Samurai and Society

Some historians consider the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 to be the start of the Edo period, although it was not until 1603 that Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), officially became the shōgun, the general or military dictator, of a recently-unified Japan.  The Tokugawa family ruled Japan for almost 300 years until the Emperor was restored to power in 1868.

Politics and Power

The Emperor was based in Kyoto, the capital city of Japan.  Ieyasu established himself in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and managed to usurp the real power whilst leaving the Emperor as a figurehead.  To avoid any potential political uprisings Ieyasu set up a system of alternate attendance, which meant that all daimyō, a high-ranking samurai or lord in charge of a region, had to spend one year in their own domain and the next with the shōgun in Edo.  Samurai literally means 'those who serve' because they served under a daimyō and pledged their loyalty to their master.

Social Classes

Ieyasu set up a strict social hierarchy of four main social classes.  The Emperor, the nobility, and monks were exempt because of their high status.  Samurai were at the top despite making up less than ten percent  of Japan's population.  Next were the farmers who produced the rice that the Edo period economy was based on, and they accounted for eighty per cent of the population.  Then came the artisans, and beneath them the merchants.

Samurai and Swords

The sword was seen as the soul of the samurai, and only samurai were allowed to carry two swords as a symbol of their high status in society.  The samurai followed a code of honour and loyalty known as bushidō (The Way of the Warrior).  Bushidō was heavily influenced by Neo-Confucianism, which rejected superstition and believed that the individual was responsible for creating social harmony by adhering to personal morals.  In the 1860s samurai were integrated into a modernised Japan, they were no longer allowed to carry swords and during in the Meiji era (1868-1912) samurai as a social class ceased to exist.

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