Nguyen, Bich-Tram

Portrait of Ieyasu Tokugawa

From the late 12th century to the late 16th century, Japan was characterized by unstable politics. During this time, the country was mainly ruled by powerful regional families called daimyo or military warlords called shogun. Called Sengoku Jidai, or the Warring States period, this era consisted of frequent internal wars and power shifts. It wasn’t until the early 17th century did Japan start to experience a relatively stable political and social structure, initiated by Tokugawa Ieyasu, a powerful military leader. After winning the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 (and later the attack on Osaka Castle in 1615), Ieyasu virtually wiped out all of his rivals and became the most powerful man in Japan. In 1603, he was appointed as Shogun by the emperor (who held no real political power) and went to establish his government in Edo, now named Tokyo.

This shift in power led to an intense change in the social structure of Japan. Ieyasu created a much stronger bureaucratic military government, essentially controlling all aspects of society. Under his rule, a ‘four-class’ social structure was enforced. Besides the Shogun and the daimyo (who now reigned as provincial lords under the shogun), there were four classes that were strictly defined. Based on Confucius ideals of order, this structure was intended to promote social productivity and allowed for zero mobility—one could not escape their social class. The first class, directly under and loyal to the daimyo, were the samurai. As the only class allowed to wield weapons, the samurai acted as soldiers and officials. Although they only made up about 10% of the population, the samurai had much political power and were held to a high intellectual standard. Next in social standing were the farmers or peasants. As the primary force behind Japan’s agricultural economy, they were exhaustingly pushed to work harder and repressed under taxes. Beneath the farmers were artisans and craftworkers who produced non-agricultural goods. In the lowest social group were merchants, who sold products, but were not directly involved in production. Unintentionally, the merchants became a very rich social group, as a result of their business. However, as the lowest social class, they had virtually no political power and were prevented from improving their status.

Known as the Edo Period, Ieyasu and his descendants (the Tokugawa) reigned for nearly 300 years. Under their rule, a completely new social structure was imposed and a time of relative peace and prosperity was established. This period is a prime example of social change as a result of the entry of a new social agent. Coming to power, Tokugawa Ieyasu became a social agent that changed Japan’s existing order. By enacting a new social structure, he created a period where conflict was minimal and economic productivity was high. These characteristics describe the Edo Period and solidify the fact that social change can truly shape the structure and definition of an era.