Life in the Sengoku Jidai: The Heimin
Scribe Figaro
9 March 2008

28 November 2008

25 January 2009


Inuyasha is set during the late Muromachi period; from references in the series I estimate the year to be around 1550, give or take a decade. It is the sengoku jidai, a time of civil war. Following the collapse of the central government in 1477, the nation has been split into hundreds of antonymous states (kuni) which are constantly allying, betraying, capturing, and absorbing each other. In 1550, power has been substantially consolidated and nearly all of Japan was under the influence of little more than a dozen powerful families. The most powerful of these families had the desire to unify Japan under their own control, and the foresight to know the importance of economic prosperity in achieving this goal.

For this reason, despite ongoing campaigns and battles, the late Muromachi was a time of substantial commercial activity within and among the kuni. Improved travel and trade allowed those who produced goods to deliver them to more successful markets, so that people of all classes found their labor more valued. This led to increased leisure time and disposable income, and increase in recreational activities. Religion gained importance as both Zen Buddhism and Shinto underwent slow revivals and incorporated themselves deeper into Japanese culture.

Social system

During the Tokugawa Era, a rigid class system would be enforced, which ordered society into the buke, the military government of the samurai; the kuge, the Emperor and his Imperial Court; and beneath them, the heimin, or common people.

The heimin, the common people of Japan, made up 80-90% of the population. These consisted of hyakushou (farmers), shokunin (artisans), and akindo (merchants). The majority of the heimin would identify themselves as hyakushou; it was ostensibly the highest of the heimen classes because it implied personal or group ownership of land. However, akindo had the potential to gain great wealth at this time, and they were the class which tended to behave most similarly to the buke and kuge; for example, they were the only heimin that routinely utilized arranged marriage as a means of appropriating familial wealth and power.

The various members of religious orders, including local shinto priests not associated with the kuge and Buddhist nuns and priests, had no defined position. The treatment of a Buddhist monk by a heimin depended on the monk's appearance and behavior and the heimin's personal attitudes. A shinto priest or priestess would usually fare better.

The lowest well-identified group was the eta, those whose occupations involved handling dead people or animals; this "tainted" them and would taint any member of the upper class who associated with them. Since burial, animal slaughter, leatherwork, and other stigmatized activities were in high demand at this time, many eta made a good living.

The himin, "non-people" was a derogatory term applied to those who were outside the social structure as - according to many - they did nothing useful with their lives. Traveling performers, prostitutes, beggars, and criminals might be called himin. Prior to the Tokugawa reforms eta and himin were sometimes used interchangeably.

In the Muromachi, no central power existed to enforce this hierarchy. Power and wealth came to whoever had enough ambition, luck, or treachery to achieve them. Many daimyou came from common origins, and gained their power by abandoning or concealing their past lives and even their previous family names. Others betrayed their superiors to achieve power, a “rebellion from below” known as gekokujou.

The concept of the samurai as a distinct and purposeful social class did not exist at this time. Instead, there was a gradient from farmer to landowner, and those landowners with sufficient resources were free to build armies to protect their land and capture the land of others. In fact, the term daimyou ( 大名) comes from the term daimyoushu ( 大名主), meaning “great landowner,” and is derived from myoushu, the head of a shouen or plantation. As there was no central government, any person who had sufficient land and wealth and enough fighting men on his payroll to be considered a regular army could call himself a daimyou.

The foot soldiers (ashigaru) who fought for daimyou were typically themselves farmers. Few of them were professional soldiers; most of them simply took up weapons to defend their own homes or to supplant their income. Soldier’s wages were small – and would probably not be paid if one’s side lost – but wealth could be made by looting corpses or capturing the head of an enemy officer and collecting a bounty.

Shortly before a major campaign, a call for volunteers would be posted and those willing to fight would procure equipment and travel to the meeting place. This irregular army made up the bulk of a daimyous military might.

It wasn’t until the 1570s that campaigns became so large, and opposing sides became so formidable, that volunteers were not sufficient and conscription became common. Takeda issued conscription orders in 1577 to every male between the ages of 15 and 60, which helpfully demonstrates the approximate age of majority and age of infirmity at the time.

Land system

During the Kamakura period, the economic system relied on the division of nearly all land and resources into many estates known as shouen, which were controlled by regional lords appointed directly by the Emperor, and later, the shogun. This system collapsed during the Muromachi. For centuries years the operation of the shouen had been delegated to local stewards, so that many noblemen were absentee landlords who commanded very little control or loyalty from the people who worked their lands. As Kyoto collapsed, these lands were quickly claimed by the people who actually lived on them, and the noblemen who lived far from these former shouenand often had never even seen them – found their claims of ownership worthless.

In the Hojo kokka (the region controlled by the Hojo), a new system of land ownership and taxation was developed throughout the first half of the 1500s. This system was known as kandaka. In this system, all land was meticulously assessed for tax purposes. The Hojo daimyou directly controlled some land, but the vast majority was distributed to his retainers (kashin) (approximately 500 of them in 1550). These retainers had significant power to govern the peasantry in their lands, but there were limits: most importantly, tax rates were set by the daimyou. The peasantry themselves owned their own homes and farmland – either individually or as a community – and were subject to substantial taxes.

