Merchant class in Edo period
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Tokugawa period had a very dynamic economic growth and the centre of this growth was the merchant class. Though the Merchant was the lowest among all the social class but they held great economic power. This merchant was also played an important role in the Meiji restoration. A number of the great Japanese multi-national corporations of today came from simple beginnings in the Tokugawa period.


“A great peace is at hand. The shogun rules firmly and with justice at Edo. No more shall we have to live by the sword.

I have seen that great profit can be made honourably. I shall brew sake and soy sauce and we shall prosper.”

                                                                                                — Mitsui Takatoshi (1622-1694), founder of the Mitsui empire

This statement by Mitsui Takatoshi explained itself about the successful trading system, which was developed during the Tokugawa period. Many big business houses of modern Japan have their foundation from that era. Historically, in every society Merchant played a significant role in the exchange of money and goods. In the Tokugawa period, Merchants were considered lowest in hierarchy.   The principal status divisions of the period were codified in the occupational distinctions—samurai, farmer, artisan, merchant (shi-no¯-ko¯-sho¯)—that are still rooted in textbook generalizations about premodern Japanese society.[1] This was taken from the Chinese classics the notion of well-ordered society classes were arranged in order of their contribution to the society.  The first century of Tokugawa rule was a period of political and military unification and economic reconstruction.  The pace of economic growth was limited and conditioned largely by the centralized feudal system aimed at keeping society static and peaceful.[2] This class system also indicated the administration policy of Bakufu and the han towards the trading community. Agriculture got first priority during this time.  In villages, many wealthy landlords entered the field of commerce where they could earned more cash.  Following the emergence of rich merchants and rich peasants, money in the form of capital began to invest in manufacturing such as spinning, weaving, pottery and sake and miso production.[3]

Merchants positions in the Early Tokugawa Period

As, we have already mentioned that the status of the society was based on the occupation. The class division was rigid and enforced by the Hideyoshi, where he divided the classes as samurai, peasants, artisans and merchants.  These rigid class lines were established initially by force or the threat of force, which may go some way towards explaining the general acceptance of them. In return for their acceptance of their position at the bottom of the shinikisho hierarchy and for the loss of some degree of independence and of certain privileges which merchants enjoyed in some ports and commercial towns like Sakai, a fast-developing and expanding money economy gave them opportunities in domestic commerce and finance.[4] With the coming modern techniques, the rural economy was becoming self-sufficient, we can Around 1780, Takasawa Tadayori, a prominent official of Kaga han set down his impressions of the state of the realm.  As noted by R. Flershem:

            “. . .During the previous century the castle town,

            Kanazawa, had been expanding, and its citizens,

            Samurai and merchants, were increasingly indulging

            In luxury as urban life developed.  This tendency,

            It seemed, was even spreading to the villages.

            Peasants were still not as bad as merchants, but

            There were knowing, worldly villagers who liked

            The fleshpots of the towns and were moving to

            Them, deserthing the land, whenever they saw the

            Chance.  The more fortunate of the villagers were

            Becoming merchants, wore fine clothes, dissipated,

            And idled.  Such conduct roused envy, and those

            Who wished to escape from husbandry into commerce

            Were increasing in number.”[5]

The rapid growth of the regional economies was due importantly to the improved technique of production which enabled a specialization of production in each region. The best example can be seen from the growth of sericulture in Shindatsu during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which changed the character of its rural economy from a self-sufficient village economy based on cereals to a regional economy centered around rearing silkworms and processing raw silk.[6]  

Factors which helped Merchants to grow

  1. Social and economic structure during the isolation policy (1639-1854)

During this time Japan adopted the international isolation policy, “it was dynamically evolved rather than a stagnant dark age”. Notable economic changes were happening in Japanese society mainly in the agricultural sector with other areas too ranging extent from trade to finance. We can say that these developments help out with the upcoming modernization process in the future. This period saw many transformations, first and foremost was the political unity and stability which provides a better way to administration and policymaking. Though economic policies were more decentralized, Bakufu was not very capable (or interested in) of consistent economic policies, On the other hand, Han was allowed to implement its different policies whether related to the administration, economic, taxation, education, issuing paper money and other industrialization.

there were many reasons cited by the scholars.

