Chōnin ("townspeople", 町 means city ward) were a social class that emerged at the beginning of the 16th century usually settling around castles (城下町 jōka-machi, "castle towns"). They consisted mainly of merchants and craftsmen who supplied goods and services to their feudal lords and the samurai. Subsequently, other people, peasants, workers and servants followed, offering their services to the former. As peasants and samurai were not permitted to engage in commercial activities townspeople rapidly grew rich. During Edo Period chōnin held the lowest social position subordinated to bushi (武士), peasants (nōmin) and artisans (kō). They were subject to restrictive legislation such as land and property confiscation or compulsory loans. Despite all those restrictions the merchant class grew in large numbers, eventually resulting in the term chōnin being applied to all urban inhabitants who were not nobles, samurai or peasants.
Merchants dealing in rice (rice brokers) were called fudasashi in Edo and kakeya in Ōsaka. Some of them became wealthy to a point where they were able to lend money to impecunious local daimyō. Many peasants and samurai were heavily indebted to the em>chōnin, resulting in considerable resentment and social tension. On the other hand, chōnin acted as sponsors of arts and sciences. The term chōnin-bunka refers to a new style of urban and popular culture that thrived thanks to the rich merchants who contributed to the flourishing of kabuki, ukiyo-e, jōruri and literary genres such as chōnin-mono (short stories dealing with chōnin-life that emerged at the end of the 17th century), ukiyo-zōshi and haiku.
It is worth mentioning that quite a few big Japanese enterprises, many of them still in existence, were founded by rich chōnin. Despite their tremendous cultural and financial influence chōnin never managed to become a political factor and remained dependent on government sponsorship. Their influence waned after Meiji Restoration, when their position as business leaders was gradually replaced by former samurai.Register at the Japan Forum to discuss this topic. Or leave us a comment below. Please note that your comment will have to be approved before being displayed and that images and hyperlinks will not be shown.
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