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Indian Castes and Feudal Japanese Classes

Similar yet Unique Social Structures


This family was impacted by the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami.

A family from the Dalit caste (also known as untouchables) in India.

factoryseashell on Flickr.com

Although they arose from very different sources, the Indian caste system and the feudal Japanese class system have many features in common. Yet the two social systems are dissimilar in important ways, as well. Are they more alike, or more different?

The Essentials:

Both the Indian caste system and the Japanese feudal class system have four main categories of people, with others falling below the system entirely.

In the Indian system, the four primary castes are:

Brahmins, or Hindu priests; Kshatriyas, the kings and warriors; Vaisyas, or farmers, traders and skilled artisans; and Shudras, tenant farmers and servants.

Below the caste system there were the "untouchables," who were considered so impure that they could contaminate people from the four castes just by touching them or even being too close to them. They did unclean jobs such as scavenging animal carcasses, tanning leather, etc. The untouchables are also known as dalits or harijans.

Under the feudal Japanese system, the four classes are:

Samurai, the warriors; Farmers; Artisans; and finally Merchants.

As with India's untouchables, some Japanese people fell below the four-tier system. These were the burakumin and hinin. The burakumin served essentially the same purpose as untouchables in India; they did butchering, leather tanning, and other unclean jobs, but also prepared human burials. The hinin were actors, wandering musicians, and convicted criminals.

Origins of the Two Systems

India's caste system arose out of the Hindu belief in reincarnation. A soul's behavior in its previous life determined the status it would have in its next life. Castes were hereditary and fairly inflexible; the only way to escape a low caste was to be very virtuous in this life, and hope to be reborn in a higher station the next time.

Japan's four-tier social system came out of Confucian philosophy, rather than religion. According to Confucian principles, everyone in a well-ordered society knew their place, and paid respect to those stationed above them. Men were higher than women; elders were higher than young people. Farmers ranked just after the ruling samurai class, because they produced the food that everyone else depended upon.

Thus, though the two systems seem quite similar, the beliefs from which they arose were rather different.

Differences between Indian Castes and Japanese Classes

In the feudal Japanese social system, the shogun and the imperial family were above the class system. Nobody was above the Indian caste system, though. In fact, kings and warriors were lumped together in the second caste - the Kshatriyas.

India's four castes were actually sub-divided into literally thousands of sub-castes, each with a very specific job description. The Japanese classes were not divided in this way, perhaps because Japan's population was smaller and much less ethnically and religiously diverse.

In Japan's class system, Buddhist monks and nuns were outside of the social structure. They were not considered lowly or unclean, just detached from the social ladder. In the Indian caste system, in contrast, the Hindu priestly class were the highest caste - the Brahmins.

According to Confucius, farmers were far more important than merchants, because they produced food for everyone in society. Merchants, on the other hand, did not make anything - they simply profited off of trade in other people's products. Thus, farmers were on the second tier of Japan's four-tier system, while merchants were at the bottom. In the Indian caste system, however, merchants and land-holding farmers were lumped together in the Vaisya caste, which was the third of the four varnas or primary castes.

Similarities between the Two Systems

In both the Japanese and Indian social structures, the warriors and rulers were one and the same.

Obviously, both systems had four primary categories of people, and these categories determined the sort of work that people did.

Both the Indian caste system and Japanese feudal social structure had unclean people who were below the lowest rung on the social ladder. In both cases, though their descendants have much brighter prospects today, there continues to be discrimination against people who are perceived as belonging to these "outcast" groups.

Japanese samurai and Indian brahmins were both considered to be well above the next group down. In other words, the space between the first and second rungs on the social ladder was much wider than that between the second and third rungs.

Finally, both the Indian caste system and Japan's four-tiered social structure served the same purpose: they imposed order and controlled the social interactions among people in two complex societies.

Read more about Japan's four-tier system, 14 fun facts about feudal Japanese society, and the history of the Indian caste system.

The Two Social Systems

Above the System Emperor, Shogun Nobody
1 Samurai Warriors Brahmin Priests
2 Farmers Kings, Warriors
3 Artisans Merchants, Farmers, Artisans
4 Merchants Servants, Tenant Farmers
Below the System Burakumin, Hinin Untouchables
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