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Samurai, Chōnin and the Bakufu: Between Cultures of Frivolity and Frugality.

The emergence and consolidation of the Tokugawa Bakufu between 1600 and 1603 marked the end of continual military conflict, which had engulfed Japan, since the commencement of the Ōnin War in 1467. Without these incessant wartime conditions to justify naked coercion, in ordering the social system, the Bakufu was faced with the predicament of how to maintain and validate a peaceful social compact. In a society marred by the obvious tensions between daimyō, jostling for power and stratification between and within classes, management of these tensions and conflicts became essential for the endurance of the Shogun’s government. Utilizing and organizing institutional structure, spatial order and ideology the Bakufu attempted to attain social stability and ensure its own political hegemony. This effort to integrate divergent societal elements into a functional whole serves as a nexus to evaluate the effectiveness of the Bakufu throughout its reign, from its formation to its eventual collapse in 1867.

During the Tokugawa period sovereignty was exercised through an “integrated yet decentralized state structure” (Eiko, 1995, p. 164). Residing in Edo, the Shogun retained technical ‘proprietorship’ over all domains. But local authority was parceled out to the daimyō functioning as governors, administering their particular locality in lieu of the Shogun himself (Gordon, 2003, pp. 10-12). In return for their semi-autonomy the daimyō were deemed beholden to the Bakufu. Allegiance from the daimyō was expected and certain obligations were often requested. In 1603 Tokugawa Ieyasu called upon the daimyō to contribute to the venture of leveling Mt. Kanda, for landfill (Yonemoto, 1999, p. 51). This huge project exemplifies the subordinate position of the daimyō to the Bakufu, but also the Bakufu’s attempts to weaken the daimyō financially.

Financial burden undermined the daimyō significantly, functioning as a method of political control. Central to this policy of financial burden was Sankin kōtai or “alternate attendance” instituted by Tokugawa Iemitsu between 1635 and 1642 (Gordon, 2003, p. 13). This required the presence of daimyō within Edo during alternate years. The other year spent within their ‘han’ or domain, forcing the daimyō to maintain two residences and travel between them. Their Edo residence was expected to be maintained at the level of luxury suitable for entertaining the Shogun. While also housing the daimyō’s family, who amounted to pampered hostages. Maintaining and staffing their Edo residence characteristically consumed two-thirds of the daimyō’s tax revenue (Gordon, 2003, p. 14). A financial load which as time progressed through the Edo period the daimyō found harder to bear.

Along with the financial burden placed upon daimyō through alternate attendance and special state projects, the Bakufu manipulated the size and positioning of different domains. Strategically organizing daimyō’s geographic position according to their relationship to the Edo dictatorship, conceptualized in three divisions. Shimpan daimyō relatives of the Tokugawa family and therefore considered the most loyal, were located in key tactical and economic regions. Fudai daimyō were typically subordinates of the Tokugawa house before the battle of Sekigahara (1600), placed in strategic locations to offset former opponents to the regime. Tozama, or outer daimyō, the least trusted were placed in the remotest areas (Hane, 1991, p. 137). Tokugawa Iemitsu, in exercising his ability to modify the domains of the daimyō, redistributed one-fifth of Japan’s arable land (Gordon, 2003, p. 13). These policies combined with others effectively crippled the daimyō, integrating them into the Tokugawa polity and impeding their ability to threaten the central authority in Edo for over two-hundred years.

The Bakufu-daimyō relationship with its lord-vassal, center-periphery structure was repeated within the lower ranks of the Tokugawa polity. A lord-vassal relationship existed between samurai and their daimyō. Samurai were retained on a stipend in return for their loyalty and obligation to the daimyō. During the Edo period this archetypically amounted to administrative duties within castle-towns, the political and organizational center of a daimyō’s domain (Hall, 1968, p. 179). To justify this kind of lord-vassal relation which structured society, there developed many syntheses of Buddhism, Shito and Neo-Confucianism to form ideological rationalizations of social stratification (Gordon, 2003, p.35).

