The Samurai and Their Changing Social Roles During the Tokugawa Shogunate

Tylar Orion Davidson for History 340 with Dr. Harney

The establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1600 brought peace and prosperity to a Japan that had been in a state of constant warfare for the prior two centuries. As soon as all of Japan was brought under the control of the Tokugawa clan, the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, set about consolidating his control over the entire archipelago.  The first pieces of legislation that were passed by Ieyasu were designed to place the samurai in a position that was similar to the aristocrats of Europe. These samurai received special privilege in the ways the laws affected them, as well as in more aesthetic matters, such as the types of robes the samurai were expected to wear and the wearing of two swords, all of which became a symbol of the samurai class. Ieyasu also began to limit the martial aspects of the samurai, by encouraging learning of non-martial things, all in an effort to prevent a revolt from the samurai. The period that followed the early Tokugawa Shogunate was the Genroku Period (1688-1704), which was named after the era of the later part of the rule of Tsnueyoshi, the fifth Tokugawa shogun. This period was marked as the beginning of the decline for the samurai, as economic hardships caused a constant reduction in their social status. This decline of social status continued right to the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and was a major factor in the dissolution of the samurai as a social class during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Prior to the year 1600, the Japanese archipelago was plunged into an era of warfare known as the Sengoku-Jidai, which saw the neighboring clans erupt into an era of warfare that was a result of the end of the Ashikaga Shogunate in the fifteenth century. The Tokugawa Shogunate has its origins during the mid-sixteenth century, when the daimyo Oda Nobunaga began his attempt to unify Japan under the rule of a shogun. Walter Dickson states that “In 1582, Nobu nanga was gradually overrunning all Japan.”[1] This was the first instance in which Japan had been unified under a single ruler since the end of the Kamakura Shogunate in 1334. The rule of Nobunaga was brought to an end later in the year of 1582, when one of his most trusted generals revolted and killed Nobunaga. Power passed from Nobunaga to another one of his generals, Hideyoshi Toyotmi. Hideyoshi continued the unification efforts of Nobunaga, but he too passed in the year 1598. Hideyoshi had recognized Ieyasu as “the man of the future; the man most fitted by talent, military capacity, and position, to take the reins.”[2] Hideyoshi had tried to force Ieyasu into serving his heir “by ties of marriage, as well as by oaths.”[3] However, this heir was only six year old, and the generals of Hideyoshi and Nobunaga broke away from their oaths to wage war upon one another, to unify Japan under their own rule.

Throughout most of Japanese history, the samurai had been elite, mounted warriors, who acted as shock troops on the battle field. This role was largely unchanged by the year 1600, when the greatest and one of the final battles of the Sengoku-Jidai was about to take place, the battle of Sekigahara. This battle was one of the largest battles that Japan had experienced, and Dickson recants the scale of this battle, saying that “the army of the league numbered 80,000 men, while that of Iyeyas could only muster 50,000.”[4] The battle was particularly deadly, due to the use of muskets and the large number of common peoples who served as Ashigaru pike-men. Dickson states that “None besides the general officers and some of the leading men had the courage to face the enemy at the first onset.”[5] These leading men and general officers were the samurai. The samurai at this time made up a relatively small number of an armies force due to the number of common Ashigaru that were present. The samurai were the greatest warriors that Japan could field, and they led their lives in a manner that prepared them for the constant state of warfare that they faced at the time. The samurai were characterized as “a class of fighting men which prided itself upon courage, disregard for life, and contempt for material wealth.”[6] This description of the samurai depicts them as a class of warriors who were ready for the death that may befall them at any moment. These men were regarded as skilled warriors and it was their job to serve their lord, and those samurai that served Ieyasu did their job so well that he was able to unify the country under his rule, and Japan was ushered into an era of peace and prosperity that would ultimately bring an end to the way of life that those warriors had lived by for centuries.

