title
macrohistory.com

(POWER and CLASS IN JAPAN, 500 to 1333 -- continued)

home | 6th-15th centuries

POWER and CLASS IN JAPAN, 500 to 1336 (6 of 7)

previous | next

Rule of Law and Class Privileges in Kamakura Japan

Subordinates of the first Kamakura shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, collected taxes. Yoritomo passed laws and appointed people to imperial positions while the emperor in Kyoto remained a figurehead who performed ceremonies and gave Yoritomo sanction for his policies.

Among Yoritomo's descendants, and in the imperial bureaucracy, sons continued to inherit their father's offices. It was their military government that ruled – the bakufu, literally "tent government."

Government by murder survived in the succession dispute that followed Yoritomo's death in 1199. Two of Yoritomo's sons and a grandson were assassinated by another of his sons. Yoritomo's thirty-two year old widow, Hojo Masako, had retired to a Buddhist nunnery but then she took power and became known as the "nun-shogun." She ruled, made and unmade emperors, and presided over the expansion of the land of her family – the Hojo. The Minamoto family and members of the royal family were puppets and hostages of Hojo family rule.

The shoganate had military force to back up his centralized authority, and, by the year 1230, men around the shogun adopted Confucian principles and believed that it suited their position to be familiar with the Chinese classics. They had an idea of what good government should be. They were interested in law and order, and a part of their new law and order was taming unruly warriors. Penalties were imposed on those who were abusive or started fights. Samurai who started fights could lose their estates.

The shogun's constables gained greater civil powers, and the court at Kyoto was obliged to seek Kamakura's approval for all of its actions. While legal practices in Kyoto were still based on 500-year-old Confucian principles, the new code under Hojo rule was a highly legalistic document that stressed the duties of stewards and constables, provided means for settling land disputes and established rules governing inheritances. It was clear and concise in stipulating punishments for violators of its conditions, and it was to remain in effect past the mid-1800s.

Order meant preserving privileges, and, as with other class societies as far back as Hammurabi's at Babylon, penalties were in accord with one's social status.

An Improving Agriculture

About half of all the land was in the hands of aristocrat-governors appointed by the emperor's court. The rest of was cultivated by wealthy peasants (myoshu) or controlled by low-ranking warriors. The poor lived scattered in small dark cabins and had a pot, a few bowls and tools such as spades, hoes and sickles. The myoshu lived in a house with a few rooms, a thatch roof, and they owned a few cows, maybe a horse and had more tools. These wealthier peasants rented land to tenant farmers and had farmhands, servants or slaves working for them. They associated their privileged position to the gods and organized Shinto festivals and feasts. The poor were not allowed to organize such gatherings, but they were invited to join in and show their respect.

In mid-1200s, agriculture was advancing in Japan – as it was during the favorable climate that Europe was enjoying. Japan's farmers developed a two-crop system. They flooded their fields in late May or early June to plant rice, which they harvested in October. Then they drained their fields and planted grains. They were making better use of fertilizer. With their greater harvests they participated in an increase in trade. Local markets sprang up near a local lord's manor or perhaps at the gate to a Buddhist temple, or at a crossroads. Poorer peasants began selling soybeans, sesame seeds or string beans and maybe hemp. Better-off peasants sold rice and barley.

With the rise in agricultural productivity and the rise in commerce came a rise in population and growth in the number and size of towns. Traveling merchants joined in, and craft persons were producing more goods for common people, and common people were trading their produce for pottery, farm tools, pots and pans. Craft persons were making umbrellas, leather, saddles, copper products, roof tiles and weaving fabrics. Artisans and merchants traveled more. The number of market days in a locale typically increased from six a year at the beginning of the 1200s to perhaps twenty-one by the end of the century. Rice, lumber, fish, salt, sesame, dyes and other products were being transported about Japan on waterways.

The use of money was increasing. At mid-century, forty or fifty Japanese ships a year arrived at southern China – during the reign of the Southern Song – and the Japanese exchanged lumber, sulfur and other products for China's copper coins. In the port area where the trade took place, copper coins might follow a visit by Japanese traders. Alarmed, the Song government responded with a decree forbidding the trading of its coins with the Japanese, part of the naiveté of those times about economics. The decree had little effect. Inspectors at China's port took bribes, and coins continued to pass to the Japanese. In Japan the naiveté about money expressed itself in people talking about the new "coin sickness," while authorities in Japan apparently failed to see the benefit in Japan minting its own coins. It was China's money that was respected, along with other things from China.

Rank in the Countryside

Good harvests came and went, and those who became destitute sold themselves to slave traders in order to survive. And the slave traders sold them in regions where there was demand for their labor. How easy it was for those who sold themselves into slavery to buy back their freedom is unknown.

The high-ranking lords had vassals who were rewarded with fiefs of their own, and fief holders exercised local policing powers. The lords continued to receive rents from the middle class farmers, the myoshu. Some myoshu might also belong to the samurai class. The myoshu were themselves lords over their tenant farmers, farmhands, servants or slaves, but they differed from the higher lords in that they might work in their fields alongside others. It's a point of disputation among historians whether some who worked for the myoshu could be called serfs – people bound in servitude.

Beach Towns, the Itinerate and Public Baths

Before the 1200s, there were those who fished on the sea, settled on a beach and then moved on, but in the 1200s they began to settle, to build houses and create villages of fishermen. Their communities tended to be egalitarian, with fishing zones equitably distributed and families heads sharing salt-making ovens. The seashore villages grew into towns, with inns built to house merchants and other itinerants. Two such towns were Tsunuga and Obama (Little Beach), on the northern shore in Western Japan. The independence of such towns ended as the powerful lords or monasteries with the advantages of armed men moved in to claim jurisdiction and the right to tax. They had a protection racket. The towns accepted their power and in return received armed protection against anyone causing them trouble.

bathhouse

Section of a Japanese bathhouse

Moving through these and other towns were blacksmiths, pot makers, sellers of oil, mats, rice wine and other goods. These itinerants traveled under a freedom accorded them by the imperial court in exchange for their having supplied the court with goods. There were also itinerant dancers and musicians, people who lived by entertaining. Among the dancers and musicians some had a secondary form of entertaining: prostitution. They enjoyed an elevated status and had the same right to travel as the craftsmen and merchants.

Along major roads one might find a public bath, first built in the 1200s by monks in association with monasteries. Bathing was associated with purification, and all were allowed to enter: commoners, warriors or nobles, men, women or children. The baths were considered places of peace and asylum.

Sources

Copyright © 2009-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.