Samurai and the Politics of the Feudal Caste System

In Japanese jidai-geki (period) films, especially those made under the military government, samurai warriors are shown as the perfect warriors who were only motivated by honour and loyalty. They not only knew how to fight well, but they also knew a lot about literature and poetry. The idea of the samurai became the embodiment of Japan’s philosophical ideal.

But starting in the 1600s in Japan, the samurai went through a bad time that led to a lot of changes. It was also a time when it was painfully clear that because of their place in society, samurais were not only the first people to go into battle, but they also had to take the most damage when the government changed. Ironically, the hardest time in a samurai’s life wasn’t when he was fighting, but when he was at home in peace.

Four members of the first Japanese Embassy to Europe by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1862. By Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820-1910). Nadar Atelier. Paris 1862. - Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Public Domain
Four members of the first Japanese Embassy to Europe by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1862. By Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820-1910). Nadar Atelier. Paris 1862. – Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Public Domain

The Most Exalted Warriors

From the late 1200s on, Japan was ruled by a shogunate. The shogun was in charge of the Imperial Army, and the emperor was nothing more than a puppet, with no power or influence. The samurai were the most powerful people in this society. Only 10% of the people in Japan were samurai warriors, but they had a lot of power. The only person the samurai had to answer to was the daimyo (feudal lord) they worked for, and the only person the daimyo had to answer to was the shogun.

Portrait of Asano Nagamasa. He was a military commander and the 14th daimyo of the Asano Clan in the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Nagamasa was the brother-in-law of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and one of his chief advisors.
Portrait of Asano Nagamasa. He was a military commander and the 14th daimyo of the Asano Clan in the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Nagamasa was the brother-in-law of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and one of his chief advisors.

As a feudal retainer, a samurai had to be loyal to his daimyo. If his daimyo died or was defeated, which happened a lot because of how often they fought, the samurai would be out of work. A samurai became a  ronin (a masterless samurai) if he couldn’t find work with another daimyo, which would have been a terrible idea since he was supposed to die for his own daimyo. The ronin is also a common character in jidai-geki movies, where he is usually shown as a lone warrior with the same dangerous, romantic air as a lone gunman in a western movie.

One thing that shows how important the samurai class was is that people from lower classes had to bow and show respect when a samurai walked by. If a farmer or craftsman didn’t bow or refused to, a samurai had the right to cut off the person’s head. There are also stories about samurais killing people from lower castes to test out new swords or weapons. It was said that the people from lower castes thought this was an honour. If a samurai and a farmer were both in danger, the farmer would have to die so that the samurai could live and protect his country. The samurai, of course, was thought to have the more important job of protecting his country during war.

Execution by decapitation in Japan in 1860, By Felice Beato - http://www.vikingsword.com/ubb/Forum1/HTML/002666.html, Public Domain
Execution by decapitation in Japan in 1860, By Felice Beato – http://www.vikingsword.com/ubb/Forum1/HTML/002666.html, Public Domain

The feudal caste system in Japan

In feudal Japan, there were four levels of society based on the idea of being ready for war. The top building was home to the daimyo and their samurai guards. There were three types of commoners below the samurai. First, there were the farmers, who were respected more than everyone else except the samurai because they worked in the fields to grow food that everyone else needed. The next step up the social ladder was the craftsmen, who made things for people to use. Merchants were thought to be the lowest caste because they didn’t make anything. Then there was the Burakumin  (the people of the village), which was the polite name for the caste that people avoided. They worked in jobs that feudal Japanese people thought were dirty or unclean. This included jobs like tanning leather, killing animals, and putting criminals to death. In feudal Japan, caste rules usually told people what they could wear, what kind of weapons they could carry, and what kind of house they could live in. So, there would be no way to mistake someone’s social class based on how they look.