The roles of the samurai were largely unchanged in the years that immediately followed unification. George Sansom states that “the Tokugawa samurai, living in a garrison town, was a professional soldier, well equipped and receiving regular pay…in return for…his life.”[7] This was due to the amount of solidification of control that was needed during the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Peace did not return to Japan until the second decade of the seventeenth century, when Tokugawa was able to defeat his last main rival, Hideyori, the son of Hideyoshi Toyotomi. After peace had been reached, the samurai retained roles that were similar to those of European aristocrats, for there were no more wars to fight, therefore the samurai became a sort of landed gentry of Japan. One of the first actions that Ieyasu took to solidify his power was to limit the military power of the samurai and daimyo that served under him. One such act stated that “the study of literature and the practice of the military arts must be pursued side by side. (“On the left hand learning, on the right hand the use of weapons.”)”[8] This reaffirmed the aesthetic aspects of life that the samurai had begun to adopt, and it placed that learning at an equal level with combat training, which serves to enforce the idea that the samurai are not solely warriors, but also educated members of society. This was made in an effort to prevent the samurai from maintaining the military prowess that would have been needed to overthrow the shogun. Sansom also states that “this seemed a rational policy, since the object of the rulers of Japan was to safeguard the existing order…but also to ensure peace, which depended upon the encouragement of civilian pursuits.”[9] The encouragement of these civilian pursuits of knowledge ensured that peace would be maintained in Tokugawa Japan because the samurai began to focus largely on this aspect of their lives as opposed to the martial aspect that their station once held.

The early Tokugawa period also saw the samurai class gain distinct privileges that would ensure that they were able to maintain this high social status throughout the Tokugawa Shogunate. Sansom states, on the class privilege of the samurai, that “the samurai and the commoner were punished for different crimes and in a different manner.”[10] The fact that the samurai and commoners were punished differently for different crimes and in a different manner explicitly displays the privilege that even the lowliest samurai enjoyed during this period. A Tokugawa era official stated that “all offences are to be punished in accordance with social status.”[11] On this principle, Sansom states that:

“A samurai was often let off lightly for an offence which in a peasant was punished even with death, while on the other hand he might be condemned to suicide of banishment for an act which would be venial in a commoner. The law applied the social theory that farmers and townsmen existed for the benefit of the military class.”[12]

This blatantly states that the samurai and peasants were punished in different manners for the same crimes, solely based upon the class of the individual. The privilege of the samurai did not end with the punishment of their crimes, but it also continued into their dress and outward appearance. The samurai were encouraged to wear fine silk clothing amongst other extravagant garments, and they were the only class of people permitted to wear two swords in public, and it was these rights and many others that the samurai maintained until the end of the Tokugawa period, but the ‘practical’ privilege of the samurai began to fade as the seventeenth century came to a close.

