Social Structure in the 17th to early 19th centuries
First: The Emperor. The Emperor technically was the topmost position in Japanese society, but usually the Emperor was not actually in control of the country; rather it was the person who was Shogun who basically ran everything. The Emperor was kept under constant surveillance with their movements kept quite limited.
The royal society was even kept limited to a total of 140 courtly families. Their funds were kept limited so the entire royal family system was basically kept as prisoners in their own houses.
Second: The Shogun technically was the second most powerful person in the country but actually was the one to hold the real power.
Third: Daimyo: There were 250 han, or clan domains, into which the country was divided. The fudai composed the "inner" group which had proclaimed their allegiance to the Tokugawa shogunate before the battle of Sekigahara, and the tozama or "outer" group which proclaimed their allegiance after that battle.
Since they were late to support the Shoguns then the tozama were not allowed to take part in the government. Their lands were kept to the far north and west. The lands closest to Edo were reserved for the fudai. The Shogun himself owned around 25% of all cultivated land and was also in control of communication routes, port facilities and metal supplies.
To qualify for daimyo status a feudal lord had to control enough land to produce annually a yield of 10,000 koku of rice. One koku was the amount of rice necessary to feed one adult male for one year.
The daimyo were kept somewhat under control via the Shogun's system of spies and intrigues. In addition, each daimyo was required to spend part of the year in Edo "attending" the Shogun. Basically this was a system of controlled hostages and at the same time put a financial strain on the daimyo who had to pay for their homes and all their retainers.
Fourth: Samurai. The samurai were in the employ of the daimyo. They were fairly limited to the amount of money they could have, helping to keep them under the daimyo's thumbs. They were also expected to serve their lords faithfully and even sacrifice their lives if necessary.
The samurai were also allowed to kill anyone they considered inferior to them. Thus, if a peasant happened to hurls verbal insults at a samurai, the samurai could turn around and behead the peasant without any fear of reprisal from the authorities.
Fifth: Farmers. Farmers made up about 80% of the population of the country but were forbidden to have weapons. They were totally dependent upon their harvest; a year of bad harvest could result in starvation and the killing of female infants, called mabiki or "weeding out the rice seedlings."
Sixth: Craftsmen. People who lived in the towns that developed did not grow their own food, thus placing them below farmers in the social status. Swordsmiths were considered at the top of this group of people.
Seventh: Merchants. Although there were almost at the bottom of the social order they managed to control much of the financial power.
Eight, and lowest: This group is composed of the outcasts of Japanese society. Beggars were in this group, but one specific group was the eta, regarded as ritually unclean since they were tanners and butchers. The physically deformed could also end up in this group. There was very, very strong prejudice against this group and they were forced to live in ghettos.
Although technically in 1871 this type of outcast status was abolished, what it really amounted to was a name change, going from eta to burakumin, or "people of special hamlets." To this day this group of people is still subject to the same types of prejudice as are blacks in the U.S.
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