These taxes were called kandaka, and were tax assessments in cash (a kan is a unit of copper currency) based on the assessed value of the land. The majority of this tax was called nengu, a land tax the peasantry paid to the retainer who governed them. In the Hojo kokka this was typically 500 mon per tan against rice paddies and 165 mon per tan for upland areas. (A mon is a 3.75g copper coin, and a tan is approximately a quarter of an acre.) For simplicity, self-governing villages (mura) would have a certain tax responsibility applied to them, and it was up to the peasantry to distribute labor and ensure the tax would be paid.

Meanwhile, these retainers were assessed military obligations, and were required to take up arms and report to the aid of the daimyou when called.

As the daimyou only received the nengu of those lands he controlled directly, there were provincial taxes as well. Each village was responsible for a munebechisen, a tax on all buildings within that village; a tansen, a land tax which was set at 6% of the nengu; and a kakesen, a “miscellaneous” tax which was set at 4% of the nengu. These rates were set throughout the Hojo kokka in 1550.

To a rough approximation, only about 20% of a village’s total production was kept by the villagers; about 20% went to the daimyou and 60% went to the the retainer. The simplicity of this system over the confusing and often redundant ownership of the shouen system, and the assessment of tax based on land instead of actual production, encouraged increased production and efficiency.

Ideally, payments were made in coin, but this was sometimes impractical for both sides, and often arrangements would be made to collect payment in goods instead. The daimyou was less understanding; provincial taxes were only accepted in coin.

The village

Rural communities were organized into self-governing villages (mura). Each village or group of villages enforced its own law and government through a hierarchy based on land ownership and age. The head of each family (usually the oldest married man under the age of 60) represented that family at village meetings (yoriai). They elected senior members (otona, elders) who then dictated law and settled grievances. Beneath the otona were middle-aged men (chuuotona) and young men (wakashuu) who were given occasional or regular duties by the otona. These meetings were held frequently and fines were levied against those who failed to attend.

The hyakushou were rather matriarchal for much of the early Muromachi period, owing in part to so many men being consumed by the war and women taking responsibility for most of the useful labor in Japan. But this empowerment was not permanent. As the war progressed and fighting stagnated in many areas, fewer men served as soldiers, allowing more of them to remain at their farms. Additionally, heavy interaction with the samurai class caused the trickle-down of Confucian concepts which denied the intelligence and worth of women.

In Inuyasha we see Kaede as leader of her village, Kikyou as a priestess able to travel without male escort, and Sango as a warrior equal to her male companions. None of these are especially unusual for hyakyshou at this time, though the status of common women at the time was quickly changing for the worse. In 50 years, Tokugawa’s social order will disenfranchise the hyakushou women and made them subject to most of the patriarchal rules of property and leadership which controlled the buke.

The buke at the time extended practically no rights to their own women; marriages were arranged as political devices, and though some women were trained to fight with naginata, women were expected to be completely subservient to their fathers, and later their husbands, and (when widowed) their oldest sons. Some accounts of samurai women show them to be aware enough of their lot to express some jealousy toward the lower classes, whose women had more freedoms and commanded more respect.


The warring factions of Hojo, Takeda, and Uesugi developed transportation – roads and post stations (shukuba) were made, originally for their own military messengers, but eventually they were used by civilian travelers as well. These were well-developed by the 16th century. Travel was dangerous except in groups, to outnumber any potential highwaymen.

Post stations provided food, lodging, and supplies to travelers. Their placement depended on terrain, as they were intended to be placed a day or half-day’s walk from each other; this often amounted to once every 5-10 km. Ideally, a person traveling on foot could leave a post station in the morning, pass one station near mid-day, and arrive at the next station near dark. While horses could be hired only with a voucher issued by the daimyou at most stations, other resources could be purchased by any traveler. Many of these stations grew into towns.

Toll gates were established on maintained roads and enforced by the daimyou. Tolls were inexpensive, but these toll gates were often numerous – some heavily-traveled roads could have a toll gate every 250 meters. The vast majority of traffic was pedestrian. Goods were carried by hand, or by carts driven by hand or by horse.

To combat spies, barriers were set up so that travelers entering and leaving the domain of a daimyou could be examined or detained. While it was important for the daimyou that these boarder gates did not inhibit commerce, these gates were usually a hassle to those passing through, and potentially dangerous if the boarder guards choose to abuse their authority. Prior to the Edo period, traveling permits were not required, as there was no central authority to grant them.

Since the "sword hunt" would not take effect in Musashi until 1590, it is a convenient time for commoners to travel, even visibly armed, without samurai paying much attention.


Skilled labor was encouraged; shipwrights were well-treated by Hojo, and artisans working with iron were respected and kept because of their potential to make guns.