Let us list these pre-conditions at the outset:

(1) Political unity and stability

(2) Agricultural development in terms of both area and productivity

(3) The development of transportation and the emergence of nationally unified markets

(4) The rise of commerce, finance and the wealthy merchant class

(5) The rise of pre-modern manufacturing (food processing, handicraft, etc.)

(6) Industrial promotion by local governments (sometimes successful but not always)

(7) High level of education[7]

  • Socio-Tech-Infrastructure brought by the Sankin-Kotai

Edo society had a politically centralized system. The centre government (Bakufu) had total power over Han and Edo society was divided into the class system, in which there were 4 categories Samurai (ranked no 1), farmers (ranked no.2), craftsmen (no.3), and merchants (no.4). These four classes were called Shi-Nou-Kou-Shou (from top to bottom). These divisions made tax collection much more feasible. although the farmers were in the 2nd rank, mainly because of the rice tax collection system though they were not much respected in the society. Han couldn’t deny the orders from Bakufu and the political system was formed in a way that Hans was not able to increase their power in comparison to Bakufu but what made this political and economic system was very interesting is checks and balances system implemented by Bakufu over each Han. Sanin-kotai was an alternate residence duty which was started in Warring states period and perfected by Tokugawa Shogunate, In this system, daimyos were asked to live in Edo for every other year and rest of time to their Han and it led to many economic developments in certain aspects. During the procession of the Damiyos, they travelled to a certain path or some of them took the Tokaido route, which is a very important and developed highway in Japan today, since this journey would take several days, the daimyo would make many stops on this route. These stops would then grow to become post towns where the daimyo lords could relax and, have a snack, or lodge for the night.[8] These stops would then grow to become post towns where the daimyo lords could relax and, have a snack, or lodge for the night.  With this, it helped create cities to cater to these travellers, allowing many cities to become “cities of merchants” as Osaka became during this time. Moreover, with the wealthy daimyo residing in Edo for long periods, Edo would become a major consumption centre. People travelled with the Damiyos also helped to develop the small villages into cities which brought many socio-economic changes in the society. This whole system led to the migration of people in or around the Edo, Damiyos continuously shifting made easy to exchange ideas, cultural values and information between the Han and Edo, which eventually helped the central government to aware about what was occurring in Han, and maintained the sense of National and Cultural unity which ultimately helped Japan in the Modernization Process. All these factors were the reason that Edo became the largest urban settlement of that time with over 1 million population. Many towns where Damiyos had their castles turned into the large cities (Osaka, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Kanazawa). Osaka was the leading trading and financial centre. This urbanization during the Tokugawa period provided the basis for a unified national economy, stimulated demand for agricultural and other goods produced in rural areas, and led to an urban-centred commercial economy[9]

Other than the Sankin-kotai, there was the system of irregular assignment of public work such as building and repairing canals, waterworks, castles, roads etc given by centre to each Han so that they utilized most of their funds and would not get more powerful than bakufu. This whole system brought many changes and developed in a centralized manner, which eventually led to the perfect preconditions for the modernization 


 Private and Centre both kinds of the transportation system was there, though, from many shreds of evidence we found out that many time it happened that Bakufu tried to control the private transportation system too, it’s still a matter of debate between scholars, which one is a better policy. “The Bakufu designated five official highways and opened major sea lanes. But private inns, restaurants, shippers, baggage carriers, etc. provided the necessary service. Farming villages near the highway were required to provide horses when necessary (part of their nontax obligation). Sankin kotai (bi-annual commuting by daimyos) also stimulated the development of the road system. At the same time, due to military reasons, Bakufu did not encourage the free movement of people and merchandise.

 At major checkpoints, sekisho (passport controls) were created. Some rivers were left without bridges, intentionally and for military reasons. Hans were not allowed to build ships or maintain a navy”[10].

Edo, Osaka had their importance as Osaka was the main commercial centre and Edo was the main political and consumption centre, as these cities were important enough to make a well connected through sea links. The pre-modern industry was starting to emerge and produce products extended from tea, tobacco, wax, indigo, salt, knives, sword, pottery, lacquerware, silk, cotton, soy sauce, sake, paper, stone cutting, medicine, chemicals. Kenichi Ohno mentioned some of the Han which was succeeded to promote the local industries and products so that they would be able to collect more revenue out of it

Tokushima han (indigo)

Takamatsu han (sugar)

Satsuma han (military technology)

