Shōya_System

Village System During the Tokugawa Era

In medieval Japan through the late sixteenth century, warriors were scattered over the land in villages.  They served as overlords, levying taxes, administrating justice, and keeping the peace.  The normal state among regional military banded organizations was war or preparation for war.  War was the most direct means of increasing territory and thereby increasing strength and security.

Under the leadership of Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長, 23 Jun 1534-21 Jun 1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豐臣秀吉, 1537-1598), and finally Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康, 31 Jan 1543-1 Jun 1616) unified Japan.  Ieyasu destroyed the feudal leagues after a series of institutional changes under the regimes of the three leaders; the separation of warriors and farmers, a simple measurement system for land productivity, and isolation and anti-Christian politics brought a new but compromised political structure that managed to keep the peace for two and a half centuries.

One of the political initiatives of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豐臣秀吉, 1537-1598), was a nationwide survey of arable lands that began in 1582.  The land survey extended into the beginning of the Tokugawa era (end of the sixteenth century into the beginning of the seventeenth century.) 

Another of Toyotomi Hideyoshiʻs political initiatives was the Sword Hunt in 1588.  Most of the habitants in these medieval villages were independent farmers of the class called hon-byakushō (landholders with full membership in the village), some of whom were former well-to-do soldier-farmers, who surrendered their arms and became civilians.  They could have been described as country squires.

The first half of Tokugawa Japan was a successor of the Japanese medieval world, but also a period of expansion in which wet paddy fields spread all over the country, bringing about fundamental change in the Japanese landscape.

Ieyasu destroyed the feudal leagues after a series of institutional changes under the regimes of the three leaders; the separation of warriors and farmers, a simple measurement system for land productivity, and isolation and anti-Christian politics brought a new but compromised political structure that managed to keep the peace for two and a half centuries.

The new norm was described by Kawachiya Kasho (河内屋可正, 1636-1713) as follows:

     There are professional way of warriors, that of farmers, that of craftsmen, that of merchants, and also many other professional ways.  If the people work hard along the way of the professionalized “family,” the “family” will be richer because the way must become main sources for gold and silver.

     First, the peasant family is the basis of the world; second, the peasant should be managed so as not to possess too much, nor to live in scarcity; third, the government should pay to smooth the routes in September and October in order to improve traffic, and never use the people for other purposes.

The household compositions changed from “family” which included not only kinships, but also laborers and servants, to “family” consisting only of intimate kinship relations in the modern sense.

The property of individuals and families were never officially registered in Tokugawa Japan.  A social institution called the shoya (庄屋) village system was instituted because not the individual household but the village was collectively a unit for tax payment in the Tokugawa Japan.

The output of each village in Tokugawa Japan was calculated in kokudaka (石高), a tax measurement equivalent to the quantity of rice the village was capable of producing.  1 koku (石) = 150 kilograms (about 330 pounds) of rice volume which represented a quantity of rice that was enough to feed one person for one year1.  

The social institution called shoya village system was as follows:

Local official agents were called daikan and gundai2.

     gundai - chief local administrative official known as district-deputy or daikan (deputy official)

These officials were appointed by the central government, Shogun or daimyō.  Gundai and Daikan were different grades of the same office.  They had no officials resident in any village.

     Daikan - assessed production of 50,000 kokudai and below.

     Gundai - assessed production of 50,000 to 100,000 kokudai

The daikan or gundai were responsible for overseeing a range of government functions, including infrastructure projects, tax collection, and judicial matters.

Three kinds of officials that resided at the village were the nanushi or shōya, kumigashira, and hyakushō-dai.  These officials conducted village government in accordance with instructions from the official agents.  The holders of these three posts were nominally appointed by election or by the decision of a committee, but in practice most of the appointments were hereditary in the long-established influential families of the small rural gentry3

     Shōya 庄屋 - (nanushi 名主), village headman.

     Kumigashira - three or four assistants to the shōya.

     Hyakushō-dai - a village officer chosen to represent the interests of the majority of the peasants, particularly in regard to liability for tax or the sharing out of duties.

It was customary in most parts of the country for a number of villages to form a larger unity, the “go” or rural district, over which a senior headman, the Ō-Shōya (大庄屋), presided.

Besides being assisted by the kumigashira and the hyakushō-dai, the Shōya was also assisted by the Gonin-gumi, groups of five householders who were jointly responsible for the actions of each member.  The certified marriages, successions, testaments, and contracts for sale, purchase, or loan.  In general their obligations included mutual aid and mutal surveillance of all public and private activities within the group.

Class distinctions in the rural society was a feature of village life3.  They depended not upon the amount of land held by a family but upon the familyʻs pedigree.  The farming community was very conscious of birth and rank.  Most of the members of the old and respected families were descendants of landowners who in late medieval times had been active leaders of rural settlements which cohered into villages.  Their position was so firm that it was not affected by variations in their incomes.  The heads of most old families occupied the important posts in the village government. 

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1.  Local Realities and Environmental Changes in the History of East Asia, chapter 2, Livestock and the “industrious revolution” in Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868) by Satoshi Murayama, edited by Ts’ui-jung Liu (environmental history), publisher Routledge, 17 Dec 2013
2.  Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, Vol. XIX, Tokyo The Hakugunsha, 1891, p52
3.  A History of Japan, 1615-1867, George Sansom, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1963, pp100-104

©August 2019 by hisiamone