Feudal Japan had a four-tiered social structure based on the principle of military preparedness. At the top were the daimyo and their samurai retainers. Three varieties of commoners stood below the samurai: farmers, craftsmen and merchants. Other people were excluded entirely from the hierarchy, and assigned to unpleasant or unclean duties such as leather tanning, butchering animals and executing condemned criminals.
In its basic outline, this system seems very rigid and absolute. However, the system was both more fluid and more interesting than the short description implies.
Here are some examples of how the feudal Japanese social system actually functioned in people's daily lives.
• If a woman from a common family got engaged to a samurai, she could be officially adopted by a second samurai family. This circumvented the ban on commoners and samurai intermarrying.
• When a horse, ox or other large farm animal died, it became the property of the local outcasts. It did not matter if the animal had been the personal property of a farmer, or if its body was on a daimyo's land; once it was dead, only the eta had any right to it.
• For more than 200 years, from 1600 to 1868, the entire Japanese social structure revolved around support of the samurai military establishment. During that time period, though, there were no major wars. Most samurai served as bureaucrats.
• The samurai class basically lived on a form of social security. They were paid a set stipend, in rice, and did not get raises for cost-of-living increases. As a result, some samurai families had to turn to the manufacture of small goods like umbrellas or toothpicks to make a living. They would secretly pass these items on to peddlers to sell.
• Although there were separate laws for the samurai class, most laws applied to all three types of commoners equally.
• Samurai and commoners even had different kinds of mailing addresses. The commoners were identified by which imperial province they lived in, while samurai were identified by which daimyo's domain they served.
• Commoners who tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide because of love were considered criminals, but they could not be executed. (That would just give them their wish, right?) So, they became outcast non-persons, or hinin, instead.
• Being an outcast wasn't necessarily a grinding existence. One headman of the Edo (Tokyo) outcasts, named Danzaemon, wore two swords like a samurai, and enjoyed the privileges normally associated with a minor daimyo.
• To maintain the distinction between samurai and commoners, the government conducted raids called "sword hunts" or katanagari. Commoners discovered with swords, daggers or firearms would be put to death. Of course, this also discouraged peasant uprisings.
• Commoners were not allowed to have surnames (family names), unless they had been awarded one for special service to their daimyo.
• Although the eta class of outcasts was associated with the disposal of animal carcasses and the execution of criminals, most actually made their living by farming. Their unclean duties were just a side-line. Still, they could not be considered in the same class as commoner farmers, because they were outcasts.
• People with Hansen's disease (also called leprosy) lived segregated in the hinin community. However, on the Lunar New Year and Midsummer's Eve, they would go out into the city to perform monoyoshi (a celebration ritual) in front of people's homes. The townspeople then rewarded them with food or cash. As with the western Halloween tradition, if the reward was not sufficient, the lepers would play a prank or steal something.
• Blind Japanese remained in the class to which they were born - samurai, farmer, etc. - so long as they stayed in the family home. If they ventured out to work as story-tellers, masseurs, or beggers, then they had to join the blind persons' guild, which was a self-governing social group outside of the four-tier system.
• Some commoners, called gomune, took on the role of wandering performers and beggers that would normally have been within the outcasts' domain. As soon as the gomune stopped begging and settled down to farming or craft-work, however, they regained their status as commoners. They were not condemned to remain outcasts.
Howell, David L. Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Japan, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.