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Merchants and Society in Tokugawa Japan

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2008

Charles D. Sheldon
University of Cambridge


Merchants in the Tokugawa period were placed at the bottom of the shinōkōshōhierarchy of samurai-peasants-artisans-merchants. This social hierarchy was produced by a combination of social reality at the time Japan was unified in the late sixteenth century and an ancient Chinese physiocratic theory, never taken very seriously, in practical ways, in China. Once the country was unified, the social mobility of the previous years, of a kind which permitted men of ability to climb from the lowest ranks to join the military nobility—Hideyoshi is the prime example of this mobility—was viewed, by Hideyoshi above all others, as a cause of prolonged chaos and internecine warfare. With the argument that war had been abolished and common people therefore no longer needed weapons, Hideyoshi carried out his ‘sword-hunt’. He thus established the most fundamental of the class distinctions, between the samurai, the ruling class, who now enjoyed a monopoly of bearing arms, and the common people, who were henceforth expected simply to produce the food and other necessities of life, and to pay their taxes, which remained high even though warfare was supposedly ended.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1983

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1 Actual tax collections in the Tokugawa period are estimated at from 35 per cent (the average revenue from Bakufu direct territories, tenryō), to 40 per cent.

2 Nihon Keizai Sōsho (Tokyo: 19141917), III, p. 427Google Scholar. See McEwan, J. R., The Political Writings of Ogyū Sorai (Cambridge: 1962), especially p. 63Google Scholar, and Lidin, Olof G., The Life of Ogyu Sorai (Lund, Sweden: 1973).Google Scholar

3 SeeChōnin Bukuro, by Nishikawa, Vol. I, as cited by Kanetarō, Nomura, Tokugawa Jidai no Keizai Shisō (Tokyo: 1939), p. 78Google Scholar. On Ishida Baigan, see Bellah, Robert N., Tokugawa Religion, the Values of Preindustrial Japan (Glencoe, Ill.: 1957)Google Scholar. Although there was supposed to be no movement from one to any other of the shinōkōshō categories, thousands of peasants whose labour was not needed on the land due to increasing efficiency and productivity, did in fact move to cities and towns in the early years of the Tokugawa period. Here, practicality came to the fore, and a simple procedure was provided whereby anyone (usually a child entering another family, peasant or other) would give prior notice to the local headman. For the translation of a regulation of 1637 to that effect, see Sheldon, , The Rise of the Merchant Class in the Tokugawa Period (New York: 1973), p. 28Google Scholar. (This is a reprint, by Russell & Russell, of the original edition of 1958, with the addition of a chapter and a new introduction.)

4 Henderson, Dan F., ‘Some Aspects of Tokugawa Law’, Washington Law Review 21, 1 (02 1952), pp. 96, 98102Google Scholar, and Henderson, , Conciliation and Japanese Law (Seattle: 1965), Vol. I, pp. 106–17.Google Scholar

5 Yoshio, Sakata, Chōnin (Tokyo: 1939), p. 54Google Scholar. Similar bans had been made against the fudasashi in Edo in 1685 and 1702, and were repeated, covering all the Bakufu cities, in 1736, 1746, 1797 and 1843, making one wonder, as with much Bakufu legislation, if it was being observed. Conciliation out of court was usually urged.

6 Nihon Keizai Shi Jiten (NKSJ) (Tokyo: 1940), p. 1137.Google Scholar

7 Ibid., pp. 596–7.

8 Smith, Neil Skene, ‘Materials on Japanese Social and Economic History: Tokugawa Japan’, Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan (TASJ), 2nd series, 1931, p. 99Google Scholar. In the 1720s Ogyū Sorai warned against trying to lower prices: ‘The power and prosperity of the merchants is such that, organized together throughout the entire country, prices are maintained high, no matter whether in remote districts or in the castle towns, and it is impossible to oppose so many millions of merchants so closely organized together. Prices will continue to rise, no matter how many inspectors are placed in the castle towns to watch them.’ Sheldon, , The Rise of the Merchant Class, p. 45Google Scholar. A very similar translation can be found in McEwan, , p. 45.Google Scholar

9 Yoshio, Sakata, ‘Meiji Ishin to Tenpō Kaikaku’, Jinbun Gakuhō II (1952), p. 6Google Scholar; Wigmore, John, ‘Materials for the Study of Private Law in Old Japan,’ TASJ, XX (1892), Supplement I, p. 193Google Scholar. The work begun by Wigmore, a major compilation of primary material on Tokugawa customs and law, is being published in ten volumes by the Kokusai Bunka Shinkōkai.

10 Ichirō, Ishida, Kinsei Bunka no TenkaiGoogle Scholar, in Jun, Kobata (ed.), Kinsei Shakai (Tokyo: 1958). p. 409.Google Scholar

11 Quoted in Sakata, Chōnin, p. 30.Google Scholar

12 Ōsaka, perhaps because it represented, with Sakai and Kyōto, a centre of about a million consumers by 1714, had become ‘more important as a consumption centre than as a market for the collection and distribution of goods to other areas of Japan.’ Hauser, William B., Economic Institutional Change in Tokugawa Japan (London: 1974), p. 29Google Scholar. Hauser has shown how in the early years of the Tokugawa period, Osaka received mostly unprocessed goods, but with the growth of local industries throughout the area, more and more finished goods were sent to Ōsaka which in consequence became more of a consumption than a reprocessing centre.

