We often take for granted when talking about the samurai and the world which they inhabited the idea of a “feudal Japan”. Feudalism, its meaning and providence is the subject of much debate among medieval historians and to apply it so generally to such an alien culture might raise more than a few eyebrows. In this context of the equivocation of east and west, Samurai are often described as analogous to knights with which we are familiar in the west, the code of Bushido likened to chivalry. It is a subject of debate, however, as to how helpful this simile is in helping us to understand the niche which the Samurai occupied in Japanese society during peace time. We are not talking about individuals here, rather we are talking about an entire class of people. The first question then becomes what makes the samurai different from the other classes of Japanese society?
Within Japanese history, class is generally broken down into four: Samurai, artisans, peasants and merchants. This is a distinction that was solidified following the end of the Sengoku Jidai, and is known in Japanese as Shinokosho. Prior to this, the classes had been largely fluid, people able to move between them with little difficulty. This meant that even those of low birth but great ambition, could one day hold vast amounts of power, as is exemplified by the case of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who rose from obscurity to become the most powerful man in Japan for a time. It was Hideyoshi himself, however, who set this class system in stone as one of the three major reforms of his new centralised government, all of which were designed to elevate the samurai class above the other three and to end the state of constant war that had persisted for the previous hundred or so years. These changes, however, fundamentally changed what it meant to be Samurai.
Previously, many Samurai had been independent landowners and farmers in their own right, but as Eijiro Honjo notes, “as the result of changes in the methods of warfare, the samurai forsook the country in which they had lived and went to live in castle-towns. They thereby ceased to be farmers and received annual grants of rice from their lord for their military service. Thus, the separation of samurai and farmer took place, and the former came to form a class of their own. After this, they no longer tilled the soil and became an unproductive or consumptive class.”
With the proliferation of civil war in Japan up until 1603, the Samurai were secure in their position, never falling into the trappings of poverty while their services were in such demand. Nevertheless financial dependency became a hallmark of the samurai as they became professional soldiers, and this would become only too clear during the two hundred years of peace that the Tokugawa shogunate, building on Hideyoshi’s legislation, brought with it. Over this period of time, the Samurai, used to a luxurious lifestyle found that they could no longer financially support these decedent trappings and it is well documented that many were forced to pawn their kimonos and swords just to make enough money to stay alive. (image right: A scene from Hara-Kiri: Death of a samurai, in which the main character’s son, having sold his swords is forced to disembowel himself with a bamboo sword.)
So why do we never see this amongst the knights of medieval Europe? To
put it simply, the same type of solely military dictatorship that we see in Japan is not similarly prevalent in medieval European history for any greatly extended length of time. There is a degree of similarity (a subject I will come back to in a later article!) between the period of the Sengoku Jidai and the anarchy of the reign of Stephen I of England. Feudal noblemen ignored the control of centralised government, instead creating their own independent “pseudo-kingdoms”. The difference is that Stephen’s reign lasted a mere 19 years, whereas the sengoku jidai lasted 136 years. This significant time frame was enough to allow the culture of samurai as a “consumer class” to become a normative part of the samurai social role. Therefore, by the time Hideyoshi’s reforms were enacted, the Samurai no longer had a leg to stand on, soldiery now being a largely redundant profession.
In an attempt to ensure the power and security of his rule, Hideyoshi also banned anyone who was not a samurai from bearing arms, a factor that rendered it near impossible for individual daimyo to raise armies that could challenge the new central government and in fact, further added to the abject poverty that many Samurai found themselves the victim of in these new times of peace. While Hideyoshi had intended to exterminate the culture of bushi while keeping the culture of the samurai ruling class, the ultimate effect of his reforms were to annihilate both. The advent of the central government administration that came with the Tokugawa shogunate ultimately left the Samurai redundant long before we traditionally see them as such, at the advent of the boshin war.
The samurai of this period were rulers and leaders only nominally, their real power having been undermined by their social and financial dependence. With this in mind, one is forced to the conclusion that the end of “feudal Japan” comes with the end of the sengoku jidai, as the centralised government no longer entered into any sort of feudal contract to ensure loyalty or military service, and, therefore, that as the feudal way of ruling became redundant, so too did the samurai.
 Eijiro Honjo, Changes of social classes during the Tokugawa period, Kyoto University Economic review (July 1928) pg. 61
Jack Horatio Buckley Sharp 2016