Between the 12th and 19th centuries, feudal Japan had an elaborate four tier class system.
Unlike European feudal society, in which the peasants (or serfs) were at the bottom, the Japanese feudal class structure placed merchants on the lowest rung. Confucian ideals emphasized the importance of productive members of society, so farmers and fishermen had higher status than shop-keepers in Japan.
At the top of the heap was the samurai class.
The Samurai Class:
When a samurai passed, members of the lower classes were required to bow and show respect. If a farmer or artisan refused to bow, the samurai was legally entitled to chop off the recalcitrant person's head.
Samurai answered only to the daimyo for whom they worked. The daimyo, in turn, answered only to the shogun.
There were about 260 daimyo by the end of the feudal era. Each daimyo controlled a broad area of land, and had an army of samurai.
The Farmers / Peasants:
Just below the samurai on the social ladder were the farmers or peasants.
According to Confucian ideals, farmers were superior to artisans and merchants because they produced the food that all the other classes depended upon. Although technically they were considered an honored class, the farmers lived under a crushing tax burden for much of the feudal era.
During the reign of the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, farmers were not allowed to eat any of the rice they grew. They had to hand it all over to their daimyo, and then wait for him to give some back as charity.
Although artisans produced many beautiful and necessary goods, such as clothes, cooking utensils, and woodblock prints, they were considered less important than the farmers. Even skilled samurai sword makers and boatwrights belonged to this third tier of society in feudal Japan.
The artisan class lived in its own section of the major cities, segregated from the samurai (who usually lived in the daimyos' castles), and from the lower merchant class.
The bottom rung of feudal Japanese society was occupied by merchants, both traveling traders and shop-keepers.
Merchants were ostracized as "parasites" who profited from the labor of the more productive peasant and artisan classes. Not only did merchants live in a separate section of each city, but the higher classes were forbidden to mix with them except on business.
Nonetheless, many merchant families were able to amass large fortunes. As their economic power grew, so did their political influence, and the restrictions against them weakened.
People above the Four-Tier System:
Although feudal Japan is said to have had a four tier social system, some Japanese lived above the system, and some below.
On the very pinnacle of society was the shogun, the military ruler. He was generally the most powerful daimyo; when the Tokugawa family seized power in 1603, the shogunate became hereditary. The Tokugawas ruled for 15 generations, until 1868.
Although the shoguns ran the show, they ruled in the name of the emperor. The emperor, his family and the court nobility had little power, but they were at least nominally above the shogun, and also above the four tier system.
The emperor served as a figurehead for the shogun, and as the religious leader of Japan. Buddhist and Shinto priests and monks were above the four-tier system, as well.
People below the Four-Tier System:
Some unfortunate people also fell below the lowest rung of the four tier ladder.
These people included the ethnic minority Ainu, the descendants of slaves, and those employed in taboo industries. Buddhist and Shinto tradition condemned people who worked as butchers, executioners, and tanners as unclean. They were called the eta.
Another class of social outcasts were the hinin, which included actors, wandering bards, and convicted criminals.
Prostitutes and courtesans, including oiran, tayu, and geisha, also lived outside of the four tier system. They were ranked against one another by beauty and accomplishment.
Today, all of these people who lived below the four-tiers are collectively called "burakumin." Officially, families descended from the burakumin are just ordinary people, but they can still face discrimination from other Japanese in hiring and marriage.
Growing Mercantilism Undermines the Four-Tier System:
During the Tokugawa era, the samurai class lost power. It was an era of peace, so the samurai warriors' skills were not needed. Gradually they transformed into either bureaucrats or wandering troublemakers, as personality and luck dictated.
Even then, however, samurai were both allowed and required to carry the two swords that marked their social status. As the samurai lost importance, and the merchants gained wealth and power, taboos against the different classes mingling were circumvented with increasing regularity.
A new class title, chonin, came to describe upwardly-mobile merchants and artisans. During the time of the "Floating World," when angst-ridden Japanese samurai and merchants gathered to enjoy the company of courtesans or watch kabuki plays, class mixing became the rule rather than the exception.
This was a time of ennui for Japanese society. Many people felt locked in to a meaningless existence, in which they just sought out the pleasures of earthly entertainment as they waited to pass on to the next world.
An array of great poetry described the discontent of the samurai and chonin. In haiku clubs, members chose pen names to obscure their social rank. That way, the classes could mingle freely.
The End of the Four Tier System:
In 1868, the time of the "Floating World" came to an end, as a number of radical shocks completely remade Japanese society.
The emperor retook power in his own right, in the Meiji Restoration, and abolished the office of the shogun. The samurai class was dissolved, and a modern military force created in its stead.
This revolution came about in part because of increasing military and trade contacts with the outside world, (which, incidentally, served to raise the status of Japanese merchants all the more).
Prior to the 1850s, the Tokugawa shoguns had maintained an isolationist policy toward the nations of the western world; the only Europeans allowed in Japan were a tiny camp of 19 Dutch traders who lived on a tiny island in the bay.
Any other foreigners, even those ship-wrecked on Japanese territory, were likely to be executed. Likewise, any Japanese citizen who went overseas could never return.
When Commodore Matthew Perry's U.S. Naval fleet steamed into Tokyo Bay in 1852 and demanded that Japan open its borders to foreign trade, it sounded the death-knell of the shogunate and of the four-tier system.
For more details and interesting examples of how the four-tiered system worked, see "Facts about Class Identity in Feudal Japan."