Fundamental to the rationalizations of social stratification from both religious and secular schools of thought, was the notion that hierarchy was natural and moreover just. A Zen priest, Suzuki Shosan argued that the object of an individual’s life was to serve society through satisfying ones obligations to their superiors in accordance with their social station. While neo-Confucian Fujiwara Seika argued a similar position from a metaphysical conception of natural laws which dictated the rationality of social life. In 1630 Seika managed to gain financial support from the Bakufu in order to establish a “sages hall” in honor of Confucius (Gordon, 2003, p.36). Continuing this tread in 1670 the neo-Confucian Hayashi academy was recognized as the official Bakufu University. This brand of neo-Confucianism, while not unchallenged from other traditions, was utilized by the state to rationalize the social stratification and lord-vassal relationships which permeated the Tokugawa polity.

Ideologues associated with the Bakufu conceived of a natural social hierarchy that was divided into four major classes or status groups: samurai, peasant, artisan and merchant. These status groups were ranked in their perceived level of importance to society as a whole (Tipton, 2002, p. 5). This conceptualization of societal roles originated within a culture primarily supported by an agrarian economy. But during the Edo period political, socio-economic and technological transformation increasingly re-structured actual class relations. Rendering the appropriateness of an idealized class hierarchy largely inherited from Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s reign in the late Sengoku period highly dubious (Vastos, 1986, pp. 21-23: Hane, 1991, pp. 118-119). When it frequently contributed to social strife as actual social-relations strayed from the ‘natural hierarchy’.

As samurai were declining in significance, merchants, artisans and wealthy peasants considered by conservative ideology to be subordinate were on the ascension. Dismayed by societal developments, neo-Confucian moralist Kaibara Ekken wrote “lowly townsmen who are so ostentatious are criminals who violate moral principles” (quoted in Shively, 1964-1965, p.158). Kaibara represented a segment of hard-line conservative opinion that viewed individuals who act contrary to their class position as morally degenerate. This ethical position was symptomatic of the growing disenfranchisement within the samurai class. Disenfranchisement had taken hold because the samurai had come to see the world as increasingly disjointed, as their own status and importance waned. A situation engendered by developments in urbanization, mercantile enterprise and proto-industrialization (Tipton, 2002, pp. 5-7: Morris-Suzuki, 1994, pp. 20-23).

Bakufu policy affected these transformative processes which furthermore affected the integration of divergent social segments. The forced residence of daimyō in Edo had the immediate and obvious effect of increasing levels of urbanization. Concurrently with forced residence the Bakufu restricted the number of castles in each domain to one which functioned as the administrative and economic hub of the han. By 1720 Edo had reached a population of one million and 5 to 6% of the Tokugawa populace resided within cities larger then a hundred-thousand in population (Gordon, 2003, pp. 21-23). This percentage outstripped the number of Europeans living within comparative urban centers during the same period. Increasing level’s of urbanization in Japan, as with Western Europe, lead to the expansion of the monetary economy and mercantile enterprise.

Mercantile enterprises grew significantly after the integration of divergent domains into the Tokugawa polity. Alternative attendance required the development of road and communication networks throughout the sixty six provinces providing the necessary infrastructure for inter-han trade. Compounding this effect daimyō needed to convert the rice taxed from their domains into money. In order to satisfy obligations to the Bakufu and pay the stipend owed their samurai retainers. This facilitated the growth of large merchant houses, which brought rice from daimyō and sold them on to the urban population (Gordon, 2003, p. 21). Expansion of mercantile interest was therefore guaranteed by Bakufu policy and simultaneously ensured the growth of a monetary economy.

Commercial expansion amplified the importance of the chōnin (‘townspeople’), artisans and merchants, both in the economic and cultural spheres of social life (Tipton, 2002, pp.8-9). The chōnin’s new found prosperity precipitated an enlarged disposable income, which resulted in a culture of conspicuous consumption. Urbanite demand for consumer products drove the development of proto-industrialization, particularly craft industries producing luxury items. By the early 1700s villages located near major cities saw the peasants turn towards the production of high income yielding crops, like silk and cotton (Morris-Suzuki, 1994, p 21). These economic changes saw adaptations in the rural hierarchy and furthered social stratification between different stratums of peasantry. Open conflict between wealthy peasants who had economic power over poorer peasants often resulted (Vlastos, 1986, pp. 86-90). Though there was increased peasant discontentment, protests and rebellions during the Tokugawa period. This in-itself did not greatly endanger the Bakufu, but did contribute to general societal entropy. Economic restructuring within rural areas bolstered directly and indirectly by Bakufu policy gave strength to the processes of urbanization, monetary economics and a culture of conspicuous consumption.