  • Agriculture

Agriculture was the most preferred occupation; each family was assigned on a piece of land and they were instructed to cultivate. these lands ended the big family system because of the land survey done at the starting and the ending of the Edo period. Rice tax was implemented by each Han according to their will and bakufu too, levied the rice tax under the area directly ruled by it. Each village had to give the tax to the Han and bakufu according to the area governed by them. “There were two ways to determine the rice tax obligation. One was the kemi (inspection) system where an official inspector came to check the actual yield every year. Naturally, village representatives treated the official with lots of food and gifts. Some officials only had drinking parties and did not check the fields. The bribed official happily understated the crop output (often very substantially) so villages paid much less taxes. According to Prof. Shinzaburo Oishi (historian), such corruption was an important reason for chronic revenue shortage of the government. On the other hand, if the visiting official was arbitrary and uncooperative, he might raise the tax obligation to the chagrin of the farmers. Another method was the jomen (fixed amount) system where the rice tax was unchanged for three or five years based on the average output of the preceding years. Under this system, the government could expect a more stable tax revenue and also minimize the inspection cost. Farmers borne a greater risk for crop failure, but the incentive to produce was also greater (if they worked hard, additional output was all theirs). According to Prof. Tanaka, farmers often preferred the jomen system because they did not want to cope with corrupt officials every year”[11].

The agricultural phase can be divided into 2 phases, first from the mid-15th century to the late 17th century (this includes the previous Sengoku Jidai (warring period) as well as the early Edo period), the process of expansion of the agricultural farmland was done, during this time many canal-building projects was done. The population increased rapidly (such population growth was very unusual for a pre-modern society). Prof. Shinzaburo Oishi calls this “The Great Age of Opening Fields, and the second period was After the late 17th century, land expansion came to a halt. The rapid growth of farmland in the previous period also brought some negative effects, including (i) shortage of labour force; and (ii) deforestation and frequent occurrence of floods. From this period onward (even today), Japanese agriculture emphasized intensive cultivation with large inputs of labour and technology.

Many changes were done during the middle of this period, many farmers were able to rose the productivity and sell their rice and other products to the market which was nationally connected. At the end of the Edo period, many uprisings of farmers were increased because of many reasons and one of them was landless farmers number which was increasing by the time and led to the landlord-tenant relationship.

The sale of tax rice dominated the cities business transactions and provided means for the merchants to swell their profits in a gradually more complicated money economy. The rice merchants then were co-opted into the feudal lord’s retainers and were granted certain privileges of the warrior’s class. Merchant capital in the early period therefore had a limited role in the cities, and mostly served the needs of the lords in exchanging goods for cash[12].

Comparison between European and Japanese Trading environment

Europe had many advantages over Japan, the expansion of Europeans trade links was all over the world, which gave them upper hand to distribute their products. Trade with the New World, Asia and Africa, which resulted in the rise of the Atlantic economy in the eighteenth century, on the one hand, and in European hegemony in the Indian and other Asian seas, on the other, was undoubtedly a significant phenomenon. Equally significant, however, was trade within Europe including the Levant, whose seventeenth-century growth was accompanied by a gradual but decisive shift in the centre of gravity of international trade from the traditional Mediterranean to the emerging North Sea area. So, the merchants of Europe received much more resources than their Japanese counterpart in the same time period. The Japanese modernization though begun with the Meiji restoration but the foundation of capital investment was became possible because of the previous favourable situations.

Japan is the only country in the eastern side which transformed itself from feudal society to modern capitalist society. Having said that, this became possible because of the political changes and involvement of western countries in the mid-19th century. During the tokugawa period, increasing agriculture activity also gave opportunities to the merchant class to expand.  Another factor that shaped the regime’s economy was the removal of the warrior class from the villages into the castle-towns.  This urbanization process, which continued for several decades in the early Tokugawa period, drew a new line of distinction between the cultivators, those remaining on the land, and the feudal aristocracy, those members of the daimyo’s retainers gathered at his castle headquarters[13].