An ukiyo-e of daimyo Katō Kiyomasa. By Utagawa Yoshiiku -  Public Domain,
An ukiyo-e of daimyo Katō Kiyomasa. By Utagawa Yoshiiku – Public Domain,

In feudal Japan, the samurai military establishment was the centre of the social system. If there were no big wars, most samurai worked as bureaucrats and got a set amount of money. This was like a form of social security. In feudal Japan, the samurai class may have been the most financially stable group.

There were also other laws that set the samurai apart from the lower classes. These laws added to their economic security. The samurai had to carry their two swords, which were called daisho. The daisho was usually made up of a long sword called a katana and a short sword called a wakizashi. It showed how important a samurai was in society.

During times of peace, these swords were more of a symbol of power than a real weapon. However, to keep the difference between samurai and commoners and to keep the lower classes from rising up, the government would send out raids called Katanagari (sword hunt). If a commoner was found with a sword, knife, or gun, they would be killed.

A confrontation on a shore, the samurai has leaped from his horse which has fallen in the mud; others fight behind him. Colour woodcut by Yoshitora.
A confrontation on a shore, the samurai has leaped from his horse which has fallen in the mud; others fight behind him. Colour woodcut by Yoshitora. 

Even though there were different rules for the samurai, most rules applied equally to all three types of commoners. For example, there were different kinds of mailing addresses for samurai and regular people. Commoners were known by which imperial province they lived in, while samurai were known by whose domain they worked in. The samurai class was also the only one that could have surnames, or family names. Commoners couldn’t have them unless they did something special for a daimyo and were given one as a reward.

People who were born into the classes of samurai, farmer, craftsman, or merchant were expected to stay in those classes. So, marriages and other ties between people of different castes were forbidden. The only way to get around the rule that people from different classes couldn’t marry each other was to adopt. If, for example, a woman from a common family got engaged to a samurai, she would have to be adopted by a second samurai family. But this didn’t happen very often because not many samurai families were willing to take in a commoner, let alone a commoner woman who couldn’t carry on the family name.

The home of a Gokenin (Part of the scroll painting "Ippen shonin e" (13th century))
The home of a Gokenin (Part of the scroll painting “Ippen shonin e” (13th century))

The feudal Japanese caste system was strict and absolute. People who broke the rules could be put to death, no matter what social class they were. These differences were made to protect everyone’s rights, from the highest caste to the lowest, and even the outcasts. For example, when a horse, ox, or other large farm animal died, only the burakumin could claim it. It didn’t matter if the animal had belonged to a farmer or if its body was found on a daimyo’s land. Even a samurai was not allowed to step on this right.

A Time of Changes for the Samurai

When the Tokugawa shogunate came to power in the 1600s, the feudal society began to fall apart. Since it was a time of peace, there was no need for samurai warrior skills. Also, with the change of power came a rise in prices for goods. Since the samurai class’s pay wasn’t raised to keep up with rising costs of living, even those who worked for the government and could support their families did not make enough. A daimyo could no longer have as many retainers, so more samurais with no master were free to roam the country.

The common practise of hanchi, in which part of the samurai’s family allowance was withheld more and more often to help their lords pay their bills, was almost intolerable for the samurai. This made the samurai’s standard of living even worse without giving them another way to make money. Pressure from the shogunate and their daimyos, as well as the fact that retainers’ personal debts kept growing and became harder and harder to pay off, made the samurai unhappy and want change. There were attempts to make the samurai’s lives better, but most of them didn’t help.

Emperor Nijo escaping from the Imperial Palace to the Rokuhara mansion. From "Heiji Monogatari Emaki" (Heiji story illustration scroll) (13th century).
Emperor Nijo escaping from the Imperial Palace to the Rokuhara mansion. From “Heiji Monogatari Emaki” (Heiji story illustration scroll) (13th century).

In 1869, the feudal land records (hanseki hokan) were given back to the throne. This put the samurai of several daimyo directly under the control of the central government. At the same time, the samurai pension system, which was in place on top of the samurai stipend, was changed in a big way. This caused pensions to be cut, and a year later, they were cut even more. Hanseki hokan also meant that samurai were to show their loyalty to the central government and the emperor instead of their domains and lords. In the same way, the domains were reorganised in 1870, which paved the way for the eventual end of the samurai class. A year later, prefectures took the place of the domains. The Japanese still use prefectures today. In both reorganisation and transformation, a lot of the jobs that samurais used to have were taken away.