Contrary to ostentatious consumption of wealthy individuals, neo-Confucianism placed high esteem in the virtue of frugality. Chōnin culture for conservatives symbolized frivolous consumption and moral deterioration. Hence urban culture became a sight of contention and anxiety about the general state of society. In particular Edo’s red-light district Yoshiwara drew the attention of neo-Confucian commentators and Bakufu administrators as representing moral and cultural decay. To limit the influence of Yoshiwara’s hedonistic culture the Bakufu built a wall around the district and forbade samurai to enter (Gordon, 2003, p. 40). In this vain, “sumptuary laws” were increasingly enacted from the mid-seventieth century. Restricting forms of consumption, dress and entertainment according to social class and thereby attempting to maintain clear demarcation between classes (Shively, 1964-1965, p. 124). These laws were largely ineffective in regulating consumption and ‘realigning’ the ‘natural hierarchy’ ascribed to by conservative neo-Confucians.

“Popular cravings for fashions were thus” according to Eiko Ikegami (2005, p. 285) “partly responsible for the eroding of the foundation of the Tokugawa state”. Transforming the rural economy and undermining the economic income gained by daimyō from rice productivity. Taxes upon the peasantry did not significantly increase after the mid-1600s and no new productivity surveys were conducted after 1700, which informed taxation levels (Tipton, 2002, pp. 11-12). Causing financial stress upon the daimyō and samurai, when coupled with increased costs in living, and the burdens emplaced through alternative attendance. This financial stress and weakening of the daimyo and samurai, in conjunction with the threat posed by foreign power, would eventually lead to the downfall of the Tokugawa Bakufu in 1867.

The record of the Tokugawa Bakufu’s effectiveness in integrating divergent elements of Japanese society is varied. An outstanding achievement of the Bakufu was the absence of military conflict from 1600 to 1860s; which had been a chronic affliction of the warring states period, immediately preceding it. The Bakufu’s main method of achieving this objective was an interconnected but decentralized state structure, where sovereignty was parceled out to subordinates. While the Shogun retained absolute authority over all domains, local authority was exercised by the daimyō. Owing their allegiance to the Bakufu, the Daimyō were required to submit to certain obligations. Key among them was the alternate attendance system, designed to weaken the daimyō financially. This effectively ended their ability to mount opposition to the Shogun and wage war for over two-hundred years. But the alternative attendance system bolstered a number of pre-existing tendencies which were to restructure the economy of Japan and re-align the class system. Urbanization enhanced by the enforced residence of daimyō and samurai lead to the rise of the chōnin and the development of a monetary economy. Eventually providing impetus to proto-industrialization within rural areas and furthermore the development of cash crops. These trends coalesced into an increased level of social stratification and developed a culture of conspicuous consumption associated with the chōnin. Urban culture was therefore developing in stark contrast to the neo-Confucian class system and cultural values. Though neo-Confucianism formed the ideological rationalization of the Bakufu, it increasingly became a tool to critique the Bakufu. As the idealized neo-Confucian model could no longer be applied to actual social relations, when the samurai underwent decline and ‘inferior’ classes increased their wealth and power. Thus on both a socio-economic and ideological level, the Tokugawa era was undergoing substantial changes, leading to social disintegration. Disintegration strengthened by the Bakufu policies enacted to ensure its own political hegemony.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Eiko, I. (2005), Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Eiko, I. (1995), Taming the Samurai: Honorific Individualism and the Making of Early Modern Japan, Harvard University Press, Cambridge

Gordon, A. (2003), A Modern History of Japan: from Tokugawa times to the present, Oxford University Press, New York.

Hall, J.W. (1968), “Castle Town and Modern Urbanization”, Studies in the Institutional History of Early Modern Japan, Ed. Hall, J.W. and Jansen, M.B. Princeton University press, New York.

Hane, M. (1991), Pre-Modern Japan: A Historical Survey, Westview press, Boulder.

Morris-Suzuki, T. (1994), The Technological Transformation of Japan: From the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge University Press, Hong Kong.

Shively, D.H. (1964-1965), “Sumptuary Regulation and Status in Early Tokugawa Jpan”, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, no. 25, pp 123-164.

Tipton, E.K. (2004), Modern Japan: A Social and Political History, Routledge, London.

Vlastos, S. (1986), Peasant Protests and Uprising in Tokugawa Japan, University of California Press, Los Angeles.

Yonemoto, M. (1999). "Nihonbashi: Edo's Contested Center.", East Asian History Vol 6, pp. 49-70.

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