castle towns. The shogunate and the daimyo, who borrowed heavily from merchants to finance their elegant lifestyles, found themselves increasingly burdened with debt, and in some domains merchants served as financial advisers to the daimyo. As a result, the boundaries of the official status hierarchy began to blur.

Affluent merchants and commoners in the cities patronized a new urban culture centering on theaters and pleasure quarters (entertainment districts). In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the kabuki and puppet (bunraku) theaters flourished, and short stories about denizens of the pleasure quarters proliferated. Poets perfected a new form of poetry, the 17-syllable haiku, and by the early 19th century readers devoured popular novels and stories. In the realm of visual arts, wood-block prints portraying courtesans, actors, and other scenes from urban life became extremely popular. Urban commoners, particularly the wealthy merchant class, consumed all these new art forms, which also found an audience among the samurai elite.

Economic growth brought increasing unrest in the countryside. A gap developed between the mass of the peasantry, who were either small landholders or tenant farmers, and a well-to-do landlord class. The landlords, who used their wealth to invest in activities such as money-lending and rural industry, took advantage of their less fortunate neighbors. More and more land became concentrated in landlords’ hands.

Beginning in the 18th century, peasant riots became more and more frequent, especially in times of bad harvest, such as the 1780s and the 1830s. The samurai elite, who saw the rural wealthy class beginning to copy their own lifestyle, were deeply disturbed by this social turmoil. By the early 19th century many conservative samurai scholars and intellectuals called for a return to the good old days, when everyone knew his or her proper place in society.

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