Feudal Classes of Japanese Society

In Britain we have, and indeed have had for many years, a three tier class system: upper, middle and lower. The terms originated from our fairly recent history of around three hundred years ago. This was when we had multiple house occupancy and before adequate sewerage and drainage. The 'upper class' lived on the highest level, the 'middle class' on the second floor and on the ground floor, the 'lowest class'.


An example of this sort of housing can be still seen in York known as the Shambles.



The level of occupancy was such that the smell of dirt, debris, rotting vegetable and food and litter along with emptied bed pans, usually from out of the window above, directly in to the street, was less obvious the higher up the building you lived. The class system has since been superseded, now more structured around one’s wealth, working class (blue collar workers), the better off middle class (usually of professional status, having a decent income) and the upper class (those of considerable wealth whereby some don’t even need to work and this class also includes our Royal family and nobility).


When it comes to Japanese society, there were and still are many differences yet some similarities. For instance in the past traders, merchants and artisans were considered at the lowest level of Japanese feudal class system. Some similarities, both in Japanese feudal system and modern Japanese culture is represented by a pyramid system with the ruler being at the highest point with each class down the pyramid increasing in numbers. Originally, in feudal Japan there, like us, were only three main classes, but unlike us, each had sub categories.


The highest class, sub-divided into three, were the Royals, the nobles and the lower upper class. Of course the emperor was at the pinnacle of society closely followed by his royal family. This may be the case but the emperor in Japan, (as in Britain with our queen) has little power, because the government holds the most power due to controlling the armed forces. The royal family were second down the line but were really ornamental as they held no power yet had a lot of respect from other classes due to their close relationship with the emperor.


Next down the food chain was the Noble class. They are similar to our middle class. They were the ones who held most power as they were in control of armed forces and governing the country. Within this category were sub groups; the Shogun (meaning general and as such were in charge of the military), the Daiymos, the Samurai and the Ronins. The Shoguns were appointed by the emperor and held great power being in both military and political control. The Daiymos (meaning large land owner) were next in line and were to do the bidding of the Shogun but on occasion were more powerful under Shoguns who were not strong enough to control them. They were exempt, for some reason, from paying taxes. The Samurai class reported to the Daiymos and it was their job to protect the Shogun from other clans and ambitious Shoguns. The power of a Daiymos depended on how many Samurai he could train and afford to keep. After the death of a Shogun a Daiymos became a Ronin, a Samurai with no allegiance, in today’s terms a mercenary who could serve multiple Shogun.


The majority of Japanese society was classed as Lower class, some 90% of the population. This lowest social class was made up in majority by tradesmen, artisans, peasants and merchants. The peasants were at the top of this class being made up of farmers and fishermen as they were the producers of food yet they were extremely poor due to the high level of taxes they paid. Artisans also were part of this class but considered lower than peasants. They were made up of craftsmen, artists, entertainers, singers and sculptors. They did rise in popularity and move up in station as Japanese culture developed through the years. The lowest class of all were the “undesirables” made up of bandits, criminals, prostitutes and executioners.


As martial artists the most interesting to us is the Samurai class, fearful, well drilled, well respected and extremely self-disciplined held in awe by many. In Japanese they are usually referred to as Bushi or Buke. They dominated Japanese society from the 10th to the 19th century. They had many fighting skills, whether empty handed or, as much better known, with the use of weapons. Some of you long-term members of CFTS may remember Hanshi Holt who visited us in Kempston on a course once. He was awarded the status of Samurai in Japan (the first westerner to achieve this) because of his many years in martial arts and his prowess with many traditional weapons.

The word Samurai conjures up romantic visions of the chivalrous knight of ancient Japan, willing to uphold his honour in combat and even willingly lay down his life for his Shogun. He always followed the way of the warrior, the code of Bushido. The philosophies of Buddha, Confucius and the Shinto gods were the basis of this code tempered by the spirit and thoughts of the Japanese where honour, respect, integrity and honesty must prevail.

A member of aristocracy, from the tenth century, the Samurai was initially and predominately a horse mounted archer of great skill and accuracy. He wore light armour which left his right arm free for drawing his bow and delivering his arrow. He wore a helmet, with leather protection for his neck, of simple construction, yet it was sometimes ornately decorated. Battle engagement usually began with an exchange of rapidly fired arrows but usually ended in hand to hand combat when he would fight using the Katana, which was the heart and soul of the Samurai. Katana are distinguished from the European broadsword for the exceptionally sharp blade had a curved edge. Its beauty lay in its handle, blade and edge for, unlike European swords, they were personalised, decorated with complex patterns and designs. Its graceful appearance, yet grim beauty, has fascinated many throughout time.


If a Samurai drew his sword it could not be put away without drawing blood. Had it not done so he it was tradition to cut himself before putting it back in its sheath. Inside his home, his pride and joy, would be displayed on a specially designed wooden structure both on display but also for ease of access. Also on this stand would be a Wazikashi which was much shorter than his Katana for use indoors. Both would be worn outdoors along with his Bow when riding out with his Shogun or off to do battle. The pair were always worn together and were collectively known as Daisho. His sword(s) were considered to be part of his soul. In time gone by the most valued gift a Shogun or Daiymo could give to a Samurai was a sword. Even today it is still customary, on occasion, to make a gift out of friendship and respect, of a Samurai sword, as a reminder of that respect and friendship.