JAPAN’S SOCIAL STRUCTURE
A largely homogeneous society, Japandoes not exhibit the deep ethnic, re-ligious, and class divisions that char-acterize many countries. The gapsbetween rich and poor are not as glaringin Japan as they are in many countries,and a remarkable 90 percent or more of Japanese people consider themselvesmiddle class. This contrasts with most of Japan’s previous recorded history, whenprofound social and economic distinc-tions were maintained between Japan’saristocracy and its commoners.Between the 12th and 19th centuries,feudal Japan had an elaborate four tier class system.Unlike European feudal society, in whichthe peasants (or serfs) were at the bot-tom, the Japanese feudal class structureplaced merchants on the lowest rung.Confucian ideals emphasized the impor-tance of productive members of society,
so farmers and shermen had higher
status than shop-keepers in Japan. Feu-dal Japanese society was dominated bythe samurai warrior class. Although theymade up only about 10% of the popula-tion, samurai and their daimyo lordswielded enormous power.When a samurai passed, members of the lower classes were required to bowand show respect. If a farmer or artisanrefused to bow, the samurai was legallyentitled to chop off the recalcitrant per-son’s head.Samurai answered only to the daimyofor whom they worked. The daimyo, inturn, answered only to the shogun. Although artisans produced manybeautiful and necessary goods, such asclothes, cooking utensils, and wood-block prints, they were considered lessimportant than the farmers. Even skilledsamurai sword makers and boatwrightsbelonged to this third tier of society infeudal Japan. Although the shoguns ran the show,they ruled in the name of the emperor.The emperor, his family and the courtnobility had little power, but they were atleast nominally above the shogun, andalso above the four tier system.
The emperor served as a gurehead for
the shogun, and as the religious leader of Japan. Buddhist and Shinto priestsand monks were above the four-tier system, as well.Prostitutes and courtesans, includingoiran, tayu, and geisha, lived outside of the four tier system. They were rankedagainst one another by beauty and ac-complishment.Two periods of social upheaval in themodern era did much to soften these
class divisions. The rst was the push
for modernization under the Meiji gov-ernment at the end of the 19th century;the second was the period of Allied oc-cupation after World War II. Among themost profound of the transformationsthat took place in the modern era wasthe empowerment of individuals rather than extended families and family linesas the fundamental units of society. Asa result of this change, Japanese menand women experienced greater free-dom in making personal decisions, suchas choosing a spouse or career.
Nevertheless, some signicant social