During the years that the government was cutting the samurai off from their traditional ways of making a living, it also took away their social status and privileges. Even though Meiji leaders came from the samurai class, they no longer let the samurai class function as an economic unit or keep their special place in society.

Japanese samurai attacking a Mongol ship. Circa 1293, 13th century.
Japanese samurai attacking a Mongol ship. Circa 1293, 13th century.

Behind this change was a major shift in how wealth and power were shared, with the samurai class taking the biggest hit. Every time the government made a change, the samurai lost more of the privileges that had been theirs for centuries. Eventually, the society in which they had been the leaders and main beneficiaries fell apart. Even though most samurai were given security, status, and money, it became clear that these were just ways to make up for the samurai giving up their traditional rights and power to the daimyo and village. During this time of change, the story of the samurai was not a happy one. Their lack of a goal and money would follow them around for the next 250 years and a half.

General Akashi Gidayu preparing to commit Seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582. He had just written his death poem, which is also visible in the upper right corner.
General Akashi Gidayu preparing to commit Seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582. He had just written his death poem, which is also visible in the upper right corner.

Even with all of these changes, a samurai still had to have a daisho to show his class. Even though, at least at first, it still earned them respect because of their social status, the samurai’s code and the general caste convention of the time didn’t let them do menial work or anything else that was seen as below their class to make a living, even when they had to. It was a crime for a samurai to not carry their daisho or to sell goods or do farm work for another samurai. Because of this, some samurai families had no choice but to make small items like umbrellas or toothpicks in secret and sell them to peddlers to make money. Many ronin turned into bandits and used their fighting skills to steal crops, burn down houses, and rape women. For people in the lower castes, there was almost no difference between samurai warriors and bandits.

In the Japanese play Daini no shisha, a young son of a samurai cuts off his forelock (hangenpuku), a hairstyle that was only allowed for samurai, so that he can die with his father for a daimyo as a samurai. His father told him to leave him to die and help their family at home. He was told that it would be hard for a samurai to make a living in the future because they could no longer live off of their swords alone. “There is nothing worse than being a samurai these days,” his father tells him.

Yamanaka Yukimori (1543-76), a samurai known for his great strength and loyalty, served the Amako warlord during a time in Japanese history referred to as “Sengoku,” or “the country at war.” He wears a suit of armor called “tosei gusoku” (“modern equipment”) that was designed in the 16th century to be worn by a foot soldier. Like many samurai, Yukimori never went into battle without his “rabbit’s foot”-the crescent moon ornament he wore on his helmet as a token of good luck.

As the samurai became less important and the merchants became more wealthy and powerful, taboos against people from different classes mixing were broken more and more often. If a farmer or merchant’s daughter was rich enough, a samurai would find a way, honestly or not, to marry her. This gave the woman’s family a higher status in society because they were his in-laws. When Japanese samurais and merchants were upset, they would get together to enjoy the company of courtesans or watch kabuki plays. This was the norm, not the exception, and people from different classes would often hang out together.

How “the Way of the Samurai” may have come to be

Death has always been connected to the samurai, whether it is fair or not. It is the samurai’s presumed affinity for death that seems to set them apart from other warriors and captures the imagination. But it’s possible that the samurai weren’t as obsessed with dying in battle as we’ve been led to believe. It was during this time of change that the idea of a “noble death” became linked to the samurai.

During the time of change in feudal Japan, haiku clubs were where people from different social classes could forget their differences and the troubles of the outside world and let their creativity run free. In these clubs, people could use pen names to hide their social status. This made it easy for people from different classes to mix in literature. This difficult period gave birth to an array of great poetry describing the discontent of the classes in feudal Japan, from the samurai to the merchants.

