Life in the Land of the Rising Sun: A Look at Society in Feudal Japan


Painted Japanese screen main

Feudal Japan (1185-1868) relied on an exchange of land for military service and loyalty. The emperor was a figurehead. Shoguns (military leaders) gave land to local lords (daimyo). The main social classes were samurai (warriors), peasants (farmers), artisans, and merchants. Shinto was a traditional Japanese nature religion. People followed Confucianism (ethical teachings) and worshipped Buddhism. Extended families lived together. Cultural practices included calligraphy (writing) and tea ceremonies. 

Feudalism 

Japan is a chain of islands in East Asia. It is mountainous. Only about twenty percent of the land is appropriate for farming. Armies continuously fought over the fertile land.

In the 12th Century, the central government was too weak to maintain control. The country entered a seven-hundred-year (1185-1868) feudal period. 

As in Western Europe, Japanese feudalism involved an exchange of land for military service and loyalty.  In both cases, peasants worked the land to provide food for the community.  

Society was class-based, with roles passed down from parent to child.  There was no one united central government in place.  

Shoguns 

The emperor (mikado) was the official leader of Japanese feudal society. Nonetheless, the emperor was a figurehead with no real power. Shoguns were the actual leaders.

Shoguns were military leaders. They also controlled lawmaking, justice, and financial matters. 

They provided land to local lords (daimyo). These local lords were about a tenth of the population. The daimyo had personal fiefdoms, including personal armies. 

The local lords provided taxes to the shogun. The system of government is called a shogunate. 

Four Divisions of Society  

A person’s worth in Japanese feudal society arose from their moral purity and value to society. Mere wealth was not enough. Wealth, however, had its practical privileges.

The four divisions of society were samurai, farmers (peasants), artisans, and merchants. There was a strict class structure. Peasants could not become samurai or land-owning lords. 

A separate class was the burakumin (“village people”). They had occupations considered impure, including executioners, undertakers, butchers, and tanners. 

Samurai  

Samurai (“to serve”) were the warriors. They served in the lords’ armies. 

They fought on horseback. Their weapons included swords, daggers, and bows and arrows. Samurai had leather and steel armor with a personally decorated helmet.  

Samurai had a code of conduct and honor (bushido or “the way of the warrior”). Martial arts was a means to provide a healthy body and mind. It prepared samurai for battle.   

A samurai with no lord or master was a ronin (“wanderer”). They were soldiers for hire. 

Peasants 

Most people were peasants. Villages were little societies that consisted of a farmer’s house, a rice field, mountains, and the seashore. Some peasants fished for a living.

Peasants provided rice to their lords as a form of tax. Many peasants ate very little rice. They ate other grains, including barley, wheat, and millet. They also collected wild plants and insects.

Their clothing was cotton and hemp. Women wove the cloth and cook the meals.

Peasants spend their free time doing things such as drinking, storytelling, and arm wrestling. 

Peasant women worked side by side with the men. They had some property rights and could divorce. Women also took care of children and made some household decisions.  

In wealthy families, parents arraigned marriages to expand their wealth. Peasant women had more flexibility. They had to do a lot more work. 

Artisans and Merchants 

Artisans made weapons, armor, and tools. Artisans and merchants created guilds to train and obtain group support. Guilds were an early form of unions. 

Merchants sold the items in town markets throughout Japan. Since merchants made nothing themselves, they were the lowest social class.

Merchants and craftsmen usually lived in rows of houses called “Nagaya.” 

Wives helped artisans and merchants with the family business. 

Religion 

Shintoism is the traditional religion of Japan. It is a natural religion based on the idea that spirits inhabit all things. Shintoism is concerned about this world, not the afterlife.

Confucianism arose in China. Confucius was a great teacher who explained how to live a moral life.  Confucianism ideals helped to cement the four divisions of society. 

Buddhism arose in India. It ultimately concerns the afterlife. If you live a good life, a cycle of suffering will end. Samurais often followed Buddhist teachings. 

Shinto and Buddhist shrines were common. People built Shinto temples near natural landmarks. They were simple one-roomed wooden structures. Buddhist shrines were more complex. They had tiled roofs, sculptured figures, and religious paintings. 

Family Life 

A Japanese family was an extended family. Parents, grandparents, and children lived together. The oldest male relative headed the family. Children followed in the footsteps of their parents.

A person’s family arraigned your marriage. You married people of the same status. There often was no special ceremony. A wife simply joined the household of her husband. Wealthy men sometimes also had concubines. Romantic love played little role in marriage.  

Women had less status than men. They served their fathers and husbands. Women took care of domestic tasks, including caring for the home and children.  

Art and Culture 

The Japanese adapted the Chinese writing system to match the Japanese spoken language. 

Calligraphy, the art of writing, was much admired. A person’s handwriting reveals their education, social standing, and character. 

Japanese wrote poems, stories, and plays. Japan’s oldest form of poetry was the tanka. Tanka poetry captures the beauty of nature and the joys and sorrows of life.  

People painted ink and watercolors on paper scrolls or silk. Japanese nobles also learned the art of folding paper to make decorative objects (origami). 

Buddhist monks and samurai made tea drinking into a beautiful ceremony. 

Gardens around a building showed the beauty of nature. They also promoted a sense of calmness. A state of calm often obtained by meditation meant you found inner peace. 

Is not that a good mission in life?

QUESTIONS

1. How did the geographic and agricultural limitations of Japan influence the feudal system and continuous warfare over fertile land?

2. In what ways did the role of the shogun differ from that of the emperor in feudal Japan, and how did this affect the governance of the country?

3. Discuss the significance of the class system in feudal Japan and how it determined a person’s social and economic status.

4. How did the bushido code shape the lifestyle and values of the samurai class in feudal Japan?

5. What were the primary roles and contributions of peasants in feudal Japanese society, and how did their lifestyle reflect their social status?

6. Examine the impact of Shintoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism on the cultural and ethical aspects of feudal Japanese society.

7. How did traditional Japanese family life reflect the broader societal values and structures of feudal Japan?

8. Analyze the cultural practices such as calligraphy, poetry, and tea ceremonies in feudal Japan, and discuss their significance in reflecting Japanese values and aesthetics.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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