In order to stimulate the country’s economy, the bakufu announced a free trade policy and prohibited the formation of merchant guilds.  Tokugawa Ieyasu, immediately after having established his hegemony, proceeded to unify the monetary system by securing the right of coinage exclusively in his own hands.  Standardization of weights and measures, though less extensive, came rapidly into effect even in districts not under the jurisdiction of the bakufu.  All these policies developed the circulation of goods throughout the country. By the middle of the first century of Tokugawa rule, commerce and handicraft had already flourished, in the shogun and daimyo’s castle-towns.  The region which was the most advanced in the course of economic growth in the Tokugawa period was the Kinai.  It includes the five provinces (kuni); Settsu, Kawachi, Izumi, Yamato and Yamashiro.  The region developed commercial agriculture from an early date because it included the cities of Kyoto and Osaka.  Many cities like Kyoto, Nara and Sakai had seen centuries of commercial and agricultural development.[14] As a result, the agriculture production was increasing with the processing goods of town people. Which eventually helped to established Edo, Kyoto and Osaka to became the trading centre of that era. After the westward shipping route (nishimawari) was established in 1672 to facilitate trade with the northern provinces, Osaka increased its importance as a major rice market and other commodities from the sea coast as well.  It is estimated that during the first quarter of the seventeenth century one million koku* of rice was shipped to the Kinai region annually. Total national rice production at the end of the sixteenth century is estimated to have been around eighteen and one half million koku. All these conditions helped merchants to grow rapidly during this time[15].


Merchant class during tokugawa period had such an interesting and intriguing history, their role can be seen in the different manner. The first phase can be seen, when the unification was happening and they were considered as the lowest class in the hierarchy system, as it was believed they are not producing anything for the society, yet because of the Sankin-kotai system, there was an increasing need for exchange of goods and money. Which eventually helped in rise of merchant class in the capital city. Soon in the early 18th century, the market was expanded in the different part of the country as the result of regional economic growth. This phase helped merchants to grow beyond the castle town. The infrastructure and the policies used during the Tokugawa period certainly helped out the Merchants to flourish and this merchant capital later gave foundation for the Meiji restoration. 


  • Charles David Sheldon, The rise of merchant class in tokugawa Japan, 1600-1868
  •  Johannes Hirschmeier and Tsunehiko Yui, The Development of Japanese Business 1600-1980 (London:George Allen & Unwin, 1981), p. 11.
  • Osamu Saito, Pre-Modern Economic Growth Revisited: Japan and The West
  •   Dr. Thanet Aphornsuvan, Merchant Capital in Tokugawa Japan
  • Robert G. Flershem, “Some Aspects of Japan Sea Shipping and Trade in the Tokugawa Period, 1603-1867,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 110,No. 3,  (1966).
  •   Stephen Gregory Vlastos, “Tokugawa Peasant Mobilization,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1977.
  • Kenichi ohno, The economic development of japan(GRIPS Development Forum,2006)
  • Oishi, Shinzaburo, Edo Jidai (The Edo Period), Chuko Shinsho, 1977
  •   Iwanami Shoten, Kindai Seicho no Taido, Nihon Keizaishi 2 (Signs of Modern Development, Japanese Economic History vol. 2), H. Shimbo & O. Saito, eds, 1989

[1] Charles David Sheldon, The rise of merchant class in tokugawa Japan, 1600-1868

[2] Johannes Hirschmeier and Tsunehiko Yui, The Development of Japanese Business 1600-1980 (London:George Allen & Unwin, 1981), p. 11.

[3] Dr. Thanet Aphornsuvan, Merchant Capital in Tokugawa Japan

[4] jstor

[5] Robert G. Flershem, “Some Aspects of Japan Sea Shipping and Trade in the Tokugawa Period, 1603-1867,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 110,No. 3,  (1966), p.183.

[6] Stephen Gregory Vlastos, “Tokugawa Peasant Mobilization,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1977.

[7] Kenichi ohno, The economic development of japan(GRIPS Development Forum,2006)

[8] Oishi, Shinzaburo, Edo Jidai (The Edo Period), Chuko Shinsho, 1977

[9] Iwanami Shoten, Kindai Seicho no Taido, Nihon Keizaishi 2 (Signs of Modern Development, Japanese Economic History vol. 2), H. Shimbo & O. Saito, eds, 1989

[10] Kenichi ohno, the economic development of japan (GRIPS Development Forum,2006)

[11] Kenichi ohno, The economic development of japan(GRIPS Development Forum,2006)

[12] Osamu Saito, Pre-Modern Economic Growth Revisited: Japan and The West

[13] Osamu Saito, Pre-Modern Economic Growth Revisited: Japan and The West

[14] Dr. Thanet Aphornsuvan, Merchant Capital in Tokugawa Japan

[15] Dr. Thanet Aphornsuvan, Merchant Capital in Tokugawa Japan

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