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Old October 16th, 2012, 08:51 AM   #1

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Social Mobility in Feudal Japan


So I was having a conversation about history with a friend of mine who is very big on Japan, he really loves the place, its culture and history, perhaps a bit blinkered at times and ever so slightly 'wappanese.' During this conversation he went on, quite adamantly about social mobility in Japan and how it was quite common for pesants to rise up, become samurai and minor lords and all that sort of thing, and how it compared (and was obviously more awesome) than Medieval and Early Modern Europe.



Now I must admit not being too hot on my Japanese History, especially social history, but I know a goodly number of people here on Historum are. So I put it you you in the know, what was social mobility in Japan like? Was it possible, was it common, are their notable rags to riches stories? What sort of pressures and opposition might one face in ascending the social ladder? Is it something that has been heavily romanticised but was acutally quite a rarity? How did society cope with these social climbers?
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Old October 16th, 2012, 09:39 AM   #2

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Was it possible,
Yes.


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was it common,
No, not really.

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are their notable rags to riches stories?
Toyotomi Hiedyoshi is the most recognizable "rags to riches story." Not only in Japan, but in the entire world.


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What sort of pressures and opposition might one face in ascending the social ladder?
For sure, you had some old stalwarts that would look down on someone who wasn't born of their stock. For example, one of the reasons that the Shimazu went to war with Hideyoshi was because of the fact that he was born in such a lowly status. They felt it was beneath them to bow down to him.

All in all, it was entirely possible for an individual to move up in Japanese society. Prior to (ironically enough), Hideyoshi's edict on Changing Status, a peasant could enter the service of his daimyo and work his way up through the ranks much like Hideyoshi did.

That being said, this was not something that was particularly common.

Last edited by leakbrewergator; October 16th, 2012 at 09:59 AM.
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Old October 16th, 2012, 09:53 AM   #3

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Quote:
Originally Posted by DreamWeaver View Post
So I was having a conversation about history with a friend of mine who is very big on Japan, he really loves the place, its culture and history, perhaps a bit blinkered at times and ever so slightly 'wappanese.' During this conversation he went on, quite adamantly about social mobility in Japan and how it was quite common for pesants to rise up, become samurai and minor lords and all that sort of thing, and how it compared (and was obviously more awesome) than Medieval and Early Modern Europe.



Now I must admit not being too hot on my Japanese History, especially social history, but I know a goodly number of people here on Historum are. So I put it you you in the know, what was social mobility in Japan like? Was it possible, was it common, are their notable rags to riches stories? What sort of pressures and opposition might one face in ascending the social ladder? Is it something that has been heavily romanticised but was acutally quite a rarity? How did society cope with these social climbers?
Leak has already provided all the answers, so I can only back him up.

However, your friend may be getting a little confused over social mobility. Certainly during the period of the Sengoku Jidai, it was not uncommon for people of low rank to rise up and become great lords, but these people weren't peasants - they were (mostly) low ranking samurai.

Hojo Soun is a good example of this. He's commonly seen as an upstart ronin who rose to take control of a rich province, but he was member of a samurai family - as evidenced by the fact that he held a surname.

The Edict on Changing Status that leak mentioned put a (theoretical) stop to some forms of social mobility. Peasants were to remain peasants - they were no longer allowed to go to war as ashigaru and samurai were forbidden from farming. There were, of course, ways around this (especially if you had money) - for example, you could get yourself adopted into a samurai family.
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Old October 16th, 2012, 01:47 PM   #4

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Hardly my area of expertise, but I was reading an article the other week that mentioned a Japanese fascination with the ability of a United States citizen to become "King", or ruler of their country. This would have been towards the end of the Shogunate in the late 19th Century, and it is somewhat suggestive of social mobility in Japan ... or maybe not. I just thought I'd throw it in in case it was of any interest.

I think the article was 'Shaking Up Japan - Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints' ... or something like that.
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Old October 16th, 2012, 03:28 PM   #5

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I think it somewhat depends on the time period, but in general, no, not common.
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Old October 17th, 2012, 01:47 AM   #6
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I was curious to find some rags to riches stories of Medieval Europe, but of course the documentation of commoner's origins even if they ascend the ladder is quite tough. For instance, how do you define a commoner? Would a person (say, Thomas Becket) whose father was a merchant but grandfather a knight count as a commoner? I'd say yes but such a person would not be 'common as muck', unlike some nameless peasant.

Some examples:

1) Emperor Basil I was born a peasant.

2) Sir John Hawkmoon: the famous English knight, who became a mercenary leader and a condottiere in Italy, was the son of a tanner in most accepted stories.

I am also pretty sure that going through the list of popes would bring up some who had humble origins (Gregorius VII was apparently son of a blacksmith). Expanding the search to archbishops and cardinals might find some more, too. Would we count Mayors of London and Doges of Venice? And other Italian Merchant Princes, like Cosimo de Medici?

And of course, there was that peasant girl from Domremy.

Last edited by Whyte; October 17th, 2012 at 01:54 AM.
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Old October 17th, 2012, 04:18 AM   #7

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I was curious to find some rags to riches stories of Medieval Europe, but of course the documentation of commoner's origins even if they ascend the ladder is quite tough. For instance, how do you define a commoner? Would a person (say, Thomas Becket) whose father was a merchant but grandfather a knight count as a commoner? I'd say yes but such a person would not be 'common as muck', unlike some nameless peasant.

Some examples:

1) Emperor Basil I was born a peasant.

2) Sir John Hawkmoon: the famous English knight, who became a mercenary leader and a condottiere in Italy, was the son of a tanner in most accepted stories.

I am also pretty sure that going through the list of popes would bring up some who had humble origins (Gregorius VII was apparently son of a blacksmith). Expanding the search to archbishops and cardinals might find some more, too. Would we count Mayors of London and Doges of Venice? And other Italian Merchant Princes, like Cosimo de Medici?

And of course, there was that peasant girl from Domremy.
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Old October 17th, 2012, 04:23 AM   #8

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In relation to my OP.


If much of the social mobility was really a case of lower samurai to higher samurai rather than actual peasantry, was there a particular difference between different period of time. Post changing status edict would suggest a greater stagnation and calcification of society. Was it distinctly more free and fluid in the Heian period for example?

Conversely, what would downward social mobility be like?
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Old October 17th, 2012, 04:26 AM   #9

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Originally Posted by General Michael Collins View Post
Hardly my area of expertise, but I was reading an article the other week that mentioned a Japanese fascination with the ability of a United States citizen to become "King", or ruler of their country. This would have been towards the end of the Shogunate in the late 19th Century, and it is somewhat suggestive of social mobility in Japan ... or maybe not. I just thought I'd throw it in in case it was of any interest.

I think the article was 'Shaking Up Japan - Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints' ... or something like that.
That would make sense. This particular period is generations removed from Hideyoshi's Edict on Changing Status that effectively ended any sort of social mobility.
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Old October 17th, 2012, 08:38 AM   #10
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While William Marshal did very well for himself, he was son of a knight (a castellan, actually) and was a knight himself by training. He arguably was from a richer family than most of his peers. He simply was a younger son.
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