            As the seventeenth century came to an end, a period dubbed the Genroku period (1688-1703) came into existence. This period saw the Japanese economy boom, which came through an increased amount of trade throughout the country. This economic boom created a wealthy merchant class, and these merchants began to exert an identity that clashed with the samurai’s preestablished privilege. George Sansom states in his book, A History of Japan: 1615-1867, that “the growing wealth, and consequently the growing power of the townsmen caused frequent clashes between them and the samurai, whose incomes declined while they continued to assert their superior social position.”[13] These clashes were caused because the merchants were the lowest rung on the societal ladder, according to Confucian principles, because they did not produce anything of value themselves. However, these merchants acquired a vast amount of wealth and a large amount of power, which began to upset the societal structure that had existed in Japan for centuries. George Sansom states that “the various economic changes…had brought the commoners to a position of real importance, which the military class no longer enjoyed.”[14] The Genroku period shows a transition in Japanese society from one’s social status being determined by the amount of Koku or birth to one’s social status being determined by their capital, and this was a system in which the merchants of Japan had the advantage. The ‘practical’ privilege of the samurai was lost primarily due to the collapse of the rice economy of Japan, which is supported by the following statement by George Sansom, where he states that “the immediate cause of their decline was the breakdown of the rice economy.”[15] The stipends that the samurai received in 1600 were the same that the samurai were receiving in the Genroku period, but a substantial amount of inflation had occurred. This led the samurai to “need money for their daily needs…which…increased as the standard of living in cities rose.[16] This need for money in their daily lives led the samurai to turn to the merchant class for loans, which served to undermine the social hierarchy even further because the samurai were becoming financially dependent and inferior to a class that was below them on the social ladder. The merchants of Japan had accumulated so much power over the daimyo that one Genroku era writer stated that “the anger of the wealthy merchants of Osaka can strike terror into the hearts of the daimyo.”[17] The economic decline of the samurai led them to abandon the aspects of their status that they had enjoyed throughout the earlier Tokugawa shogunate. “They dispensed with their hereditary retainers, who should have carried their spear or lead their horse in war time and hired townsmen as servants.”[18] This quote from George Sansom shows that the samurai were beginning to move further away from their warrior heritage as they faced economic hardships that were brought upon them by the legislation of the early Tokugawa Shogunate. The economic hardships that the samurai faced during the Genroku period also began to erode upon the relationships and principles on which the samurai were based. The firing of their hereditary retainers “began to destroy the old lifelong feudal relationship between master and man, which had been based on loyalty and not on cash.”[19] The Japanese social hierarchy during the early Tokugawa Shogunate was based increasingly on loyalty, because Japan was stable and regular stipends were dispensed by the daimyo to their samurai, therefore, the samurai had no incentives to serve their masters other than undying loyalty. This loyalty was strained by the economic conditions of the time because the values of the stipends had lessened over time, leaving many samurai and some daimyo destitute, and on no higher economic level than a wealthy commoner.

            These economic conditions of the Genroku periodled the samurai to reach out for other ways to gain wealth, and one of the most popular avenues taken was to go and adopt a son of a wealthy merchant into your family in an effort to connect one’s own clan to the wealth of a merchant without taking up trade oneself. “Others would sometimes, displacing their natural heirs, adopt the son of a rich commoner if they could induce his father to pay handsomely enough for the privilege.”[20] This act by the samurai was seen by many Tokugawa era diplomats to be a morally bankrupt act that “called attention to the love of money and the decay of honesty in the military class.”[21] The samurai were viewed as the moral upholders of Japan, and the fact that they were abandoning honor and ancestral ties was a shocking reality that the Tokugawa government had difficulty remedying. The Tokugawa government had consolidated control over the islands of the Japanese Archipelago during the seventeenth century, and had elevated the samurai to a position that turned them into an aristocratic class, but by the Genroku period, the economic boom that Japan had experienced prior to it had come to an end, and one can see that the samurai’s “integrity declined with their fortunes, and this double collapse brought them slowly but surely down in the esteem of the commoners.”[22]

            After the Genroku period, the samurai continued to experience a loss in prestige that was put into place due to the economic hardships for which the early Tokugawa period legislation had laid the groundwork. The view of samurai at the time is shown through the plays of the time, in which samurai were often mocked. George Sansom states that:

“Another such character was a samurai who drew his sword on the attendant in a drinking shop, but was disarmed by blows with an iron rod and forced to run away. It was not for his violence but his cowardice that the was tried and punished by exile.”[23]

The mockery of the samurai, which was rampant throughout the literature of the time, shows that the samurai were being viewed as a class that had lost the prestige that it had held only one-hundred years earlier. The economic conditions that were exaggerated during the Genroku period were responsible for this mockery and loss of social status by the samurai, for they were unable to keep up their proper economic needs to meet the societal requirements that were placed upon them.