Tokugawa Ieyasu with help from the Jodo monks of the Daijuji temple in Okizaki, defeats the Ikkō-ikki at the battle of Azukizaka, 1564
Tokugawa Ieyasu with help from the Jodo monks of the Daijuji temple in Okizaki, defeats the Ikkō-ikki at the battle of Azukizaka, 1564

The 18th-century book Hagakure has a lot to do with how Japanese and non-Japanese readers think about the samurai and how much they care about death. The Hagakure and other books like it were written to boost the samurai class’s flagging martial spirit. At the time, the samurai class was poor and had no clear goals. A lot of the idealism that people still have today started in these books. At the same time, though, the wisdom in these books was often misunderstood or misinterpreted because of bad translations or misunderstandings.

In the first chapter of the Hagakure, it says, “The way of the samurai is found in death.” This is a well-known example. This line was often used as a quote and was used in many books about samurai and the Japanese martial arts culture. But the rest of the line wasn’t used as often: “…If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live (through his spirit) as if his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the way of the samurai. His whole life will be blameless, and he will do well at what he is called to do.”

The Battle of Ichi-no-Tani [right of a pair of Scenes from the Tale of the Heike], mid 17th century. These screens illustrate two battles of the epochal Genpei War (1180–85) as narrated in the Tales of the Heike, an epic semihistorical account of two rival clans’ fight for control of Japan, written in the early 1200s. Each screen narrates a single battle through a number of small episodes divided and framed by gold clouds, landscape elements, and architectural spaces. The right screen shows scenes related to the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani (March 20, 1184), during which the Minamoto clan, identified by the white banners they carry, made a daring attack on the rival Taira clan at a Taira stronghold. The left screen shows the Battle of Yashima (March 22, 1185), another defeat for the Taira. The devastating war came to an end only a month later with the victory of the Minamoto, who took the title shogun, thus becoming Japan’s first military rulers. (c. 1650)
The Battle of Ichi-no-Tani [right of a pair of Scenes from the Tale of the Heike], mid 17th century. These screens illustrate two battles of the epochal Genpei War (1180–85) as narrated in the Tales of the Heike, an epic semihistorical account of two rival clans’ fight for control of Japan, written in the early 1200s. Each screen narrates a single battle through a number of small episodes divided and framed by gold clouds, landscape elements, and architectural spaces. The right screen shows scenes related to the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani (March 20, 1184), during which the Minamoto clan, identified by the white banners they carry, made a daring attack on the rival Taira clan at a Taira stronghold. The left screen shows the Battle of Yashima (March 22, 1185), another defeat for the Taira. The devastating war came to an end only a month later with the victory of the Minamoto, who took the title shogun, thus becoming Japan’s first military rulers. (c. 1650)

This less-quoted part is actually important because it changes how a reader might see a samurai, giving the modern image of the samurai and the idea that they like to kill more depth and thought. In the same way, a feudal samurai named Daidoji Yuzan wrote, “A samurai must, above all else, always remember that he must die. If he keeps this in mind, he will be able to follow the paths of loyalty and filial duty… He will also be a good person who people will like. For life is as temporary as the dew in the evening and the frost in the morning, and the life of a warrior is especially uncertain.”

The way a samurai saw and thought about death was shaped less by the ways of war and more by the ways of life. Castles fell down because of earthquakes, plagues destroyed the countryside, towns were often destroyed by fires, and famine was always a threat. On top of all that, society and everyday life are always changing. Kamo no Chomei, a Japanese poet and essayist, saw a terrible change in the economy that hurt Japan from 1181 to 1182 and happened again in the 1600s. “There wasn’t much trade going on, but grain was more valuable than gold. There were many beggars on the streets, and the air was filled with the sounds of pain and sadness.”

Over the years, many famous samurai died of illness or poverty instead of in battle. Mori Takamoto and Taira Shigemori were both talented young lords who died young in their beds instead of in battle. This helped the Japanese feel the way they did about beauty that doesn’t last and the “way of the samurai.”

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