Samurai Status On Sale!

Samurai silhouette

Presently it is generally accepted that social status during the Edo period was not completely fixed. A generation earlier, we learned in school that there was a hierarchical system called Shi-no-ko-sho (Samurai-Peasant-Artisan-Merchant). But this is now rejected and the word Shi-no-ko-sho has disappeared from textbooks. Even then, it is generally believed that if you are born in a samurai household you are a samurai until you die, and likewise if you are born a peasant you are a peasant until you die, and it is unimaginable for a peasant to become a samurai.

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But recent studies have shown that during the late Edo period people were able to purchase samurai status through buying stock or paying money. Secondary to obtaining samurai status, one could purchase the right to have a surname or the right to bear swords. At the Sendai clan, one could buy a samurai’s family register, effectively samurai status, for 250 ryo, which means it cost about 32.5 million Japanese Yen (about US$310,000) in today’s currency to become a samurai.

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There is a general impression that peasants were in poor living conditions, but there were actually rich peasants too. In addition to their farming, some sold oil and acted like merchants. 250 ryo was indeed a lot of money, but such rich peasants could afford it. Those who became samurai by buying samurai status were called Kinjo-zamurai (samurai upon money).

Samurai drawing a sword

There was regional variation in the cost of purchasing samurai status. For clans that were struggling financially, samurai status was sold for as low as 50 ryo. This is about 6.5 million Japanese Yen (about US$62,000), which is not an impossible amount. But there were cases where even at that price no one would buy it, so it dropped to around 2 million Japanese Yen (US$19,000). This makes you wonder what, after all, is the value of the samurai, but around the end of the Edo period many clans were struggling this much to keep their finances above water.

As there were people who would pay a large sum of money to obtain samurai status, there were also quite a few samurai who would forfeit their status to become peasants. This occurred for various reasons, but this means that many people today who thought their ancestors actually had samurai ancestors, and there are cases where they thought their ancestors were samurai but were in fact wealthy peasants.

Either way, that one could buy a certain status with money shows that perhaps money does talk in any age.