            As the nineteenth century dawned, the samurai continued to experience the economic and social decline that had plagued them since the end of the seventeenth century and the early eighteenth century. By this time in the late Tokugawa Shogunate, “samurai and their dependents made up some 6 to 7 percent of the country’s population, but at any given time at least half of them only had nominal duties.”[24] The samurai populations of this time were continually plagued with economic hardship due to the stagnating rice economy, and many tried to supplement their incomes from their daimyo with outside work. However, many samurai strayed away from obtaining any outside employment because it was seen as below their stations. Many samurai at this time still held dear their family pedigrees which invoked the prowess of their families on the field of battle, and the powerful relations that these men had. Therefore, it was seen as below the status of a samurai to take a job as a teacher, or policeman because it was something that would not live up to the prowess of their deceased family members. The economic hardships of the samurai were exaggerated by “his [a samurai’s] …light military duties and his suffering from too little occupation as well as too little money.”[25] As these economic hardships continued, many daimyo resorted to reducing the stipends of their samurai, on which George Sansom states that “the stipend of a samurai in the late Tokugawa period was cut by as much as one half, while his financial embarrassment was increased by sharp falls in the money value of rice.”[26] The reduction of this stipend was detrimental to the samurai and their way of life that had existed for centuries prior to the Tokugawa period, and the constant economic hardship was one of the contributing factors in the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the fall of the samurai as the dominant social and political class in Japan.

            The establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the beginning of the seventeenth century brought peace and stability to Japan, after a period of some two-hundred years of constant warfare. As Tokugawa Ieyasu began to consolidate his power over Japan, he began to place limits on the abilities of society, most notably the samurai, in an effort to prevent an uprising. These laws began as a limit to the economic mobility and power of the samurai, and as limits to the practice of their military abilities. These laws had placed the samurai in such a position to experience economic hardship, that they faced almost constant economic hardship throughout the last two-hundred years of the shogunate. The samurai came into existence as a group of elite warriors, who over time became favored by the rulers of Japan for their mastery of horseback riding and archery. This role was largely lost by the time of the founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate, because of the relative peace and stability that was present throughout the region. The loss of this warrior identity caused massive social problems in the later years of the Shogunate, for many Japanese began to see no purpose in the privilege that the samurai had, and this identity crisis was emphasized by the loss of high economic and social standing that came as a direct result of the laws that were passed by Tokugawa Ieyasu at the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Word Count: 2933

[1] Walter Dickson. Japan. (New York: Peter Fenelon Collier & Son). 122.

[2] Dickson. Japan. 161.

[3] Dickson. Japan. 161.

[4] Dickson. Japan. 169.

[5] Dickson. Japan. 169.

[6] George Sansom. The Western World and Japan: A Study in the Interaction of European and Asiatic Cultures. (London: The Cresset Press).  183.

[7] George Sansom. Japan: A Short Cultural History. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc). 461.

[8] George Sansom. A History of Japan: 1615-1867. (Stanford: Stanford University Press). 7.

[9] Sansom. Japan. 500.

[10] Sansom. Japan. 462.

[11] Sansom. Japan. 463.

[12] Sansom. Japan. 463.

[13] Sansom. A History of Japan. 152.

[14] Sansom. Japan. 471.

[15] Sansom. Japan. 471.

[16] Sansom. Japan. 520.

[17] Sansom. Japan. 520.

[18] Sansom. Japan. 520.

[19] Sansom. Japan. 521.

[20] Sansom. Japan. 521.

[21] Sansom. Japan. 521.

[22] Sansom. Japan. 521.

[23] Sansom. A History of Japan. 188.

[24] E. Sydney Crawcor. “Economic change in the nineteenth century” in The Cambridge History of Japan: The Nineteenth Century. (Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press). 572.

[25] Sansom. The Western World and Japan. 234.

[26] Sansom. The Western World and Japan. 233-234.


Crawcour, E. Sydney. “Economic change in the nineteenth century” in The Cambridge History of Japan: The Nineteenth Century, Edited by John W. Hall, Marius B. Jansen, Makoda Kanai, and Dennis Twichett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., 1989.

Dickson, Walter G. Japan. New York: Peter Fenelon Collier & Son., 1898.

Sansom, George. A History of Japan: 1615-1867. Stanford: Stanford University Press., 1963.

Sansom, George. Japan: A Short Cultural History. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1943.

Sansom, George B. The Western World and Japan: A Study in the Interaction of European and Asiatic Cultures. London: The Cresset Press., 1950.

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