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Samurai in Medieval Japan. Source: Public Domain

Samurais, Shoguns, Etas and the Social Pyramid of Medieval Japan (Video)


The structure of medieval Japan was characterized by a complex social hierarchy that shaped the lives and interactions of its people. Rooted in centuries-old traditions and influenced by philosophical movements like Neo-Confucianism, this hierarchical system was deeply ingrained in Japanese society.

At the top of the social pyramid stood the Emperor and the Imperial family, symbolizing prestige but holding little political power. Beneath them were the aristocratic families, known as the kuge, who traced their lineage back to the early centuries of the Yamato state.

True political power, however, resided with the samurai class, led by the Shogun. These warriors held significant influence and were responsible for maintaining order and protecting their domains. Despite their elevated status, many samurai faced economic challenges, especially with the decline of the feudal system.

Peasants formed the backbone of society, revered for their role in food production but often subjected to heavy taxes and labor obligations. Artisans and merchants occupied the lower rungs of the social ladder, though some managed to accumulate substantial wealth and influence despite their lower status.

Outside of this structured hierarchy existed marginalized groups such as Buddhist monks, Shinto priests, and the eta—considered untouchables due to their professions. The bakuhan system, established by influential figures like Tokugawa Ieyasu, emphasized central control and stability, reshaping feudal relationships and consolidating power under the Shogunate. Overall, the social structure of medieval Japan was intricate and deeply entrenched, shaping the lives and opportunities of its people for centuries.

Top image: Samurai in Medieval Japan. Source: Public Domain

By Robbie Mitchell

Robbie Mitchell's picture


I’m a graduate of History and Literature from The University of Manchester in England and a total history geek. Since a young age, I’ve been obsessed with history. The weirder the better. I spend my days working as a freelance... Read More

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