13 Sakata, , Chōnin, p. 31.Google Scholar

14 For one example of such instructions, given to the Mitsui house, see Crawcour, Sidney, ‘Some Observations on Merchants, a Translation of Mitsui Takafusa's Chōnin Kōken Roku’, TASJ, Third series, VIII (1961), pp. 1139.Google Scholar

15 Sakata, , Chōnin, pp. 70–1.Google Scholar

16 Ibid., pp. 125–65; NKSJ, p. 295.Google Scholar

17 On the Yodoya confiscation, see Sheldon, , The Merchant Class, pp. 102–4Google Scholar, and, on Professor Crawcour's statement that it did not happen, see my comments in Pacific Affairs (Winter 19691970), pp. 528–9.Google Scholar

18 Eijiro, Honjo, The Social and Economic Histor of Japan (New York, reprint edn: 1965).Google Scholar

19 Takao, Tsuchiya, Nihon no Seishō (Tokyo: 1956), p. 56.Google Scholar

20 Waga Koromo, by Bian, Ei, in Enseki Jisshu, Vol. I, pp. 141–2Google Scholar, quoted in Sakata, , Chōnin, p. 25.Google Scholar

21 Seji Kenmon Roku, in Kinsei Shakai Keizai Sōsho (Tokyo: 19261927), Vol. I, p. 242.Google Scholar

22 Sakata, , Chōnin, p. 36.Google Scholar

23 Norman, E. Herbert, ‘Andō Shōeki and the Anatomy of Japanese Feudalism’, TASJ 3rd series II (1949), p. 74.Google Scholar

24 Ishida, , Kinsei Bunka no Tenkai, p. 395.Google Scholar

25 Norman, , ‘Andō Shōeki’, p. 76.Google Scholar

26 Technological improvements continued in the middle and later years of the Tokugawa period. See Smith, Thomas C., The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan (Stanford: 1959)Google Scholar, and his chapter, ‘Okura Nagatsune and the Technologists’, in Hall, and Jansen, (eds), Personality in Japanese History (California: 1970), pp. 127–54Google Scholar. But the diffusion of techniques was hampered by the tendencies of the feudal domains to keep improvements in techniques secret to give them advantages over other domains.

27 A contributing factor was the virtual impossibility of moving food from domains with plenty, who wanted to hold onto it, to domains of want. There was an increasing gap, with the growth of cash crops and capitalistic farming, in the standard of living of the poor peasants who had difficulty adjusting to a money economy, and those ‘peasants’ who did very well in trade, moneylending and in the managing of handicraft industries. Such well-to-do farmers provided a demonstration of considerable affluence in the village which, one suspects, had much to do with the discontent of the less fortunate peasants, and on the resulting abandonment of fields, infanticide and peasant rebellions. The severe problems of the mizunomi hyakushō, ‘water-drinking peasants’, in view of evidence of increasing production throughout the Tokugawa period, can probably be best understood in terms of the mal-distribution of wealth.

28 Yamamura, Kozo, in A Study of Samurai Income and Entrepreneurship, Quantitative Analyses of Economic and Social Aspects of the Samurai in Tokugawa and Meiji Japan (Harvard: 1974)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, suggests that the real incomes of the hatamoto (bannermen) may not have decreased much after 1700, but he leaves debt repayment out of account. Other evidence he cites indicates that the real incomes of other samurai did decrease considerably. This book, although sometimes mystifying, and flawed in many ways (see my review of it in Monumenta Nipponica, XXX, 2 (Summer 1975), pp. 212–16Google Scholar) does introduce a few points which contribute to our knowledge of the periods covered. Yasuzō, Horie, Kinsei Nihon no Keizai Seisaku (Tokyo: 1942)Google Scholar, the best study available of Bakufu economic policies, points out that prices of goods other than rice tended to go up with rice prices, but not down (p. 58)Google Scholar. Also, Hauser, , Economic Institutional Change in Tokugawa Japan, pp. 33–4Google Scholar, states, referring to the period 1716–35, ‘Symptomatic of the growing problems faced by the samurai was a rise in commodity price levels which was accompanied by a decline in the price of rice.’

29 For some of the changes in Bakufu policies, see Hauser, , Economic Institutional Change, esp. pp. 1619; 51–8; 185–8.Google Scholar

30 Kinsei Shakai Keizai Sōsho, Vol. I, p. 157.Google Scholar

31 ‘Retainers of the Bakufu who received stipends from the Bakufu in rice (kirimai) received certificates (kippu) entitling them to receive a portion of their stipend on three occasions during the year. These were known as the summer, winter and spring kippu.’ Footnote 2, p. 36Google Scholar, McEwan, , The Political Writings Ogyū Sorai.Google Scholar

32 Translation from Seidan, 51, in Ibid., pp. 36–7.

33 ‘Sewashiki fūzoku. Sorai uses this expression to describe the delight in empty ceremony and concern for formal correctness rather than effective action which characterized the officers of the Bakufu.’ Footnote 1, p. 38,Ibid.

34 Translation from Seidan, 52, in Ibid., pp. 37–8.

35 From Seidan, 67, in Ibid., pp. 39–40.