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Saturday, April 16, 2016

Ranks Of Japanese Nobility

While writing this blog, I have often lazily called Japanese nobles a 'duke' or an 'earl' or some other doo-wop thing, but have only now actually wondered if that was correct.

I mean... those are English terms... I'm sure there must have been a Japanese equivalent.

But because this blog is about Japan, there's a bit of history we all need to know first.

In Japan's feudal system, there was the aristocracy, the warriors, merchants and the farmers and that's pretty much it until 1868 and the Meiji Restoration.

The aristocracy could be anyone of noble birth - Emperor and surrounding family, but aside from those godlike beings, we are perhaps more familiar with the daimyo.

The Daimyo are the landowning nobles... a hereditary class, who expected all who lived on land ceded to them by the Emperor, to pay taxes which could be in the form of money, or in crop or livestock grown on farms.

The warrior class, is of course the Samurai... private armies made up of families who would work for their daimyo master... and when the daimyo wanted to attack another daimyo, their private army samurai would do the attacking. This was especially rampant in the days before a true central government held absolute power.

Where the European knights had chivalry, Japanese samurai had bushido... a code of warrior ethics they had to follow.

Incidentally, if a samurai's master/daimyo was defeated, instead of capture, the samurai might choose to kill himself via disembowelment for their shame in not protecting the master well enough. Failing to opt for that, the masterless samurai might choose to wander the countryside doing odd jobs or act as a bounty hunter in the form of the ronin class.

Merchants were the next in line, as far as respect went, with the peasantry coming in last as usual. I respect the peasants and the merchants, even though I called them peasants, but this isn't about them.

With the onset Meiji era in 1868, the samurai class was essentially wiped out. The people were still alive, but their rank as a samurai warrior was no longer considered anything special, as the government wanted to ensure that rich and powerful Japanese families no longer had their own private armies. However, the samurai were not merely fighters, they were tacticians, and possessing of some brains, and as such found high-paying jobs respectful of their former glory.

With the 1868 shuffle, feudal titles and rank were abolished, but were replaced with kazoku - a peerage system that was similar to what the British had in place. That system granted the aristocracy seats in the Imperial Diet's Upper House (politics)... a practice that ended in 1946 or '47 (I'm getting two dates - it's not so important here in this blog), when the Allies in charge of reorganizing Japan felt the power they held was too much.

Kazoku (華族) means the "magnificent or exalted lineage" and that will tell you about all you need to know about how in touch they were with the common man (no longer the peasantry).

The Kuge, were part of the ancient court nobility of Kyoto - back in the old, old days when Kyoto was the seat of power in Japan, and not Edo/Tokyo. Because members of the Kuge were quite helpful in the overthrow of the Shogun warlord(s) who ruled Japan for 250 years, Kuge personage were nominated to many high-level Government positions.

We now have the kuge and the ex-daimyo... two high-level classes of old Japanese society. To appease them and to ensure there was no huge backlash for the loss of status, these two classes were reclassified as kazoku, then consisting of 427 families.

The kazoku were all required to live in Tokyo (to ensure there was no plotting), until 1869 when a pension plan was created, thus allowing for the kazoku to be casually 'retired' from postings as prefectural government leaders.

The ex-samurai, were now called shizoku, while the ex-peasants were now commoners and called heimin, which is a nice break. I know what I wrote.

By 1884, with the July 7 Peerage Act, the government expanded the kazoku into five distinct ranks, as mentioned above, based on the British Peerage system - but with titles coming from ancient Chinese nobility.

See China... the Japanese loved you.

Ranks really were given depending on services given to Japan leading up to the Meiji Restoration.

Five Ranks of Kazoku:
  1. Prince or Duke (公爵 kōshaku);
  2. Marquis (侯爵 kōshaku - yes, the same term as prince or duke, but written in different kanji);
  3. Count or Earl (伯爵 hakushaku);
  4. Viscount (子爵 shishaku);
  5. Baron (男爵 danshaku)
Japanese Admiral Viscount Inoue Yoshika - he was an Admiral during the Meiji Restoration.
Now... not everyone can be a Duke, Marquis or Earl... someone had to be a crappy Viscount and a lowly Baron. I know. We should all be so lucky.

The ex-kuge (aristocrats from Kyoto) to be named Duke/Kōshaku were heirs to the five regent houses (the go-seike) of the old Fujiwara dynasty, the families: Konoe, Takatsukasa, Kujō, Ichijō and Nijō.

Marquis/Kōshaku came from other kuge houses (families): Daigo, Hamuro, Kumamoto, Hirohata, Kazan'in, Kikutei, Koga, Nakamikado, Nakayama, Oinomikado, Saga, Sanjo, Saionji, Shijō and Tokudaiji, as well as the head of the Shō family, who were the former royal family of the Ryūkyū Islands (including Okinawa) - it was once a kingdom annexed by Korea, and then Japan.

How was this chosen? How did some families get better ranks than others?

Rice, rice, baby. The koku (石?) is a Japanese unit of volume, equal to ten cubic shaku. In this definition, 3.5937 koku equal one cubic meter. Therefore, 1 koku ≈ 278.3 liters.

If your family could produce 150,000 koku or more = Marquis/Kōshaku.

If your family produced 50,000 koku or more = Count/Earl/Hakushaku.

Here's some boring information:

As far as being a Prince of the realm... Tokugawa Iesato (surname first), head of the Tokugawa clan became a Prince. Heads of his branch houses (shinpan daimyo) became Marquis(es), while heads of lesser houses were named Viscount.

Family head of the Matsudaira branch was raised from Count to Marquis in 1888, which we can assume was because he amped up the rice production.

When the peerage system was introduced, Japan had 11 non-imperial princes, 24 marquis, 76 counts, 324 viscounts and 74 barons - 509 peers.

Anyhow... there was plenty of other examples of people gaining new aristocratic ranks - mostly as thanks for helping over throw the Shogun, and by 1928, there were 954 peers:18 non-imperial princes, 40 marquis, 108 counts, 379 viscounts and 409 barons.

By 1944, there were 1,106 peers of kazoku.

This is why, when WWII ended and the Allies were looking for ways to ensure that Japan did not revert to its warlike ways again, the peerage system... this kazoku, was abolished with the newly written Constitution of Japan.

Yup... outside of the immediate Japanese Imperial Family, all titles were stripped.

And there, your royal Nibs, you have a good understanding of the Japanese aristocracy and its rank.

Just like the aristocracy, rank has multiple meanings.

Andrew Joseph

1 comment:

  1. Thank you!
    As a grown up, I am now rediscovering my love for Japan that I had ten years ago! I am building an understanding of European and Russian society during the 18th and 19th centuries and it is fascinating to see how a society so separate from Europe developed in very similar ways, in particular Peter the Great and his Table of Ranks!