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Life Under the Shoguns

Life under the shoguns was highly stratified, with the population falling into distinct classes based primarily on their economic or political functions. The system can be described as having three distinct classes: the ruling elite, the warrior classes, and the peasant classes. As a feudal system, each class gave allegiance, in theory, to those above them in exchange for protection, food and the right to work.

Peasant Classes

For the lowest classes in society, the working classes who made up around 90 per cent of the population, life was a constant cycle of putting food on the table, paying taxes and generally trying to thrive amongst the constant civil unrest. The working classes were further stratified in relation to economic function.

Primary Producers

Farmers and other primary producers such as fishermen held the highest rank of the working class as they were seen to be the lifeblood of the country, providing rice, fish and vegetables for food, and other resources such as timber for construction.


The artisans, skilled craftspeople, followed. These were the people who produced goods, tools and objects for everyday use and for war. Many artisans gained fame through their skill in their particular field such as sword-smithing or pottery.


At the bottom of the social pyramid were the merchants. They were looked upon with disdain as they profited from the work of others without producing anything. However, from the fourteenth century, local and regional markets were the lifeblood of many communities and were a valuable source of income for local authorities for the tax revenue they could generate.

Hinin -Non-People

There were also a class of people who were not considered worthy of being part of society. These people were the hinin (非人- non-people) or the eta (穢多- Filthy Ones). These people engaged in work that was considered dirty and uncivilised (although sometimes necessary) such as acting, undertaking, butchery, tanning and collecting fertiliser for use on the farming fields.

Warrior Classes

Above the peasant class was the warrior class, which made up Japan’s military from foot soldiers through to the powerful warlords who controlled large domains across the country.


Usually drawn from the peasant classes, foot soldiers (ashigaru) made up the bulk of the Japanese military. The military also included cavalry archers, and later riflemen and artillery units. Soldiers were paid for their service by their daimyo (the warlord of their domain).

The Ronin

A ronin (浪人) was a samurai without a master. Many warriors had a lord or master to whom they held allegiance; however, with the death of their lord or the confiscation of their lord’s property or titles, ronin would be forced to wander the countryside looking for employment as mercenaries.

Many found employment as bodyguards for wealthy merchants or through more nefarious pursuits such as running gambling rings or extortion rackets.


Perhaps one of the most famous groups in Japanese history is the samurai (武士), fierce warriors in elaborate armour serving their lord and master faithfully. The samurai ranked above the ronin in terms of social standing. While both were considered skilled warriors, samurai were warriors with a master to whom they pledged their allegiance. Being connected to a powerful and influential lord brought with it social weight and privilege.

Samurai received payment for their service to their lords and may have been granted land or estates to farm. The samurai were the elite soldiers in their daimyo’s army, with many samurai gaining widespread fame for their skills in combat and as military tacticians. Samurai acted as commanders for the bulk of the domain’s military forces. The samurai were the most influential class in the feudal system, owing to their numbers and due to the sway they held within the military. As the centuries progressed, the samurai class became more and more involved in the politics and bureaucracy of running the domains they served rather than being warriors, although the warrior traditions they adhered to often remained.

The Daimyo

The daimyos, powerful hereditary warlords, administered large tracts of lands awarded to them (or their family line) by the shogun. These large territories were known as han (藩 – Domain).

The daimyos, while nominally loyal and acting under the authority of the central government and the shogun, acted with almost complete autonomy within their own domains. They managed taxes, transport and infrastructure and, most importantly, commanded their own military forces. Throughout the centuries of shogun rule in Japan, the shogunal government relied on the allegiance and support of the daimyos both politically and militarily to stay in power and exercise control.

The Shoguns

Shogun is a contraction of the title Sei-i Taishōgun (征夷大将軍 – Commander in Chief of the expeditionary force against the barbarians, sometimes translated into English as Generalissimo). The shogun was the supreme military and political commander of Japan. For almost 700 years, the shoguns were the de facto heads of state, administering trade, domestic and foreign policy, and issuing national laws.


The shogun and his government claimed to derive their power from the emperor who nominated them to rule. The shoguns maintained this pretence as a piece of shrewd political propaganda. In theory, the claim was correct; the emperor was the supreme ruler of Japan and all those below him acted and existed within his favour. However, in reality, the emperor was a ceremonial figurehead: he and the court held very little power and had little say in the running of the nation – the shogun held the reins of power. By declaring this connection to the divine emperor, shoguns and bakufu legitimised their rule in the eyes of the population. The relationship between the shoguns and the emperor was ever changing, informed by court intrigue, war, new policies and the personal feelings of individual shoguns. The shogun was not an elected position; the population had no say in who became shogun after the death of the incumbent.

The Emperor

At the top of the social order was the emperor. The role of emperor was a hereditary position. Under the shoguns, the emperor’s power and influence was severely restricted to managing the ceremonial and religious concerns of Japan from the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. Despite this curbing of authority, the influence the emperor held on the political stage rose and fell throughout history, with some emperors being more vocal and engaged in politics than others. Some emperors were members of a shogun’s family, gaining them favour, and some emperors had powerful daimyos, at odds with the shogunate, to support them and their right to sole rule. It would not be until, in the aftermath of the Boshin War, that the Emperor was restored to power in 1868–1869.


  1. Have the students research a class of Japanese society in the Kamakura, Ashikaga or Tokugawa Shogunates. What was life like for these people? Who did they pay their taxes to? Could they move up in society? Could they move down? What was their life expectancy and diet like? Have the students compose a creative writing piece about a fictional person from that strata of society. Encourage the students to use some Japanese terminology throughout their story.
  2. Ask students to compare the relationship between the emperor and the shoguns to a modern constitutional monarchy. What are the differences and similarities?
  3. Ask the students to assess the impact of political propaganda in legitimising a government or a ruler’s position. What examples can be found from shogunate Japan? What examples can be found today?