Less control of the farmers, artisans, and merchants allowed these groups to exert greater control of their labor and resources, form guilds and unions and other collective groups, and become a more productive and more efficient working class. Military checkpoints, previously used to limit transit to only those with official permission, now allowed passage for all people with little restriction, allowing common people to travel far from their homes. Pilgrimages, long-distance trade, and other modes of travel became more common; this fueled demand for more places to eat, sleep, drink, and be entertained. The ability to move goods over greater distances intensified competition and made a larger variety and quality of common goods available to all people.

Chinese trade restrictions at the time made imports from China nearly impossible, but the era of nanban ("Southern Barbarians," that is, Westerners) trade began with the Portuguese in 1543, through which the Japanese were able to secure Chinese and Western goods by fulfilling the insatiable European demand for oriental crafted goods.

Art and Entertainment

While the samurai battled, the working class, for the most part, lived decent lives, with more available leisure time than ever before. Zen Buddhism became very popular, which in turn popularized the arts of the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and performance art such as Noh. Samurai tales of the Kamakura and Heian periods were popularly told in the style of koushaku. Comedic acts such as the kyougen were developed.

Prior to the development of Tokugawa's "pleasure districts," brothels could be found everywhere and anywhere, and around them grew related forms of entertainment. Music, dance, and most other forms of artwork were most commonly performed in brothels. Most performances were not what we would today consider risque, and the performers were rarely prostitutes themselves, but they were often used to entertain clients, and get them to spend money on food and liquor, prior to the sexual encounter.

Resurgence of Shinto and Buddhism led to the development of new ritual dances, which were often considered sexual at the time. Though kabuki did not form until the beginning of the Tokugawa Era, its development sheds light on earlier attitudes. The style began as a sensual form of Buddhist dance, and as it became more popular, the style was heavily copied. Some acting troupes found that they could bring in audiences quite regularly by occasionally throwing in nudity and pornographic acts. Others took the extra step of having the actresses prostitute themselves to the audience afterward. This was the reason that women were banned from performing kabuki in 1629, only about 25 years after the art form was invented. When young boys took the same parts and also had sex on-stage and off-stage, they were banned as well.

Suffice to say, if you happened to attend a play during the Muromachi, you might not be sure whether you were going to see a historical drama or a sex show.

The family

An important aspect of Japanese hyakushou culture at the time (which continues to influence Japanese culture today) was the importance of the family over the individual. The (ie, household) consists of three generations of a family and is considered indivisible; the punishment for the crime of a child or father or grandmother is born by all members, for example. When a firstborn son marries, he would bring his wife to live with his parents, and all would assist in household duties, occupational duties, and child-rearing. A wife and husband did not raise a family by themselves; this was considered far too difficult. Marriages were what we would consider arranged, in that the parents, and mother especially, would have as much say in the marriage as the future husband, if not more. This made some sense, considering that the wife was not marrying a husband, but his entire ie. Women, meanwhile, could be more selective; when she marries her family loses the benefit of her labor and her company, and thus there was less drive to marry off a daughter than there was to find a wife for a son. Unlike the samurai, a hyakushou woman would not usually be forced into an unhappy marriage.

Modern concepts of privacy did not apply; grandparents, parents, and children would bathe together or share the same sleeping area. Homes were single rooms, though sometimes with movable partitions. Children regularly slept with their parents until adolescence and were likely (or certain) to witness sexual intercourse. Sexual contact with pre-adolescent children was not unusual – manual sexual stimulation was commonly used as a sleep aid.

Incestuous intercourse was rare but sometimes occurred in situations where one parent died, and for practical or cultural reasons a son or daughter replaced the missing parent. In certain cases, a daughter might not only take her mother's household responsibilities, but also the responsibility to bear her father's children; similarly, a son might not only take charge of the household, but sexually dominate and impregnate his own mother. Again, this was rare, and would likely be unheard of outside regions with sparse population and little outside contact.

Meanwhile, in small villages, children aged 5 to 15 attended mixed-sex sleepover parties arranged by the older children, which took place in isolated homes. These events were discreet, with the attendees sneaking out of their homes at night and returning in the morning. However, the parents were probably aware of these events, and typically a suitable location could not be found unless a family offered their home for the night and slept elsewhere under some pretense. A similar practice known as yobai was also seen, where a suitor would sneak into the bed of his object of affection and have his way with her, often with the implied consent (or outright assistance) of the girl's parents. In some cases this was a means to permit couples to release their feelings and find their sexual compatibility before the consideration of marriage. In others – such as when the parents thought highly of the suitor (or his status and wealth) – it was a means to force a marriage. In its darkest form, yobai encounters were nothing more than the prostitution of a young girl by her parents, who would either go to another home or simply pretend to sleep as their daughter was raped by their soon-to-be son-in-law.


Marriage and the Family in Japan
Samurai Sisters: Early Feudal Japan
The Universality of Incest
Childbirth, Violence and the Mother’s Body (PDF)
Yobai: Night Crawling

John Whitney Hall, Nagahara Keiji, Kozo Yamamura. Japan Before Tokugawa: Political Consolidation and Economic Growth, 1500 to 1650. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1981.

George Sansom. A History of Japan 1334-1615. Standford University Press: Stanford, 1961.

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